Robert Jay Lifton (b. 1926) developed these criteria to identify the actions of coercive groups using manipulative techniques in order to gain total control over their members. First presented in chapter 22 of his seminal work, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, this list can be used to measure the level of coercion not only in groups but in relationships, families, and even in whole countries.

Milieu Control:

“We control what you experience, and how you experience it.”

Many totalist groups will censor what their members read, watch and listen to, controlling not only the information available, but also how that information is processed. Similarly, a controlling partner will limit access to visits from family and friends, as well as restricting phone and internet use. But it isn’t just information and thoughts being controlled – with such techniques as adjusting the lighting and the temperature of the space, along with other sensory intrusions such as over-potent incense or graphic representations of scriptural violence (martyrdom scenes and the like), even groups and entities not traditionally thought of as abusive can sway our feelings to their benefit, simply by adjusting the atmosphere.

Loading the Language:

“Our own special language helps you to think the way we want you to think.”

All groups have their own unique slang, and every discipline and even spiritual practice has some jargon, but an abusive group will use its language to separate its people so that you can’t understand them – keeping the new recruit in a constant state of confusion, having to learn a new whole vocabulary just to progress. Also, creating a vocabulary creates a pattern of thought, and messages can be slipped in with ease – any group labeling itself “The Truth” subconsciously tells its members, every time they say the name of their organization: “this is the truth,” making anything the leadership says that much harder to question – in the mind of the inculcated member, the organization is the truth.

Mystical Manipulation:

“We’ll make sure our system works for you – even if we have to fake it.”

Not everyone has the ingenuity of the popular charlatan who had the kneeler in front of his throne mildly electrified so that supplicants would “feel” his energy, but effect is the easiest thing for a true showman to create. From exploiting lesser-known physiological responses and interpreting them as paranormal phenomena, to doing careful background research on a “mark” and presenting the results as a psychic “message,” manipulative groups and individuals plan miraculous events to happen “spontaneously.”

Sacred Science

“It’s true because we say it’s the Truth.”

When it’s a matter of faith, the “facts” become unquestionable. How do we know that this holy book is the word of God? Sacred science happens when the scientific method is being misrepresented or even shunted aside to “prove” such faith-based belief systems such as creationism, the afterlife, dowsing, or even the claims of fallacious health gurus. Whenever a request for clinical proof is rebuffed with “you have to believe to make it work,” or “it’s beyond our scientific knowledge, but it’s true,” you’re being manipulated.

Demand for Purity

“Only those good enough can ‘get it.'”

Call it original sin, evil intent, entheta, negative energy, whatever – you’re going to have to get rid of what the group tells you isn’t right for you: only then can you reach your goals. From the ‘wrong’ foods to your favorite hobbies, from ‘satanic’ music to your family: when someone else is telling you what you have to give up, whatever you do give up shall never be enough.


“We promise we won’t use your past against you… really …”

Before you found your group, you had plenty wrong with your life. The group will make sure you – and the rest of your fellow members – knows exactly what it was that was wrong with you before they helped you get better. Anything good that’s happened to you shall now be by the leader’s grace – even if it happened before you met (that’s them leading you safely to them), and anything bad that happens to you is the fault of your “wicked” past.

Doctrine Over Person

“When your facts don’t match our Truth, your facts are wrong.”

In case of a discrepancy between what you observe and what the scripture says is correct, the group will insist that you must have observed the incident incorrectly. After all, how could you, a mere mortal, know better than the Word of God? For groups with a non-religious focus, the authority of the group will take the place of scripture, but the thinking will be just as rigid: your own observations are incorrect, or colored by your imperfect perceptions; only the leadership has the right information.

Dispensing of Existence

“The Truth is worth more than life, especially an outsider’s life.”

You are mortal, just one person. And, compared to the Ultimate Truth, the Will of God, the Course of History, the One True Path, or whatever it is a totalist group is claiming as the only worthwhile cause, the life of just one person doesn’t matter much. And, since they reckon anyone who’s not with them is against them, then, if you’re not one of the gang, your life isn’t worth the charge on your cellphone battery.

Feel free to share, reblog and spread this vital information, especially the printable graphic below. 

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about thought control that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Series NavigationThe Basics – Lalich and Langone’s Controlling Group Checklist

About the Author:

Spike belonged to an abusive "ritual magick" group. She is a gifted songwriter, performer and novelist. She has made the workings of coercive control her life's study.


  1. Bonnie Jacobus December 1, 2017 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    I went through most of this for several years. Milieu Control cannot deny personal experience. I’ve had people say it’s just your “perception” and they want to change it. I call this “perception- deception”. Loading the language? “Love, love, love” where there wasn’t any. Victim is demonized to silent but I was wronged and that is the definition. Blame? I was verbally and psychologically abused; drugged without consent. Revenge? Do we have laws and consequences that apply to everyone? Making the system work? Surveillance of phone, internet, telepathy, hypnosis, magic, lying, faking it? It’s true because we say it is? The same ailments blamed on different drugs to destroy our cns? Purity? The “ole proverbial hand slap”. Never good enough, long enough, used enough, said something they didn’t like. Doctrine over person? Humane reason to gaslight and discredit? How does that past label work against you in the future? Dispensing of existence or heard it said “for the good of all”. The life of one person not linked in, even if they spoke up for the “gang” doesn’t matter except to be a scapegoat. Thought control?

  2. […] openmindsfoundation changingminds CSJ […]

  3. […] doing that — can be correlated with cognitive injury. If you’ve been speaking and hearing the “loaded language” (Lifton) of the group for years, your capacity to think and imagine independently might be limited. I’m […]

  4. Poul Bregninge July 19, 2019 at 10:57 am - Reply

    I quote: “We control what you experience, and how you experience it.”
    I didn’t know Robert Lifton before, maybe because he’s not a Dane !!!

    Many people have made similar observations like Lifton, but sadly, the very people who need to learn about all these mechanisms are not attainable with this type of information. I hope, but unfortunately I doubt.

    I myself learned a lot from reading Huxley, Orwell, (after 1959, when I broke) and other similar authors who, in the twentieth century, engaged in political alignment and social control of people within, for example, communist political parties. However, one should not forget that people, who often — without knowing it — are under the control of oppressive religious and political organizations, have often themselves sought and desired this control — but unconsciously! Having these people been under the control of such religious-political groups for years, they often afterwards suffer of some sort of PTSD, and are often deeply traumatized, yet still without knowing it directly.

    I express myself a little unclear here, I feel!

    But I do not express myself as a professional psychologist, but have, however, worked my whole life with these terms and issues. For example, former Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to suffer from serious repercussions (read: disturbances), which unfortunately have the effect of being held in some form of negative “Jehovah activism”! It is impossible for them to escape “out” — now as Ex-Witnesses who, ontill their day of death deal with issues that they, when they discovered Watchtower’s deception, should lay behind them.

    Unfortunately, I am not much better myself, but I found myself outside of any ex-JW groups when I was interested in 1000 other things!

    In fact, it Works to be interested in 1000 other things!

    Best, Poul Bregninge, Denmark,
    author of Judgment Day Must Wait,

  5. Joe Carter December 9, 2019 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Where is “The demand for purity” It seems to be missing from the list for some reason? There are only 7 criteria listed.

  6. 1LTLos August 24, 2020 at 9:41 pm - Reply

    Seeking a spiritual connection has nothing to do with “control” That is a ridiculous notion. As you state, ones life is based upon experiences and “A God Who Hides Himself” from most of us, certainly does not control you or me. But Gaslighting which is what Lofton is saying here — IS about control but its so transparent that its no wonder the title was changed to The 8 Psychological Steps Toward Thought Control” His original title was “The TEN Psychological Steps…” Most people have caught on remembering Julian Huxley who was an ass.

  7. […] That’s called Thought Reform. […]

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