Thought Reform

George Orwell's 1984

“Thought reform” is the Orwellian vision in which people are programmed to think alike for the prosperity of the State. Unbeknownst to Orwell, China was subjecting students to this “reeducation” process to adopt Communism.

“In our century the classic punishment of solitary confinement has been combined with sleep deprivation and used in psychological warfare,” writes José Delgado in Physical Control of the Mind. “Exhaustion and decreased sensory inputs are known to cause mental disturbances and reduce defense mechanisms, and they have been effectively manipulated during “brainwashing” or “thought reform” procedures to indoctrinate prisoners.” 1

Business Insider names psychologist Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” the number one book to read before you turn 30. In it he “introduces the universal principles of influence: reciprocation, scarcity, authority, commitment, liking, and consensus.” The economic news site colorfully explains their reasoning as:

To paraphrase Publius Syrus, ‘He can best avoid a snare who knows how to set one.’ 2

Wikipedia reports that in Influence, Science and Practice, “social psychology researcher Robert Caildini argues that mind control is possible through the covert exploitation of the unconscious rules that underlie and facilitate healthy human social interactions.” 3 “Robert Cialdini is an internationally respected expert in the fields of persuasion, compliance, and negotiation. His books Influence: Science and Practice and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion are the result of years of study into the reasons that people comply with requests in business and other settings.” 4 Cialdini defines six “weapons of influence”:

  • Reciprocity – People tend to return a favor, thus the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing.…
  • Commitment and Consistency – If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self image. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement.…
  • Social Proof – People will do things that they see other people are doing.…
  • Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts.…
  • Liking – People are easily persuaded by other people that they like.…
  • Scarcity – Perceived scarcity will generate demand.…5

Using these six broad categories, Cialdini “offers specific examples of both mild and extreme mind control (both one on one and in groups), notes the conditions under which each social rule is most easily exploited for false ends, and offers suggestions on how to resist such methods.” 6

Robert Jay Lifton used the term “thought reform” to include milieu control, mystical manipulation, confession, self-sanctification through purity, aura of sacred science, loaded language, doctrine over person, and dispensed existence.

Milieu control
All communication with outside world is limited, either being strictly filtered or completely cut off. Whether it is a monastery or a behind-closed-doors cult, isolation from the ideas, examples and distractions of the outside world turns the individuals attention to the only remaining form of stimulation, which is the ideology that is being inculcated in them.

This even works at the intrapersonal level, and individuals are discouraged from thinking incorrect thoughts, which may be termed evil, selfish, immoral and so on.

Mystical manipulation
A part of the teaching is that the group has a higher purpose than others outside the group. This may be altruistic, such as saving the world or helping people in need. It may also be selfish, for example that group members will be saved when others outside the group will perish.

All things are then attributed and linked to this higher purpose. Coincidences (which actually may be deliberately engineered) are portrayed as symbolic events. Attention is given to the problems of out-group people and attributed to their not being in the group. Revelations are attributed to spiritual causes.

This association of events is used as evidence that the group truly is special and exclusive.

Individuals are encouraged to confess past ‘sins’ (as defined by the group). This creates a tension between the person’s actions and their stated belief that the action is bad, particularly if the statement is made publicly. The consistency principle thus leads the person to fully adopt the belief that the sin is bad and to distance themselves from repeating it.

Discussion of inner fears and anxieties, as well as confessing sins is exposing vulnerabilities and requires the person to place trust in the group and hence bond with them. When we bond with others, they become our friends, and we will tend to adopt their beliefs more easily.

This effect may be exaggerated with intense sessions where deep thoughts and feelings are regularly surfaced. This also has the effect of exhausting people, making them more open to suggestion.

Self-sanctification through purity
Individuals are encouraged to constantly push towards an ultimate and unattainable perfection. This may be rewarded with promotion within the group to higher levels, for example by giving them a new status name (acolyte, traveller, master, etc.) or by giving them new authority within the group.

The unattainability of the ultimate perfection is used to induce guilt and show the person to be sinful and hence sustain the requirement for confession and obedience to those higher than them in the groups order of perfection.

Not being perfect may be seen as deserving of punishment, which may be meted out by the higher members of the group or even by the person themselves, who are taught that such atonement and self-flagellation is a valuable method of reaching higher levels of perfection.

Aura of sacred science
The beliefs and regulations of the group are framed as perfect, absolute and non-negotiable. The dogma of the group is presented as scientifically correct or otherwise unquestionable.

Rules and processes are therefore to be followed without question, and any transgression is a sin and hence requires atonement or other forms of punishment, as does consideration of any alternative viewpoints.

Loaded language
New words and language are created to explain the new and profound meanings that have been discovered. Existing words are also hijacked and given new and different meaning.

This is particularly effective due to the way we think a lot though language. The consequence of this is that the person who controls the meaning of words also controls how people think. In this way, black-and-white thinking is embedded in the language, such that wrong-doers are framed as terrible and evil, whilst those who do right (as defined by the group) are perfect and marvellous.

The meaning of words are kept hidden both from the outside world, giving a sense of exclusivity. The meaning of special words may also be revealed in careful illuminatory rituals, where people who are being elevated within the order are given the power of understanding this new language.

Doctrine over person
The importance of the group is elevated over the importance of the individual in all ways. Along with this comes the importance of the the [sic] group’s ideas and rules over personal beliefs and values.

Past experiences, beliefs and values can all thus be cast as being invalid if they conflict with group rules. In fact this conflict can be used as a reason for confession of sins. Likewise, the beliefs, values and words of those outside the group are equally invalid.

Dispensed existence
There is a very sharp line between the group and the outside world. Insiders are to be saved and elevated, whilst outsiders are doomed to failure and loss (which may be eternal).

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.7

Psychologist Margaret Singer described in her book Cults in our Midst six conditions which would create an atmosphere where thought reform is possible to include controlling a person’s time and environment, leaving no time for thought; creating a sense of powerlessness, fear and dependency; manipulating rewards and punishments to suppress former social behavior; manipulating rewards and punishments to elicit the desired behaviour; creating a closed system of logic which makes dissenters feel as if something was wrong with them; and keeping recruits unaware about any agenda to control or change them:

These conditions create the atmosphere needed to put a thought reform system into place:

Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed a step at a time.
Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group. The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to buy more courses, or get them to make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aim and desires.

Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.
Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.

Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.
This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members. The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in- group language. Strip members of their main occupation (quit jobs, drop out of school) or source of income or have them turn over their income (or the majority of) to the group. Once stripped of your usual support network, your confidence in your own perception erodes. As your sense of powerlessness increases, your good judgment and understanding of the world are diminished. (ordinary view of reality is destabilized) As group attacks your previous worldview, it causes you distress and inner confusion; yet you are not allowed to speak about this confusion or object to it – leadership suppresses questions and counters resistance. This process is speeded up if you are kept tired – the cult will keep you constantly busy.

Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity.

Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, and lengthy meditation sessions. Your old beliefs and patterns of behavior are defined as irrelevant or evil. Leadership wants these old patterns eliminated, so the member must suppress them. Members get positive feedback for conforming to the group’s beliefs and behaviors and negative feedback for old beliefs and behavior.

Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group’s ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors.
Good behavior, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group’s beliefs, and compliance are rewarded while questioning, expressing doubts or criticizing are met with disapproval, redress and possible rejection. If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning. The only feedback members get is from the group, they become totally dependent upon the rewards given by those who control the environment. Members must learn varying amounts of new information about the beliefs of the group and the behaviors expected by the group. The more complicated and filled with contradictions the new system in and the more difficult it is to learn, the more effective the conversion process will be. Esteem and affection from peers is very important to new recruits. Approval comes from having the new member’s behaviors and thought patterns conform to the models (members). Members’ relationship with peers is threatened whenever they fail to learn or display new behaviors. Over time, the easy solution to the insecurity generated by the difficulties of learning the new system is to inhibit any display of doubts – new recruits simply acquiesce, affirm and act as if they do understand and accept the new ideology.

Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.
The group has a top-down, pyramid structure. The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing. Members are not allowed to question, criticize or complain – if they do, the leaders allege that the member is defective – not the organization or the beliefs. The individual is always wrong – the system, its leaders and its belief are always right. Conversion or remolding of the individual member happens in a closed system. As members learn to modify their behavior in order to be accepted in this closed system, they change – begin to speak the language – which serves to further isolate them from their prior beliefs and behaviors.8

Wikipedia writes of psychologist and cult counselor Steven Hassan:

Using the research of Singer and Lifton and the cognitive dissonance theory of Leon Festinger, [Hassan] describes in his 2000 book Releasing the Bonds the BITE (Behavior, Information, Thought, Emotion) model, which explains mind control as a combination of control over behavior, information, thought and emotions. According to Hassan, the BITE model dispenses with any required environment control, and its effects can be achieved when the control mechanisms create overall dependency and obedience to some leader or cause.… However, many scholars in the field of new religious movements do not accept Hassan’s Bite model for understanding cults.9

From chapter two of Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves © 2000 by Steven Hassan, he relates:

Destructive mind control can be understood in terms of four basic components, which form the acronym BITE:

I. Behavior Control
II. Information Control
III. Thought Control
IV. Emotional Control

It is important to understand that destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause. It is not necessary for every single item on the list to be present. Mind controlled cult members can live in their own apartments, have nine-to-five jobs, be married with children, and still be unable to think for themselves and act independently.

I. Behavior Control

  1. Regulation of individual’s physical reality
    • Where, how and with whom the member lives and associates with
    • What clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears
    • What food the person eats, drinks, adopts, and rejects
    • How much sleep the person is able to have
    • Financial dependence
    • Little or no time spent on leisure, entertainment, vacations
  2. Major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals
  3. Need to ask permission for major decisions
  4. Need to report thoughts, feelings and activities to superiors
  5. Rewards and punishments (behavior modification techniques- positive and negative).
  6. Individualism discouraged; group think prevails
  7. Rigid rules and regulations
  8. Need for obedience and dependency

II. Information Control

  1. Use of deception
    • Deliberately holding back information
    • Distorting information to make it acceptable
    • Outright lying
  2. Access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged
    • Books, articles, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio
    • Critical information
    • Former members
    • Keep members so busy they don’t have time to think
  3. Compartmentalization of information; Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
    • Information is not freely accessible
    • Information varies at different levels and missions within pyramid
    • Leadership decides who “needs to know” what
  4. Spying on other members is encouraged
    • Pairing up with “buddy” system to monitor and control
    • Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership
  5. Extensive use of cult generated information and propaganda
    • Newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.
    • Misquotations, statements taken out of context from non-cult sources
  6. Unethical use of confession
    • Information about “sins” used to abolish identity boundaries
    • Past “sins” used to manipulate and control; no forgiveness or absolution

III. Thought Control

  1. Need to internalize the group’s doctrine as “Truth”
    • Map = Reality
    • Black and White thinking
    • Good vs. evil
    • Us vs. them (inside vs. outside)
  2. Adopt “loaded” language (characterized by “thought-terminating clichés”). Words are the tools we use to think with. These “special” words constrict rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce complexities of experience into trite, platitudinous “buzz words”.
  3. Only “good” and “proper” thoughts are encouraged.
  4. Thought-stopping techniques (to shut down “reality testing” by stopping “negative” thoughts and allowing only “good” thoughts); rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism.
    • Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
    • Chanting
    • Meditating
    • Praying
    • Speaking in “tongues”
    • Singing or humming
  5. No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate
  6. No alternative belief systems viewed as legitimate, good, or useful

IV. Emotional Control

  1. Manipulate and narrow the range of a person’s feelings.
  2. Make the person feel like if there are ever any problems it is always their fault, never the leader’s or the group’s.
  3. Excessive use of guilt
    • Identity guilt
  4. Who you are (not living up to your potential)
  5. Your family
  6. Your past
  7. Your affiliations
  8. Your thoughts, feelings, actions
    • Social guilt
    • Historical guilt
  9. Excessive use of fear
    • Fear of thinking independently
    • Fear of the “outside” world
    • Fear of enemies
    • Fear of losing one’s “salvation”
    • Fear of leaving the group or being shunned by group
    • Fear of disapproval
  10. Extremes of emotional highs and lows.
  11. Ritual and often public confession of “sins”.
  12. Phobia indoctrination : programming of irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority. The person under mind control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group.
    • No happiness or fulfillment “outside”of the group
    • Terrible consequences will take place if you leave: “hell”; “demon possession”; “incurable diseases”; “accidents”; “suicide”; “insanity”; “10,000 reincarnations”; etc.
    • Shunning of leave takers. Fear of being rejected by friends, peers, and family.
    • Never a legitimate reason to leave. From the group’s perspective, people who leave are: “weak;” “undisciplined;” “unspiritual;” “worldly;” “brainwashed by family, counselors;” seduced by money, sex, rock and roll.10

“We were keeping our eyes on 1984,” writes Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. “But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World“:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared what we hate will ruin us, Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.11


1 José Delgado, Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society (New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969), p. 63.

2 Farnam Street, “Five Books You Should Read Before You Turn 30,” Business Insider, 5 December 2013, at (retrieved: 5 December 2013).

3 “Mind control,”, at (retrieved: 10 January 2011).

4 Bob Cialdini, Social Psychology Network, at (retrieved: 10 January 2011).

5 “Robert Cialdini,”, at (retrieved: 10 January 2011).

6 “Mind control,”, at (retrieved: 10 January 2011).

7 “Lifton’s Thought Reform,”, (retrieved: 10 February 2011).

8 “Dr. Margaret T. Singer’s Criteria for Thought Reform,” reFOCUS (Recovering Former Cultists’ Support Network), at (retrieved: 10 February 2011).

9 “Steven Hassan,”, at (retrieved: 23 October 2008).

10 “Mind Control – The Bite Model,” Steven Allen Hassan’s Freedom of Mind Center, at (retrieved: 10 February 2011).

11 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005, 1985), pp. xix-xx.

See also

Kevin J. Crosby, “Brainwashing,” in Tinfoil Hat,, at (retrieved: 13 November 2012).

“Thought reform,”, at (retrieved: 23 October 2008).

“George Orwell,”, at (retrieved: 23 October 2008).

“Robert Jay Lifton,”, at (retrieved: 23 October 2008).

“Margaret Singer,”, at (retrieved: 23 October 2008).

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