Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.

In 1950, there was a war going on in Korea, and it wasn’t going great for the United States. Grabbing headlines in particular was the bizarre and (to most Americans at home, anyway) inexplicable behavior of U.S. prisoners of war. P.O.W.s were confessing to long lists of war crimes, petitioning the U.S. government to end the war, and—in twenty-one instances, at least—refusing repatriation.

What could have spurred these brave American heroes to forsake everything they had fought for? People looking for answers found what they were looking for in a phrase coined by journalist Edward Hunter: “brainwashing.”

Hunter’s description of brainwashing was a mix of Cold War paranoia and good old-fashioned orientalism, ascribing the P.O.W.s’ behavior to vaguely defined “ancient Chinese techniques” that broke the will and turned human beings into mindless puppets who would do whatever the Red Menace commanded of them. Why Hunter chose to call it “brainwashing”—not a phrase that makes a whole lot of sense, when you think about it—instead of something more straightforward, like “mind control,” isn’t clear. He apparently translated it literally from the Chinese expression xi-nao (“to cleanse the brain”), but the colorful expression ended up making the whole thing sound a lot sexier to American ears than it actually was.

If anyone could engage in brainwashing, it’s the God of the universe, and he doesn’t. Which probably tells you . . . something.

Because, sure, in a sense, the North Korean armies did have ancient secrets for controlling people, but those “ancient secrets” were just what normal people call “torture.” And it was all pretty normal torture methods, too: food and sleep deprivation, forced standing, solitary confinement, and a smattering of waterboarding (which is only ancient and Chinese if “ancient” means “Renaissance-era” and “Chinese” means “Spanish”). And while there are certainly heroes out there who can withstand torture, they’re few and far between; studies have found that even normal, non-torturous interrogation techniques result in false confessions nearly 30% of the time, so you can guess how effective actual torture is. When people are scared for their life and miserable, they . . . tend to do what you tell them.

Still, this was the 1950s. Freud had only barely been dead for a decade, and the whole world was convinced that psychology was straight-up magic, so people took this threat of Communist, Chinese brainwashing extremely seriously. And the lesson we took from the (highly questionable) reports wasn’t “We’d better put an end to brainwashing”; it was “We’d better figure out how to brainwash people even better than the Reds do it.” 

So was born the CIA project MKULTRA, which I’m almost positive was named after a 1990s arcade game, and in which the CIA tried its darndest to figure out how to control people’s minds. Y’know, like the Reds did. But . . . we would use this power for good. Obviously.

It should probably go without saying that the CIA didn’t have a clue what they were doing, so they took the “Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach; unfortunately, many of the things being thrown at the metaphorical wall were human lives. The CIA recruited everyone from their own operatives to prisoners, prostitutes, and drug addicts—I’m using the word “recruit” loosely here, since a lot of this was done without their consent or knowledge—and tried basically everything on them, from sensory deprivation to hypnotism to electroshock therapy to straight-up dosing them with LSD. These experiments didn’t yield anything that anyone would mistake for results, but there’s little doubt they resulted in some cool stories being told at the bars after work hours.

If this potential for washing brains was appealing to the government, though, it was absolutely irresistible to advertisers, which was why there was quite a sensation when market researcher James Vicary announced he knew how to send movie theater snack sales through the roof with mind-control. During a screening of the appropriately named 1955 film Picnic, Vicary claimed he had flashed the messages “Hungry? Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola [presumably regardless of whether you’re thirsty or not]” on the screen several times. The messages passed by far too quickly to register with the conscious mind, but sales of popcorn and Coke had shot up by 57.8% and 18.1%, respectively. Vicary, interestingly, expected consumers to be delighted by the results: Advertisers no longer had to waste our time with thirty-second spots! They could control our minds in mere fractions of seconds! The actual reaction was . . . less than enthusiastic.

Apparently, the CIA controlling minds was one thing, but most people saw advertisers controlling their minds as a bridge too far. Bills were quickly introduced in Congress to ban subliminal ads, and while they failed to become law, the FCC finally banned the practice in 1974, writing, “Whether effective or not, such broadcasts clearly are intended to be deceptive.”

The emphasis there should have been on the “not,” because contrary to Vicary’s study, there’s no evidence brainwashing or subliminal advertising ever worked. Not only was Vicary accused of falsifying his data, he couldn’t even prove he had actually done the experiment; nor was anyone ever able to duplicate his findings. Despite all the panic, there’s never been any evidence that “brainwashing” or “subliminal advertising” is a thing. The will, as far as anyone can tell, remains basically free.

I realize the various factions of Christianity are perpetually at odds regarding exactly what the phrase “free will” may or may not mean, and I’m not really interested in wading into that swamp right now, but it is telling that even God himself doesn’t seem all that interested in restraining human will in Scripture. The very first thing he does, in the Eden narrative, is to give humans a genuine moral choice. Then they make the wrong choice, which isn’t surprising if you’ve ever met a human, and God doesn’t stop them. If anyone could engage in brainwashing, it’s the God of the universe, and he doesn’t. Which probably tells you . . . something.

Obviously the caveat here is that exercising your free will can affect others—I’m looking at you, Korean Communists who tortured people—which can be sort of a downside, but the good news is it can also be an upside. You can choose to go forth and do the good works that God prepared in advance for you to do.

So, yeah, you have free will. Congrats, I guess? Go use it for good, instead of evil. Or use it to do something stupid, just to prove you can. I mean, I’m not your dad.

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