5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are

Everyone is talking about Scientology again, and why not? It's a billion-dollar cult apparently based on convincing actors they have superpowers. But there's no reason to single them out -- look around and you'll see the world is full of people who've either gotten brainwashed into doing something weird (like that co-worker who's way too into yoga) or murderous (like, you know, all those people who keep joining ISIS). You would never do something like that, of course, so what makes those people different?

Why is it so easy for evil/stupid movements to find followers -- including intelligent, well-educated ones? I'm pretty sure the future of civilization hangs on figuring this out, so here's what I've got:

Ideas Don't Matter -- People Only Care About What "Works"

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
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Probably 99 percent of the people reading this think Scientology is ridiculous bullshit, so let's use that as our example. You've probably all heard the nutty mythology, about how 75 million years ago the evil ruler Xenu froze billions of victims and stashed them in Earth's volcanoes. So right away this is almost impossible to comprehend: If joining Scientology requires buying that insanity, how in the hell can Scientology have, not just tens of thousands of members, but count among them some very wealthy, successful people with no history of mental illness?

Well, let me show you how Scientology has worked wonders in my own life. Here's a video summarizing one of the online courses from the Scientology handbook:

This particular course is Scientology's advice for what to do when work/life gets overwhelming. The advice is not, "Perform the thetan-summoning ritual!" or "Find your nearest psychiatrist and take a shit in his driveway!" Instead it suggests you should lock in on one task and focus on completing it quickly and correctly, to the exclusion of all others. So instead of thinking of all the work you have to get done, only think of the one, single task you have to get done right now. Then, once completed, you'll have the confidence to proceed to the next. This is great advice; every single successful person I know does this. And none of us knew that we were really doing Scientology all along!

"But wait," you say. "Scientology didn't invent that; they probably just pulled it off of some '10 Tips to Work Better' email forward. It's just common sense!"

Right, and so is virtually everything on their course list. Their process for how to organize a group project is probably identical to one you're already using at the office, and it works great:

But here's the key: When a Scientologist (or Muslim, or Christian, or yoga enthusiast) says it works for them, this is what they're talking about. The mythology isn't important -- if these rituals have saved your life and later on a teacher says, "Yeah, this technique works because of the ancient thetans that live in your asshole," you're going to shrug and say, "Sure, sounds good." If you tell the lady in yoga class that the reason she feels better afterward is because negative spiritual energies tend to pool in the hip joints, you'll get the same reaction.

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
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"Yoga pants contain these energies so you can attack them. That's why it's so important to visit my Etsy shop."

Then if you, as a cool, rational person, butt in and say, "Actually, yoga is just engaging the endonomic nervous system and reducing cortisol levels," all they're going to hear is you replacing a very easy-to-understand explanation with a very complicated one that sounds like gibberish. If you smirk and roll your eyes at these gullible lemmings, then go grab a mirror and smirk at yourself, partner, because you do it too.

You physically don't have room in your brain to keep track of how everything in your world works (shit, you don't even really know how your brain works) so you can feel all superior to a Christian who doesn't believe in evolution, but somewhere there's an engineer who feels superior to you for not knowing how your iPhone works (and you know "endonomic nervous system" is just a nonsense phrase I made up, right?). The reality is that you don't know how your iPhone works because knowing that wouldn't change your day-to-day use of it at all. Likewise, thinking the Earth is only 6,000 years old doesn't make it any harder to have, say, a career repairing air conditioners. But believing that self-discipline, patience, and hard work are sacred virtues from God definitely makes it easier.

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
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"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, not for human masters.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Freon."

And if you look hard enough, you'll see that this flaw -- favoring what works to the exclusion of everything else -- encompasses everybody. The compulsive liar got to be that way because it works. So did the bully, the racist, and the greedy bastard. And every single cult, hate group, or political party has figured out that you can ensnare people by gluing the weird parts onto a bunch of common sense axioms that nobody can disagree with.

Everyone falls for this.

So why do the victims stick with it, even after members of their own group start doing repulsive shit? Well ...

Mostly, It's About Fear

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Let me come back to my favorite example. Within the first two minutes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you're presented with a massive battle between one side that looks like this ...

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
New Line Pictures

They look like an actual piece of shit.

... and another side that looks like this ...

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
New Line Pictures

Literal golden boys.

... and you don't need to listen to the voice-over to know who you're supposed to be rooting for. If tomorrow you came upon a group of dudes in an alley fighting an orc, you'd join the dudes, without even inquiring as to the nature of their beef -- for all you know, those dudes stole that orc's bicycle. It doesn't matter -- you'd fight on the side of the humans even if the humans were neo-Nazis.

Well, most people you see standing up for a really terrible cause alongside even terribler people are doing it because they think they're fighting some enemy that is far worse. Always remember:

People primarily define themselves by what they hate.

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And if you "can't stand haters," you're a perfect example.

Think about how little you've heard people on the Internet talk about their favorite band, versus how much you've heard them talk about their hatred of Nickelback. In high school, the jocks didn't care about being jocks as much as they cared about not being nerds. And that shit doesn't end in high school -- you may never figure out what you want to be when you grow up, but you sure as shit figure out what you don't want to be. Everyone you know -- regardless of how stupid or destructive you think their beliefs are -- is just trying to avoid taking the side of some villain they're sure exists. Here's the guy from Duck Dynasty talking about how he's a Christian purely because atheists want to rape and mutilate children.

So the reason that bitter guy on YouTube is screaming about "feminists" probably isn't because he hates Susan B. Anthony or women's suffrage. It's because he hates some very abrasive, dismissive woman who was rude to him on Tumblr. The average liberal hates Ann Coulter, not Adam Smith. You wind up on the left because you're running from a monster you saw on the right, but on the way you'll pass a panicked man fleeing in the opposite direction.

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
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"Can't stop to talk. This country's falling apart!"
"Damn straight! G'bye."

Wait, wouldn't that imply that each group is actually feeding membership of the other, and that there's a weird symbiotic relationship between any two opposing "sides" that actually ensures the survival of both? Yep! Here's a whole video explaining how it works:

Anyway, this is also why we always attribute unrelated negative features to people we disagree with. It's not enough to say that anti-feminists are wrong and misguided; we have to say they're fat, sexless neckbeards (then their response is that feminists are either angry, masculine women or weak, effeminate men). Conservatives are ignorant rednecks, liberals are out-of-touch hippies, and so on -- the key is to always keep the focus on how inhuman the other side is, so that we never have to examine our own. We'll excuse anything from within our own movement, because no matter how corrupt we are, at least we're not orcs.

And this works in the other direction, too ...

Friends Matter More Than Politics

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images

If you walk in your house to find some strange dude beating on your mother, you're not going to say, "Sir, what is the nature of your dispute? Did she wrong you?" No, you're going to grab a steak knife and plunge it into that fucker's back. In that moment, loyalty to Mom trumps all.

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The only question is: serrated, or straight-edge?

Likewise, if you talk to somebody who's been in combat and ask them how they made it through, they probably won't say it was their love of country or belief in the cause (how many foot soldiers could have even articulated the reason for the Korean War?). No, it's about looking out for the guy next to you. He's got your back; you've got his. That's how you're going to survive, and every instinct points that direction.

It's the reason we like rooting for sports teams, it's the reason teenagers form cliques, and it's the reason people join gangs. As long as what the tribe stands for isn't utterly repulsive to you, what it stands for really doesn't matter. I always like to point out our interview with an ex neo-Nazi who had actually joined the skinheads before he even knew they were skinheads. They were just dudes he hung around with and then after a couple of months it was like, "Now, you hate the Jews, right?" and he was all, "Sure." Of course, over time he learned to hate the Jews, but that came later. First and foremost, it was about standing up for his buddies. And this is the key: If somebody came along and said their ideology was ugly hate-mongering, that guy wouldn't have heard it as a criticism of his ideas. He'd have heard it as a criticism of his friends. "Hate mongers?!? I'd trust my bros with my life!"

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"Hate mongering? You're the ones hate mongering! Typical media lies."

"But," you insist, "I would never throw a whole ethnic group under the bus just to please my friends!" Maybe, but there are more subtle ways you get swept up in it. Be honest: How many of you can really articulate both sides' arguments about net neutrality? How many of you instead just saw that all of the coolest, smartest people in your life were supporting one side and just assumed they must be right? When a new controversy comes down the pike, most people don't carefully study it to find out how to feel; they just follow their tribe. Everything about the world suddenly makes way more sense once you realize this: A good part of what keeps any movement going is just people standing up for their bros.

This is also why, in order to be a perfect member of a political party, you have to adopt a bunch of totally random and often contradictory ideas. ("So I have to be against gay marriage, abortion, and net neutrality, but in favor of the death penalty, tobacco, and fossil fuels?") Which would be weird enough on its own, but Republicans and Democrats also tend to buy different brands, watch different TV shows, and even fucking give different names to their children (Jonah is a Democrat baby, Duane is a Republican).

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
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Well, obviously. sounds like a solid young man, while must be a total douche.

That's because for most people, they adopted the opinions that would most let them fit in with their tribe, because fitting in is more important than a bunch of abstract shit about taxes and foreign policy. The truth is they probably have shockingly little knowledge of those subjects, beyond their ability to repeat slogans and phrases they've heard elsewhere (fortunately, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook all make it super easy to reblog an infographic).

Hell, don't take my word for it. Go find the most conservative and most liberal person you know and ask each, "What do you think should be most important to society right now?" Your conservative may say something like, "The Ten Commandments!" All right, now ask them to list those commandments (spoiler alert: most can't). Your liberal might say, "Global warming!" Fine, now ask them how many grams per mile of carbon dioxide their car emits. "But how can anyone know that?" Ten seconds on Google, that's how. Ask both if they can name all of the members of Obama's cabinet.

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are

"Let's see, there's Sleepy ... and Sneezy ... and Thou shalt not worship thy neighbor's wife ... "

It's not just that we're ignorant; it's that we're ignorant about the things we insist are most important to us.

My point isn't that everybody in the world is a moron and a hypocrite. My point is that we don't have room in our brains to keep track of all this shit, and our first priority is to fit in. It's just the way we're built; it's nobody's fault. But it also means you won't change their minds just by bombarding them with information.

Speaking of which ...


Everyone Has the Same Moral Code, They Just Use It Differently

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Do you consider yourself morally superior to the people who used to burn witches (and in fact, still do)? I would certainly hope so -- these people are kidnapping innocent men and women and executing them based on a ridiculous superstition. They represent the absolute worst of what we're talking about in this article.

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
Johann Jakob Wick

"Well done, not medium. You want to get rid of all the evil juices."

But what if, in some surprising turn of events, it turned out that witches were not only real, but that everything said about them was true*? That they do in fact have dark magical powers they use to torture and murder people en masse, including spreading diseases and starvation? And that, since they're magical, the only way to stop them is to kill them? I mean, you cheered when Voldemort died, right?

This, then, is where you realize that you're not necessarily more tolerant than the witch hunters -- you just don't share their belief in witches. Your moral code may in fact be exactly the same as theirs -- you just disagree on that particular fact. And facts can be right or wrong, but they can't be moral or immoral.

*The above example was stolen wholesale from C.S. Lewis, though he was making an entirely different point.

Now look at pretty much every single political debate. Both liberals and conservatives agree on the moral principle that government tyranny is bad. They simply disagree on the factual issue of whether or not Obamacare is an example of government tyranny. Which means that in most cases, it's not that your side is moral and theirs is immoral, but that you are simply working from different factual conclusions. It really does ruin the whole good vs. evil narrative that gets us out of bed in the morning.

Now, in order to preserve the good vs. evil narrative, here is where we say that the other side is simply lying about what they believe. The witch hunters didn't really believe in witches; they just wanted an excuse to mutilate women. Conservatives don't really think Obamacare is tyranny; they just want an excuse to keep poor people sick. Liberals don't really think sexism and racism are rampant; they just like to throw out accusations to shut down debate.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"You don't care about babies; you hate women!"
"You don't care about women; you hate babies!"

This is no doubt true in some cases, but what both sides want to believe is that their enemy, behind closed doors, admits they're evil. Yet, studies to find out whether red or blue is the most moral always show a tie. Ask the subjects to list the moral values they consider important, and you get roughly the same list -- minimizing harm, ensuring fairness, being loyal, respecting authority, preserving purity of body and mind. If they differ, it's only in that the two groups prioritize them differently, but just barely. As we mentioned in No. 4, we don't actually disagree on whether feminism is good or bad -- we are each using totally different definitions of the word.

If you want an everyday example of this, just think of that one friend of yours who seems to have no filter or tact at all -- he's overly blunt with his opinions, ruining moods wherever he goes. It's not that he's immoral; it's that he's prioritizing one moral value (honesty) over another (minimizing emotional harm). And it becomes even harder to hate him when you realize that he's actually making brave moral choices every day -- he may have made a gut-wrenching decision to say your shirt looks like something a bear would shit after eating a clown, specifically because he saw it as the "right" thing to do.

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
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And you made a brave choice going out dressed like that.

Hell, you could even argue that our neo-Nazi up there made a "brave" decision to ostracize himself from polite society, in the name of standing up for his friends. And when we looked at how he wound up with those friends, we realize ...

Most People Fall Into Their Group by Accident

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

If you go online and find essays or books explaining why white people are the master race, you will find a startling coincidence when you look at their authors:

They're all white.

I mean, what the hell are the odds? When somebody sits down to objectively find which group is best, it always winds up being a group they just happen to be a member of. Weird, right?

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I have a right to question this because I live in the greatest country in the world.

Now consider this: TIME did an experiment last year where it accurately predicted people's political beliefs by asking them a series of completely non-political questions ("Do you prefer cats or dogs? Is your workspace neat or messy?"). Another study found you can predict somebody's politics by studying how their brain processes risk-taking.

Again, pretty weird, right?

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Use the right amygdala, and you're a Duane. Use the left insula, and you're a total Jonah.

To understand it, try this: Ask a few people you know what one feature in a person's personality is just a deal-breaker for them -- what trait is single grossest turn-off in a potential friend or mate. What you will find is that their "worst thing a person can be" trait is almost always something they themselves don't struggle with. Go on a bodybuilding forum and listen to them talk about fat lazy "slugs" -- to them, anyone who isn't a bodybuilder must, by definition, be morally inferior. Go on a wealth management forum and listen to them talk about the poor -- clearly they're impoverished because they're so weak and immoral, and unable to control their impulses. Masculine dudebros can't stand "pussies."

In every case, they are careful to define as life's mortal sin the one they're in no danger of committing themselves. This is why racism and misogyny are so appealing -- if life's worst sin is acting like a black person or a woman, well, you're safe just by being a white male. In other words, you set your moral code so that you'll land on the right side of things with minimal effort. You can think of this as your Default Moral Setting, and it's largely determined by where you were born, how you were raised, and what group of friends you fell in with.

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
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That's why you feel the way you do about torture, and black licorice.

If you want to see it in action, imagine you and your mother/wife/girlfriend go to a foreign country. Upon entry, they demand that all of the women remove their shirts and bras so that they can be photographed, for identification purposes. You would think this was disgusting and misogynist, that they secretly just want to see some bare boobs, that they are a weird and backward culture.

And yet, when Muslim women raise this exact objection when they're required to remove their head coverings for ID photos, we say their culture is the primitive, misogynist one. See, because your arbitrary rules about how much of a woman's body should be covered in public are just logical, common sense; theirs are the result of crazy superstition. In reality, both of you are just reacting to your Default Moral Setting, as if it was an absolute truth handed down at the creation of the universe. That other people have different defaults -- and believe in them just as strongly -- is almost impossible to comprehend.

5 Brainwashing Tricks That Work No Matter How Smart You Are
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"But that might mean I'm not better than you, and that clearly can't be right."

Admit it: You're secretly sure that if you'd been a white man in the Jim Crow South, you'd have been one of the non-racist ones. You'd have been one of the young Germans who didn't get sucked in by Hitler. When imagining ourselves transported to another time and place, we always assume our Default Moral Setting will somehow travel with us, because we can't conceive of a life without it. It is the one thing that makes it almost impossible for us to truly understand one another.

And when you try to get someone to actually deviate from her default, well, that's when every other item on this list assembles itself into a single Voltron to oppose you. You're asking her to A) abandon what has worked for her so far, B) let those evil bastards on the other side win, C) betray her friends, and D) embrace (what she sees as) immorality.

Many people would literally rather die. Here's a baby goat headbutting itself in a mirror:

David Wong's new novel Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits is available for pre-order right now! Click any of those words!

For more from David, check out 5 Insane Things You Believe About Money (Thanks to Movies) and 6 Ways to Keep Terrorists From Ruining the World.

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