How Normal People Are Turned Into True Believers

Could You Join a Cult?

You’ve likely never worried about inadvertently joining a cult. “Only whack-o’s join cults,” and, “I could never be like that …”

Of course, to be sure, who could be like that? The notion you might abandon your sense of self, adopt a doctrine of unquestionable beliefs, and in the course, cut ties with friends and family to become a card-carrying, kool-aid drinking cultist … It makes no sense. Cults are for crazy people.

Except that doesn’t seem quite right—the math doesn’t check out. So what’s going on?

What if cults take normal people—that is, as normal as any of us are—and upend how we understand the world. What if they do it slowly, methodically—and without any magic, voodoo, or overt conspiracy? And in so doing, they change how individuals process reality, ultimately converting well-adjusted individuals into glossy-eyed true believers.

Maybe this could happen to you.

And maybe this is what makes cults so terrifying.

Our Systems of Meaning

Every day, folks depend on systems and frameworks to help them understand and deal with the world. Whether religious, cultural, academic, ad hoc, or philosophical, our systems of meaning help us make sense of reality as we see it. They shape how we see it. These systems of meaning are ideologies. And they are mostly helpful because they reduce complexity, eliminate uncertainty, and empower us to act.

Consider these common places you find ideologies:

  • Religions (Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu)
  • Political parties (Left, Right, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian)
  • Groups, teams, or organizations (Your team at work, fraternity/sorority, fantasy football league
  • Family
  • … Even fitness groups and diets (Crossfit is an easy target, but consider Keto, Carnivore, Paleo and many others)

Ideologies are everywhere. You adhere to number of ideologies right now—whether you could articulate them or not.

And so long as our ideologies allow for some flexibility and adaptability, they tend to do a good job helping us navigate uncertainty.

But sometimes ideologies go rogue, taking on a life of their own, and shifting from helpful to harmful. They do this when they shift from being a way to make sense of the world to the way to make sense of the world.

This is where an ideology can become a cult. All it takes is for an enthusiastic group to develop and evangelize the ideology.

Indeed, the shift from useful ideology to harmful cult could be as simple as combining two things:

  1. A group of well-intentioned people
  2. A totalist/dogmatic ideology

And if “that’s it,” it’s easy to see how a fairly innocuous ideology might become a harmful, cancerous cult. Enthusiastic confidence and a group of people. So while no one ever sets out to join a cult, maybe they do unintentionally—or with the best intentions.

So maybe it could happen to you. What if it already has? How would you know it, and what would be the signs?

The Bible on Brainwashing

In 1953, American psychologist Robert Jay Lifton set about studying victims of brainwashing.

Lifton interviewed 25 U.S. servicemen who were held captive during the Korean War. These individuals were subjected to what we call “brainwashing.” Lifton also interviewed 15 Chinese individuals who had been subjected to indoctrination in China.

In 1961, drawing from his research, Lifton published Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China (wiki), a detailed account of these victims of brainwashing.

Milieu — a person’s social environment

Milieu factors heavily in understanding how thought reform works.

Most helpfully in Thought Reform, Lifton put to paper the 8 psychological themes he found pervasive in “thought reform milieu” in a chapter titled “Ideological Totalism.”

  1. Milieu Control
  2. Mystical Manipulation
  3. The Demand for Purity
  4. Cult of Confession
  5. “Sacred Science”
  6. Loading the Language
  7. Doctrine Over Person
  8. Dispensing of Existence

Understanding these 8 themes will raise your awareness of how cults—and groups of all types—push ideologies, indoctrinating individuals into rigid, dogmatic ideologues.

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China by Robert Jay Lifton

Robert Lifton’s 8 Psychological Themes of Thought Reform—i.e. Brainwashing

Before we dive into the 8 ways ordinary people turn into idealogues, note that Lifton uses the word “totalist” to mean a self-containing group with an all-encompassing ideology at it’s core. For ease, just substitute “cult” if it helps with context.

1. Milieu Control

“Milieu” is your social environment. As it pertains to thought reform, brainwashing or indoctrination, you can think of “Milieu Control” as controlling information. Here’s Lifton:

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 or writes, experiences, and expresses), but also—in its penetration of his inner life—over what we may speak of as his communication with himself.

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

Imagine you’re a leader in a cult. You know the absolute truth so you take measures to ensure that no information can be shared or discussed that contradicts that truth. This is Milieu Control. A cult leader sees it as their duty to “create an environment containing no more and no less than this ‘truth.'”

You’re probably thinking about North Korea. Certainly images of George Orwell’s 1984 come to mind. China’s control over the Internet is another great modern example of Milieu Control performed at scale.

Of course, Milieu Control need not be so obvious. Any active filtering of information works to control your perception of reality. Consider how we are bombarded with information today and rely on active filters to manage the information we consume.

Put differently, perhaps Milieu Control can be accomplished without us moving in to a walled off complex with no Internet.

2. Mystical Manipulation

On the face, Mystical Manipulation is the kind of thing you’d readily associate with a cult. It’s the conjuring of acts that appear supernatural.

Initiated from above, [Mystical Manipulation] seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

Compare Mystical Manipulation to how a magician creates an illusion. The magician arranges events in such a way to fool the audience into believing something truly impossible has occurred. The audience is amazed and everyone gets a great show.

The difference with cult or totalist ideology, of course, is that the group isn’t “in” on the knowledge that it’s just a show.

The guru Sai Baba

For an example of Mystical Manipulation, consider the guru Sai Baba. Sai Baba would arrange for the space before his throne to be electrified so that followers who came to visit him would get a tingling sensation when kneeling before him ( It’s easy to see how this would create quite a lasting impression for a follower who is already primed to believe.

Or consider this recent video of a display of Mystical Manipulation—a man is acting like a possessed demon being exorcised. While you might think it’s obviously fake, the audience has a different context—one primed to believe:

While Mystical Manipulation in a cult takes on the look of a con, it need not be so manipulative or deceptive.

Consider, for example, any “before and after” comparison in which a significant amount of change has occurred between the two points of comparison. Pairing before and after visualizations with a simple, compelling story built around a product, program, or behavior is incredibly persuasive. It’s also prone to abuse and could be seen as a form of Mystical Manipulation.

To be sure, before and after stories are in no way as nefarious as electrocuting someone. Even so, the effect is undeniably similar, and we are highly susceptible to these kinds of manipulations. Particularly if we want to believe.

For what might be the most widely adopted example of Mystical Manipulation in the United States, look no further than Santa Claus.

… And on Christmas Day, suddenly boys and girls awake to presents from a magical omniscient being who can come down the chimney. Meet Mystical Manipulation.

Kids are told the story and parents uniformly arrange reality to confirm the beliefs via filled stockings and presents from Santa on Christmas morning.

3. Demand for Purity

The Demand for Purity is a natural extension of simplifying the world into black and white, right or wrong, “the pure and the impure.”

In the thought reform milieu, as in all situations of ideological totalism, the 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 judgments. All “taints” and “poisons” which contribute to the existing state of impurity must be searched out and eliminated.

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

Of all 8 criteria, the Demand for Purity is the most powerful and frightening. It can be used to justify horrifying atrocities—look no further than Communist Russia or Nazi Germany. Anything is acceptable so long as its done consistently with the ideology.

How does the Demand for Purity command such power? Simplifying the world’s complexity gives a believer certainty in their decisions and confidence in their judgments. Everything is knowable. Conclusions are there to be drawn.

As Lifton shares, “anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral.”

Of course, the sword cuts both ways. The Demand for Purity is also absolutely controlling. Just as it can be used to damn the external world, it can also be used against the “impure” tenant within the cult.

As a result, group members mercilessly chastise themselves and others for anything less than perfection. The result is a life of, as Lifton puts it, “continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition.”

This pursuit of purity creates what Lifton terms a “guilty milieu” and a “shaming milieu.” Here’s Lifton on these dynamics play out:

Since each man’s impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment—which results in a relationship of guilt with his environment. Similarly, when he fails to meet the prevailing standards in casting out such impurities, he is expected to expect humiliation and ostracism—thus establishing a relationship of shame with his milieu. Moreover, the sense of guilt and the sense of shame become highly-valued: they are preferred forms of communication, objects of public competition, and the basis for eventual bonds between the individual and his totalist accusers.

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

Shame for when you inevitably fail to meet expected perfection. Guilt for holding impure thoughts and private transgressions. An impossible, inhuman standard that is expected and used as a weapon of control even as it binds together the group members in their shame and guilt.

You have to imagine how this plays out to fully understand it’s sinister nature. The Demand for Purity’s exacting expectations of perfection mean group members are chronically at risk of failure. Thus when failure inevitably occurs, the “sinner” feels immense guilt and shame—but alas, the group holds the keys to salvation through the ability to forgive! This cycle, in turn, serves to reinforce the bond to the group (More on this in The Cult of Confession).

Another effect of The Demand for Purity is in how it distances the individual from the outside world. Here Lifton writes:

The individual thus comes to apply the same totalist polarization of good and evil to his judgments of his own character: he tends to imbue certain aspects of himself with excessive virtue, and condemn even more excessively other personal qualities—all according to their ideological standing. He must also look upon his impurities as originating from outside influences—that is, from the ever-threatening world beyond the closed, totalist ken. Therefore, one of his best way to relieve himself of some of his burden of guilt is to denounce, continuously and hostilely, these same outside influences. The more guilty he feels, the greater his hatred, and the more threatening they seem.

… Moreover, once an individual person has experienced the totalist polarization of good and evil, he has great difficulty in regaining a more balanced inner sensitivity to the complexities of human morality. For there is no emotional bondage greater than that of the man whose entire guilt potential—neurotic and existential—has become the property of ideological totalists.

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

The Demand for Purity demonstrates the danger of relinquishing your moral compass—your sense of right and wrong—to outside forces. When you allow an external force to determine your sense of worth, you give up individual agency and become the “property of ideological totalists.”

Fondazione Cariplo – Molteni Giuseppe, La confessione

4. Cult of Confession

The Cult of Confession—confession either to the group or to leaders within it—is a natural outcome of the Demand for Purity.

Private ownership of the mind and its products—of imagination or of memory—becomes highly immoral.

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

By confessing one’s transgressions, a member simultaneously purges their impurities while reasserting their commitment to the ideology. This is a powerfully influential combination. Confession of one’s sins acts as cathartic relief for the confessor and a renewed commitment to the group ideology and dependency on the group members. In this way, confession becomes a critical path to “oneness” within the group.

A fascinating implication of the Cult of Confession is the inevitable dynamic and conflict between public knowledge—that which has been confessed to the group—and private secrets. As public confession becomes expected, confession becomes an act of public display rather than a candid exposure of the self. In this way, “Each man becomes concerned with the effectiveness of his personal performance, and this performance sometimes comes to serve the function of evading the very emotions and ideas about which one feels most guilty.” This dual existence results in the following dynamic:

The difficulty, of course, lies in the inevitable confusion which takes place between the actor’s method and his separate personal reality, between the performer and the “real me.” In this sense, the cult of confession has effects quite the reverse of its ideal of total exposure: rather than eliminating personal secrets, it increases and intensifies them.

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

As Lifton writes, “The cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility.” What he means by this is that the act of confessions imbues the confessor with power to sit in judgment of others who in turn must also confess while you, the judge, are also the sinner.

In this way, the Cult of Confession makes every member “judge-penitent.” Each is both master of all and slave to all, creating a vicious, self-loathing race to the bottom.

5. “Sacred Science”

Here, Lifton gets to the heart of every ideology. While every ideology makes assertions of truth, for cults, the ideological assertions are the truth. Truth is known and beyond dispute … it is, in effect “Science.”

The totalist 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 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.”

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

Sacred Science has a lot in common with the concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when an individual is considering two ideas to be true but the two ideas contradict one another. This dissonance creates an urgent need to reconcile the inconsistency and resolve the conflict.

Resolving—or outright avoiding—cognitive dissonance is something we do all the time. It is how we save ourselves from being uncertain all the time. Indeed, you might argue that ideologies serve to help us codify the avoidance of cognitive dissonance.

For cults, cognitive dissonance is a relentless force that constantly calls into question the ideology. As a result, elevating the ideology to that of a “Sacred Science” becomes intoxicating. Never feel the pain of dissonance again.

The tells for Sacred Science are that certain ideas or beliefs are beyond dispute. Any attempt to question these beliefs is interpreted as an act of aggression that can be met with violence, if needed.

6. Loading the Language

What better way to control thought than to control language? Words are the currency of ideas. When you set the meaning of words used by others, you denominate how they think.

Lifton saw language as a critical theme of thought control. Specifically, totalist ideologies and cults rely on catchphrases and words that compress abstract arguments into pithy, influential phrases—what Lifton called the “thought terminating cliché:”

The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

… 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: in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, “the language of nonthought.”

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

To be sure, language is always and inescapably loaded with meaning, no cult or totalist ideology required.

There are 3 “tells” for loaded language:

  1. Look for repetition. With cults, words and phrases become clichés.
  2. Look for judgment. Clichés have a persuasive slant and are weapons of influence. They end arguments. Hence, “thought terminating.”
  3. Look for exclusivity. The group/cult/movement “owns” the words and phrases. Outsiders have no power to refute the meaning or the underlying assumptions.

Repetition, judgment, and exclusivity work together to monopolize thought. More, using loaded language reinforces commitment to the underlying assumptions and arguments. That is, as you use loaded language, you implicitly agree with the abstract concepts behind the words.

“Loading the Language” is such a persuasive tactic, it’s used all the time and need not be limited to the domain of totalist ideologies and cults. What’s useful here is to spot its use, call it out, and have a real exchange of ideas, if possible.

7. Doctrine Over Person

“Doctrine Over Person” can be thought of as rewriting history—either the history of the group or the actual experiences of individuals within it. Lifton writes:

… past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic. This alteration becomes especially malignant when its distortions are imposed upon individual memory as occurred in the false confession extracted during thought reform.

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

Doctrine Over Person as outward pressure to re-imagine events in such a way that they conform to the ideology. Often this can be as simple as reinterpreting events through the frame of the ideology.

As someone who grew up in the Christian faith (Not suggesting Christianity is a cult, mind you, but it certainly is an ideology), I saw this play out over and over again in a very specific way. That is, when very bad things happened, they were first understood as part of “God’s plan” … with the added assumption that “God works in mysterious ways.”

Apart from religion, totalist States employ Doctrine Over Person by blaming the shortcomings of the State on outside influences.

Doctrine Over Person is most sinister at the level of the individual. When individual experience fail to fit neatly within the bounds of the ideology, the individual must remold their experience. They must re-imagine their own history so that it fits the belief system—an activity that will assuredly be encouraged or even demanded by the totalist group. E.g. “You didn’t actually experience [whatever], you are just misremembering … ” or “Once you have a better understanding of the ideology, you’ll see what was really happening …”

Questioning one’s own experience, of course, serves the highest goal of the group, which is the complete subordination of one’s existence to the ideology.

Human sacrifice before Tohil, the ultimate form of dispensing of existence.

8. Dispensing of Existence

Dispensing of Existence is the end-game for totalist ideologies. Put simply, it’s the ultimate realization of “You are either with us or against us.”

Totalist ideologies aren’t ambivalent about outsiders. Outsiders are insubordinate. Outsiders question the language, propose ideas that oppose the doctrine, and refuse to conform to the rigidity of the ideology. Outsiders are threats. As such, outsiders must be shut down … or eradicated.

Really, there’s no way around it. For a totalist ideology, you either abdicate control over your life and give yourself wholly over to the group—itself a suicide of thought—or be damned by the group, a non-person. And as a non-person someone justifiably robbed of life and liberty.

Totalism is a Matter of Degree

Lifton concludes his exposition of the 8 criteria for thought reform by pointing out that no group ever acheives ideological totalism. And this is a crucial point. The 8 criteria exist in degree and being aware of them is a crucial step to preventing their negative effects.

Most importantly, it was Lifton’s conclusion that it’s our nature to gravitate toward totalist ideologies—that it exists in all of us:

What is the source of ideological totalism? How do these extremist emotional patterns originate? These questions raise the most crucial and the most difficult of human problems. Behind ideological totalism lies the ever-present human quest for the omnipotent guide—for the supernatural force, political party, philosophical ideas, great leader, or precise science—that will bring ultimate solidarity to all men and eliminate the terror of death and nothingness.

— Robert Lifton, Thought Reform

Have you seen the symptoms of ideological totalism or thought reform? If you have, please share in the comments below. Going forward I want to follow up this post with an exploration of how Lifton’s criteria may be manifesting themselves in our current day-to-day American life.

Stay tuned — and follow me on @justinowings.

One reply on “How Normal People Are Turned Into True Believers”

Dear friends,

I came across this post and loved it very much. Taking advantage of Justin’s study above, I‘d like to warn English speaking people who are seeking for spirituality or self-growth about one very dangerous Russian false guru, a leader of destructive cult who has recently launched in the U.S. to seek for his new preys. His name is Dmitry Raevsky.
He presents himself as an experienced mentor and a highly successful spiritual coach, but in reality, he is a very malicious false teacher.

We (my friends and I) have crafted a warning announcement in English and posted it on different resources to increase American public’s awareness of this deceiver.
Moreover, in the aftermath of leaving the cult we created an elaborated research on the activities of this false teacher (In Russian)

We feel that this is our personal duty and commitment to rescue innocent people from being lured by this counterfeiter and “spiritual” scammer.

Here is a link to the article:

Most sincerely,

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