In Season 3 of Game of Thrones, karma really has it in for one of the main characters, who after betraying his friend ends up in a very unfortunate position:

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After being betrayed by his own troops at Winterfell, Theon Greyjoy lands in the hands of the sadistic Ramsay Snow, who after prolonged torturing, mutilation and deception turns him into "Reek" his loyal slave.

Theon's brainwashing reaches so far that he does not kill Ramsay when he has the chance and even is unwilling to let his sister rescue him.

He completely rejects his former identity and in the end is even asked by Ramsay to pretend to be Theon to help him take down his own family.

I know this is just fiction, but while watching I found it sometimes hard to keep up the suspension of disbelief.

Is this degree of brainwashing even remotely possible in reality? Is it possible to completely change a person's character and make him do things that completely go against his own beliefs, like betraying the own family? Is Theon's development completely fictional or something that could happen in the real world?

  • 1
    Opinion based...?how?
    – Ankit Sharma
    May 22, 2014 at 18:54
  • 2
    You gotta watch homeland! Same idea, just different szenario and easier to believe.
    – user9737
    May 22, 2014 at 21:59
  • Best suited for Cognitive Science.SE May 23, 2014 at 3:13
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    I understand your point. However I am more interested in answer taking into account the plot of the show (as TylerShads did quite well), so I think it fits here ok. I can't reasonably expect the guys over at Cognitive Science to provide answer based on GoT. I am aware that I probably would get deeper information there on the psychological topic itself, but that is a trade-off I am willing to accept.
    – magnattic
    May 23, 2014 at 11:59

1 Answer 1


In a sense it's like a more perverted Stockholm Syndrome where the victim becomes infatuated with their captor.

Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

Theon's case is probably one of the most tragic in the series when looked at on a whole.

  • Taken from his homeland as a boy to essentially be a hostage so that the Greyjoy's don't rebel again
  • Sent back to his "homeland" in order to recruit his blood family to the Stark's cause only to be rejected wholly by his own father.
  • Attempted to give a real name to himself by sacking Winterfell but failing to do so with any kind of actual authority/real battle and resorts to killing 2 innocent farmboys to pose as Brandon & Rickon.
  • Gets betrayed by his own men and given to the hands of Ramsay to do with him as he pleases.

At this point in the story, Theon tries to scrounge up just a small bit of pride and dignity and attempts to outlast Ramsay's torture. But because of either his willingness to do things half-assed or because he just isn't as strong as he thinks he is, he chooses to be subjugated by Ramsay instead of being killed or tortured any longer.

As far as realism goes, while not a psychologist of any regard, I think this kind of conditioning is completely within the realm of possibility. Coming from Theon's perspective, ever since he adopted the "Reek" personality, his life has actually increased in quality, in a sadistic relativity. No longer tortured, as long as he obeys, etc.

While I do feel the portrayal of his refusal to go with Yara was a bit much, I feel that if Yara showed him that Ramsay was dead/killed Ramsay, it might have had a bigger impact on Theon going with her back to Pyke. But because he did not know if Ramsay was alive or dead (later being confirmed as alive, obviously) he stuck with the "safe" route of denying his own freedom.

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    I'd add to this excellent answer (though, you've also touched that already) that Theon never seemed to me like having too strong a will in the first place (as part and due to his slightly tragic role) and was thus quite vulnerable to such kind of brainwashing, I guess.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jun 15, 2014 at 19:45

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