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Articles Hierarchy
Thought Reform, or Mind Control

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Rollo May in his book The Courage to Create states that the reactive harshness is conclusive proof that the cult member/radical does not actually believe the opinions they are willing to destroy others in order to defend. The psychopathic cult leader will however encourage this fanaticism in members and then 'gaslight' them later to imply the cult member went 'too far' even though they were following the instructions of the psychopathic cult leader. This modus is also common in criminal gangs when a low-level grunt is to be sacrificed as an example to the others.



Courtesy of Daniel Shaw, C.S.W. Psychoanalyst


Thought reform, or mind control, is another important component in understanding why cults are so prevalent in our society. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1987) studied the methods used by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War to turn war prisoners into willing accomplices, and called these methods thought reform (see also Hinkle and Wolff, 1976; Schein, 1956; Singer, 1979).


Thought Reform (also known as mind control) is the foundation on which cults are built. Lifton identified 8 phenomena that were present in the systems of "ideological totalism" that he studied, all of which can be found in cults:


Milieu Control – control of communication within an environment. Maintained primarily by increasingly isolating members from non-members, this sets up what Lifton calls "personal closure." One is constantly receiving reinforcement to suppress personal doubts and struggles about what is true or real;


Mystical Manipulation, or Planned Spontaneity – a systematic process, covertly planned and managed by the group leader, whereby others come to invest him with omniscience, omnipotence, or divine authority. This gives rise to the embrace of an "ends justify the means" philosophy, since the behavior and directives of the leader are always and only interpreted as having a divine origin and purpose;


Demand for Purity – the call for a radical separation of pure and impure, of good and evil, within an environment and within oneself. This creates a world of guilt and shame in which devotees become obsessively preoccupied with hope of reward and fear of punishment;


Cult of Confession – linked to the demand for purity. Required confession sessions, ostensibly for the purpose of purification and spiritual evolution, manipulate the guilt and shame mechanisms of followers, expose them totally to the group, and deepen their sense of being owned by the group;


Sacred Science – a set of dogmatic principles which claim to be a science embodying the truth about human behavior and human psychology. These principles must never be questioned, and all experience must be filtered through them;


Loading the Language – reduction and distortion of complex concepts, thoughts, and feelings to simplistic cliches and slogans, which are used to still and limit mental processes of judgment and critical thinking;


Doctrine Over Person – one is made to feel that doubts of the doctrine are a reflection of one's own inadequacies, defects, or sins. The dogma is truth, and one's subjective experience must be aligned with the dogma. To do otherwise is to risk exclusion from the group. Since the doctrine is created to serve the purposes of the sociopathic leader, followers must split off or dissociate parts of themselves, and jettison their own values, to justify actions or tenets of the leader which would otherwise be intolerable to them.


Dispensing of Existence – in the totalist vision of truth, one who disobeys, or deviates from the dogma, is false, deluded, or evil, and therefore instantly dispensable. The leaders are the judge of who is deviant, and can change their criteria at whim. Cults use the fear of banishment and shunning to control and contain members. To fear rejection by one's absolute ideal is tantamount to the profound dread of annihilation.


(See also Singer and Ofshe, 1990; Tobias et al. For other theories of social control relevant to cults, see Festinger, 1964; Gramsci, 1973; Zimbardo, 1988.)