At lunch, a colleague raised an interesting question about “positive brainwashing”. She asked whether we should do this.

Should we brainwash our children to get them to do what we want? Should we brainwash colleagues and those that report to us so that their performance will meet the company’s objectives? Should we even brainwash ourselves so that we can meet our personal objectives?

The answer is “Yes”.

Studies have shown that positive brainwashing can improve work performance. It can also be used to help students get better grades.

Let’s take a look at brainwashing and some examples taken from education to find out whether brainwashing works. And if it works, how do we apply it?

What is brainwashing?

Brainwashing is the altering of beliefs, knowledge or attitudes in the mind of another person.

So, should you practice brainwashing? The answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

Why? Because we live our lives and we take action based on our narrative. Our narrative is the aggregate of our daily routines, habits and predictive decisions, our actions, values and conversations we engage in. And by changing the narrative, we can change our lives and our actions.

Let’s take a look at some examples taken from education.

Can positive brainwashing improve grades?

Research shows that a student’s prediction of how well they will do in school is one of the biggest factors contributing to student achievement (Hattie).

This factor tells us that a student’s belief about their academic future is critical. This speaks much about their optimism and hopes as well as their belief in their capacity to learn and grow.

Other students think they are “stuck” at their present cognitive level and can’t improve. This “fixed mindset” can be deadly. In addition, the student’s attitude is also a robust predictive factor (Blackwell et al.). Taken together, these two factors – student’s belief and student’s attitude – can form either a significant asset or a serious liability.

Many teachers think of their students as “sharp”, “slow”, or “average”. These beliefs are typically counterproductive. Labeling students as either “bright” or “not showing much promise” can change outcomes (Rosenthal & Jacobson).

Teachers tend to spend more time with those who show “more promise” and less time with the less promising students. In fact, the research shows that it is better NOT to label students as it’s a powerful factor in student achievement (Hattie).

Labeling students can be a liability when teachers or parents frequently use these labels like “You’re smart” or “You’re slow”, or even describing them as “plodding along”. Doing this can convey maladaptive and lowered expectations of ability to the students (Heyman). Our prediction of our future does, indeed, change our beliefs and actions (Chang).

The strength of these two factors suggests that you can gain an enormous “return on effort” by altering them. In other words, by altering a student’s prediction and attitude about how they will do in class, chances are high that their changed attitude will change how they achieve.

Struggling teachers often notice and complain about their students’ attitudes. Strong teachers, on the other hand, often purposefully alter their students’ perceptions of themselves. In other words, strong teachers apply positive brainwashing to get their students to reach higher goals.

The same applies to adults. Instead of labelling your colleagues and reports that they are “slow”, “non-productive”, “lack imagination”, you should spend more time with them and apply positive brainwashing to get them to do better.

How to apply positive brainwashing

So, how can you effectively change the minds of your students or those who work with you?

The first thing you need to do is to be more direct. Tell your students that their brains can change. Let them know that intelligence or IQ are not fixed. Teach them new learning can change the brain.

Show your students how they can alter their learning strategy, attitude or effort. How you talk to your students is critical (Dweck). Check out this YouTube video on “The Effect of Praise on Mindsets“.

Again, the same applies to adults. Use positive brainwashing to get your colleagues and your reports to change their strategy, attitude and effort. This will improve their work performance.

If that doesn’t work and nothing changes, get your students or team members to cross their fingers and hope for the best. It’s another form of positive brainwashing. You may laugh at this but there is more science in crossing your fingers than you think. It works and many people have benefitted by doing just that.

What you can do now

Starting today, begin to alter one of the single biggest achievement factors. Alter what students think about themselves. You can do that by the way you talk about learning, the brain and change. And while you are at it, stop all forms of labelling.

It’s just as, or even more, important for your staff to know this about themselves. Ensure that every single staff understands that the brain can change (but not if you, the manager, does not change).

Let’s focus on changing brains with a huge attitude upgrade. A better attitude means you’ll see more effort from your students or your colleagues.


In closing, if you are a department head or a company manager, you have an obligation to influence others who work with you. If their brains remain the same, you know there will be no change in their behavior or attitude. Changing attitudes is the kind of change that will provide the greatest return. So, start thinking how to apply positive brainwashing to your colleagues and team members so that they can achieve better performance.


  • Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., Dweck, C. S. “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention.” Child Development, vol 78, 2007, no 1, pp 246-263.
  • Chang, E. C. “Optimism & Pessimism: Implications for Theory, Research and Practice.” American Psychological Association, 2001.
  • Dweck C. S. Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential. Constable and Robinson Ltd, 2017.
  • Hattie, J. “Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.” Routledge, 2008.
  • Heyman, G. D. “Talking About Success: Implications for Achievement Motivation.” Journal of Applied Development Psychology, vol 29, issue 5, 2008, pp 361-370.
  • Jensen, E. “Should You Be Into Brainwashing?” Adapted with permission.
  • Rosenthal, R., Jacobson, L. “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” New York; Irvington, 1992.