Eight Conditions of Thought Reform
as presented in
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of
"Brainwashing" in China, by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.; W. W. Norton &
Co., Inc., 1963.
basic feature of the thought reform environment, the
psychological current upon which all else depends, is the
control of human communication. Through this milieu control the
totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the
individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees
and hears, reads and writes, experiences, and expresses), but
also — in its penetration of his inner life — over what we may
speak of as his communication with himself. It creates an
atmosphere uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984....
Purposeful limitation of all forms of communication with
The control of human communication through environment
The cult doesn't just control communication between people,
it also controls people's communication with themselves, in
their own minds.
inevitable next step after milieu control is extensive personal
manipulaton. This manipulation assumes a no-holds-barred
character, and uses every possible device at the milieu's
command, no matter how bizarre or painful. Initiated from above,
it seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in
such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously
from within the environment. This element of planned
spontaneity, directed as it is by an ostensibly omniscient
group, must assume, for the manipulated, a near-mystical
quality. (Page 422.)
Potential convert is convinced of the higher purpose within
the special group.
Everyone is manipulating everyone, under the belief that it
advances the "ultimate purpose."
Experiences are engineered to appear to be spontaneous, when,
in fact, they are contrived to have a deliberate effect.
People mistakenly attribute their experiences to spiritual
causes when, in fact, they are concocted by human beings.
The Demand for Purity
experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the
impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The
good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and
actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and
policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the
impure. Nothing human is immune from the flood of stern moral
judgements. (Page 423.)
The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that
absolute purity is attainable, and that anything done to anyone
in the name of this purity is ultimately moral.
The cult demands Self-sanctification through Purity.
Only by pushing toward perfection, as the group views
goodness, will the recruit be able to contribute.
The demand for purity creates a guilty milieu and a
shaming milieu by holding up standards of perfection that no
human being can attain.
People are punished and learn to punish themselves for not
living up to the group's ideals.
The Cult of Confession
related to the demand for absolute purity is an obsession with
personal confession. Confession is carried beyond its ordinary
religious, legal, and therapeutic expressions to the point of
becoming a cult in itself. (Page 425.)
Public confessional periods are used to get members to
verbalize and discuss their innermost fears and anxieties as
well as past imperfections.
The environment demands that personal boundaries are
destroyed and that every thought, feeling, or action that does
not conform with the group's rules be confessed.
Members have little or no privacy, physically or mentally.
Aura of Sacred Science
milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma,
holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of
human existence. This sacredness is evident in the prohibition
(whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic
assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the
originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and
the Word itself. While thus transcending ordinary concerns of
logic, however, the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated
claim of airtight logic, of absolute "scientific" precision.
Thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science; and
the man who dares 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. (Pages 427-428.)
The cult advances the idea that the cult's laws, rules and
regulations are absolute and, therefore, to be followed
The group's belief is that their dogma is absolutely
scientific and morally true.
No alternative viewpoint is allowed.
No questioning of the dogma is permitted.
Loading the Language
of the totalist environment is characterized by the
thought-terminating cliché. [Slogans]
The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are
compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding
phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.
The cult invents a new vocabulary, giving well-known words
special new meanings, making them into trite clichés. The
clichés become "ultimate terms", either "god terms",
representative of ultimate good, or "devil terms",
representative of ultimate evil. Totalist language, then, is
repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely
abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to
anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: the language
of non-thought. (Page 429.)
Controlling words helps to control people's thoughts.
The group uses black-or-white thinking and
The special words constrict rather than expand
Non-members cannot simply comprehend what cult members are
Doctrine over Person
characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the
subordination of human experience to the claims of doctrine.
Past experience and values are invalid if they conflict with
the new cult morality.
The value of individuals is insignificant when compared to
the value of the group.
Past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly
rewritten, or ignored to make them consistent with doctrinal
No matter what a person experiences, it is belief in the
dogma which is important.
Group belief supersedes individual conscience and integrity.
environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to
existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such
Lifton gave a Communist example:
In thought reform, as in Chinese Communist practice generally,
the world is divided into "the people" (defined as "the working
class, the peasant class, the petite bourgeoisie, and the
national bourgeoisie"), and "the reactionaries" or "the lackies
of imperialism" (defined as "the landlord class, the
bureaucratic capitalist class, and the KMT reactionaries and
their henchmen"). (Page 433.)
The group decides who has a right to exist and who does not.
The group has an elitist world view — a sharp line is drawn
by cult between those who have been saved, chosen, etc. (the
cult members) and those who are lost, in the dark, etc. (the
rest of the world).
Former members are seen as "weak, " "lost," "evil," and "the
The cult insists that there is no legitimate alternative to
membership in the cult.