Part 2 – Lifton’s Eight Principles

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
― George Orwell, 1984

In this part, I’ll give a detailed explanation of manipulative groups, what they look like and how they function, referencing Robert Jay Lifton’s 8 Criteria for Thought Reform. This is a list of eight methods used in conjunction with one another to directly influence the thoughts, beliefs, and emotions of individuals under the control or a person or group. These methods can be used within any group environment, whether it is a family, a religious community, an activist organization, a charity, a multi-level marketing scheme, a harem, or anything else you can imagine. When most or all of these traits are found in a group, it has become a space where members are not permitted freedom of thought.

These criteria are as follows:


Milieu Control incoming information is limited. members are forbidden to read certain material and communicate with certain individuals and groups, as well as forbidden from discussing certain topics among themselves
Mystical Manipulation behaviours and emotions are attributed to some kind of ‘higher power’ or otherwise given a mystical explanation
Demand For Purity the world is divided sharply into good and evil, and members are held to impossible standards to qualify as ‘good’, and made to feel guilty and ashamed when these standards are not reached
Confession members must confess to wrongdoings they never committed, or things they have done but which are only wrong or sinful in the eyes of the group
Sacred Science the group’s beliefs are always right. questioning or criticizing the group’s ideology is not allowed
Loaded Language the group uses its own language which is difficult for outsiders to understand. members are taught simple, reassuring phrases to dispel doubts
Doctrine Over Person when a person’s lived experiences do not conform to a group’s ideology, the person is considered to be the one in the wrong
Dispensing of Existence a member’s self-concept revolves around the group; without the group, their life would be meaningless


All of these techniques are used on group members to prime them for manipulation. Through the gradual erosion of one’s connection with the outside world, their ability to form their own original thoughts and opinions, and their sense of self worth and self importance, they are made more willing and able to do the group’s bidding, and less able to escape when other individuals within the group are abusing or harming them.


Milieu Control 

The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. 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.

Like all of these eight criteria, milieu control — meaning environmental control — in part seeks to alter the process by which group members form opinions. This is often achieved by using propaganda and lies to scare members away from alternative sources of information.

The best description I could find on a healthy opinion-forming process was actually this article on Wikihow, which outlines the following steps,

  • choose a subject
  • view the process of forming your opinion as an internal debate with yourself
  • learn about the subject from many different sources
  • talk to people with varying opinions on the subject
  • listen to other people debating and discussing the subject
  • find out what experts and professionals have to say about the subject
  • ask your friends what they think
  • understand and ignore media bias and sensationalism
  • use logic to analyse what other people have said

Under milieu control, where members are simply told what opinions are ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ and by the group and forbidden from exploring alternative views, the process is more like this,

  • choose a subject
  • consult other group members to understand the group’s stance on the issue
  • adopt that stance without question

It is only when an ideology is rooted in greed or hate, or fear or shame, that it must rely on milieu control. Someone who truly believes what they are saying, whose opinion is based on logic and facts, has no reason to manipulate other people into agreeing with them by limiting their exposure to other views. In healthy groups, we put forward our evidence and reasoning and counterarguments, and if someone ultimately is not convinced by us, we accept it and move on. We do not have to control what other people think.

In my opinion, there’s also an element of phobia-inducing(1) in milieu control. It’s a common practice for manipulative groups to convince their members that they are so naive and so vulnerable to believing anything they read that if they’re exposed to “bad” or “evil” sources of information, they will be convinced to become “bad” or “evil” themselves.

The reality of the situation, though, is that a person would only agree with every single thing they read or hear if they had been entirely stripped of their capacity for critical thought. If a group genuinely, honestly cared about protecting its members from misinformation or propaganda, they would encourage people to openly analyse and criticse absolutely every piece of information they come across — this is what anyone in a safe and healthy environment does by default. Instead, the group tells their members that their naivete should be dealt with not by learning to be critical, but by unquestioningly trusting and listening to the group, and closing themselves off from all other sources of information.

Another goal of milieu control that we are all familiar with is that which occurs within the context of an abusive relationship. It is a known tactic of abusers to convince the victim to cut contact with her own family and friends, using subtle manipulation or overt threats. For example,

“Your friend doesn’t approve of our relationship — if she cared about you, she’d be happy for us.


You have to choose between your mother and I. If you visit her this weekend, I’m leaving you.” 

The goal here threefold. The first is that, if it the case that the victim is prevented from hearing any negativity about her abuser, she will only be exposed to the idea that her relationship is healthy and acceptable, primarily put forward by the abuser himself. The second is that she will become reluctant to leave him: instead of being emotionally and financially supported by her family or her friends, all of her basic needs are instead met by her abuser. And third, if she ever does decide to leave him, having cut contact with everyone else in her life, who can she call for help?

As demonstrated by this example, milieu control doesn’t only apply to infringe on free thought. It also infringes on free will. Some groups control several different aspects of their member’s environment: for example, where they live and work, when they are allowed to sleep and for how long, what they are allowed to eat and how much, whether or not they are allowed to receive medical care, who they date and marry, when and how they have sex, and how many hours a day they must devote to certain activities. All of these restrictions serve to control the person’s thoughts and feelings as well as their behaviours. It’s hard to think coherently when you’re malnourished and exhausted; it’s hard to be opinionated when you’re surrounded by people who all follow the same ideology; and it’s hard to leave when you’re tied to a group by your home, your job, and even your spouse.


Mystical Manipulation

Initiated from above, it seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously, directed as it is by an ostensibly omniscient group, must assume, for the manipulated, a near-mystical quality.

Mystical manipulation can be used both to recruit new members, and to strengthen the belief of already existing members. This form of manipulation is used to convince members and recruits that all elements of their personal experience somehow relate to the ideology. Examples of this include:

  • A famous Scientology recruitment tactic is to administer a doctored ‘personality test’ which will always come back with results showing only extreme negative traits. When victims are shaken and upset by these false results, they are told that they would not have such deficient personalities if they attended Scientology-run courses.
  • Some religious groups might convince members that unfortunate but ordinary experiences from their past were actually orchestrated by a divine being, to lead them to eventually find the church.
  • Some groups might research new recruits online, and then present the information they learned in the form of a ‘vision’ or ‘dream’, to convince the recruit that they have psychic powers.
  • In religious groups, masturbation or extramarital sexual desire can be attributed to inherent sinfulness and weakness, inducing guilt and shame for having normal human bodily functions.
  • Various groups have denied medical care to their members, including children, declaring that their illness is actually as result of “impurity”. If the person remains ill or even dies, this is attributed to a lack of faith.
  • Some groups convince their members that random disasters like earthquakes and floods are actually occurring to punish sinners or out-group members in general. As a result, members receive the message that if they ever leave the group, they will be a victim of a similar tragedy.


Demand for Purity

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.

When a new member is introduced to a manipulative group, it is often with the promise that membership will offer them some kind of unique knowledge about the world that they would not have access to otherwise. But of course, they are never just given this knowledge outright. They have to earn it, either in personal study or reflection that will ultimately lead them to this realisation (ie, reading a series of books, meditating, taking courses); or, they must prove themselves to the keepers of this knowledge directly, by conforming to a certain lifestyle or performing certain tasks.

The key element of this demand for purity is that it is never possible to attain it. Group members are told that at some point, they’ll achieve holiness or enlightenment or nirvana or whatever terminology the group uses to describe this state, but this never happens. There’s always another book to read, another prayer to learn, another course to take, another six month secluded meditation trip to embark on, another task to complete before you’re pure enough.

During this time, a member is still considered an ‘acolyte’ of some kind. They might be given rewards and new responsibilities, they are not considered pure, enlightened, or “good”: meaning, they are still considered tainted, ignorant, and perhaps even “evil”. For this reason, they’re afforded no real control within the group environment, are still completely at the mercy of higher-ranking members of the group: ie. the members who decide what constitutes purity in the first place.

Because of the level of importance to which this notion of “purity” is held, lower-ranking group members may be harshly disciplined for any accident, and minor mistakes, like using a forbidden word or forgetting to partake in a ritual, are blown widely out of proportion and made out to be evidence of weakness or even corruption. High-ranking members, on the other hand, can get away with doing whatever they want, including actively abusing other, lower-ranking group members. Low-ranking members have to put constant effort into trying to attain purity; high-ranking members are considered inherently pure, no matter what they do.



There is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed. Such demands are made possible not only by the ubiquitous human tendencies toward guilt and shame but also by the need to give expression to these tendencies. In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for, these vulnerabilities.

If I had been the one to title this criteria for thought reform, I would have called it not “confession”, but “repentance”. In my opinion, this technique of manipulation has less to do with gathering information about true crimes or misdeeds a person has committed, and more to do with inducing guilt so that the victim can be promised forgiveness if they adhere to the previously mentioned ‘demand for purity’, which is, of course, impossible.


Sacred 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.

According to the manipulative group, their ideology is right, an absolute truth: and absolutely everyone else in the world is mistaken. There is nothing wrong having conviction in our beliefs. But if we aren’t willing to respect the rights of other to have their own thoughts and opinions, and if we aren’t wiling to reconsider our understanding of a topic when we’re introduced to new information, then what we hold is not a belief: it’s dogma.

Some manipulative groups will even go as far as claiming that their ideology is “scientific” in some way, hence the title of this criterion. However, the fact that the ideology cannot be questioned, analysed, or altered in response to the emergence of new facts means that it cannot possibly be a genuine scientific theory.


Loaded Language

For an individual person, the effect of the language of ideological totalism can be summed up in one word: constriction. He is, so to speak, linguistically deprived; and since language is so central to all human experience, his capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely narrowed.

Many groups employ the use of “jargon”: buzzwords that were coined by the group, and are only used within it. The use of confusing language makes it difficult for group members to communicate with other people. Outsiders may become frustrated by the use of the in-group’s jargon, and group members might struggle to explain their own thoughts and ideas without using language that is impossible for other people to understand. Communication becomes even more complicated if the manipulative group has taken it upon themselves to redefine words which already exist, or to designate ‘forbidden words’ which could cause offense if used by an out-group member.(2)

Another way that ‘loaded language’ impacts group members is that their capacity to think and express their thoughts is limited only to the language they are allowed to use. It is understood that the creation of language by oppressed groups is vital: sometimes the words we need to describe our experiences don’t exist yet, and must be coined before we can fully understand ourselves and connect with one another. This principle also works in reverse.  The combination of loaded language and milieu control means that group members can forget ‘forbidden’ words and phrases they used to know, and with them, forget the concepts that those words and phrases represented.

This example of language affecting thoughts and ideas extends to the invention of ‘thought terminating cliches’, a term coined by Lifton to describe short and simple, yet ultimately meaningless, phrases which are used to suppress critical thought, such as

  • Everything happens for a reason
  • You only live once
  • It is what it is
  • The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away
  • C’est la vie (That’s life)

Group members learn to repeat these cliches to themselves when they have doubts. Thought-terminating cliches are not positive: they do not exist to empower the group members, to remind them of their inner strength and ability to create change, the way that a typical mantra might. Rather, they reinforce the idea that group members must remain passive, and accept whatever they are told.


Doctrine Over Person

The underlying assumption is that the doctrine – including its mythological elements – is ultimately more valid, true, and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience. […] Rather than modify the myth in accordance with experience, the will to orthodoxy requires instead that men be modified in order to reaffirm the myth.

Doctrine over person relies heavily on cognitive dissonance, which will be discussed in far more detail in Parts 3 and 4. The reason for the reliance on cognitive dissonance is that this element of thought reform relies on convincing people that their own knowledge and experiences are not real as long as they conflict with the ideology of the group. For example,

A member of a multi-level marketing scheme cannot make a profit, even though her recruiter promised that she would. The recruiter comments that she must not be working hard enough.

A member of an environmental activist group doesn’t understand the group’s stance on a particular issue, and says that, from his perspective, they should consider taking a different stance. The group’s leader tells him he hasn’t read enough literature on the subject, and that if he had, he would agree with them.

A member of a manipulative religious group’s pet suffers an untimely death, and she asks a priest why a loving God would let that happen to an innocent animal. The priest comments that perhaps the animal’s death was a punishment for her own past sins, and lack of faith.

From these examples it becomes clear that proritizing doctrine over personal experience is often utilized as a way to deflect criticisms of the ideology by turning the issue back around on the person who has doubts, making them feel guilty, ashamed, or otherwise inadequate, and allowing them to believe that they are the problem. Using this tactic, group leaders never have to explain parts of the ideology which don’t hold up to scrutiny, or keep promises that they have made to their followers.

Another example of ‘doctrine over person’ that we are all familiar with is religious views on homosexuality. Some Christian groups, for example, hold the opinion that since homosexuality is described as a sin in the Bible, God would not have made people inherently gay, and so people who identify themselves as homosexual are in fact just confused, corrupted by the media, or in some other way misinterpreting their own inherent sexual orientation. Other Christian groups, though, acknowledge that since there is evidence that inherently homosexual people do exist, they must alter their perception of the Bible being entirely accurate about God and His views: in order to comply with their observed reality, they must acknowledge that their ideological text is flawed.

This cannot happen in a manipulative group. The only people who may scrutinise the ideology are the leaders of the group, who probably created the ideology in the first place, and will only ever make changes to suit their own desires, rather than to be scientifically accurate or to otherwise comply with any observed truth.


Dispensing of Existence

The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right.

The manipulative group reaches the peak of totalism when it claims the right to determine which human lives are important and which simply don’t matter.

From changingminds,

Who is an outsider or insider is chosen by the group. Thus, any person within the group may be damned at any time. There are no rights of membership except, perhaps, for the leader.

People who leave the group are singled out as particularly evil, weak, lost or otherwise to be despised or pitied. Rather than being ignored or hidden, they are used as examples of how anyone who leaves will be looked down upon and publicly denigrated.

People thus have a constant fear of being cast out, and consequently work hard to be accepted and not be ejected from the group. Outsiders who try to persuade the person to leave are doubly feared.

Dispensation also goes into all aspects of living within the group. Any and all aspects of existence within the group is subject to scrutiny and control. There is no privacy and, ultimately, no free will.

Taken to it’s most extreme, the dispensing of existence is used to justify causing actual harm to outsiders and ex-members, by taking away their humanity and portraying them perhaps as animals, monsters, or demons. It is a lot easier to hurt another person when you don’t view them as a person at all. Manipulative groups use this depersonalization to justify hate speech, harassment, smear campaigns, physical assaults, sexual abuse, and sometimes even outright murder. This violence occurs not only to punish outsiders, but also to make it clear to current members that if they ever leave, they will lose their status of personhood and become a potential target.

Footnotes and Citations

(1) phobia-inducing is when a manipulative group cultivates a fear among its members, such as of another group or some kind of supernatural entity, to better control them. A common example is that manipulative religious groups induce a phobia of Hell in their members, to threaten them with eternal pain and torture if they should step out of line.

(2) “Concepts can be relabeled with emotionally charged words which carry preconceived notions.  These can be used to make something seem automatically positive and impossible to argue against, or inherently negative — impossible to argue for.”

From jwsurvey,

Jehovah’s Witnesses exist in an environment where fear is a prime motivator. In their world view 1914 marked the year when the earth was invaded by wicked spirit creatures cast down from heaven in huge numbers. They see the entire world population as deceived by those powerful spirit beings and on the path to a painful death that will bring about eternal destruction. Many do not challenge this narrative because doing so would immediately induce a state of fear and mental pain.

All quotes not otherwise sourced are taken from this webpage.

Further reading on this topic,


Steven Hassan’s BITE Model of Cult Mind Control


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