July 12, 2024
Thought-Reform System

Thought-Reform System

Eight Psychological Criteria for a Thought-Reform System

This list is based on the work of Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., author of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (W.W. Norton, 1961).

  • MILIEU CONTROL: The group controls all communication and information, which includes the individual’s communication with him-self. This sets up what Lifton calls Apersonal closure, meaning that the person no longer has to carry on inner struggles about what is true or real. Essentially, this prevents any time being spent on doubts.
  • MYSTICAL MANIPULATION: There is a claim of authority (divine, supernatural, or otherwise), which allows for the rationale that the end justifies the means since the end is directed by a higher purpose. Certain experiences are orchestrated to make it seem as though they occur spontaneously. The person is required to subordinate her-self or him-self to the group or cause, and stops all questioning of who can question Ahigher purpose? Self-expression and independent action wither away.
  • DEMAND FOR PURITY: The system puts forth a black-and-white world view with the leader as the ultimate moral arbiter. This creates a world of guilt and shame, where punishment and humiliation are expected. It also sets up an environment of spying and reporting on one another. Through submission to the powerful lever of guilt, the individual loses his or her personal sense of morality.
  • CULT OF CONFESSION: First one, then many acts of surrender, of total exposure are necessary. The individual is now owned by the group. The person no longer has a sense of balance between worth and humility, and there is a loss of boundaries between what is secret (known only to the inner self) and what is known by the group.
  • SACRED SCIENCE: The group’s doctrine is seen as the Ultimate Truth. Questions or challenges are not allowed. This reinforces personal closure this inhibits individual thought, creative self-expression, and personal development. Experience can be perceived only through the filter of the dogmatic belief system or ideological trappings.
  • LOADING THE LANGUAGE: There is jargon internal to and understood by only the group. Constricting language constricts the person. Capacities for thinking and feeling are significantly reduced. Imagination is no longer a part of the person’s actual life experiences; the mind atrophies from disuse.
  • DOCTRINE OVER PERSON: Denial of self and any perception other than the groups is required. There is no longer such a thing as personal reality, or a self separate from the group. The past societies and the individual’s are altered to fit the needs of the doctrine. Thus, the individual is remolded, the cult personality emerges, and the person’s sense of integrity is lost.
  • DISPENSING OF EXISTENCE: The group is the ultimate arbiter, and all nonbelievers are considered evil, or non-people. If non-people cannot be recruited, they can be punished, even killed. This creates an us versus them mentality and breeds fear in the individual’s who sees that one’s own life depends on a willingness to obey. Here is found the merger of the individual with the belief.

Adapted from Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich & Madeleine Tobias (Bay Tree Publishing, 2006).

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Dr. Janja Lalich

Janja Lalich, Ph.D. is a researcher, author, and educator specializing in cults and extremist groups, with a particular focus on charismatic relationships, political and other social movements, ideology and social control, and issues of gender and sexuality.