cult recovery 101

Thought Reform Today

By Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.

Many persons wrote about totalitarian regimes, such as Defoe, Orwell, Zamyatin, Huxley, London, and Hofer, predicting how they thought totalistic regimes would psychologically impact individuals. Robert Lifton had the opportunity to actually study individuals who had been so subjugated. At the end of the Korean War he chose to carefully study the personal experiences of a series of Westerners and Chinese intellectuals who had been exposed to the Chinese thought reform programs both in prisons and in “revolutionary universities.” Lifton delineated the techniques and methods of the Chinese thought reform program and revealed in telling detail through case studies its impact on the mind, emotions and social behavior of its victims in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China.1

In his preface to the 1989 reprinting of that book Lifton stated that he sees his book as “less a specific record of Maoist China and more an exploration of what might be the most dangerous direction of the twentieth-century mind—the quest for absolute or „totalistic‟ belief systems.” He commented that he was especially pleased by the extent to which his volume on thought reform has remained central to literature on cults and on totalism in general. Lifton adds: “We can speak of cults as groups with certain characteristics: first, a charismatic leader, who tends increasingly to become the object of worship in place of more general spiritual principles that are advocated; second, patterns of „thought reform‟ akin to those described in this volume, and especially in Chapter 22 (Ideological Totalism); and third, a tendency toward manipulation from above with considerable exploitation (economic, sexual, or other) of ordinary supplicants or recruits who bring their idealism from below.”2

Cultic groups continue to increase and apply their variants of thought reform. As this century draws to a close we are seeing hordes of millennialists and ecofatalists gathering groups about them to set up the elite whom they claim will  survive. These groups appear to be putting into place totalistic regimes with leaders claiming that they alone have the one answer for all. Lifton‟s seminal work on how totalism constricts the human mind, and requires victimization is, as this century draws to a close, going to be more useful than ever, because we are already seeing a new wave of totalism not only in cults, but in the burgeoning millennialist and ecofatalist movements.3

Thought reform is not mysterious. It is the systematic application of psychological and social influence techniques in an organized programmatic way within a constructed and managed environment. The goal is to produce specific attitudinal and behavior changes that management wants. The changes occur incrementally without it being patently visible to those undergoing the process that their attitudes and behavior are being changed a step at a time according to the plan of those directing the program.

In society there are numerous elaborate attempts to influence attitudes and modify behavior. However, thought reform programs can be distinguished from other social influence efforts because of their totalistic scope and their sequenced phases aimed at destabilizing participants‟ sense of self, sense of reality, and values. Thought reform programs rely on organized peer pressure, the development of bonds between the leader or (trainer) and the followers, the control of communication, and the use of a variety of influence techniques. The aim of all this is to promote conformity, compliance, and the adoption of specific attitudes and behaviors desired by the group. Such a program is further characterized by the manipulation of the person‟s total social environment to stabilize and reinforce the modified behavior and attitude changes.

Thought reform is accomplished through the use of psychological and environmental control processes that do not depend on physical coercion. Today‟s thought reform programs are sophisticated, subtle, and insidious, creating a psychological bond that in many ways is far more powerful than gun-at-the-head methods of influence. The effects generally lose their potency when the control processes are lifted or neutralized in some way. That is why most Korean War POWs gave up the content of their prison camp  indoctrination programs when they came home, why the Westerners thought reformed in China, with rare exceptions, dropped the effects and contents, and why many cultists leave their groups if they spend a substantial amount of time away from the group or have an opportunity to discuss their doubts with an non-member who understands the thought reform process.4

Contrary to popular misconceptions, a thought reform program does not require physical confinement or physical coercion and does not produce robots. Nor does it permanently capture the allegiance of all those exposed to it. In fact, some persons do not respond at all to the programs, while others retain the contents and behavior for varied periods of time. In sum, thought reform should be regarded as “situationally adaptive belief change that is not stable and is environment dependent.”

At the end of the Korean War, I worked at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., along with Lifton and others studying the thought reform and indoctrination programs the Chinese and North Koreans had used to reshape attitudes and behaviors in revolutionary universities, prisons, and prisoner of war camps. Besides working with material from prisoners of war, I interviewed a number of priests who had been interned in China and subjected to thought reform efforts.

By the late 1960s I became aware of the cult phenomenon in our society and began to interview cult members, ex-cultists and families of cultists. I soon discovered that the basic properties of thought reform as outlined by Lifton were alive and well right here in the United States and becoming one of our least desirable exports to other countries.

The burgeoning of the cult phenomenon caused me to return to using Lifton‟s work and that of my colleagues from the Walter Reed years. Relying on those seminal contributions, I have continued studying thought reform as Lifton described it in 1961 and its evolution since then. At this point leaders of cults and groups using thought reform processes have taken in and controlled millions of persons to the detriment of their welfare.

In my work studying how cults and groups with totalistic views are applying their current versions of thought reform programs, I have termed such programs on occasion “coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control” or “exploitative persuasion.” This was done in an effort to make more understandable the thought reform process to those unfamiliar with the concepts and history of thought reform. During this period thought reform has been called by various names, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Terms Used to Identify Thought Reform

  • Thought struggle (ssu-hsiang tou-cheng)
  • Mao Tse-tung (1929)
  • Brainwashing Hunter (1951)
  • Thought reform (hse nao) Lifton (1956)
  • Debility, dependency, and dread (DDD syndrome)
  • Farber, Harlow, and West (1957)
  • Coercive persuasion Schein (1961)
  • Mind control Unknown (about 1980)
  • Systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence
  • Singer (1982)
  • Coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavioral control
  • Ofshe and Singer (1986)
  • Exploitative persuasion Singer and Addis (1992)

Having returned to an interest in thought reform programs as I was noting their use by cults, I found a colleague with interests in social influence and we began to write about “second generation of interest” thought reform programs.5

The first generation of interest was that which Lifton had delineated. The newer programs, even though they do not have the power of the state behind them, such as was present in China, appear more efficient, effective and also  often more psychologically risky for participants than the earlier ones. Lifton noted that the managers of the Chinese programs attempted to closely monitor subjects so that when they reached the brink of decompensation, pressures could be reduced. The current programs do not monitor individuals in their thought reform programs, and thus produce a certain number of psychiatric casualties.

We compared the thought reform programs being used by cults and some of the New Age so-called “awareness” programs with Lifton‟s original work. Not only were the current programs speeding up the process, but they were intensifying the psychological and social pressures without monitoring the individual‟s responses to the pressures put on them. The newer applications attempt to gain conformity more rapidly than did the earlier programs, and attack not just the person‟s political self, but appear designed to destabilize a person‟s overall sense of self and reality.

Most of the current cultic and New Age thought reform programs make the Chinese programs appear more interested in re-cycling persons by monitoring their ability to tolerate stress during thought reform programs, while the current groups appear to rely on replacing with new recruits those who break from the stresses. A colleague and I termed what we were seeing “the second generation of interest thought reform programs” and wrote of our ongoing study of psychiatric casualties from these programs as they are being carried out currently.6

The impact of cult life, which by its very structure tends to be totalistic, has been such that many psychiatrists and mental health professionals have discussed the behavior, attitude changes, and decompensations noted in former cult members and efforts have evolved to properly classify the residual effects of thought reform stresses. In 1980 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III), published by the American Psychiatric Association, cited “thought reform” as a contributing factor to Atypical Dissociative Disorder (a diagnosis frequently noted in former cult members).7 Thought reform and its synonyms brainwashing and coercive persuasion were also noted in DSM-III-Revised (1987), as a contributing factor to Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, as well as  appearing in widely recognized medical texts.8 Most recently, in 1994 the new DSM-IV again cites thought reform as contributing to the same type of dissociative disorder. Thus the psychiatric and psychological world has come to note the impacts the stresses, conflicts, and procedures of thought reform programs have on individuals‟ functioning.

Lifton‟s work in Hong Kong interviewing repatriated Westerners and Chinese intellectuals was his first major contribution to what has become a series of works by him centering on human responses to extreme stress, the production of victims, and his interests in the broader implications of totalism and its alternatives. He has also offered the concept of proteanism and “open” instead of “closed” methods of education and personal change as the hope of the future, apparently kindled by his work on thought reform.

Lifton formulated eight themes characterizing a totalistic environment which makes ideological totalism possible. By ideological totalism he meant “the coming together of immoderate ideology with equally immoderate individual character traits—an extremist meeting ground between people and ideas.” The totalist environment seeks to re- educate participants into submission and conformity, not creative individual participation in society.

Lifton found eight themes predominating in the social milieu in which human zealotry and thought reform programs grow. He concluded: “In combination they [the eight themes] create an atmosphere which may temporarily energize or exhilarate, but which at the same time poses the gravest of human threats.” Below, for brevity, I am abbreviating and paraphrasing Lifton‟s eight themes which characterize a thought reform milieu. Quoted material is from Lifton‟s book on thought reform.

  1. Milieu control: Human communication is controlled by many means. External information and inner reflection are so controlled and managed by the system that the ordinary member becomes unable to test reality and experience a sense of identity separate from the environment. Communication is further controlled through the use of loaded jargon by the group. All information generated about  persons, including any secrets they reveal to anyone, must be passed upward to authorities and then used to make the leader seem omniscient. Thus people cannot trust one another and develop support systems within the milieu.
  1. Mystical manipulation: After controlling the milieu and communication, extensive personal manipulation occurs. Patterns of behavior and emotion are elicited in ways to make them appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment. Having been manipulated from above without realizing it, a person becomes sensitive to cues, and merges himself with the flow of the group to avoid continuing pressures being put upon him. He now adopts the psychology of the pawn. He drops self expression and independent actions and joins in the manipulation of others.
  2. Demand for purity: A two-valued world is set in place. There is good and evil, pure and impure. The emotional levers of guilt and shame can applied to manipulate and control people especially playing upon existential guilt in which a person is made aware of his own limitations and his unfulfilled potential. Denouncing others, the outside world, and “projection” is encouraged. This leads to mass hatreds, purges of heretics, and to political and religious holy wars. “For there is no emotional bondage greater than that of the man whose entire guilt potential—neurotic and existential—has become the property of ideological totalists.”
  3. Cult of confession: The demand for absolute purity in the totalist environment leads to massive and varied uses of confession. “In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace.” People can be led to falsely confess to deeds they did not do, and to falsely accuse, and through confession experience a sense of purification. Lifton noted two ends were achieved through confession: this seeming “purging milieu” only enhances the totalists hold on followers‟ guilt and at the same time accomplishes a symbolic self- surrender in which the person feels he is merging with the environment. A sense of intimacy is created and the followers merge into the Movement. Lifton and Camus noted the perpetual confessor easily becomes the “judge-penitent”; that is, the more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you.
  1. Sacred science: The totalist world is the ultimate moral vision. “To dare to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also „unscientific.‟ In this way, the philosopher kings of modern ideological totalism reinforce their authority by claiming to share in the rich and respected heritage of natural science.” Lifton saw a composite of counterfeit science added to supposedly sacred ideas promulgated by the leaders of totalist groups as one more theme and pressure that pushes a person in a totalist environment toward total personal closure—that state of feeling an all-or- nothing emotional alignment with the immoderate ideology.
  2. Loading the language: The language in the totalist environment is loaded with thought- terminating clichés and ultimate terms. “Totalist language is repetitively centered on all- encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lionel Trilling‟s phrase „the language of nonthought.‟”
  3. Doctrine over person: Ideological totalism overrides personal human experiences. What you as a person experience must be subordinated to the claims of the doctrine. Totalist doctrine engages in history revision in order to justify the regime‟s present stance. Individual memory can be overridden and distortions imposed. “The underlying assumption is that the doctrine—including the mythological elements—is ultimately more valid, true and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience.”
  4. Dispensing existence: A totalist environment divides people into two groups—those with a right to existence and those without such a right. Lifton noted that totalist environments even when not using physical abuse, stimulate in followers a fear of extinction and annihilation. Existence depends on obeying and merging with the totalist environment.

Lifton concluded: “The more clearly an environment exercises these eight psychological themes, the greater its resemblance to ideological totalism; and the more it utilizes such totalist devices to change people, the greater its resemblance to thought reform [or „brainwashing‟].”

Thus Lifton‟s careful observations from his study of repatriates from the Chinese thought reform milieu laid the foundation for evaluating environments in which thought reform is the change agent used to control the expressed behavior of people.

In addition to Chinese exposed to thought reform in revolutionary universities, Lifton studied Westerners subjected to thought reform in prison settings and especially paid attention to seeing if there was sequencing in the thought reform programs they had experienced. Lifton noted there was indeed a general sequence of psychological pressures, twelve in number, put upon each person, even though they had been in separate prisons, far removed from one another, and with different staff and surroundings. The psychological steps he labeled: (1) the assault on identity, (2) the establishment of guilt, (3) the self-betrayal, (4) the breaking point, total conflict and the basic fear, (5) leniency and opportunity, (6) the compulsion to confess, (7) the channeling of guilt, (8) re-education: logical dishonoring, (9) progress and harmony, (10) the final confession: the summing up (11) rebirth, (12) release, transition and limbo.

Helping persons who have left current cultic groups by going over this sequence of psychological steps is especially useful. By so doing, these persons see and feel that common properties exist between what Lifton found decades ago and what they have experienced. What Lifton termed the two basic identities of thought reform, the repentant sinner and the receptive criminal, are among the most bothersome induced roles cultists battle after leaving their groups. To  learn that these are roles almost uniformly induced by thought reform programs, regardless of age, nationality, education, and social class, helps to alleviate the guilt, self doubt, self abnegation, and loss of trust in the self that the current cult thought reform programs induce.

Lifton studied in carefully documented detail what in fact has emerged as one of the most powerful efforts at human manipulation ever undertaken. It led him to call attention to “closed” versus “open” approaches to human change—the thought reform methods used in a closed, totalist society versus the methods of human change used in open societies in which education, choice, individual responsibility, reflective thought are the means of seeking human change.

My work and that of colleagues studying cults and newer uses of thought reform programs has necessitated adding some orientation about the differences between a thought reform program backed by state power, as in China, and a thought reform program as seen in modern cultic groups. We also have tended to translate Lifton‟s concepts and findings into simple terms for youth and nonprofessional audiences. Lifton‟s themes, steps, and findings that thought reform could be carried out effectively in non-prison settings, as well as his many insights about human responses to totalist programs, stand as he wrote them. Cult apologists work to hide the fact that Lifton clearly commented that neither a prison setting nor physical coercion was required for thought reform to work. The same apologists tend to ignore all the rest of the literature on thought reform and decades of study of influence by social psychologists.

The people Lifton studied had either found themselves immersed in thought reform programs in revolutionary universities or were exposed in prison settings, and were aware that there was an effort to change their political beliefs. However, today, individuals become involved with cultic and other groups that recruit deceptively and are unaware before joining just what will follow. My work and that of others on such groups has found that it is rare that these groups reveal to new members just what they will be exposed to. The new members often know practically nothing of how they are going to be treated, processed, and changed. Thus some modernization such as item 1 below  was needed to help other researchers and the general public see the extra mystification that is present in the current scenes in which thought reform is practiced.

After studying the degree to which Lifton‟s themes are present in a group suggesting a totalist milieu exists, the following six conditions can serve as a brief checklist to evaluate a group‟s methods. The group:

  1. Keeps the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person.
  2. Controls time and physical environment (contacts, information)
  3. Creates a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency
  4. Suppresses old behavior and attitudes
  5. Instills new behavior and attitudes
  6. Puts forth the program in a closed system of logic

With the exception of item 1, these are abbreviated versions of Lifton‟s themes intended to simplify outlining the thought reform process. What follows below is again a condensation of the steps he found in a thought reform program. The explanations of the steps have been simplified and used by me and colleagues as we have connected Lifton‟s work to our current studies of “second generation of interest” thought reform groups.

  1. Destabilizing the person: A person‟s whole sense of self and notion of how the world works are destabilized by group lectures, personal contacts by authorities, rewards, punishments and other exchanges with the group. The person is moved to a point where self-confidence is eroded; he has become more suggestible; and is uncertain about what choices to make.
  2. Accepting the solution that the group offers: At this point, the person being thought reformed senses that the solutions offered by the group provide the path to follow. Anxiety, uncertainty and self-doubt can be reduced by adopting the concepts put forth by the group or leader. Newcomers observe the  behavior of old timers and begin to model themselves after the examples. Massive anxiety can be reduced by cooperating with the social pressures to conform. The newcomers begin to “talk the talk, and walk the walk” that the thought reform program is instilling.
  3. Now you are in: After “the acceptance” has been made, the group reinforces in the newcomers the desired behavior with social and psychological rewards, and punishes unwanted attitudes and behaviors with harsh criticism, group disapproval, social ostracism, and loss of status.

Most of the modern thought reform groups seek to produce non-resistant, hardworking persons who do not complain about group practices and do not question the authority of the guru, leader or trainer. The more followers display the group-approved attitudes and behavior, the more their compliance is interpreted by the leadership as showing that they now know that their life before they belonged to the group was wrong and that their new life is “the way.”

Recently Lifton wrote:

I have been preoccupied with questions of totalism from the time of my study of Chinese thought reform in the mid 1950s, and came full circle in returning to the subject when studying Nazi doctors in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Totalism is likely to emerge during periods of historical—or psychohistorical—dislocation, in which there is a breakdown of the symbols and structures that guide the human life cycle. Contributing to this dislocation is the mass media revolution, which creates the remarkable possibility of any one of us, at any moment, having access to any image or idea originating anywhere in the contemporary world or from any cultural moment of the entire human past. Still another powerful influence furthers our dislocation: awareness of our late-twentieth- century technological capacity to annihilate ourselves as a species, and to do so with  neither purpose nor redemption. What results from these historical forces are widespread feelings that we are losing our psychological moorings. We feel ourselves buffeted about by unmanageable currents and radical social uncertainties.

A major response to this confusion has been the contemporary world-wide epidemic of fundamentalism. That movement, broadly understood, drives from a fear of the loss of “fundamentals,” giving rise to demand for absolute dogma and a monolithic self—all rendered sacred in the name of a past of perfect harmony that never was.

While the above may sound dire, Lifton, with his ever- present faith in mankind‟s capacity to choose the “protean self” and the “open” methods of change rather than the constricted, thought reform methods continues to contribute to efforts to insure that freedom of the mind will continue.


1 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961).

2 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (University of North Carolina Press, 1993). Note also Lifton, Totalism and Civil Liberties, The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age (New York: Basic Books, 1987); and Lifton, “Cult formation,” Harvard Mental Health Letter (1991).

3 Margaret T. Singer, with Janja Lalich, Cults in Our Midst (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).

4 Stuart A. Wright, Leaving Cults. The Dynamics of Defection, Society of the Scientific Study of Religion, Monograph no. 7, Washington, D.C., 1987.

5 Richard Ofshe and Margaret T. Singer, “Attacks on Peripheral Versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques,” Cultic Studies Journal 3-1 (1986); and Margaret T. Singer and Richard Ofshe, “Thought Reform Programs and the Production of Psychiatric Casualties,” Psychiatric Annals 20 (1990):188-93. Richard Ofshe, “Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change,” Encyclopedia of Sociology, vol. 1, (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 212-24.

6 Louis J. West and Margaret T. Singer, “Cults, Quacks, and Nonprofessional Psychotherapies,” H. I. Kaplan, A. M. Freedman and B. J. Sadock, eds., Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry III (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1980).

7 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, III (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1980); Revised, III-R, 1987; and DSM-IV, 1994.

8 Margaret T. Singer, “Group psychodynamics,” in R. Berkow, ed., Merck Manual, 15th ed. (Rahway, NJ: Merck, Sharp, & Dohme, 1987).

This article was originally published in Trauma and Self, edited by Charles B. Stozier & Michael Flynn. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Maryland, 1986; Chapter 6, pages 69-79.