The word brainwashing, which has existed in English since circa 1950, may have had its origins in the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1948. It involved the use of extreme methods, the process known as re-education in camps etc.

I think most people would agree, the word is heavily over-used in western society. But there are a lot of organisations, particularly religious ones, which apply a form of subtle pressure, and a well-honed condensed rationale, which is presented, sometimes to young and inexperienced people, offering the possibilities of some form of utopian thinking, or lifestyle.

Sometimes organisations are said, exaggeratedly, to be guilty of brainwashing. But it is a considerable exaggeration.

Is there another word, short of brainwashing which refers to organisational gaining control over people's thinking and belief systems?


18 Answers 18


The word "institutionalized" is sometimes used euphemistically to refer to a successful organisational attempt to control people's thinking and belief systems. e.g. They have been institutionalized. Sample articles that use it thus:



  • 52
    "Institutionalized" is normally used to mean that someone has been forcibly confined to some sort of "institution", usually a mental hospital or a prison. They may indeed be "brainwashed" in some sense there, but I've never heard the word used to describe any sort of "brainwashing" outside of such an institution. Specifically, I've never heard someone say, "The X Church" or "The Y Political Party" or whomever "is trying to institutionalize everyone to their beliefs".
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 14:34

There is 'Indoctrination'

Indoctrination - noun

1 - the act of indoctrinating, or teaching or inculcating a doctrine, principle, or ideology, especially one with a specific point of view: religious indoctrination.




molding/(Chiefly BrEng) moulding.

mold: to shape or influence; give direction to; mold public opinion Wordnet by Farlex


condition: train or accustom (someone or something) to behave in a certain way or to accept certain circumstances: Oxford Dictionaries


As in, We've been trained (through advertising, media exposure, etc.) to fear/hate certain things and to be attracted to others. Google


a. to coach in or accustom to a mode of behavior or performance.

b. to cause (a plant or one's hair) to take a desired course or shape, as by manipulating. AHD


Consider inculcation:

inculcate: to teach (others) by frequent instruction or repetition; indoctrinate


Another alternative not yet mentioned is ingraining:

teaching or impressing upon the mind by frequent instruction or repetition



Socialization might work in some situations. This definition suggests a positive connotation, but it could easily involve forms of brainwashing:

a continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position


Peer Pressure - Possibly combined w/ the type of organization, so for a church it might be Congregational Peer Pressure.


Propaganda - though a different term - certainly counts as less forceful than brainwashing. It offers the author's recommended vision of the world, but gives the audience the freedom - or at least the illusion of freedom - to accept or reject that vision.

  • Yes. Propagandized. Witness the events of March 2020 on. Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 6:02


Think about this from a political perspective. During the war in Afghanistan there has been a drive to ensure the population is educated, as education is believed will change their viewpoint and be more agreeable to the new social structures. For example instead of listening to the tribal elders for everything, the population can use their own reasoning to make decisions and inform their own opinions.

  • 1
    Socialisation perhaps. But not brainwashing in the Chinese sense.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 16:13
  • Perhaps 'advertising' would be more acceptable? we tend to be persuaded to buy things based on this. Governments often use adverts on TV/radio to get across their message.
    – aj-
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 16:27
  • As also, equally pertinently, do commercial organisations with no other motive than laying hands on your money.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 16:32
  • I understand what you mean but it really is more like the opposite.
    – TaW
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 16:29
  • Re-education is more commonly used in the sense of brainwashing, as in China - see below.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Oct 1, 2023 at 15:59

Brainwash is slang. If a formal word will do:


  1. The act of educating again or anew so as to rehabilitate or adapt to new situations.
  2. (euphemistic) involuntary political indoctrination.


  1. Training to develop new behaviors (as attitudes or habits) to replace others that are considered undesirable.



I agree with @MarvMills that "indoctrination" has a similar meaning but is a step down in negative connotations.

When you want to make it positive, you say "education". I don't mean that all education is brainwashing, but rather that social and political activists often use the word "education" as a euphemism. They'll say, "The public must be educated about this issue", meaning, "people must be browbeaten into agreeing with us". (Well, one could argue that all education is a form of brainwashing, but that's a different question.)

I suppose "brainwashing" is an extreme form of persuasion. At least, in the sense that you are discussing the use of the word here. If you take it that way, you could list a whole range of words for persuasion with varying degrees of "intensity", like brainwashing - indoctrination - education - pressure (as in social or political pressure) - persuasion - dialog. No doubt many other words.

BTW, bear in mind that what one person calls "brainwashing" another would call "teaching common sense" or "presenting the facts". I've had many conversations about controversial issues where someone who disagrees with me at some point says, "You've just been brainwashed by X!", where X is some group that agrees with me. Of course I'd say, No, it's not that X brainwashed me, but that I found their presentation of facts and logic more convincing than that of group Y.

Like in your example, you say you're thinking of groups like Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. I'm not a member of either group and, let's say I sincerely doubt that what either group says is true. But by what standard would you say that what the Mormons do is "brainwashing" while what Catholics or atheists or CBS News or Harvard University or the Libertarian Party or whoever you agree with is "attempting to persuade people" or "presenting a rational case for ..."? Maybe I'm not disagreeing with you, maybe that's your point when you say that "brainwashing" can be a "considerable exaggeration".

  • 1
    Yes. That was my point. I don't think those types of organisations brainwash people (at least not in the manner that Chinese communists did - and perhaps still do). But in my view they institutionalise people, to the point where, in order to leave, members have to lose many of the benefits of the institution.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 15:34

Also consider assimilate, co-opt, and bring on board.

Two senses from en.wiktionary's entry for assimilate are relevant:

  • To absorb a group of people into a community. [eg] The aliens in the science-fiction film wanted to assimilate human beings into their own race.

  • To bring to a likeness or to conformity; to cause a resemblance between.

From en.wiktionary, co-opt has senses such as “To commandeer, appropriate or take over” and “To absorb or assimilate into an established group”.

Bring on board means to draw a person into a fold. Here are two examples from links at Google ngrams for the phrase:

You can start off exclusively representing the seller and you can bring on board the buyer and be a dual agent. ... You can start off exclusively representing the buyer and you can bring on board the seller... – Make Money as a Buyer's Agent: Double Your Commissions..., Chantal and ‎Bill Carey, 2007

Jane chose a Developer agenda, but she was someone who George felt he could bring on board. – Get Them On Your Side, Samuel Bacharach, 2006


Also maybe consider,

To shape, mold, or fashion especially with artistry or precision

if perhaps you feel like this brainwashing technique was done with some artistry.

From a recent book review:

Robertson claims there are many ways we can all "sculpt" our own realities by knowing how to exercise our brains in certain ways, thus affecting the "patterns of connections between neurons." (from a review of Mind Sculpture: Unlocking Your Brain's Untapped Potential)


”I’m a victim brother. I’m a victim of 400 years of conditioning. The man has programmed my conditioning. Even my conditioning has been conditioned!” – Black Star in Brown Skin Lady.

I'd say that brainwashing:conditioning::manipulating:programming (using analogy notation).


I believe that "persuasion" or "coercion" communicate this idea well. I see persuasion has already been mentioned, but I don't see coercion.

An idiomatic phrase that has almost the complete opposite connotations to brainwashing would be "twist my arm" which works well (and sounds friendly or playful even) for one-on-one relationships. Although it might sound a bit funny when you try to persuade me that the organisation did a lot of arm twisting to get their point across.

An example:

Monsanto is in the business of persuading people of the benefits of genetic modification while at the same time coercing independent farmers from using their patented seeds without license.

  • So if a Chinese communist has been brainwashed, would it be appropriate to say that a newly converted Jehovah's Witness had been persuaded or coerced? The first does not seem to me to be strong enough, and the latter perhaps too heavy.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 19:04


  1. A power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort: the pervasive influence that TV has on modern life; young people falling under the influence of a radical philosopher. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/influencing

Brainwashing carries an implication of being done against one's will, influencing does not carry that implication.


You could consider using the verb instill which means

Gradually but firmly establish (an idea or attitude) in a person’s mind:

  • A strong nationalist belief was instilled in each and every member of the family.

  • We know how much, for instance, racism is instilled in people's minds to create divisions.

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

It is less strong than the verb brainwash and close to referring to "organisational gaining control over people's thinking and belief systems".


How about evangelize?

verb (used with object), evangelized, evangelizing.

1. to preach the gospel to.

2. to convert to Christianity. verb (used without object), evangelized, evangelizing.

3. to preach the gospel; act as an evangelist.

Despite the religious connotations, it is being used currently for marketing reasons. For example, technology companies employ "evangelists" to promote their solutions within certain tech communities.

  • The fact that it has been adopted by commercial organisations just about says it all. My argument is that you could change the nature of the Christian message considerably, but as long as they had the infrastructure of an organisation, churches would continue to draw in members; particularly if they quickly gave new members roles within the church community.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 15:06

How about "onboarding" often used when bringing a new staff member or employee up-to-speed on in-house concepts or jargon. Far less severe than brainwashing, but probably doesn't carry the concept of reorganising one's beliefs or thinking.

  • Perhaps a bit informal in the circumstances, don't you think?
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 23:55
  • Certainly, but it matches your original request for something short of brainwashing that also implies a change of thinking. Possibly "group-think" could be a valid suggestion, but that has no implication of permanent change.
    – Criggie
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 2:38

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.