home articles books academic audio misc top 10
Thought Reform in Cults and Abusive Relationships
Edited by Ron Burks and Larry Pile (Wellspring Retreat)

No one gets up in the morning as says "Gee, I think I am going to ruin my life today. I think I'll join a cult, or maybe get into a relationship where I am in constant fear of my life." We are often asked, "What kind of person joins a cult or gets involved with a psychopath." Our answer? We don't know, we never met anyone who joined a cult or who fell in love with a psychopath." We at Wellspring have helped more than 500 people recover from both of these and never once did any of them say, "I knew exactly what I was getting into."

What people join are people and groups that are more loving, dedicated, and exciting than what they have experienced. They join because we all need love, purpose, and adventure. People are attracted to groups and relationships that later turn out to be abusive because they are tricked into believing that either the person or group is not harmful or whatever problems it may be known to have can be overcome by dedication and commitment. Deception involves getting the prospect to suspend disbelief temporarily and then control how information is communicated until critical thinking skills become less effective.

Exactly how the critical thinking skills of members can be impaired by these environments has been the subject of study and controversy for nearly fifty years. We owe a debt to this research and the work of pioneers such as Robert Lifton and Margaret Singer for their insights.

The following processes have been shown to be present in virtually all high-demand group settings and are strongly associated with the loss of personal critical thinking skills and meaningful "informed consent." The following is adapted from Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, by Robert Lifton.


Control of communication within the group environment resulting in significant degree of isolation from the surrounding society. When nonmembers are labeled as ignorant, unspiritual, satanic, etc., group members conclude that outsiders have nothing worthwhile to teach them. Thus members are unlikely to look outside the group for information, especially spiritual information. Milieu control includes other techniques to restrict members' contact with the outside world and to be able to make critical, rational judgments about information: overwork, busyness, multiple lengthy meetings, etc. Lifton: "The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. [This includes] not only the individual's communication with the outside..., but also...his communication with himself... [T]hought reform participants may be in doubt as to who is telling what to whom, but the fact that extensive information about everyone is being conveyed to the authorities is always known... Having experienced the impact of what they consider to be an ultimate truth..., they consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this 'truth.' [The group member] is deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity separate from it..."


The claim of divine authority or spiritual advancement that allows the leader to reinterpret events as he or she wishes, or make prophecies or pronouncements at will, all for the purpose of controlling group members. Lifton: "The inevitable next step after milieu control is extensive personal 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 from within the environment... ...Ideological totalists...are impelled by a special kind of mystique which not only justifies such manipulations, but makes them mandatory... They are the agents 'chosen' (by history, by God, or by some other supernatural force) to carry out the 'mystical imperative,' the pursuit of which must supersede all considerations of decency or of immediate human welfare. Similarly, any thought or action which questions the higher purpose is considered to be stimulated by a lower purpose, to be backward, selfish, and petty in the face of the great overriding mission... At the level of the individual person, the psychological responses top this manipulative approach revolve about the basic polarity of trust and mistrust. One is asked to accept these manipulations on a basis of trust (or faith)... When trust gives way to mistrust... the higher purpose cannot serve as adequate emotional sustenance. The individual then responds to the manipulations through developing... the psychology of the pawn. Feeling himself unable to escape from forces more powerful than himself, he subordinates everything to adapting himself to them. He becomes sensitive to all kinds of cues, expert at anticipating environmental pressures, and skillful in riding them in such a way that his psychological energies merge with the tide rather than turn painfully against himself. This requires that he participate actively in the manipulation of others, as well as in the endless round of betrayals and self-betrayals which are required. But whatever his response...he has been deprived of the opportunity to exercise his capacities for self-expression and independent action."


The world is viewed as black and white and group members are constantly exhorted to strive for perfection. Consequently, guilt and shame are common and powerful control devices. Lifton: "In the thought reform milieu, as in all situations of ideological totalism, 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... The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity...is attainable... ...[B]y defining and manipulating the criteria of purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition... ...Each person is made vulnerable through his profound inner sensitivities to his own limitations and to his unfulfilled potential...[i.e.,] his existential guilt... ...The individual thus comes to apply the same totalist polarization of good and evil to his judgments of his own character... He must also look upon his impurities as originating from outside influences... ...[O]nce an individual person has experienced the totalist polarization of good and evil, he has great difficulty in regaining a more balanced inner sensitivity to the complexities of human morality..."


Serious (and often not so serious) sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed, either privately to a personal monitor or publicly to the group at large. Lifton: "Confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal, and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself. 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... The assumption underlying total exposure... is the environment's claim to total ownership of each individual self within it... ...[T]he cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility...


The doctrine of the group is considered the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or disputing. The leader of the group is likewise above criticism as the spokesperson for God on earth. Lifton: "The totalist milieu contains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the Word itself. While thus transcending ordinary concerns of logic, however, the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic, of absolute 'scientific' precision. Thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science; and the man who dares to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also 'unscientific.' ...The assumption here is not so much that man can be God, but that man's ideas can be God... At the level of the individual, the totalist sacred science can offer much comfort and security. Its appeal lies in its seeming unification of the mystical and the logical modes of existence... For within the framework of the sacred science, there is room for both careful step-by-step syllogism, and seeping, non-rational 'insights.'... ...[S]o strong a hold can the sacred science achieve over his mental processes that if one begins to feel himself attracted to ideas which either contradict or ignore it, he may become guilty and afraid. His quest for knowledge is consequently hampered..."


The group develops a jargon in many ways unique to itself, often non-understandable to outsiders. This jargon consists of numerous words and phases which the members understand (or think they do), but which really act to dull one's ability to engage in critical thinking. Lifton: "The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis... Totalist language, then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lionel Trilling's phrase, 'the language of nonthought.'..."


The personal experiences of the group members are subordinated to the "Truth" held by the group -- apparently contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the doctrine of the group. The doctrine is always more important than the individual. Lifton: "This sterile language reflects another characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the subordination of human experience to the claims of doctrine... [W]hen the myth becomes fused with the totalist sacred science, the resulting 'logic' can be so compelling and coercive that it simply replaces the realities of individual experience. Consequently, past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic... The same doctrinal primacy prevails in the totalist approach to changing people: the demand that character and identity be reshaped, not in accordance with one's special nature or potentialities, but rather to fit the rigid contours of the doctrinal mold... 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. Thus, even when circumstances require that a totalist movement follow a course of action in conflict with or outside the doctrine, there exists [a need to erect] an elaborate façade of new rationalizations designed to demonstrate the unerring consistency of the doctrine and the unfailing foresight which it provides... 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... ...The totalist environment... counters...'deviant' tendencies with the accusation that they stem entirely from personal 'problems'...derived from untoward earlier... influences..."


The group arrogates to itself the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. Usually held non-literally, this means that those outside the group are unspiritual, worldly, satanic, "unconscious," or whatever, and that they must be converted to the ideas of the group or they will be lost. If they refuse to join the group, then they must be rejected by the group members, even if they are family members. In rare cases this concept gives the group the right to terminate the outsider's life. Lifton: "The totalist environment always draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right... [O]ne underlying assumption makes this arrogance mandatory: the conviction that there is just one path to true existence, just one valid mode of being, and that all others are perforce invalid and false... For the individual, the polar emotional conflict is the ultimate existential one of 'being versus nothingness.' He is likely to be drawn to a conversion experience, which he sees as the only means of attaining a path of existence for the future... The totalist environment...thus stimulates in everyone a fear of extinction or annihilation... A person can overcome this fear and find...'confirmation,' not in his individual relationships, but only from the fount of all existence, the totalist Organization. Existence comes to depend upon creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon submission (I obey, therefore I am) and beyond these, upon a sense of total merger with the ideological movement. Ultimately of course one compromises and combines the totalist 'confirmation' with independent elements of personal identity; but one is ever made aware that, should he stray too far along this 'erroneous path,' his right to existence may be withdrawn."

– Lawrence A. Pile is a former member of Great Commission, who left and became a cult researcher and workshop leader at the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a residential facility providing rehabilitative therapy and instruction for survivors of destructive cults and spiritually abusive churches. Wellspring’s address and phone number are: P.O. Box 67, Albany, OH 45710, (740) 698-6277; e-mail: freemind@wellspringretreat.org

Please navigate the site by clicking the black links on the top-right corner of the page.