Thought Reform Exists: Organized, Programmatic Influence
Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.
Recently, cult apologists have attempted to create the impression that the
scientific community has rejected the concept of thought reform. This is
As recently as May of this year, the new Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by the American
Psychiatric Association cites thought reform as a contributing factor to
“Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified” (a diagnosis frequently
given to former cult members). Thought reform (notes 1,2,3 below) and its
synonyms brainwashing and coercive persuasion (4,5) were also noted in
DSM-III (1980) and in DSM-III-Revised (1987), as well as in widely
recognized medical texts (6,7).
Thought reform is not mysterious. It is the systematic application of
psychological and social influence techniques in an organized programmatic
way within a constructed and managed environment (6,7,8,9,10). The goal
is to produce specific attitudinal and behavioral changes. The changes
occur incrementally without its being patently visible to those undergoing
the process that their attitudes and behavior are being changed a step at
a time according to the plan of those directing the program.
In society there are numerous elaborate attempts to influence attitudes
and modify behavior. However, thought reform programs can be
distinguished from other social influence efforts because of their
totalistic scope and their sequenced phases aimed at destabilizing
participants' sense of self, sense of reality, and values. Thought reform
programs rely on organized peer pressure, the development of bonds between
the leader or trainer and the followers, the control of communication, and
the use of a variety of influence techniques. The aim of all this is to
promote conformity, compliance, and the adoption of specific attitudes and
behaviors desired by the group. Such a program is further characterized
by the manipulation of the person's total social environment to stabilize
and reinforce the modified behavior and attitude changes (8,9,10).
Thought reform is accomplished through the use of psychological and
environmental control processes that do not depend on physical coercion.
Today's thought reform programs are sophisticated, subtle, and insidious,
creating a psychological bond that in many ways is far more powerful than
gun-at-the-head methods of influence. The effects generally lose their
potency when the control processes are lifted or neutralized in some way.
That is why most Korean War POWs gave up the content of their prison camp
indoctrination programs when they came home, and why many cultists leave
their groups if they spend a substantial amount of time away from the
group or have an opportunity to discuss their doubts with an intimate
Contrary to popular misconceptions (some intentional on the part of nay
Sayers), a thought reform program does not require physical confinement
and does not produce robots. Nor does it permanently capture the
allegiance of all those exposed to it. In fact, some persons do not
respond at all to the programs, while others retain the contents for
varied periods of time. In sum, thought reform should be regarded as
“situationally adaptive belief change that is not stable and is
environment-dependent” (8, 10).
The current effort by cult apologists to deny thought reform exists is
linked to earlier protective stances toward cults in which apologists
attempted to deny the cults' active and deceptive recruitment practices;
deny the massive social, psychological, financial, spiritual, and other
controls wielded by cult leaders; and thus dismiss their often destructive
These earlier efforts to shield cults from criticism rest on a “seeker”
theory of how people get into cults, which overlooks the active and
deceptive tactics that most cults use to recruit and retain members. When
bad things happened to followers of Jim Jones or David Koresh, the twisted
logic of some apologists implied that these “seekers” found what they
wanted, thus absolving the cult leader and his conduct.
Finally, to promulgate the myth that thought reform has been rejected by
the scientific community, cult apologists doggedly stick to a faulty
understanding of the process. Contrary to the findings in the literature,
they aver that physical coercion and debilitation are necessary for
thought reform to occur, and that the effects of thought reform must be
instant, massive, uniform, universally responded to, and enduring.
The recent upholding of thought reform in DSM-IV is but one more piece of
evidence that this orchestrated process of exploitative psychological
manipulation is real and recognized within the professional psychiatric
field. To say then that the concept of thought reform is rejected by the
scientific community is false and irresponsible. The phenomenon has been
studied and discussed since 1951, and continuing studies by social
psychologists and other behavioral scientists have solidified our
understandings of its components and overall impact.
c 1994 M.T. Singer
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This article was originally published in The Cult Observer Vol. 11
No. 6 1994.