Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

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Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism
Thought Reform Lifton.jpg
Book cover, 1989 edition
Author Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.
Translator Richard Jaffe (Chinese)
Cover artist Shelley Gruendler
Country United States
Language English
Subject Psychology
Mind control
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Norton, New York (1961, first edition)
University of North Carolina Press (reprint)
Publication date
1961, 1989 (UNC Press reprint)
Media type Paperback
Pages 524 (1989 reprint)
ISBN 0-8078-4253-2
OCLC 19388265
153.8/53/0951 19
LC Class BF633 .L5 1989

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China is a non-fiction book by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton on the psychology of brainwashing and mind control.

Lifton's research for the book began in 1953 with a series of interviews with American servicemen who had been held captive during the Korean War. In addition to interviews with 25 Americans, Lifton also interviewed 15 Chinese who had fled their homeland after having been subjected to indoctrination in Chinese universities. From these interviews, which in some cases occurred regularly for over a year, Lifton identified the tactics used by Chinese communists to cause drastic shifts in one's opinions and personality and "brainwash" American soldiers into making demonstrably false assertions.

The book was first published in 1961 by Norton in New York.[1] The 1989 reprint edition was published by University of North Carolina Press.[2] Lifton is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

Main points[edit]

In the book, Lifton outlines the "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform":

  1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
  2. Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.
  3. 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. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
  4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members' "sins," "attitudes," and "faults" are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
  5. Sacred Science. The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
  6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking.
  7. Doctrine over person. Members' personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
  8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.[3]

Thought-terminating cliché[edit]

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism popularized the term "thought-terminating cliché". This refers to a cliché that is a commonly used phrase, or folk wisdom, sometimes used to quell cognitive dissonance. Though the clichéd phrase in and of itself may be valid in certain contexts, its application as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic is what makes it thought-terminating.

Lifton said:[4][5]

The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

In George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the fictional constructed language Newspeak is designed to entirely eliminate the ability to express unorthodox thoughts. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World society uses thought-terminating clichés in a more conventional manner, most notably in regard to the drug soma as well as modified versions of real-life platitudes, such as "A doctor a day keeps the jim-jams away".

In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann as an intelligent man who used clichés and platitudes to justify his actions and the role he played in the Jewish genocide of World War II. For her, these phrases are symptomatic of an absence of thought. She wrote "When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he [Eichmann] was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence."[6]


General examples[edit]

  • “God works in mysterious ways”, “His ways are higher than ours.”
  • “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • "It's not always like that."
  • "It is what it is"[7]
  • "Who do you think you are?"/"Who are you to..."
  • “Don't judge.”
  • “You don’t always get what you want.”, “You win some, you lose some.”
  • “We already had this conversation.”, “It's not worth discussing.”
  • “Such is life.”, “It is what it is.” , “Whatever will be, will be.”
  • “You are not being a 'team player'.” (Ignoratio elenchi)
  • “Can't everybody just drop it and get along?” (used as an attempt to stop an ongoing debate or argument)
  • Whatever.”, “Who cares?”
  • “It's a matter of opinion!”, "It's all relative.", "That's just your feelings."
  • You only live once.”
  • “We will have to agree to disagree.”
  • “There's no smoke without fire.” (used to convince others that a person is guilty based on accusation or hearsay and to discourage further examination of evidence)
  • “The more you argue, the less we believe you.”
  • "People are going to do what they want."
  • "For security reasons"
  • "Do you really want us to lose?"
  • "They all work for Big Oil!" (or Big Tobacco, The Pharmaceutical Lobby, or another vilified group)
  • "I don't have to explain anything to you"

Political examples[edit]

Thought-terminating clichés are sometimes used during political discourse to enhance appeal or to shut down debate. In this setting, their usage can usually be classified as a logical fallacy.

Religious examples[edit]

Thought-terminating clichés are also present in religious discourse in order to define a clear border between good and evil, holiness and sacrilege, and other polar opposites. These are especially present in religious literature.

  • "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away." Job 1:21
  • "That's not Biblical."
  • "God moves/works in mysterious ways."
  • "God never gives you more suffering than you can bear.”
  • "Only God can judge."
  • "God has a plan."
  • "Pride comes before the fall."
  • "You just need to trust in God."

The religious or semi-religious ideas of cults, heretics, and infidels are also often used as thought-terminating clichés, e.g. "Do not listen to him, he is an infidel," (a guilt by association fallacy) or "That line of thought sounds like a cult" (also a guilt by association fallacy).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "CLIO Holdings Information". Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  2. ^ Jay, Robert. "UNC Press – Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism". Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  3. ^ Dr. Robert J. Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, Lifton, 1989 edition.
  4. ^ Lifton, Robert J. (1989). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China. UNC Press. p. 429. ISBN 978-0-8078-4253-9. 
  5. ^ Henke, David (2001), "The use of Mind Control in Religious Cults (Part Two)", The Watchman Expositor (Watchman Fellowship ministry) 20, retrieved 2012-03-28 
  6. ^ Arendt, Hannah (1978). Mary McCarthy, ed. Thinking. The Life of the Mind. I. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 4. ISBN 978-0151518951. 
  7. ^ ""It Is What It Is": Origin of the Phrase", YourDictionary, retrieved 2015-06-01 

External links[edit]