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Understanding ‘Thought Reform’ and Indoctrination as Tools for Mind Control and Brainwashing

We often see attempts to manipulate, indoctrinate and gaslight people who are in dysfunctional families/groups, cults as well as by political activists/extremists. Their goal is to control and even change other people’s beliefs and behavior using propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news”. Technology such as social media and memes have made this type of manipulation even easier. One of the earliest attempts to study social and political mind control and brainwashing was done by Robert Lifton.

Robert Jay Lifton is an American psychiatrist who studied the psychological causes of war and political violence. He also publicized the communist theory of ‘Thought Reform’ in his book "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing in China" in which he describes coercive psychological techniques used by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).

During the Korean War, Lifton interviewed a number American military prisoners of war (POWs). In addition, he interviewed priests, students and teachers who had been held in prisons in China. He also interviewed people who had fled the PRC after having been subjected to indoctrination in Chinese universities. Lifton identified the tactics used by the Chinese communists to cause drastic shifts in one's beliefs and personality as well as "brainwashing" American soldiers into making false confessions and claims.

Lifton outlines the "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform" used to control beliefs and behavior:

  1. Milieu Control. This involves controlling the information and communications of the person, resulting in significant isolation from mainstream political and social beliefs. Characteristics of Milieu Control include:

    1. Attempts to control all allowable communication and information within a group and by individuals.

    2. Only ideologically approved information sources are allowed to be used.

    3. Requires attendance at events, such as seminars, lectures, workshops, and group encounters, which become increasingly intense and increasingly isolated. It is often extremely difficult to leave the situation.

    4. Promotes a sense of antagonism with the outside world. It's "us against them"

  2. Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of information that appears to give the group or its leaders a divine authority, spiritual advancement, or insight that sets them apart from non-believers. It encourages a reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences to reflect its ideology and beliefs. Characteristics of Mystical Manipulation include:

    1. Extensive use of personal manipulation

    2. Seeks to promote specific patterns of "acceptable" behavior and emotions

    3. Tries to change or revise commonly accepted history to support its ideology or goals

    4. Legitimizes the deception used to recruit new members and/or raise funds, and the deception used on outsiders

  3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black or white with no shades of gray. The members are constantly required to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for ideological perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here, especially for people who are insufficiently ideological in their beliefs. Characteristics of Demand for Purity include:

    1. The world becomes sharply divided into the absolutely good (the group/ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group)

    2. One must continually change or conform to the group "norm"

    3. The use of guilt and shame are used as emotional manipulators within the group

    4. Ties in with the process of confession -- one must confess when one is not conforming to the approved beliefs and behavior

  4. Confession. Sins, such as questing the ideology or beliefs of the group, must be publicly confessed. There is no confidentiality; members' "sins," "attitudes," and "faults" are discussed and exploited by the leaders. You are expected to confess to the sins of your family, your relationships, race, class, gender, etc. and take responsible for their historical (real or otherwise) failings. Characteristics of Confession include:

    1. Sessions in which one confesses to one's sin are accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism

    2. Often a person will confess to lesser sins while holding on to other secrets (often criticisms/questions/doubts about the group or its ideology)

  5. 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. Criticism of the ideology is not permitted and may result in stigmatization, punishment and even violence. Characteristics of Sacred Science include:

    1. The complete sacredness around its basic doctrine or ideology

    2. Questioning or criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited

    3. A reverence is demanded for the ideology/doctrine, the originators of the ideology/ doctrine, the present bearers of the ideology/doctrine

    4. Offers considerable security to young people because it greatly simplifies the world and provides a set of dogmatic beliefs with a claim to a science about the truth of human behavior and human psychology

  6. Loading the Language. The group (re)interprets or uses standard words and phrases in non-traditional ways so as to confuse outsiders of their actual meaning. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking. It often involves emotional manipulation of the target audience. Characteristics of Loading the Language include:

    1. The ideological language is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche (e.g. language intended to stop any questioning of beliefs)

    2. Words are given new meanings that are very different from how the mainstream world uses these words or phrases. The goal is to get everyone to adopt the new meaning of these words

    3. Repeatedly using ideological jargon so the new meaning becomes normal and accepted both inside and outside of the group.

  7. Doctrine over person. Members' personal experiences are subordinated to the ideology. All contrary experiences are denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. Characteristics of Doctrine over person include:

    1. Every issue in one's life can be reduced to a single set of principles and beliefs that one can claim the is the only truth

    2. If a person questions the ideology of the group or the leaders of the group, then they are made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question the belief. It is always "turned around" on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly

    3. The underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual experience and one must subject their experience to the one "truth"

    4. One is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one's own evil

  8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the right and responsibility to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. Anyone outside the group's ideology must be punished, stigmatized, or excluded. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Anything outside of the ideology is not considered credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group ideology, must be rejected and even considered a threat. Characteristics of Dispensing of existence include:

    1. Since the group has an absolute understanding of truth, those who are not in the group are evil, are not enlightened, are not saved, and do not have the right to exist

    2. People outside the group may always receive their right of existence by joining the group

    3. Fear manipulation: If one leaves this group or loses their ideology, then something bad will happen to them

    4. The group is the "elite", outsiders are "of the world", "evil", "unenlightened", etc.

We often see these techniques in authoritarian societies like the PRC. But they are also found in other situations such as highly dysfunctional groups and families, cults, and terrorist organizations. These techniques are also very commonly used on social media and in real life (IRL) by political/social activists and extremists. Even ideological meetings and workshops often use these techniques to control the audience. If you see these activities and behaviors, then this should be a red flag that the people engaging in it likely do not have good intentions and may be trying to cause harm to the target audience!

If you start recognizing any of the "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform”, one effective approach is to question their behavior and claims being made. This may cause the people engaged in it to get very angry but ideally it may also get them to also question their own attitudes and actions and look at other perspectives around their beliefs. At the very least it may get other people to question the groups ideology and agenda.


Here are 13 Critical Thinking Questions for when confronting manipulative, ideological or highly questionable information and even conspiracy theories:

  1. HOW DO YOU KNOW THIS? Was the source of information reputable? How can you tell if the source is reliable?

  2. HOW WOULD YOUR PERSPECTIVE BE DIFFERENT IF YOU WERE ON THE OPPOSING SIDE? Have the person look at another opposing person’s viewpoint so they can better understand the broader situation. You can also anticipate your opposition's arguments in order to counter them using this technique

  3. HOW WOULD YOU SOLVE THIS PROBLEM? Do they have a solution to this problem? Have them describe it. How much will it cost? How long will it take to implement? If their ‘solution’ does not seem logical or realistic then call this out.

  4. DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE — AND WHY? Can they explain their beliefs in a logical & coherent manner?

  5. HOW COULD WE AVOID THIS PROBLEM IN THE FUTURE? How can they prevent a certain issue from reoccurring?

  6. WHY DOES IT MATTER? Why is the topic relevant today? What is the impact if we don’t follow their beliefs?

  7. WHAT'S ANOTHER WAY TO LOOK AT THIS ISSUE? Think of a creative alternate perspective to this issue. See what their response is to a different perspective.

  8. CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE? Give an example of this issue in the real world. If there is no example, then is it a real problem?

  9. HOW WILL WE BE ABLE TO TELL IF IT WORKED? What constitutes success and how it can be measured?

  10. WHY DID YOU ASK THAT QUESTION? What are the merits of the question being asked?

  11. WHO WOULD BE AFFECTED BY THIS? When making any decision, it's important to consider who will be impacted and how.

  12. WHAT CAN THIS STORY TEACH US ABOUT OUR OWN LIVES? Examine how it relates to people’s lives.

  13. WHY IS THIS A PROBLEM? Analyzing why something is a problem — rather than just accepting that it is.

If someone respond with anger or even hatred to basic Critical Thinking questions, then this is strong evidence that their beliefs are flawed or at least incomplete. If they can not see other perspectives on an issue, then it’s likely they wont be open to a balanced discussion.


The meta-model in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a heuristic set of questions designed to specify information as well as to challenge and expand a person's model/view of the world. It responds to the distortions, generalizations, and deletions in the speaker's language.

The meta-model uses grammar and semantics to translate a person’s mental states into words. There often is an unconscious process of deletion (not everything thought is said), distortion (assumptions and structural inaccuracies) and generalization (a shift towards absolute statements).

Using Meta-Model questions, it is possible to challenge these distortions, generalizations or deletions in the speaker's language. You can use the meta-model to question claims, beliefs or ideology of a person.

Distortion: The process of presenting information differently than how they were originally represented (e.g. describing an event differently than it actually occurred)

Presupposition, refers to an assumption whereby the truth is taken for granted.


  • "Do you want to do it again?"

  • Presupposition: I have done it already, at least once.

  • Challenge: "Have you done it before?"


  • "My family is as biased as the President."

  • Presuppositions: You have a family; the President is biased.

  • Challenge: "Am I to assume that your family is biased?"

Cause-effect: the inappropriate use of causal thinking (x means y, x makes me y, or x makes y happen). Causality always implies at least some relationship or dependency between the cause and the effect. For example, claiming something is a cause of something else unrelated without any evidence.

  • "Those people make me angry": Challenge: "If it weren't for those people, you would not be angry?"

  • "Thinking ‘that way’ means she does not care about me." Challenge: "How specifically, does her thinking ‘that way’ mean she does not care about you?"

Mind-reading violation occurs when someone claims to think they know what another person is thinking without verification.

  • "If he doesn't follow our rules, everybody is going to hate him." Challenge: "How do you know this? Has ‘everybody’ told you that they intend to hate him if he doesn't follow the rules?"

Lost Performative, makes reference to an action but the person who performed the action is unspecified.

  • "Her beliefs are highly respected" Challenge: "Highly respected by whom?" or "How do you know that?"

Generalization: The way a specific experience or example is presented to represent the whole of a situation

Nominalization occurs when a verb is transformed into a noun. A dynamic process (i.e. a verb) is transformed into something static (i.e. a noun). This is often used in biased & manipulative stories.

In English, some verbs and adjectives can be used directly as nouns, for example, change and good. Others require a suffix:

  • applicability (from applicable)

  • carelessness (from careless)

  • difficulty (from difficult)

  • failure (from fail)

  • intensity (from intense)

  • investigation (from investigate)

  • movement (from move)

  • reaction (from react)

  • refusal (from refuse)

  • swimming (from swim)

  • nominalization (from nominalize)


  • "The communication [from 'communicate'] in this source is biased." Challenge: "How could we communicate more effectively?"

  • "They need my decision [from 'decide'] by Monday." Challenge: "Have you decided yet?"

Universal quantifiers occurs when someone attempts to characterize an entire set (all people, every X, everyone, everything). This meta model question can be used when someone is generalizing too broadly.

  • "All people who believe differently than us are evil." Challenge: "All of them?" “Every single one?” or "Which people, specifically?"

Modal operators are intuitively characterized by expressing a belief, such as necessity (have to, must, should) or possibility (can, might, may) towards the proposition which it is applied to. (also called ‘wishful thinking’)

  • "I can't tolerate people who believe that." Challenge: "What would happen if you did tolerate them?"

  • “We must fix that problem by tomorrow” Challenge: “Why must the problem be fixed by tomorrow?”, “What happens if it can t be fixed by tomorrow?”, “Could it be fixed by next week instead?”

Complex equivalence draws an unrelated conclusion from an event to create a logic that "does not follow" (also called non sequitur)

  • "If we don’t make this change. The world will come to an end" Challenge: "Are you telling me the world depends on this one change?"

Deletion: Where relevant portions of the information or story are omitted

Unspecified Comparatives is when the starting point for the comparison is not stated. These comparisons are frequently found in advertising. For example, in typical assertions such as "our burgers have more flavor", "our picture tube is sharper" or "50% more", there is no mention of what it is they are comparing to. In some cases, the speaker or writer may have been deliberately vague in this regard, for example "Our groups is the best".

  • "We have the best solution to this problem." Challenge: "What were some of the other solutions?"

  • "Our people are the most tolerant" Challenge: "Tolerant, compared to what?"

Unspecified referential index, refers to the use of personal pronoun when the context is unknown, or cannot easily be understood. For example, uncontextualised use of ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘you’, ...

  • "They say I have to believe this or else I am a bad person." Challenge: "Who says you have to believe this?" "What are their names?”

  • "Yeah, I use to believe that before. It makes you say stupid things." Challenge: "Wait, it makes me say stupid things?"

  • "We are going to lose this election." Challenge: "By 'we', do you mean that you are part of the election?"


  1. “The Sciences says you must do XXX”

    1. “What science says this?” “Who has said this?” “Where/When was this said?”

    2. “What happens if I don’t do XXX?”

  2. “Those people must hate puppies or they would not believe that”

    1. “Why must they hate puppies?”

    2. “Which particular people are you referring to?”

    3. “Why can’t they believe that and not hate puppies?”

    4. “How do you know they must hate puppies?

    5. “Does everyone who believes that hate puppies?” “How do you know?”

  3. You have an obligation to fix the problem!”

    1. “Who said I have this obligation?”

    2. “What happens if I don’t fix the problem?”

    3. “Can the problem be fixed by someone else?”

    4. “Who caused the problem to begin with?”

Using Metamodel questions, you can challenge claims and information being presented to you. Its always possible that the speaker is unintentionally using imprecise language in their claims. In that case, they may appreciate you helping them clarifying their narrative. If they are trying to manipulate you then they may realize that you are a poor target for their (mis)information and move on.


People are always trying to influence us. Sometimes, however, they are also trying to manipulate us. In highly dysfunctional families, cults and very ideological groups, we often see the application of Thought Reform tactics used to control people’s beliefs and behavior. Sometimes these methods become tolerated because people are afraid to object to them. If you see these tactics being used, then its important to make a decision on whether you want to continue to associate with these people even knowing they are trying to manipulate you for their own purposes. In most situations, leaving the group may have the best results for you.

It’s also not uncommon for individuals to attempt to use these techniques for influencing or manipulation as well. You often see this in social media or memes where people will demand you accept a certain set of beliefs or conclusions. In these situations, you can generally use the Critical Thinking and Metamodel questions to better understand the persons intentions and agenda. If the person has good intentions, then they will see your questions as an opportunity to discuss their beliefs and goals. They will also be open to seeing the issue from other perspectives. If their intentions are about ideological manipulations and coercion, then they will probably respond hostilely to your questions. You may see insults, anger and even threats since these questions will force the person to confront the deficiencies in their ideology and beliefs. At this point the best solution is to walk away and recognize that you have run into their ideological rigidity.

Rich Benack is Clinical Hypnotherapist and Master NLP Practitioner. He is also a retired Military intelligence and Information Warfare officer. He works in cybersecurity and is currently doing research in social cybersecurity.


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