The Process of Brainwashing, Psychological Coercion, and Thought Reform 


Jossey-Bass Publishers San Franciso
By Margaret Thaler Singer (with Janja Lalich)

Cults in our Midst, Chapter 3


  Education Advertising Propaganda Indoctrination Thought


Focus of body of knowledge

Many bodies of knowledge, based on scientific findings in various fields.

Body of knowledge concerns product, competitors, how to sell and influence via legal persuasion.

Body of knowledge centers on political persuasion of masses of people.

Body of knowledge is explicitly designed to inculcate organizational values.

Body of knowledge centers on changing people without their knowledge.

Direction & degree of exchange

Two way pupil-teacher exchange encouraged.

Exchange can occur, but communication generally one-sided.

Some exchange occurs, but communication generally one-sided.

Limited exchange occurs; communication is one-sided.

No exchange occurs, communication is one-sided.

Ability to change

Change occurs as science advances; as students & other scholars offer criticism; as students & citizens evaluate programs.

Change made by those who pay for it, based upon the success of ad programs; by consumer law; & in response to consumer complaints.

Change based on changing tides in world politics and on political need to promote the group, nation, or international organization.

Change made through formal channels, via written suggestions to higher-ups.

Change occurs rarely; organization remains fairly rigid; change occurs primarily to improve thought reform effectiveness.

Structure of persuasion

Uses teacher-pupil structure; logical thinking encouraged.

Uses an instructional mode to persuade consumer/buyer.

Takes authoritarian stance to persuade masses.

Takes authoritarian & hierarchical stance.

Takes authoritarian & hierarchical stance; no full awareness on part of learner.

Type of relationship

Instruction is time-limited; consensual.

Consumer/buyer can accept or ignore communication.

Learner support & engrossment expected.

Instruction is contractual; consensual.

Group attempts to retain people forever.


Is not deceptive.

Can be deceptive, selecting only positive views.

Can be deceptive; often exagerated.

Is not deceptive.

Is deceptive.

Breadth of learning

Focuses on learning to learn & learning about reality; broad goal is rounded knowledge for development of the individual.

Has a narrow goal of swaying opinion to promote and sell an idea, object, or program; another goal is to enhance seller & possibly buyer.

Targets large political masses to make them believe a specific view or circumstance is good.

Stress narrow learning for a specific goal; to become something or to train for performance of duties.

Individualized target; hidden agenda (you will be changed one step at a time to become deployable to serve leaders).


Respects differences.

Puts down competition.

Wants to lessen opposition.

Aware of Differences.

No respect for differences.


Instructional techniques.

Mild to heavy persuasion.

Overt persuasion; sometimes unethical.

Disciplinary techniques.

Improper and unethical techniques.


The tactics of a thought-reform program are organized to:

  • Destabilize a person's sense of self,
  • Get the person to drastically reinterpret his or her life's history and radically alter his or her worldview and accept a new version of reality and causality,
  • Develop in the person a dependence on the organization, and thereby turn the person into a deployable agent of the organization.


Table 3.3. Criteria for Thought Reform.

Condition (Singer)


Themes (Lifton)


Stages (Schein)


  1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.
  1. Unfreezing.
  1. Control the person's time and, if possible, physical environment.
  2. Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency.
  3. Suppress much of the person's old behavior and attitudes.
  1. Milieu control.
  2. Loading the language.
  3. Demand for purity.
  4. Confession
  1. Instill new behavior and attitudes.
  1. Mystical manipulation.
  2. Doctrine over person.
  1. Changing.
  1. Put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism.
  1. Sacred science.
  2. Dispensing of existence.
  1. Refreezing.

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