When most people think of a brainwashed individual, they imagine someone whose mind is completely controlled. Some evil but powerful authority is manipulating his or her will. In the most extreme cases – as when a cult leader instructs his followers to commit suicide, or when an oppressive political regime demands unquestionable obedience and adoration – this does seem to be true. Yet the human tendency to manipulate others, as well as to be manipulated, is far more common that these rare extremes would suggest.
Most of us first get acquainted with psychological manipulation at a young age. The schoolyard bully, for example, is a young master manipulator who has learned early on how to use intimidation to get what he or she wants. Researchers have found that the brains of bullies exhibit a pleasure response at the sight of other’s pain, rendering them addicted to the experience of being cruel to others, and that the brain development of their victims can be permanently stunted by the abuse.