Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Your Friend Might Be Politically Brainwashed If...

Take this quiz to determine whether a person is thinking for themselves.

Africa Studio/Adobe Stock
Source: Africa Studio/Adobe Stock

These are politically polarized times. The majority of Americans belong to one of the two major political parties—Democrat or Republican—and tend to vote along party lines. Political news feels more and more like the sports page, as we read about the latest clashes of rival parties and personalities.

It can be challenging in this environment to think for ourselves. Once we’ve joined ourselves to a political “team,” it’s easy to base our opinions and identity on our team’s platform. You may have friends who seem to have sworn allegiance to their preferred party, and are no longer capable of rational thought. Maybe you’ve considered staging an intervention to deprogram them.

If you suspect someone you know may have been brainwashed, look for these telltale signs (scoring system at the end).

1. They act personally offended when someone criticizes their favorite political leader.

Even questioning their political hero can unleash their anger and venom, as if you’d said something nasty about their mom. They seem to have fused their identity with the politician’s, so political criticism is a personal affront.

2. They assume everyone in the opposing party is an idiot.

What else could explain why others disagree with them about issues like COVID, the economy, or racism? A person would have to be pretty stupid to see things differently.

3. They assume bad motives by those in the other party.

Rather than being stupid (or in addition to), the other side must “be un-American,” or even “hate America.” People who disagree with them couldn’t possibly be acting in good faith, and want the best for our country like they do.

4. They agree with every single position their party takes.

It’s unlikely that a free-thinking adult would be in 100% agreement with their political party, given the range of issues that make up a party’s platform*. And yet you know with certainty how this person feels about any given issue based on their party affiliation—even for issues that are hard to predict based on party principles. If their party changes position on an issue, your friend changes with them.

*I suspect this one may not apply if your friend identifies with a third party, which may well have a coherent overarching ideology, like Libertarian (personal freedom) or Green (environmental protection).

5. They love it when something makes the other party look bad—even if it's bad for the country.

They’re pleased with any outcome that helps their political team, even if that means the economy tanks, or a military engagement goes badly, or rival nations influence our political system. Political calculation eclipses any other consideration.

6. They favor anti-American practices if they benefit their party.

In the same vein, they’re okay with stifling free speech or denying someone equal protection under the law. They’re even able to spin these practices as somehow being patriotic and “for the good of the nation.”

7. They cut off ties with people who differ from them politically.

They can’t imagine being friends with someone from a different political party and are willing to end relationships when someone fails their political litmus test.

8. They get all their news from a single source—which they swear is unbiased.

Whether they’re fans of CNN or Fox News, Breitbart or Slate, they assume they’re getting an unfiltered reporting of facts. Only idiots would watch the fake news on the other end of the spectrum (see #2 above).

9. They can't name a single action their favorite politician has taken that they disagree with.

Their devotion feels more like religious fervor than political preference. The only possible mistake their political savior could make would be to concede anything to the opposition.

10. They can't think of a single redeeming quality in the other party's politicians.

Politicians on the other side are seen as all bad—arrogant, irritating, unreasonable, hypocritical—everything that their party’s politicians aren’t. If pressed to find something positive, they might come up with a backhanded compliment, like, “They’ve been very effective at getting half of the American public to buy into a false narrative.”

11. Truth is less important to them than whether something helps their party.

They’re willing to bend the truth or repeat outright lies, as long as it’s consistent with their party’s position. They routinely fact-check the opposition, but never their own side.

12. They automatically believe and forward/share/retweet every conspiracy theory about the opposition, no matter how ridiculous and false.

When it's pointed out to them that it’s a hoax, they don’t concede the point, saying instead that it sounds exactly like what their political enemies would do. They remain gullible to subsequent conspiracy theories that are equally false.

13. Their political views take precedence over their seemingly deep religious or spiritual convictions.

They seem willing to overlook obvious contradictions between their faith and their politics, always deferring to the latter—or finding tortured ways to try to reconcile the two. For example, they ascribe to Buddhist principles yet approve of violence against their political enemies; or, they profess to be a follower of Christ, but disregard his charge to "love your enemies" and "do good to them that hate you" (Matthew 5:44).

14. They assume that everyone who disagrees with them must be brainwashed.

It’s easy for them to see others’ bias while seeing themselves as the lone freethinker. Similar to the fundamental attribution error, they attribute their own beliefs to carefully thinking through each issue, while others’ views are attributed to their party loyalty.

Scoring: Each item gets a single point; simply add them up to find your friend’s score. The probability that your friend is brainwashed is roughly as follows:

  • 0-4: Low
  • 5-9: Moderate
  • 10-14: High

If you're interested in helping to undo political polarization and find common ground, consider learning more about groups like More in Common, which aims to "strengthen democratic societies against the threats of polarization and division," or Beyond Conflict, with the goal of "national reconciliation in the aftermath of division and violence."

More from Seth J. Gillihan PhD
More from Psychology Today