Thought reform

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Thought reform is a term of art most often associated with enforcing conformity of thought with an ideology, especially but not limited to Communist ones. A key issue is the extent of control, and awareness of control, that the individuals with authority have over a human subject. The terms "thought reform", "brainwashing", and "mind control" are popularly interchangeable, but strong distinctions exist. Techniques from these contexts have been used in pressure applied to military prisoners of war and in interrogation. The term also can apply to the techniques of newer cults and other movements.

Robert Jay Lifton, puts it into perspective by speaking of image of "brainwashing" as an all-powerful, irresistible, unfathomable and magical method of achieving total control over the human mind. It is of course none of these things, and this loose usage makes the word a rallying point for fear, resentment, urges toward submission, justification for failure, irresponsible accusation, and for a wide gamut of emotional may be even tempted to forget about the whole subject and return to more constructive pursuits....For despite the vicissitudes of brainwashing, the official Chinese Communist program of szu-hsiang kai-tsao ... has emerged as one of the most powerful efforts at human manipulation ever undertaken. [1]

One site, which argues that brainwashing is widely prevalent, run by Steven Alan Hassan, states "Dr. Lifton's work was the outgrowth of his studies for military intelligence of Mao Tse-Tung's "thought-reform programs" commonly known as "brainwashing." [2] Lifton, however, wrote he conducted the research in Hong Kong in 1954-1955, followed by four years of analysis in the U.S. [3] He had participated in the "psychiatric evaluation of repatriated American prisoners of war during the exchange operations in Korea known as Big Switch; I had then accompanied a group of these men on the troopship back to the U.S."[4] This would be typical of medical support to repatriated prisoners by military medicine, rather than an intelligence program.[5] He described the repatriation experience in a medical journal.[6] In contrast to Hassan's website statement, Lifton specifically says "this book does not concern itself with the military application of thought reform to westerners."[7] Such an analysis, however, is the focus of Biderman and others. [8]

There is a movement that believes that widespread mind control exists. One group defined "mind control" as
all mind control procedures designed to make a victim follow directives of the programmer without conscious awareness."[9]

Mind control at this level is a popular fictional concept, as in Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, but there is little objective evidence it has ever been accomplished. There is substantial evidence of failed attempts to create a state of such control. There is little question that resistance to authority can be lowered, and individuals can be pressured to do things, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes because they see no alternative. Unconscious control, however, is not generally accepted by social scientists or human-source intelligence specialists.

Ideological use

The term, or close variants, does appear in the works of Mao Zedong.[10] Mao speaks in terms of conscious change: "Let us severely criticize the mistakes he has made and at the same time welcome every improvement he has made. We should take this two-sided attitude to help an old comrade who has been with us for 31 years. We should take the same attitude toward all other comrades who have made mistakes but have indicated their intention to amend."

In a variety of societies, it has been ideologically or politically important that dissidents go through a process of formal confession. This was evident in the Soviet show trials of the Great Terror. [11] Some prisoners, who unquestionably were tortured and knew there was no possibility the court would acquit them, still argued innocence. The the Soviet purges in the Great Terror exerted confessions from many, often calling for their own execution. In neither case, however, did the victims come under unconscious control. Some of the Soviet victims actively defended themselves, regardless of torture, execution of family members, etc., until they themselves were put to death. Lifton, however, speaks of the "Russian communist contribution to thought reform" but asks "why it was the Chinese who developed thought reform." In the Russian case, he cites the belief that the Marxist-Leninist dialectic is scientific, and the use of "criticism, self-criticism, and confession as features of 'ideological struggle.'" In Russia, the result of the coerced confession was liquidation, bit in China, "confession has been the vehicle for individual re-education." He proposes that the idea of self-analysis is inherently Confucian.[12]

Sincerity is the way of heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is right, and apprehends without the exercise of thought;—he is the sage who naturally embodies the right way. He who attains to sincerity is he who chooses what is good and firmly holds it fast.[13]

Confessions, later repudiated, by prisoners of war, often have been associated with forms of thought control. Contil distinguishes among three types of false confessions, two of which could come from some type of control: [14]

  • Voluntary false confession: the subject confesses for reasons that could include a desire for notoriety, or to protect another person,
  • Coerced-compliant false confessions: the subject, who does not believe the substance of the confession to be true, confesses to avoid the continuation of pressure, which may be psychological or physical. He puts the Korean War "brainwashed" confessions in this category, where prisoners were indoctrinated and demands made to confess to stop pressure
  • Coerced-internalized false confessions: a suggestible subject, in the context of intense interrogation, comes to believe he did do that which he confesses

When pilots confessed to biological warfare during the Korean War, or made political statements during the Vietnam War or Gulf War, the confession was of propaganda value to their captors. In each of those cases, the captors made extensive use of psychological warfare; a confession, true or not, could well be of more value than whatever tactical intelligence a pilot might be able to provide.

Thought reform vs. mind control

The term is not equivalent to mind control. Lifton wrote "brainwashing" became a buzzword in the 1950s, although "mind control" may be more the modern generic phrase. A seminal paper on "brainwashing" and what it achieved in the Korean War agrees that human behavior can be modified, especially to coerce confessions. The methods involved were not new, and had been used by interrogators for centuries.

The Chinese interrogators succeeded or failed to influence the behavior of their victims roughly to the extent that the skill and persistence of the personnel they employed nmatched those of practitioners in other places and times. While their initial attempts were generally inept and unsuccessful, their success tripled with experience.[15]

Biderman observed that the measures taken fell into two categories: those that increased compliance, and those that "sought to shape his compliance into the very specific patterns of ... behavior...." They used these measures for different reasons:

  • Intelligence information
  • Other forms of propaganda collaboration
  • false confessions
  • compliance apparently for its own sake

The argument equating them is common among certain groups. This is a common claim among groups that claim there is widespread mind control, but Lifton, in Chapter 22, never uses the phrase "mind control." He does outline eight criteria for when any environment can be understood as exercising "thought-reform" or mind control.

  • milieu control
  • mystical manipulation or planned spontaneity
  • the demand for purity
  • the cult of confession
  • sacred science
  • loading of the language
  • doctrine over person
  • dispensing of existence.
Lifton wrote that any group has some aspects of these points. "if an environment has all eight of these points and implements them in the extreme, then there is unhealthy thought reform taking place." Even if Hassan's reformulation is accepted, it is decidedly different than "follow[ing] directives of the programmer without conscious awareness." Philip Zimbardo, who uses Hassan's book in some of his courses, discusses mind control, in the context of "destructive cults," without the implication of unconscious control:
Mind control is the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes.[16]

Hassan's BITE Model (Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, Emotional Control) allows for a continuum in what he terms mind control. He writes that not all the components need to be present, as long as the "overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause." He states that a person under some level of control can exhibit adequate functions in activities of daily life, such as work and family, "but still be unable to think for themselves and act independently".[17] For this to be consistent, the subject clearly has to be exhibiting some independence in activities of daily living, so the extreme, unconscious control model cannot apply. There are levels of normal behavior where people will not make certain decisions on their own. Decisionmaking is also culturally dependent; consider the difference in individual decisionmaking in a culture that traditionally arranges marriages, and one that does not.


Biderman did not find torture to be an especially strong means of inducing a form of thought control, although he had two caveats. First, the fear of the unknown, including torture, can be more stressful than the actual infliction of pain. He observed that direct, external, infliction of pain, such as bamboo splinters under fingernails, could become a battle of will between the captor and prisoner, not infrequently won by the prisoner. What was much more effective were methods, such as forced standing for long periods, which [bring] "the subject to act "against himself"...It leads the prisoner to exaggerate the power of the interrogator. As long as the subject remains standing, he is attributing to his captor the power to do something worse to him, but there is actually no slowdown of the ability of the interrogator to do so." [18]


The Central Intelligence Agency attempted to break Nguyen Tai, and failed after several years of effort. [19] Other extreme measures including the strict detention of Yuri Nosenko, which again did not produce a state of unconscious mind control.[20].

Other manuals focus on interrogation, but do not suggest achieving more than limited cooperation. A 1963 manual on the KUBARK program makes the observation, consistent with Biderman, it is often the threat of acts that are more effective than the acts themselves. [21] A 1983 manual derived from KUBARK certainly speaks of disorienting the subject,[22], but in the context of "subjects [making] confessions or admissions because they are in a state of mind that leads them to believe that cooperation is their best course of manipulating him psychologically until his resistance is sapped and his urge to resist is fortified."[23] Observe that these goals are framed in terms of overcoming conscious resistance and inducing cooperation as a choice, not as the result of unconscious control.

Sensory deprivation and overload

While withdrawal from external stimuli had been deliberately practiced, as an aid to meditation, throughout history, the ability to meditate deeply was a learned skill. Beginning in the early 1950s, the effect of isolation from senses was studied for a variety of purposes. Some of the first work came from Donald Hebb of McGill University, who stated his work was funded by the Canadian Defense Research Board to explore the problems of false sensation by people in monotonous jobs, such as driving trucks or monitoring radar screens. Hebb later stated, in John Lilly's book, that while the stated purpose was true, it was also done in pursuit of methods for brainwashing. His experiment allowed the subject to stop at any time, but did explore the role of perception as it might relate to Korean activities. [24] John Lilly, who also worked in this area, disagreed with the term "deprivation", saying .."'sensory deprivation' was invented by those psychologists who did not do self-investigation and who did experiments on subjects, expecting a "deprivation state" in the isolated circumstances. In a series of over three hundred subjects we have found no such states of 'deprivation,' nor the predicated 'stress' of physical isolation."

Hebb's work, and that of others such as that of Maitland Baldwin, had been of interest to the CIA. Baldwin, however, did not let the subject stop the experiment. Lilly, according to Rejali, found there was considerable CIA interest in whether belief systems or personalities could, involuntarily, be altered. [25]

Rejali cites the KUBARK and HREX manuals as mentioning Lilly's tank, but "one would expect, then, that these boxes would exist worldwide, if not in squeamish democratic states, then at least in authoritarian ones. The evidence is otherwise." He cites other sensory environments, which, rather than depriving senses, would apply intolerable noise and heat, which did constitute torture but had little role in changing personality. If the experience was involuntary, it was no more or less destructive of personality than sleep deprivation, which can indeed cause hallucinations. [26]


CIA activities used drugs and caused at least one suicide as well as long-term damage. [27] The programs, variously code-named ARTICHOKE, BLUEBIRD, and MKULTRA, emphasized the use of drugs and other methods in interrogation. They appear to have been abandoned not due to moral reasons, but because they did not achieve the desired goal. While some claim to have been subjects of these programs as children,[28] it is not at all apparent why even successful use of the techniques, on children, would produce any result useful in intelligence or clandestine operations.

Known programs for release of prisoners

There have been programs in which prisoners have been repatriated, in an effort to wage psychological warfare on the prisoners' home country. Subproject BORDEN of Operation FORAE, conducted by MACV-SOG against North Vietnam. While there was some indoctrination of the prisoners, the program was not remotely intended to be kept from North Vietnamese counterintelligence; the entire point was to induce suspicion in North Vietnamese security, sending it on witch-hunts for nonexistent secret operations. [29]

The cynical phrase "trap, neuter, and release" is a term of art in counter-terrorism, for the release of prisoners in such a manner that their sponsoring organization will never again trust them.

Bonding with captors

In both simulated situations such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and real cases such as that characterized by Stockholm syndrome, prisoners, without necessarily going through a formal indoctrination, may become dependent and complicit with captors.


  1. Lifton, Robert Jay (1989), Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China, W.W. Norton, ISBN 0-8078-4255-2, pp. 4-5
  2. Steven Alan Hassan, Lifton's Thought Reform Model, Freedom of Mind Center
  3. Lifton, p. vii
  4. Lifton, p. 6
  5. Department of Defense Directive 6490.5: Combat Stress Control (CSC) Programs, U.S. Department of Defense
  6. Lifton, Robert Jay (1954), "Home by Ship: Reaction Patterns of American Prisoners of War Repatriated from North Korea", American Journal of Psychiatry 110: 732-739
  7. Lifton, p. 485
  8. Albert D. Biderman (1957 September), "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War", Bull N Y Acad Med. 33 (9): 616–625
  9. Rutz C et al. (2008), Exploring Commonalities Reported by Adult Survivors of Extreme Abuse: Preliminary Empirical Findings, in Noblitt JR, Perskin PS, Ritual Abuse in the Twenty-first Century: Psychological, Forensic, Social and Political Considerations, Robert Reed
  10. Mao Zedong (September 9, 1959), Comment On P’eng Te-huai’s Letter Of 9 September
  11. Robert Conquest (1990), Chapter 5, "The Problem of Confession", The Great Terror: a Reassessment, Oxford University Press, pp. 109-131
  12. Lifton, pp. 398-390
  13. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, quoted in Lifton, p. 391
  14. Richard P. Conti (1999), "The Psychology of False Confessions", The Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology 2 (1), p. 20-23
  15. Biderman, pp. 617-618
  16. Philip Zimbardo (November 2002), "Mind control: psychological reality or mindless rhetoric?", APA Online, American Psychological Association (no. 10)
  17. Steven Hassan (2000), Mind Control - The BITE Model, Chapter two, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves*, Freedom of Mind Press
  18. Biderman, pp. 219-221
  19. Merle L. Pribbenow, The Man in the Snow White Cell: Limits to Interrogation, vol. 48, Central Intelligence Agency
  20. David Stout (August 28, 2008), "Yuri Nosenko, Soviet Spy Who Defected, Dies at 81", New York Times
  21. Central Intelligence Agency (July 1963), KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, "The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources", Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past, vol. George Washington University National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122
  22. Central Intelligence Agency (1983), Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual (HREX), Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past, vol. George Washington University National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122, pp. 40-42 (PDF)
  23. CIA HREX 1983, p. 17 (PDF)
  24. Donald Hebb (Fall 1987.), "Did It Really Start With Monotony?", "Floating"
  25. Darius M. Rejali (2007), Torture and Democracy, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0691114226, pp. 369-370
  26. Rejali, pp. 372-373
  27. , The Testing of Behavior-Influencing Drugs on Unsuspecting Subjects Within the United States, Report to the President by the Commission on CIA Activities within the United States ("Rockefeller Commission"), June 1975, pp. 226-228
  28. Carol Rutz (2001), Carol Rutz' '01 Conference Presentation, The Fourth Annual Ritual Abuse, Secretive Organizations and Mind Control Conference
  29. Shultz, Richard H., Jr. (2000), the Secret War against Hanoi: the untold story of spies, saboteurs, and covert warriors in North Vietnam, Harper Collins Perennial, pp. 114-117