Sleight of Mind

By Karen Kedmey ’00 | Illustration by Jan Robert Duenweller
For centuries, charismatic leaders have convinced previously rational people to do terrible things. From Hitler to religious cult leaders, Joel Dimsdale ’68 digs into the phenomenon of brainwashing.

Illustration by Jan Robert Duenweller

Joel Dimsdale ’68, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of California–San Diego, has devoted his career to trying to understand human nature, particularly its more troubling sides. “I’ve long been interested in what drives people to do terrible things and irrational things,” he says. This interest stems from his childhood in Sioux City, Iowa, where he grew up among a sizable population of Nazi concentration camp survivors. The Holocaust, its victims, and its perpetrators have been among his areas of focus.

In the late 1990s, Dimsdale found his attention forced onto a knotty phenomenon that had lurked at the margins of his research on the Holocaust: brainwashing. Or, as he more accurately describes it, coercive persuasion.

The catalyst for Dimsdale’s exploration of coercive persuasion, culminating in his recent book, Dark Persuasion: A History of Brainwashing from Pavlov to Social Media (2021), was an event that took place in his own neighborhood in the San Diego hills. In what he describes as a kind of Edenic paradise washed in sunlight, in a quiet mansion housing a group of people who mostly kept to themselves, a horror unfolded seemingly out of nowhere. “My neighbors . . . had themselves castrated and then committed a mass suicide,” Dimsdale says. He’s referring to a small religious cult called Heaven’s Gate, active from the mid1970s to their suicide event in 1997, and the subject of one chapter in Dark Persuasion. To these believers, such a gruesome end was a means to shed their Earthly bodies and ascend to outer space, where they would reach heaven and live happily ever after. “When these things happen half a world away, it’s pretty easy to ignore. But when it’s at your neighbor’s [place], it really calls out for study,” says Dimsdale.

Beginning with Pavlov’s dog labs and Stalin’s show trials in the Soviet Union, Dimsdale traces a line through various government and academic mind-control efforts, Stockholm syndrome, religious cults, and, finally, the current state of neuroscience and social media to show how brainwashing “blossomed,” as he puts it, in the 20th century and continues advancing in the 21st. “I still don’t know what to call this phenomenon,” he writes in his book. “Brainwashing, coercive persuasion, thought control, dark persuasion—all these terms refer to the fact that certain techniques render individuals shockingly vulnerable to indoctrination.” It’s a heavy topic, and one that resists precision. Dimsdale demonstrates that it is all too possible to coerce people into behaving in ways that make it appear as if their minds have been hijacked. But a question dogs his work. As he formulates it: “You absolutely can change people’s behavior, but do you change their minds?” Depending on the circumstances and the person, the answer could be yes, partially, no, or it’s hard to tell.

A central figure in Dimsdale’s study, Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was convinced you could change people’s minds. Dimsdale argues that Pavlov’s experiments on dogs and, later, on human beings laid the ground for modern-day brainwashing techniques. “Today, the only thing we know about Pavlov is drooling dogs,” he says. “It’s unfortunate. He was masterful in his understanding of behavior, physiology. And he was a kind of protoneuroscientist.” Among his key findings were that severe stress, sleep deprivation, and alternating between reward and punishment could break a person’s will, making them comply with even the most self-destructive commands.

Pavlov’s methods are not the only ways to worm into a person’s mind. Dimsdale details how isolation, group pressure, and various drugs have also been employed to make a self-possessed person malleable. We find shades of all of this in social media, a subject of the final chapter of Dark Persuasion and the contemporary development that most concerns Dimsdale. Think, for example, of how echo chambers cut people off from a broad worldview, making them receptive to outlandish ideas; of the social pressure exerted by “likes,” online mobs, or “influencers,” which mold people’s behavior and sense of self; and of the fact that these platforms are structured to addict you, because your time is their money. Dimsdale calls social media a “new ‘substance’ that compels attention,” a 21stcentury drug. He warns that it “can be so compelling that it verges on being coercive. Furthermore, it is subliminally persuasive in ways that can be profoundly destructive to the user.” Meanwhile, the heads of these platforms continue largely unfettered to expand their reach and power.

Dimsdale points out that an important distinction between innocuous forms of persuasion and coercive persuasion, or brainwashing, is the freedom to choose whether or not to accept whatever someone is trying to convince you of. The problem is, coercion is not always apparent. It’s frequently surreptitious, nearly invisible. “You have to ask at what point does a message become coercive,” he says. This question underlies his book, which shows it’s harder to answer than we might like to think.

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