Saturday, February 3, 2018

Lifton's "Cult Formation" (1981) with Commentary

Cult Formation

Robert J. Lifton, M.D.
John Jay College

The Harvard Mental Health Letter

Volume 7, Number 8, February 1981


Cults represent one aspect of a worldwide epidemic of ideological totalism, or fundamentalism.  They tend to be associated with a charismatic leader, thought reform, and exploitation of members.  Among the methods of thought reform commonly used by cults are milieu control, mystical manipulation, the demand for purity, a cult of confession, sacred science, loading the language, doctrine over person, and dispensing of existence.  The current historical context of dislocation from organizing symbolic structures, decaying belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage, family, and death, and a "protean style" of continuous psychological experimentation with the self is conducive to the growth of cults.  The use of coercion, as in certain forms of "deprogramming," to deal with the restrictions of individual liberty associated with cults is inconsistent with the civil rights tradition.  Yet legal intervention may be indicated when specific laws are broken.
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 contexts also arise in the study of cults. Cults can be identified by three characteristics:

1) a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;

2) a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;

3) economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

Milieu Control

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 [a hallmark of the large group awareness trainings that began with EckankarMind Dynamics, est, Silva Mind Control and Lifespring in the late 1960s and early 1970s], 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 [more typical of the southern Asian style cults like ISKCON, OSHO and TMand 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 [or "false dilemma," a.k.a. "dichotomizing" or "either/or thinking"] 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 pre-cultic 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 an 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."

[Public confession was widely utilized by the most powerful cult ever, the Communist Party of China under Mao Zedong. Leaders as high as Zhou Enlai, for over 40 years Mao's second in command, were compelled to compose and present lengthy mea culpas in party congress sessions, some of which took several hours to deliver. The purpose of such confessions was to assure that no one ever developed such standing in the Party that he might challenge the authority of the unquestionable leader.]

Three further aspects of ideological totalism are "sacred science," "loading of the language," and the principle of "doctrine over person." [Again citing the example of China under Mao, the entire country was plunged into a decade-long reign of terror (for the sake of ideological "purification") called the "Cultural Revolution." Mao's objective was to destroy all possible threats to his power by distributing small red books of "Mao Thought" which were to be read a quoted on demand by all members of the party. The upshot was a "purity of ideology" that undermined the pragmatic provincial leadership so thoroughly that "states rights," so to speak, were destroyed and Mao's central authority in Beijing was enhanced.] 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 [or sanctify and "make sacred"] 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. [While I don't think I have ever seen a cult that did not load language, sanctify phrases and images, and reduce "truth" to memes and cliches, the human potential movement cults (e.g.: Scientology, the multi-level marketing cults like Amway and Herbalife, and most of the LGATs) elevated language loading to a science. To become a member of the Sea Org, one literally had to learn scores of demi-militaristic code words understandable only by other Sea Org members.] 

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 the totalistic environment is that one must negate that personal experience on behalf of the truth of the dogma. [From the standpoint of cognitive-behavioral psychology, the negation of personal experience in favor of instructed belief is the most fundamental cause of anxiety, depression, neurosis and psychosis. In the limited and enclosed universe of the hyper-codependent cult, however, instructed belief may be more acceptable owing to the existence of "groupthink" and "social proof."] Contradictions become associated with guilt: doubt indicates one's own deficiency or evil.

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. That 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 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. 

[Few of the cults I have examined in detail other than the People's Temple, Heaven's Gate and the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, have managed to dispense existence as effectively -- and none for as long -- as the Church of Scientology. One has only to read Lawrence Wright's and Jeanna Miscavige Hill's books -- and the Los Angeles Times series on the CoS facility in San Jacinto, California -- to grasp how "functionally" Hubbard's and David Miscavige's pyramids of intimidation worked to enslave hundreds of Sea Org members for as long as a half century.] 

Historical Context

Totalism should always be considered within a specific historical context. A significant feature of contemporary life is the historical (or psycho historical) 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 initiation 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. 

[An entire school of sociology called "social constructivism" is dedicated to the construction and de-construction of society in general and subcultures in particular on the basis of ideological conditioning, values programming, belief indoctrination, socialization, normalization and institutionalization. For those who wish to pursue this fascinating -- if sometimes rather dry -- concept further, one can look into Berger & Luckman or Gergen (and all the social constructivists they cite)... OR... one can look into Berreby, Burrow, Cialdini, Cooley, Durkheim, Ellul, Ewen, Fromm, Henry, Hoffer, Hook, Horkheimer, Kauffman, Lears, LeBon, Lerner, Lippman, Marx, McDougall, McLuhan, Miles, Milgram, Mills, Neumann, Parsons, Postman, Rokeach, H. Smith, Swanberg, Trotter, Tye, Walter, Weber, and Woodward & Denton in the Realpolitik Library for far more entertaining and enlightening examples of how it's actually done.]

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. ["Radical," however, is a relative term: Radical vs. what? American political and religious values were considerably more moderate in Lifton's time. Thirty-seven years later, the average American is a regular consumer of alcoholic beverages and at least an occasional user of recreational drugs. He or she is almost half again as likely to be single or divorced, publicly identified in the LGBT spectrum or the Libertarian takeover of the Republican Party. A third or more of the working class of 1981 is now either upper middle class or welfare poor... and either not affiliated with any religion or affiliated with a non-traditional religion of other "spiritual" practice.] 

They are reactionary because they revive pre-modern 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.

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 [traditional, Judeo-Christian] 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 society. [An aspect of "traditional" society easily (and sometime rather accurately) critiqued in dystopic fashion by many -- not all -- cults and presented as stressful and damaging to human potential. Transcendence of Tart's "consensus consciousness" (or more perjoratively, "consensus trance") is a good example of the zeitgeist here, though I have never seen a cult provide nearly so complete a rendering of cultural constructivism... and for seemingly good reason: Were such as Tart's model to be fully revealed to the lower levels of the cultic pyramid, the cult itself would be in jeopardy.]

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 kidnapping [which was, in fact the case in the Ted Patrick era when this piece was written], 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.


Peter L. Berger & Thomas Luckman: The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge; New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Gao Wenqien: Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary; New York: Perseus Books, 2007.

Kenneth Gergen: An Invitation to Social Construction; London: Sage, 1999. 

Jenna Miscavige (Hill), Lisa Pulitzer: Beyond Belief: My Secret Life inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape; New York: Morrow / HarperCollins, 2013.

Lawrence Wright: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief; Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

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