cult recovery 101

Robert Jay Lifton Criteria for Thought Reform

Excerpted from Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Jay Lifton,
Chapter 22 Ideological Totalism

1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both
within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a
significant degree of isolation from society at large.

2. Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear
spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in
order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift
or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and
experiences as he or she wishes.

3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are
constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for
perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used

4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal
monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,”
“attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate
Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group.
The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above

6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new
ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of
thought-terminating clichés which serve to alter members’ thought processes to
conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Doctrine over person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the
sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit
the ideology of the group.

8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the
right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in
the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be
converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the
group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses
all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must
be rejected also. (Lifton, 1989)