Robert Jay Lifton

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Robert Jay Lifton
2000 03 17 Robert Jay Lifton.jpg
Born (1926-05-16) May 16, 1926 (age 89)
Brooklyn, New York
Residence United States
Nationality American
Fields psychiatry, psychohistory, mind control, thought reform
Institutions Washington School of Psychiatry
Harvard University
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Yale University
Alma mater Cornell University
New York Medical College
Known for Author, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism; Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima; The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

Robert Jay Lifton (born May 16, 1926) is an American psychiatrist and author, chiefly known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence and for his theory of thought reform. He was an early proponent of the techniques of psychohistory.


Lifton was born in 1926, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Harold A. (a businessman) and Ciel (Roth) Lifton. He was fifteen when the United States declared war on Japan and Nazi Germany (December 1941). He studied medicine at Cornell University and New York Medical College in 1948. He interned at the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn in 1948-49, and had his psychiatric residence training at the Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York in 1949-51. From 1951 to 1953 he served as an Air Force psychiatrist in Japan and Korea, to which he later attributed his interest in war and politics. He has since worked as a teacher and researcher at the Washington School of Psychiatry, Harvard University, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he helped to found the Center for the Study of Human Violence.

He married the children's writer Betty Jean Kirschner in 1952 and has two children. She died in Boston on November 19, 2010, from complications of pneumonia.

Lifton calls cartooning his avocation; he has published two books of humorous cartoons about birds.

He is a member of Collegium International, an organization of leaders with political, scientific, and ethical expertise whose goal is to provide new approaches in overcoming the obstacles in the way of a peaceful, socially just and an economically sustainable world.

Holocaust research[edit]

A leading scholar of the Holocaust and an internationally renowned author of several books, including The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide and The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and the Nuclear Threat, agrees that what happened to the Bosnian Muslims "merits the use of the word genocide". He is a recipient of a Nobel Lectureship, the Holocaust Memorial Award, and the Gandhi Peace Award. Since the 1960s, Dr. Lifton has been recognized internationally for his research on genocide. According to Dr. Lifton in 1993,

"What's happening there [in Bosnia] merits the use of the word genocide. There is an effort to systematically destroy an entire group. It's even been conceptualized by Serbian nationalists as so-called 'ethnic cleansing.' That term signifies mass killing, mass relocation, and that does constitute genocide."[1]

In 2006, Lifton appeared in a documentary on cults on the History Channel: "Decoding the Past", along with fellow psychiatrist Peter A. Olsson.[2]

The Wellfleet Psychohistory Group[edit]

During the 1960s, Robert Jay Lifton, together with his mentor Erik Erikson and MIT historian Bruce Mazlish, formed a group to apply psychology and psychoanalysis to the study of history. Meetings were held at Lifton's home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The Wellfleet Psychohistory Group, as it became known, focused mainly on psychological motivations for war, terrorism and genocide in recent history. In 1965, they received sponsorship from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish psychohistory as a separate field of study. A collection of research papers by the group was published in 1975: Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers (see Bibliography; Lifton as editor).

Lifton's work in this field was heavily influenced by Erikson's studies of Hitler and other political figures, as well as Sigmund Freud's concern with the mass social effects of deep-seated drives, particularly attitudes toward death.

Theory of thought reform[edit]

Main article: Thought Reform (book)

Lifton investigated the thought-reform procedures used against American POWs returning from the Korean War while involved in their psychiatric evaluation.[3] Lifton's 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China was a study of coercive techniques that he labelled thought reform or "brainwashing", though he preferred the former term. Others have labelled it also as "mind control". Lifton describes in detail eight methods he says are used to change people's minds without their agreement:

  • Milieu Control – The control of information and communication.
  • Mystical Manipulation – The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated.
  • Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.
  • Confession – Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.
  • Sacred Science – The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.
  • Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways that the outside world often does not understand.
  • Doctrine over person – The member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science such that any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
  • Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.

The term thought-terminating cliché was popularized by Lifton in this book.

Studies of war and atrocity survivors[edit]

His most influential books featured mental adaptations that people made in extreme wartime environments: Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1967), Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans—Neither Victims nor Executioners (1973), and The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986). Regarding Hiroshima and Vietnam survivors or Nazi perpretators, Lifton believed that the psychic fragmentation experienced by his subjects was an extreme form of the pathologies that arise in peacetime life due to the pressures and fears of modern society.

His studies of the behavior of people who had committed war crimes, both individually and in groups, concluded that while human nature is not innately cruel and only rare sociopaths can participate in atrocities without suffering lasting emotional harm, such crimes do not require any unusual degree of personal evil or mental illness, and are nearly sure to happen given certain conditions (either accidental or deliberately arranged) which Lifton called "atrocity-producing situations". The Nazi Doctors was the first in-depth study of how medical professionals rationalized their participation in the Holocaust, from the early stages of the T-4 Euthanasia Program to the extermination camps.

In the Hiroshima and Vietnam studies, Lifton also concluded that the sense of personal disintegration many people experienced after witnessing death and destruction on a mass scale could ultimately lead to a new emotional resilience—but that without the proper support and counseling, most survivors would remain trapped in feelings of unreality and guilt. In her 2005 autobiography My Life So Far, Jane Fonda would come to describe Lifton's work with Vietnam veterans, along with that of fellow psychiatrists Drs. Leonard Neff, Shaim Shatan, and Sharah Haley, as "tireless and empathetic".[4] Lifton was one of the first organizers of therapeutic discussion groups on this subject in which mental health practitioners met with veterans face-to-face, and he and Dr. Neff successfully lobbied for the inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMMD). His book on Hiroshima survivors won the 1969 National Book Award in Science.[5]

Theories of totalism and the protean self[edit]

Totalism, a word first used in Thought Reform, is Lifton's term for the characteristics of ideological movements and organizations that desire total control over human behavior and thought. (Lifton's usage differs from theories of totalitarianism in that it can be applied to the ideology of groups that do not wield governmental power.) In Lifton's opinion, though such attempts always fail, they follow a common pattern and cause predictable types of psychological damage in individuals and societies. He finds two common motives in totalistic movements: the fear and denial of death, channeled into violence against scapegoat groups that are made to represent a metaphorical threat to survival, and a reactionary fear of social change.

In his later work, Lifton has focused on defining the type of change to which totalism is opposed, for which he coined the term the protean self. In the book of the same title, he states that the development of a "fluid and many-sided personality" is a positive trend in modern societies, and that mental health now requires "continuous exploration and personal experiment", which requires the growth of a purely relativist society that's willing to discard and diminish previously established cultures and traditions.

Critiques of modern war and terrorism[edit]

Following his work with Hiroshima survivors, Lifton became a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons, arguing that nuclear strategy and warfighting doctrine made even mass genocide banal and conceivable. While not a strict pacifist, he has spoken against U.S. military actions in his lifetime, particularly the Vietnam War and Iraq War, believing that they arose from irrational and aggressive aspects of American politics motivated by fear.

Lifton regards terrorism as an increasingly serious threat due to the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons and totalist ideologies. He has, however, criticized the current "War on Terrorism" as a misguided and dangerous attempt to "destroy all vulnerability".[citation needed] His 1999 book, Destroying the World to Save It, described the apocalyptic terrorist sect Aum Shinrikyo as a forerunner of "the new global terrorism".

Notable appearances[edit]

Lifton is featured in the 2003 documentary Flight From Death, a film that investigates the relationship of human violence to fear of death, as related to subconscious influences.

On May 18, 2008 Lifton delivered the commencement address at Stonehill College and discussed the apparent "Superpower Syndrome" experienced by the United States in the modern era.[6]

Theoretical Reception (interdisciplinary)[edit]

Lifton's theory of the Protean Self has influenced Heide Kunzelmann's study about Austrian Avantgarde poet Hans Carl Artmann (1921-2000), entitled "Ich bin ja der Proteus. H.C. Artmanns Poetik der Wandelbarkeit" (Vienna, Sonderzahl 2013,ISBN 978 3 85449 402 7). Kunzelmann exemplarily discusses Artmann's poetics in the context of the author's personal history as a deserter of the Wehrmacht, his consequential death sentence in 1945 and coincidental, narrow escape because of the end of WWII. Basing his motivation to write and poetic impetus on his near-death experience, Artmann's programmatically autofictional narrator defines himself as a "proteus" (in: Nachrichten aus Nord und Sued, 1978), thus opening up a discussion about the impact of an empirical 'protean self', as Lifton has defined it, on an author's self-representation in his works. Kunzelmann's study illuminates how the psychologically identifiable protean profile of an author can impact their writing to a high degree of permutability, in style, content and narrative self-representation.


  • Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, Norton (New York City), 1961. OCLC 203733
  • Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, Random House (New York City), 1968.
  • Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Random House, 1968.
  • Birds, Words, and Birds (cartoons), Random House, 1969.
  • History and Human Survival: Essays on the Young and the Old, Survivors and the Dead, Peace and War, and on Contemporary Psychohistory, Random House, 1970.
  • Boundaries, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Toronto), 1969, published as Boundaries: Psychological Man in Revolution, Random House, 1970.
  • Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans—Neither Victims nor Executioners, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1973.
  • (With Eric Olson) Living and Dying, Praeger, 1974.
  • The Life of the Self: Toward a New Psychology, Simon & Schuster, 1976.
  • Psychobirds, Countryman Press, 1978.
  • (With Shuichi Kato and Michael Reich) Six Lives/Six Deaths: Portraits from Modern Japan (originally published in Japanese as Nihonjin no shiseikan, 1977), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1979.
  • The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1979.
  • (With Richard A. Falk) Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case against Nuclearism, Basic Books (New York City), 1982.
  • The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Basic Books, August 2000( first edition 1986).
  • The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age, Basic Books, 1987.
  • (With Eric Markusen) The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat, Basic Books, 1990.
  • The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, Basic Books, 1993.
  • (With Greg Mitchell) Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Putnam's (New York City), 1995.
  • Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, Owl Books, 2000.
  • (With Greg Mitchell) Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions, Morrow, 2000.
  • Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World, Nation Books, 2003.

Lifton as editor[edit]

  • (With Jacob D. Lindy)Beyond Invisible Walls: The Psychological Legacy of Soviet Trauma, East European Therapists and Their Patients, Edwards Brothers (Lillington, NC), 2001.
  • The Woman in America, Houghton (Boston), 1965.
  • America and the Asian Revolutions, Trans-Action Books, 1970, second edition, 1973.
  • (With Richard A. Falk and Gabriel Kolko) Crimes of War: A Legal, Political-Documentary, and Psychological Inquiry into the Responsibilities of Leaders, Citizens, and Soldiers for Criminal Acts of War, Random House, 1971.
  • (With Eric Olson) Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers, Simon & Schuster, 1975.
  • (With Eric Chivian, Susanna Chivian, and John E. Mack) Last Aid: The Medical Dimensions of Nuclear War, W. H. Freeman, 1982.
  • (With Nicholas Humphrey) In a Dark Time: Images for Survival, Harvard University Press, 1984.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Toledo Blade, "Slavic Horror Termed Genocide" 28 February 1993.
  2. ^ 2006, History Channel, "Decoding the Past".
    Cults: Dangerous Devotion: Scholars and survivors discuss the mystery of cults. (120 min). History. (PG/TV-PG)
  3. ^ A. L. Wilkes Knowledge in Minds, p. 323, Psychology Press, 1997 ISBN 978-0-86377-439-3
  4. ^ Jane Fonda (5 April 2005). My Life So Far (with Bonus Content). Random House. p. 349. ISBN 978-1-58836-478-4. Retrieved 9 September 2013. 
  5. ^ "National Book Awards – 1969". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
  6. ^[dead link]

External links[edit]


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