Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s 8 Criteria for Thought Reform

RobertJLiftonDr. Robert J Lifton is one of the pioneers in psychological discovery of cultic practices.   In 1961, he published the book: “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism” in which he studied the brainwashing tactics used in China to establish and maintain the authoritarian state.

In this book he identifies 8 criteria that identify thought reform or cultist mind control behaviors.  I have provided the criteria with my own commentaries as well.

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.

Milieu is a big word and not used in everyday context, thus it was very difficult for me to wrap my head around this concept.  What this amounts to is a controlling of environment, inputs, outputs, and interaction of mediums.   For example a cult may either covertly or overtly control one’s milieu by:

  •  Only allowing group members to associate with group members and limit exposure to persons outside of the organization
  • Disallowing certain media (reading materials, movies, television, internet traffic, music, etc.)  and only allowing internal media or media that supports the group conscious.
  • Controlling living quarters by having group members disassociate with family members outside of the group

As one acclimates to the group’s form of milieu control this opens the door for other methods of control and “punishment” such as “shunning” and excommunication.  As one has assimilated into the “identity” of the group, they feel more “trapped” within the group and excommunication or exit is associated with negative consequences and fear.

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.

The mystical manipulation used in my experience consisted of a number hypnosis tricks.  In the guise of transferring of spiritual powers and gifts, the leader used several methods of covert hypnotic skills.  He used hand shake hypnosis, hypnotic language techniques and many other methods that at the time seemed like legitimate “spiritual experiences”.

This further expanded in the mind that the experiences were credible and there was something “special” about the group/leader.

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 here.

Everything is black and white.  Either you are “saved” or you are not “saved”. God wants “all” and if you don’t give “all”, then you are not giving enough and are a selfish rotten “whore”.  This gives way for extremism,  from what is taken from the individual, and what is given to the group.  What was drilled into my head so much was phrases like “Jesus is coming for a bride without spot or blemish”, “a little leaven (sin) leavens the whole lump”.  There was no room for error.  While there was room for redemption through confession, repentance, and self sacrifice, the demand for purity was so high that we thought we were the closest ones to that “perfection”.

4. Confession.

Sins, as defined by the group are to be confessed wither 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.

Although, while I was in my group(s) confession didn’t seem to be as strong a point, it was.  Sins could only be forgiven if you confessed them one to another.  Scriptures were quoted stating “if we confess our sins ONE TO ANOTHER then He (God) is just and kind to forgive us”  This, accompanied with the demand for purity causes group members to realize that they had not quite achieved “perfection” or “spiritual nirvana” because we weren’t as good as the leader.  So we would constantly be searching ourselves for some lost thing the we haven’t quite figured out yet. Some unknown sin that we weren’t aware of that we needed to confess and repent for to purge in order to achieve the perfection/purity.

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 criticism.

This was covertly prominent in the group I was involved with.  The idea disseminated amongst the leader and the group to the group was that of tolerance towards others that have “differing” doctrines and ideology; but in reality, this created an atmosphere of lowering our defenses by having the patience and tolerance to work with others who clearly had differing views from our “original self”, but then opened the door for us to accept the new incoming doctrines.  The leader would usually argue with people who disagreed with him or challenged him and they would eventually be dismissed because of their inability to assimilate.

Thus, the doctrine of the group is what ruled over everyone else’s doctrine. The idea was that everyone else had elements wrong with their doctrine and theology, but the unspoken philosophy was that the leader’s doctrines were 100% correct and unchallengeable.

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 cliches which serve to alter members’ thought process to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

Twisting of the language is an effective form of thought control.  What happens in this is that there are multiple meanings for simple words.  The result is confusion both outside the group and within the group.  If anyone were to question the leader he/she would then claim that their understanding of what they said was invalid because they “meant” something else.

For example: in my group the word Martyr was  used.  People would state: “I want to be a martyr” (or in some cases: “I will be a martyr” and “I don’t have a choice about it”).  Using the common understanding of what martyr means (especially in a religious/Christian context) most people would interpret the message to mean “I want to die”.  But when challenged by the public, they would say: No!  Martyr means to “Live for Christ and die to self”.  But in reality, it is a mind trick to draw attention to the group, mentally prepare the members to do something very drastic/dangerous in their lives, and further confuse the mind.

This method of “intentionally ambiguous” terms is used in the group I was involved in to further create controversies and strife both within the group and outside the group.  The purpose for this is to stir up the group to bring out the dissenting parties that are not going to “drink the kool aid”.

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.

The importance of the individual are drastically diminished. A pyramid of importance is created, but is more of an upside down letter “T” than a pyramid.  The leader is at the top and is of the most importance, and everyone else has no importance (but somehow, they feel important as being part of the group).

If one disagrees with the doctrine/sacred science, then they are deemed further less important and are either shunned, or brought into subjection to doctrine or “group conscience”.

A very large emphasis is placed against selfishness and focus on selflessness.  i.e. Giving to the group, serving others in the group or community, personal sacrifice, fasting, etc..

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.

This creates a black and white view of the inside and outside of the group.  It also makes room for more unethical behaviors outside the group.  Such that one can lie, cheat, steal, etc…  if the purpose serves the group or leader.


These criteria may sometimes be masked in the form of covert coercion.  Nobody would knowingly join a group that openly told you that you were going to be controlled into disassociating with your friends and family, give everything you have to them, and serve them physically, mentally, and emotionally and receive nothing in return.

The big trick in my group was the use of the “voice of God” which can later be explained by use of covert hypnosis techniques to be expressed in a different post.  But the idea is that if you can convince someone that “this is what God is COMMANDING you to do” with the notion that: “God will punish you if you don’t do what he tells you to do” then you are more likely to comply covertly than overtly.

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