2012 Paul R. Martin Lecture - Thought Reform 

ICSA Today, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2014, 10-13

2012 Paul R. Martin Lecture: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Breaking Away From Totalism

Ron Burks

I make no apology for the blatant plagiarism in the title of this lecture. I am going to attempt to combine two areas near to the heart of Paul Martin’s life and work. The first is, of course, recovery from the psychological effects of thought reform. One of Paul’s most significant contributions to this field was to turn Robert Lifton’s academic discourse into an accessible tool to help former cult members. 

The second is an area in which I’m not aware Paul made any public presentations: the moral and philosophical necessity of freedom. That cults deprive members of basic freedom was of great significance to Paul for two reasons: First, he could personally identify because it happened to him; and second, freedom was pivotal to his view of a moral universe.

Indoctrination and the Loss of Freedom

Cults take away freedom and then attack those who work to help their victims get it back. A quote from Abraham Lincoln seems appropriate:

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among human creatures. (Roe, 1907, p. 220)

ICSA sees the harms cults perpetrate as human-rights violations. Cults and their proponents see activities of those of us in this field as sometimes violating their right to religious freedom: “the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”

Paul Martin would have disagreed with some of his politics but would have agreed with Noam Chomsky when Chomsky said, “For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination” (Otero, 2005, p. 212). The purpose of indoctrination in cults is, in essence, to convince inductees that what they are gaining is far more important than what they are losing. All cultic indoctrination is an attempt to make inductees comfortable exchanging the freedom to think for themselves for the group’s “ultimate truth.”

Lifton, Margaret Singer, and others were asked by the military intelligence community to interview former prisoners of war after the Korean conflict. Lifton detected similarities between the prisoners’ stories of interrogation and the stories of those who escaped to Hong Kong after having served sentences in the forced-labor camps where their “counterrevolutionary thoughts” were “reformed.” In both sets of stories, Lifton identified processes that seemed unique to Asian interrogation. Ironically, it was an American reporter, not Lifton, who first used the term brainwashing in the media. The reporter simply looked up the Chinese words reform and thoughts in his Chinese-English dictionary, took the first English meanings he saw, wash and brain, and a Hollywood phenomenon was born. Lifton never used the term, and the two words were never used together in public discourse in China after the Cultural Revolution.

Thought Reform

My view of Lifton’s work is based on Paul’s, as you might suspect. Paul never shied away from modifying or adding to Lifton’s work as he observed in the clients he treated the methods and psychological effects of the eight processes Lifton described. Neither have I. My view has been colored and textured by more than four hundred stories, including my own, about being drawn into a cultic group—all resulting in captivity and varying only by degree, not kind. Today, I use some of these insights in my work with substance abusers who suffer from an eerily similar kind of captivity, one of which they are not usually fully aware at the beginning of treatment.

As former members of cults hear these processes described, they are able to identify in their experiences specifically what happened to them and how they came to feel and think the way they do. What is more, they now have names for what happened and the assurance that, if the processes have names, they must have been experienced by many other people. Former members are able to normalize a phenomenon with which few other people can identify.

Thought reform is the process of making an intelligent, thinking person into a virtual slave without the person knowing what has happened. The context of all thought reform is a differential in power or worth between the indoctrinator and the inductee. There are many ways this differential is established in cults; but power differential, either conscious or unconscious, is the foundation of thought reform. Thought reform in the model Robert Lifton proposed involves eight processes (italicized in the following paragraphs) that, together, have the effect of controlling three aspects of human experience that are central to the notion of freedom: thinking, feeling, and conscience.

Controlling Thinking. Once a power differential has been established, two of Lifton’s criteria, Sacred Science and Loading the Language, work together to undermine inductees’ ability to think critically, or outside the box created by the group.

The teaching and views of the group and its leader have a sense of sacredness not to be challenged by mere mortals. The means by which logic may, and may not, be applied to certain group beliefs are controlled by the leader. The sacred science enables the group to inactivate in inductees the ability to distinguish association from causation. If the group prescribes a certain ritual that is supposed to affect some other events or persons, there are three scenarios, and all serve the needs of the leader. If the expected outcome occurs, the sacred science of the group is proved. Association is causation. If the outcome doesn’t occur, it was because the followers did the ritual incorrectly, or with improper inner attitude, again proving sacred science is true by associating the “incorrect” practice as the cause of the improper outcome. If the leader is performing the ritual and a negative outcome occurs, it is due to a “hole in the pipe” somewhere, proving that the followers were not in a frame of mind to prevent such a travesty, and once again proving sacred science is true: The followers caused the negative outcome because of their shortcomings.

The group system or its leader also directs questions and thoughts into a prefabricated box by controlling or Loading the Language used in the group. Unfamiliar terms and familiar terms used in esoteric ways are often employed more for emotional effect than for logical content. Terms that are not familiar to the inductees are used to enhance the appearance of authority and uniqueness of the group. It is hard even to frame an individualized question when the only terms one has are jargon provided by the group.

Controlling Feelings. Emotional reactions are interpreted in the light of the group’s teaching, so that everything one feels deeply is connected to the system. All emotional highs and lows are related to one’s standing within the system and serve to provide an often mystical experience that proves the claims of the group are valid. This process is what Lifton calls Mystical Manipulation. When one does something that the group considers “right,” there is great appreciation, shown here as pumping up the inductee. When the group or its leader is unhappy with the follower, he may “pop the bubble,” bringing the follower down to size. Gradually, nearly all one’s emotional life as an inductee is based on one’s relationship to the group. Connection to the group just feels right.

Moral Reasoning: Redefining Right and Wrong. The victim’s moral compass is gradually reset to indicate that most things the victim does or says that oppose the system are bad, intrinsically evil, and generally unpopular with those who matter. Things that are done or said that support the system are by definition good, meaningful, and moral. There are no gray areas. All of life is divided into black and white categories. In addition, the goals of the group are presented as having cosmic or ultimate significance. Therefore, since so much is at stake, there is what Lifton calls the Demand for Purity. Absolute perfection is expected, and any deviation is unacceptable and must be confessed, usually in a prescribed way. This is Lifton’s cult, or proper way, of confession. Any inability to find something to confess is ignorance of the truth and should, itself, be confessed as failure to meet the standard. Under these conditions, balanced, thoughtful views are not to be tolerated because those who hold them do not understand the eternal significance of what the group is doing.

Creating a State of Distraction. Thinking, feeling, and moral reasoning tend to remain distracted in an absence of outside data. It is believed that outside ideas and opinions are held by persons without special knowledge or revelation and, as such, represent a threat to the sanctity and peace of members. All members should protect themselves from this threat by being cut off in some way from direct, unmediated contact with the outside world. In Lifton’s terms, the milieu or surroundings of the inductee are controlled. Milieu Control may be physical, as in living in a remote compound, or functional, as in frequently moving so that inductees interact only with other members. Milieu control removes the “reality check,” the input that disinterested third parties may provide. Outsiders are referred to by mildly derogatory terms such as “the unenlightened,” “the worldly,” or “enemies of God.”

Thinking, feeling, and moral reasoning are three basic aspects of our humanity that in large part enable us to know who we are and how we are related to others. These facets enable us to find meaning in our lives. In a thought-reform system, the group is defining who we are.

Redefining the Self. The teaching or philosophy of the group or the opinions of the leader gradually subvert the thinking and observations of the victims, who now regard the group’s philosophy as higher than their own perceptions of reality. This is Lifton’s Doctrine Over Person. Members’ allegiance to the group’s philosophy makes them unable to hear or respond to any reasoning against that philosophy.

The victims of thought reform gradually realize that any resistance to prescribed beliefs will result in banishment from the group and in some form of cosmic or eternal consequences far beyond that. Fortunately for the victims, dedication to the group’s teaching and loyalty to its leadership confirm their right to exist. The group’s ability to determine the victims’ right to exist is what Lifton calls Dispensing of Existence. Connection with the group now has the urgency of a survival need. Thought-reform victims perceive that the price to be paid for being wrong is so high that they will not make a choice without consulting another member of the group.

Followers live in an alternate reality, complete with its own rules, incentives, taboos, responsibilities, punishments, and rewards. This reality may be hard, but it is always on the edge of the ultimate, “the spiritual Marines,” the “remnant,” the agape force, the forever family. Heady stuff, until they discover that the emperor has no clothes, there is a man behind the curtain, and there is no great and powerful Oz, because it was all a lie.

Getting Out Is Not Enough

Intervention, whether external or internal, usually involves a breakdown of the milieu control, which allows outside ideas and perceptions to provide a reality check to inductees. In retrospect for some former members, their joining a cultic group seems like a bad life decision that didn’t affect their lives in major ways. But for others, their joining a cult destroyed a family, or prevented the former members from forming a family or stopped them from following the dream of a career that would have given life meaning. For these victims, the feeling of failure is excruciating. Fear of starting over is palpable. Restarting life after a cult is terrifying for those who believe they brought all this meaningless suffering on themselves. The depression and guilt can be debilitating.

Paul’s gift to those he treated and to those of us he mentored was to show how cultic leaders use inductees’ best qualities against them, to convince them to give up all for a cause that is based on a lie. When thought-reform victims recognize what was done to them and how it was done, they can see that, regardless of the original intentions of the leader, it was usually done selfishly, for the leader’s personal aggrandizement. At that point, their recovery begins with a healthy anger, followed by a realistic measure of humility. The former members begin a journey into taking accurate responsibility for what they may have done to others, and into holding leaders accountable for what was done to them.

The Downside of Freedom

Aldus Huxley said “a man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes” (Lippmann, 2009, p. 6). Freedom for former members often starts well enough. There are questions and the wrong answers from leadership, doubts about doubts, deciding to decide to leave. Some have to make terrible choices: “I know I’m going to hell for leaving, but I couldn’t stay either.” For second-generation members (SGAs), if family is still in the group, the isolation and lack of support are excruciating.

Even with the affirmation of family and friends, the sweet rebellion, the joy of not complying, the first trip to the mall without witnessing eventually give way to the Rip Van Winkle effect: “So what is this Twitter thing again?” Reality sets in: You’re 43 and all you have done since you were recruited at age 18 was clean carpets. You never finished your freshman year because “God called you.” The last time you applied for a job there was an application packet and a receptionist. Now there’s just a kiosk and a keyboard, or, more often, just a website.

Freedom after a cult can be a lonely, confusing, and discouraging experience. Thinking they’re free, former members without treatment can find themselves in less restrictive but still controlling situations or relationships. “Hey, having to give 20% of your income is way better than the group we were in where we had to turn in our paychecks and get an allowance for underwear and toothpaste.”

Indeed, some former members who realize that their leader was a fraud and the group abusive, and who have been out of the group for years, may still demonstrate some attachment to the mindset of the group by wishing for the “good old days before things got bad.” Former members frequently avoid exercising their freedom because of the challenges freedom brings after a cult experience: anxiety, boredom, loss of a sense of purpose and meaning. Worse yet, for many, life loses its context.

A useful anecdote from one of my military friends tells the tale:

A young airman was leaving the Air Force. His crusty staff sergeant warned the young airman, “Listen to me; you need to reenlist.”

“No, Sarge; I’m sick and tired of the military telling me what to do all the time.”

His face now pale, the sergeant warned again, “You don’t understand; you need to reenlist”; and with a slight tremor in his voice, “there’s nobody in charge out there.”

Freedom can be daunting, which is why subjection to the will and whims of another can be tempting. But by living an unexamined life based on a single perspective, followers become slaves to that perspective. They get used to not being wrong. They give up something others are willing to die to achieve—freedom. They are deceived into trading their autonomy for what they are told is a noble cause that makes them part of a special elite, and for the security that comes with perspective that permits no uncertainty.


Someone once asked Margaret Singer, “How will I know who I am, now that the cult is not there to tell me?” She admitted that was a philosophical question and she was a psychologist. But then, in a burst of insight, she added, “By the choices you make.” She echoes Simon Weill, who said, “Liberty, taking the word in its concrete sense, consists in the ability to choose” (Weil, 2005, p. 11).

Learning to make choices is the antidote to thought reform, the foundation for finding purpose and meaning, and a new life context. The problem is that with choice often comes uncertainty. If we are sure about which way is the right way, we don’t need choice. Freedom implies living with uncertainty, the uncertainty of facing choices, small and large, every day of our lives. Former members have a greatly diminished capacity to choose, due to the nature of thought reform. For the most part, former members have been conditioned to look at choosing, exercising their own judgment, as willfulness, a spiritually fatal vice. And they have not been able to exercise their mental abilities, which languish from disuse.

Choosing is hard and sometimes risky work. Every time we make a choice, we could have made a different choice and borne the consequences. Freedom of choice means we have the opportunity to screw up.

Emancipation: A Welcome Discomfort

After the cult, good choices are the ones I make because to me, they are reasonable, they make sense in the short and long run, and they are desirable, to me. Freedom of choice takes research. It takes self-knowledge. Research and self-knowledge are messy. Facts only go so far, then I have to know what I like.

The yearning for certainty is one reason people are attracted to cultic belief systems. But as so many philosophers have said, by accepting someone else’s certainty, we give up what makes us human beings, our freedom of thought, our freedom to become who we, and only we, are.


Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Lippmann, Walter. (2009). A preface to morals (7th edition). Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Otero, C. P. (Ed.). (2003). Chomsky on democracy and education, New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Roe, Merwin. (Ed.). (1907). Speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln. London, England: J. M. Dent and Sons.

Weil, Simone. (2005). The need for roots: Prelude to a declaration of duties towards mankind. London, England: Taylor & Francis.

About the Author

Ron Burks, PhD, holds an MDiv and an MA in counseling from Asbury Theological Seminary and a PhD in Counselor Education from Ohio University. He worked for many years at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio. He and his wife Vicki wrote Damaged Disciples: Casualties of Authoritarian Churches and the Shepherding Movement, published by Zondervan. He and Vicki now live near Tallahassee, Florida where both are licensed mental-health counselors.