Robert Jay Lifton’s – 8 Criteria of Thought Reform

Final YouTube Lifton

In this video, Spike Robinson delivers an exceptional presentation about Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria of Thought Reform.

Beginning in 1953, Lifton interviewed American servicemen who had been prisoners of war (POWs) during the Korean War as well as priests and students or teachers who had been held in prison in China after 1951. In addition to interviews with 25 Americans and Europeans, Lifton interviewed 15 Chinese who had fled after having been subjected to indoctrination in Chinese universities.

Lifton’s 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, based on this research, was a study of coercive techniques used in the People’s Republic of China that he labelled “thought reform” or “brainwashing”, though he preferred the former term. The term “thought-terminating cliché” was popularized in this book. Lifton found that when the POWs returned to the United States their thinking soon returned to normal, contrary to the popular image of “brainwashing.” A 1989 reprint edition was published by University of North Carolina Press.

Date of Broadcast: 03/18/17 (Length 23:29)

Speakers: Lady Cee, JT, Spike Robinson (assistant editor of the Open Minds Foundation)

Relevant Information:


Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist who interviewed and gave therapy to American, European, and Chinese POWs held in thought reform camps in China during the Korean War.

  • His work is groundbreaking on the topics of mind control and brainwashing
  • Many soldiers signed outlandish false confessions during their internment
  • Lifton helped them to recover and forgive themselves for being manipulated and controlled. Their thinking returned to normal once they were away from the reform camps.

He wrote a book called, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism in 1960 based on his research. Chapter 22 is an in-depth section on thought reform and brainwashing.

  • Lifton detailed eight criteria for thought control.
  • Not all of the criteria are held in the same balance.
  • These criteria are used in any high control situation (cults, abusive relationship, ideological reform, etc.)


Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria of Thought Reform

  1. Milieu Control: we control what you experience and how you experience it
  2. Loading the Language: using strong wording beyond literal the meaning to provoke an emotional response, segregate insiders and outsiders through jargon, soften the connotations of unpleasant topics
  3. Mystical Manipulation: Exploiting natural, common phenomenon to provoke mystical, transcendent experiences that unsuspecting targets attribute to the thought reformers
  4. Sacred Science: thought reformers teaching their own truths and discounting any evidence that goes against their teachings
  5. Demand for Purity: Demanding a never-ending series of actions and prohibitions to qualify as worthy or pure
  6. Confession: Telling a thought reformer how you fell short of perfection and purity; while giving them very personal, intimate information which can later be used to punish and manipulate
  7. Doctrine Over Person: ([gaslighting/ facts don’t match the truth] being convinced that actual reality (as defined by the thought reformers) doesn’t actually match up with the reality you are experiencing
  8. Dispensing of Existence: the teaching that the unbeliever is not worth as much as the believer; the “truth” is more than life




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