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Can intelligent people be brainwashed? - (1/12/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Professor Wright came into the pharmacy ranting. “Those people at the Capitol Building on January 6 were peaceful protestors,” he yelled. “Anything bad that happened was started by 'Antifa' and 'Black Lives Matter’. Trump supporters did not break the windows or storm the Capitol doors. Trump followers went there peacefully. They didn’t kill the cops! All they wanted was to keep Trump in power – and after all the great things he did for this country!”

The pharmacist thought, “Why do some people – even highly intelligent people – think this way?” Reports from the FBI have confirmed that Republican Party officials, GOP political donors, Trump enablers, far-right militants, white supremacists, and QAnon fanatics led the bloody insurrection.  No Antifa. No BLM. Video footage showed maniacs with their MAGA hats, Confederate flags, and swastika flags, and other symbols of hatred, clearly enough for them to be identified by the authorities as criminals. So, exactly what did someone as brainy as Professor Wright - PhD! - see when he watched the 6-hour attack?

Brainwashing is persuasion by propaganda. The word is used to describe someone who holds strong ideas that are implausible and are completely resistant to evidence, common sense, experience and logic. This distortion of thought was used on American POWs by the Chinese and North Koreans during the Korean War in the 1950s. Hitler used it to turn the Germans into Jew haters. Jim Jones brainwashed over 900 of his followers to commit mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana in 1978. 


Who can be brainwashed? Certain people are more susceptible to it than others. They are unhappy with their lives and unable to correct that unhappiness. They are angry with society and are fearful of how things will change over time, no matter how irrational. They can be highly intelligent but need a strong ruler to define them. They shun science and logic. Example: People who deny that COVID-19 is a threat and who refuse to wear masks. To them, the existence of this virus is a conspiracy theory spawned by a would-be dictator. This ruse benefits the brainwasher but can kill the brainwashed in the process. Brainwashing can spread like a wildfire among family members, criminal co-conspirators, gangs, and other tightly knit groups. Professor Wright holds the ammunition to make brainwashing spread.


Those people who brainwash others tend to prey upon the weak and vulnerable. They are charismatic, but they have a deep need to control others. They are authoritarians, which means they are lairs and charlatans and will do anything to constrain their flock. According to Dr. Eric Maisel, PhD, a prominent psychologist and author, an authoritarian comes from a place of abject hatred. Because they are full of malice, Maisel says, authoritarians need to punish others. They are likely to advocate for capital punishment, for harsh punishment for all offenders, and to even adopt a “right to life” position simply to punish women for getting pregnant. They are violent, aggressive, and want their victims to fear them. They can radicalize their followers into committing terrorism, as noted by the Capitol riot on January 6.

How can you avoid being brainwashed? Is there a pill to help the brainwashed? No, and you can be glad there isn’t a pharmacological treatment for mind control, advises the pharmacist (#bravenewworld).  You can recognize that a person has been brainwashed if he isolates himself from friends and family. Or if he suddenly becomes an adherent of and a financial contributor to a particular fringe cause. To tell him he has been brainwashed will result in denial. Gradually, the subject should become aware of how he or she was manipulated. Hopefully, Professor Wright will learn to question things he never had to question before.

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.

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