How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Lifton's Brainwashing Processes
Assault on identity | Guilt | Self-betrayal | Breaking point | Leniency | The compulsion to confess | The channeling of guilt | Reeducation and logical dishonoring | Progress and harmony | Final confession and rebirth | See also
Robert Jay Lifton was one of the early psychologists to study brainwashing and mind control. He called the method used thought reform. From an analysis of two French priests who had been subjected to brainwashing, he identified the following processes used on them:
Aspects of self-identity are systematically attacked. For example the priests were told that they were not real Fathers. This has a serious destabilizing effect as people lose a sense of who they are. Losing the self also leads to weakening of beliefs and values, which are then easier to change.
Constant arguments that cast the person as guilty of any kind of wrong-doing leads them to eventually feel shame about most things and even feel that they deserve punishment. This is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of breakdown.
When the person is forced to denounce friends and family, it both destroys their sense of identity and reinforces feelings of guilt. This helps to separates them from their past, building the ground for a new personality to be built.
The constant assault on identity, guilt and self-betrayal eventually leads to them breaking down, much as the manner of the 'nervous breakdown' that people experience for other reasons. They may cry inconsolably, have convulsive fits and fall into deep depression. Psychologically, they may effectively be losing a sense of who they are and hence fearing total annihilation of the self.
Just at the point when the person is fearing annihilation of the self, they are offered a small kindness, a brief respite from the assault on their identity, a cigarette or a drink. In those moments of light amongst the darkness, they may well feel a deep sense of gratitude, even though it is their torturer who is offering the 'kindness'. This is another form of Hurt and Rescue, albeit extreme.
Having being pulled back from the edge of breakdown, they are then faced with the contrast of the hurt of potential further identity assault against the rescue of leniency. They may also feel the obligation of exchange in a need to repay the kindness of leniency. There also may be exposed to them the opportunity to assuage themselves of their guilt through confession.
The overwhelming sense of guilty and shame that the person is feeling will be so confused by the multiple accusations and assaults on their identity, that the person will lose the sense of what, specifically, they are guilty of, and just feel the heavy burden of being wrong.
This confusion allows the captors to redirect the guilt towards what ever they please, which will typically be having lived a life of wrong and bad action due to living under an ideology which itself is wrong and bad.
The notion that the root cause of their guilt is an externally imposed ideology is a straw at which the confused and exhausted person grasps. If they were taught wrongly, then it is their teachers and the ideology that is more at fault. Thus to assuage their guilt, further confession about all acts under the ideology are brought out. By mentally throwing away these acts (in the act of confession) they also are now completing the act of rejecting the whole ideology.
The rejection of the old ideology leaves a vacuum into which the new ideology can be introduced. As the antithesis of the old ideology, it forms a perfect attraction point as the person flees the old in search of a contrasting replacement.
This progress is accelerated as the new ideology is portrayed as harmonious and ideally suited to the person's needs. Collegiality and calm replaces pain and punishment. The captors thus contrast in visible and visceral ways how wonderful the new ideology is as compared to the sins and the pain of the old ideology.
Faced with the stark contrast of the pain of the past with the rosy glow of the future that the new ideology presents, the person sheds any the final allegiance to the old ideology, confessing any remaining deep secrets, and takes on the full mantle of the new ideology.
This often feels, and has been described by many, as a form of rebirth. It may be accompanied by rites of passage as the person is accepted and cemented into the new order. The rituals will typically include strong statements made by the person about accepting the new ideology fully and completely, swearing allegiance to its leaders. Saluting flags, kissing other artefacts and other symbolic acts, all solemnly performed, all anchor them firmly in the new ground.
Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, W.W.
Norton & Co., Inc., 1963.