Vol. 2, No. 5|
Robert J. Lifton, M.D.
Two main concerns should inform our moral and psychological
perspective on cults: the dangers of ideological totalism, or what I would also call
fundamentalism; and the need to protect civil liberties.
There is now a worldwide epidemic of totalism and
fundamentalism in forms that are political, religious, or both. Fundamentalism is a
particular danger in this age of nuclear weapons, because it often includes a theology of
Armageddon - a final battle between good and evil. I have studied Chinese thought reform
in the 1950s as well as related practices in McCarthyite American politics and in certain
training and educational programs. I have also examined these issues in work with Vietnam
veterans, who often movingly rejected war-related totalism; and more recently in a study
of the psychology of Nazi doctors.
Certain psychological themes which recur in these various
historical contests also arise in the study of cults. Cults can be identified by three
- a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of
worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their
- a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
- economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by
the leader and the ruling coterie.
The first method characteristically used by ideological
totalism is milieu control: the control of all communication within a given environment.
In such an environment individual autonomy becomes a threat to the group. There is an
attempt to manage an individual's inner communication. Milieu control is maintained and
expressed by intense group process, continuous psychological pressure, and isolation by
geographical distance, unavailability of transportation, or even physical restraint. Often
the group creates an increasingly intense sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures
and encounters, which makes leaving extremely difficult, both physically and
psychologically. Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of identity
which I call 'doubling': the formation of a second self which lives side by side with the
former one, often for a considerable time. When the milieu control is lifted, elements of
the earlier self may be reasserted.
Creating a Pawn
A second characteristic of totalistic environments is
mystical manipulation or planned spontaneity. This is a systematic process through which
the leadership can create in cult members what I call the psychology of the pawn. The
process is managed so that it appears to arise spontaneously; to its objects it rarely
feels like manipulation. Religious techniques such as fasting, chanting, and limited sleep
are used. Manipulation may take on a special intense quality in a cult for which a
particular 'chosen' human being is the only source of salvation. The person of the leader
may attract members to the cult, but can also be a source of disillusionment. If members
of the Unification Church, for example, come to believe that Sun Myung Moon, its founder,
is associated with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, they may lose their faith.
Mystical manipulation may also legitimate deception of
outsiders, as in the "heavenly deception" of the Unification Church and
analogous practices in other cult environments. Anyone who has not seen the light and
therefore lives in the realm of evil can be justifiably deceived for a higher purpose. For
instance, collectors of funds may be advised to deny their affiliation with a cult that
has a dubious public reputation.
Purity and Confession
Two other features of totalism are a demand for purity and
a cult of confession. The demand for purity is a call for radical separation of good and
evil within the environment and within oneself. Purification is a continuing process,
often institutionalized in the cult of confession, which enforces conformity through guilt
and shame evoked by mutual criticism and self-criticism in small groups.
Confessions contain varying mixtures of revelation and
concealment. As Albert Camus observed, "Authors of confessions write especially to
avoid confession, to tell nothing of what they know." Young cult members confessing
the sins of their precultic lives may leave out ideas and feelings that they are not aware
of or reluctant to discuss, including a continuing identification with their prior
existence. Repetitious confession, especially in required meetings, often expresses
arrogance in the name of humility. As Camus wrote: "I practice the profession of
penitence, to be able to end up as a judge," and, "The more I accuse myself, the
more I have a right to judge you."
Three further aspects of ideological totalism are
"sacred science", "loading of the language", and the principle of
"doctrine over person." Sacred science is important because a claim of being
scientific is often needed to gain plausibility and influence in the modern age. The
Unification Church is one example of a contemporary tendency to combine dogmatic religious
principles with a claim to special scientific knowledge of human behavior and psychology.
The term 'loading the language' refers to literalism and a tendency to deify words or
images. A simplified, cliche-ridden language can exert enormous psychological force,
reducing every issue in a complicated life to a single set of slogans that are said to
embody the truth as a totality. The principle of "doctrine over person" is
invoked when cult members sense a conflict between what they are experiencing and what
dogma says they should experience. The internalized message of a the totalistic
environment is that one must negate that personal experience on behalf of the truth of the
dogma. Contradictions become associated with guilt; doubt indicates one's own deficiency
Perhaps the most significant characteristic of totalistic
movements is what I call "dispensing of existence." Those who have not seen the
light and embraced the truth are wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some sense,
usually metaphorical, lack the right to exist. This is one reason why a cult member
threatened with being cast into outer darkness may experience a fear of extinction or
collapse. Under particularly malignant conditions, the dispensing of existence is taken
literally; in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the elsewhere, people were put to death
for alleged doctrinal shortcomings. In the People's Temple mass suicide-murder in Guyana,
a cult leader presided over the literal dispensing of existence by means of a suicidal
mystique he himself had made a central theme in the group's ideology. The totalistic
impulse to draw a sharp line between those who have the right to live and those who do not
is especially dangerous in the nuclear age.
Totalism should always be considered within a specific
historical context. A significant feature of contemporary life is the historical (or
psychohistorical) dislocation resulting from a loss of the symbolic structures that
organize ritual transitions in the life cycle, and a decay of belief systems concerning
religion, authority, marriage, family, and death. One function of cults is to provide a
group initia- tion rite for the transition to early adult life, and the formation of an
adult identity outside the family. Cult members have good reasons for seeing attempts by
the larger culture to make such provisions as hypocritical or confused.
In providing substitute symbols for young people, cults are
both radical and reactionary. They are radical because they suggest rude questions about
middle-class family life and American political and religious values in general. They are
reactionary because they revive premodern structures of authority and sometimes establish
fascist patterns of internal organization. Furthermore, in their assault on autonomy and
self-definition, some cults reject a liberating historical process that has evolved with
great struggle and pain in the West since the Renaissance. (Cults must be considered
individually in making such judgments.) Historical dislocation is one source of what I
call the "protean style." This involves a continuous psychological
experimentation with the self, a capacity for endorsing contradictory ideas at the same
time, and a tendency to change one's ideas, companions, and way of life with relative
ease. Cults embody a contrary "restricted style," a flight from experimentation
and the confusion of a protean world. These contraries are related; groups and individuals
can embrace a protean and a restricted style in turn. For instance, the so-called hippie
ethos of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by the present so-called Yuppie
preoccupation with safe jobs and comfortable incomes. For some people, experimentation
with a cult is part of the protean search.
The imagery of extinction derived from the contemporary
threat of nuclear war influences patterns of totalism and fundamentalism throughout the
world. Nuclear war threatens human continuity itself and impairs the symbols of
immortality. Cults seize upon this threat to provide immortalizing principles of their
own. The cult environment supplies a continuous opportunity for the experience of
transcendence - a mode of symbolic immortality generally suppressed in advanced industrial
Role of Psychology
Cults raise serious psychological concerns, and there is a
place for psychologists and psychiatrists in understanding and treating cult members. But
our powers as mental health professionals are limited; so we should exercise restraint.
When helping a young person confused about a cult situation, it is important to maintain a
personal therapeutic contract so that one is not working for the cult or for the parents.
Totalism begets totalism. What is called deprogramming includes a continuum from intense
dialogue on the one hand to physical coercion and kidnaping, with thought-reform-like
techniques, on the other. My own position, which I have repeatedly conveyed to parents and
others who consult me, is to oppose coercion at either end of the cult process. Cults are
primarily a social and cultural rather than a psychiatric or legal problem. But
psychological professionals can make important contributions to the public education
crucial for dealing with the problem. With greater knowledge about them, people are less
susceptible to deception, and for that reason some cults have been finding it more
difficult to recruit members.
Yet painful moral dilemmas remain. When laws are violated
through fraud or specific harm to recruits, legal intervention is clearly indicated. But
what about situations in which behavior is virtually automatized, language reduced to rote
and cliche, yet the cult member expresses a certain satisfaction or even happiness? We
must continue to seek ways to encourage a social commitment to individual autonomy and
avoid coercion and violence.
From the Editor
I am often asked, "What is brainwashing, mind-control,
and thought-reform?" Few words arouse such strong feelings. Dr. Robert J. Lifton's
study in the 50's of the Chinese re-education universities has become a mental-health
standard for what defines these terms.
In this issue of AFF News Dr. Lifton explores the
process of Cult Formation and the key components of the thought-reform environment.