How Thought Reform Works in a  Spiritually Abusive System

Robert J Lifton’s Thought Reform Criteria

 Within Bible-Based Cultic Groups

by Steven Martin

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. Free exchange of information is tightly controlled by threats of accusation of gossip or “touching not the anointed” leadership. Stories concocted for “damage control” also fall under this category so that members are fearful or reluctant to contact dissident or former members. Information from outside sources is often criticized and discounted to discourage acceptance by group members. Connotation is a powerful tool in the maintenance of milieu control.

Thinking Inside the Box (Pg 9, Martin’s summary)

Milieu control is an environment in which the leader imposes a limitation of communication and interaction with the world outside for the group (except, of course, for the purpose of recruiting). This limitation stems from the conviction that their group possessed an ultimate truth, and that reality is their exclusive possession. In order to engineer the soul into this “truth,” they believe that they must bring the person under full observational control. Therefore, one is actually boxed in and hindered from obtaining what is true and relevant outside the group.

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. Connotation also plays a major role, and accusations and terms such as “gossip”, “rebellion”, “Jezebel” and the like are avoided at all costs by the membership and prevent critical thinking and evaluation of group tactics. Activation of emotions through the use of connotation can create “cognitive dissonance” and temporarily stop critical thought processes so that the message behind the language is not evaluated with usual cognitive processing. If emotion can be dominated, the cognitive stress created by the conflict gives the leader a strong influence over thought and behavior. This is also reciprocal: confusion of emotion or thought or behavior gives the leader a strong influence of the remaining aspects of self and can instill the group doctrine without critical evaluation by the individual.

The Language of Non-Thought, (Pg 89, Martin’s summary)

Loading the language involves the manipulation of words and phrases to produce “thought-terminating cliches.” It is thus a tool and extension of the “Sacred Science” — language that is used in order to stifle doubts and criticism, resulting in a narrowing and constriction of thought processes. It involves abstract words that categorize and judge members within the group and people outside the group. Such language is used for manipulating and even stifling a member’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

The words and phrases have special meaning within the group — a kind of language which, of course, exists to some degree in any organization, and all belief systems depend on it. However, the loading is more extreme in totalistic groups since jargon expresses the certitudes of the sacred science serving to stifle and control one’s thinking.

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. This technique may also apply to the alignment of the group or group leaders with powerful, respected and orthodox others who may be enlisted to make statements or write opinionated articles in support of the cultic group or leaders. Media presentations may also connotate legitimacy when they are well done and impressive. Within Charismatic/Pentecostal groups, collected information or desired behavior may come in the form of messages of prophecy, “Thus saith the Lord.”

Illusion to Delusion (Pg 21, Martin’s summary)

A powerful means of persuading or instilling belief in someone is to strike a sense of awe and enthusiasm within the person through various forms of “mystical manipulation.” By manipulating circumstances or the environment from behind the scenes in such a way that events look spontaneous or miraculous, observers can be struck with a sense of awe and thus be attracted and misled. The resulting “mystical aura” that surrounds the system and its master is sheer deceit.

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. Dissidents or competing ideologies are labeled as entirely untrustworthy and are given the connotation of near-heresy. (In psychology, this ego defense is termed “splitting.”) The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here. Systems of positive reinforcement of acceptable behavior and negative reinforcement of unwanted behavior are employed to promote compliance with the group norm. Favored individuals are often used to model behavior and are rewarded very publicly to promote group compliance.

Getting Nowhere Fast (Pg 36, Martin’s summary)
This is a demand which goes to the extreme of labeling certain thoughts, feelings and actions as “sins” which really are not sins at all. Even human limitations, weaknesses, and imperfections are categorized as “sin,” and perhaps looked upon with condemnation. In other words, it is a demand for perfection. It is a kind of purity that is not reachable. It is a standard of purity, of rightness and wrongness, as defined by the leader (the ideological totalist). Every human being has a certain amount of guilt and shame that can be tapped into. At totalist leader can then exploit this guilt and shame:

To remind the subject of his limitations and weaknesses;

  • As a manipulative appeal to the subject to strive for the ultimate standard of good as the authoritative leader so defines it.
  • The result is a burden of man-made rules that come to be accepted as necessary for purity or perfection. But the rules are hard to bear and the goal is unattainable, resulting in undue guilt and shame. Hence, it is a system of legalism. The guilt and shame are used as emotional levers and serve to prod the member toward continuous reform. The subject keeps on striving painfully to meet the prevailing standard. But it is like being on a treadmill or pursuing the carrot on a stick. If the subject does not measure up to the standard or keep the rules, he is expected to expect (or willingly accept) punishment, humiliation, and ostracism.

Cult of 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. Even if not obviously promoted by the group, information is collected (usually automatically without set guidelines for collection) and fed to leadership. Shameful past events may then be exploited to manipulate individual compliance or as evidence for disciplinary actions. This information is also exploited by members who leave the group.

Vocal Self-Degradation (Pg 53, Martin’s summary)

This element is associated with the previous element, the Demand for Purity. The Cult of Confession is a mode of open confession in front of the leader and is often in front of the group. It is intended to expose and rid the member of those impurities that the group so labels. What it amounts to, however, is open self-degradation. This leads to the exploitation of the member’s vulnerabilities. Under normal and appropriate circumstances, personal confession is therapeutic. In this situation, however, certain actions, weaknesses, thoughts, and feelings are labeled as sinful and impure when, in fact, they are not. The member may even be pressured into confessing crimes that he or she has not committed.

A totalist group assumes to have a type of ownership of a person’s inner self. The member, consequently, views confession as a means of oneness with the group, and as a necessary means toward betterment of himself or herself. Fellow group members who confess as well may also take on the role of judges. Perpetual confession becomes a means of judging others: “the more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you,” thus taking on the identity of “judge-penitent.” The goal of the totalist leadership in the exposure process is to eliminate any confidentiality about personal matters. But the effect is actually quite the opposite and creates an inner conflict: the more one engages in self-exposure and self-degradation, the desire to maintain and protect personal secrets is intensified.
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. Many such leaders have patterns of avoiding accountability and aggression towards his critics. Leaders often have the appearance of accountability to a presbytery and an internal church government, but often the systems have been designed to avoid all accountability. Presbyters are often friends, associates or subordinates of the cult leader(s).

Thou Shalt Not Question (Pg 69, Martin’s summary)

The totalist environment maintains an aura of sacredness around its teachings and practices. Therefore, any doubts or questions about the system are prohibited. The prohibitions may be either clearly evident or subtly implied. The totalists look upon anyone who criticizes or disagrees with what’s happening or proposes alternative ideas as evil, irreverent, and even unscientific. Thus, they exalt the ideas of a human leader to the level of God. If an individual goes along with the teachings and practices, being caught up in the aura of sacredness can give a sense of comfort and security. This leads to a posture and unquestioning faith. But such a position of unquestioning faith. But such a position of unquestioning faith is not easy to sustain, especially if the member’s experiences and reality come more and more in conflict with what he is being told to believe. On the other hand, the “sacred science” can gain such a stronghold over the person mentally that if he begins to feel attracted to contradictory ideas or alternative ideas, he may feel guilt and fear. Consequently, his quest for truth and reality is hindered. (This actually contradicts the character of the genuinely scientific approach.)

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 end ideology of the group must be maintained by any means, even at the expense or suffering of the group members. Love for the system or ideology supersedes that of the people, places or lesser causes. This promotes hatred and intolerance of all opposing critics or ideologies.

Fitting the Rigid Mold (Pg 109, Martin’s summary)

  • Doctrine Over Person consists of fitting everything under the leader’s dominating control into a pre-conceived mold. This involves:
  • Human experience and the interpretation of those experiences.
  • Human feelings and the interpretation of those feelings.
  • Disregarding one’s feelings or sensitivities.
  • No appreciation of someone’s talents, individuality or creativity; the only goal is to fit everyone and their personalities into the dominating vie and influence of the one in control, opposing diversity and individual differences.
  • The rigidity of the doctrinal mold resists adaptation even when adaptation may prove to be best.

The rewriting of history to fit the system of the doctrinal mold.

Stating it another way, the controller reinterprets the personal feelings and experiences of the group members to fit his own dominating views and influence. He disregards and remolds past events, individual differences, and capabilities to fit his own preconceived mold. In essence, the controller rejects everything that does not fit into his preconceived mold or framework.

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. Within many Bible-based cults, a higher way of living or greater enlightenment may be obtained by striving and modeling the group’s ideals. If persons do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members or maybe viewed as lesser Christians. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility as the specialness of the group promotes a greater desire for milieu control and a sense of martyrdom. Those within the group who demonstrate non-conformity may also lose privileges or the status of enlightenment, a very potent method of negative reinforcement. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also. Even after leaving a group, the former member tends to have a sense of loss of grace and a programmed sense of shame. Leadership thus makes it difficult to leave such groups, and departure implies a rejection of the only true means of religious transcendence. Link here to “They told me when I left…”

The Elitists (Pg 138, Martin’s summary)

The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those who have a right to exist and those who do not. They claim that those outside their group have no right to exist, or at least say that those outside their group are inferior. The group thus has an arrogant and elitist mentality, considering themselves superior rather than having equal rights as other humans. Those who do not conform to their path of existence are targets of rejection or annihilation.

Summary and paraphrase of Dr. Lifton’s Thought Reform Criteria excerpted from Steven Martin’s The Heresy of Mind Control” available for download at Recognize (Please be generous.)

Adapted by C. Kunsman from Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, 1989