3-02 Abuse Conditioning and Cover-Ups


  • Robert Jay Lifton and His Eight Criteria of “Sociological Cults”
  • Frameworks for Thinking Through Victimization Tactics and Resulting Loss of Freedoms
  • Some Suggested Resources for Exploring Survivors’ and Experts’ Views of Conditioning Tactics (Grooming, Mind-Control, Brainwashing, Recovery, “Reprogramming”)

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Robert Jay Lifton and His Eight Criteria of “Sociological Cults”

The classic research into tactics of “totalist psychology” and social control come from work done in the late 1950s by Robert Jay Lifton, and first published in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China (originally published 1961; 1989 edition from University of North Carolina Press).

For an overview of his eight criteria that define a “sociological cult” seeking total control of its members, see my series of three posts beginning with Lessons from The Hunger Games 5A – Dystopian Dynamics, Totalitarian Tactics, and Lifton’s Criteria for Identifying “Cults.” (Note: A “sociological” cult does not have to have religious foundations or doctrinal heresy in order to be designated a cult. For instance, Dr. Lifton’s research involved victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. However, religious/spiritual cults are inevitably also sociological cults.)

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Frameworks for Thinking Through

Victimization Tactics and Resulting Loss of Freedoms

I have found it useful to categorize conditioning tactics according to those that constitute “positive grooming” (i.e., reinforce desired beliefs and behaviors) versus “negative grooming” (i.e., extinguish forbidden beliefs and behaviors).

Tactics in both of those categories can be further organized as to whether they deal primarily with what people can/cannot SAY, what they can/cannot DO, and who they can/cannot BE (i.e., identity).

Another helpful angle for thinking things through is to reflect on whether particular tactics are being used to attract new people into a perpetrator’s orbit, keep people in their orbit once they’ve been drawn in, or to do damage control (cover up wrongdoing, deflect/silence critics) so people don’t get knocked out of that orbit if somehow the spotlight shines on their abuses.

Regardless of how we may analyze and categorize various tactics, all of these forms of conditioning work to remove freedom of choice from those under the victimizer’s influence. After studying a number of worldwide human rights documents and democracy movements, a framework for freedom that made sense to me includes three key elements.

  • Freedom to self-determination — to discern and decide one’s destiny and trajectory, as an individual or as a community.
  • Freedom for relational association — to choose one’s friends and other support network members.
  • Freedom for cultural participation — to pursue one’s gifts and passions through involvement in culture, vocation, and political endeavors.

For some details on conditioning of victims and various roles perpetrators and enablers can take, see my futuristguy post on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 2B – The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems. This is an older version of what I have updated in Futuristguy’s Field Guide #1 (forthcoming, early 2018) in my training series on “Do Good Plus Do No Harm.”

Field Guide #2 (planned for release late 2018) will include multiple other frameworks for thinking through different kinds of conditioning tactics. For instance, dominant tactics differ in organizational systems that involve control by (1) compliance, (2) chaos, (3) charisma, and (4) competition — yet all end up with control. Also, dominant tactics differ in cultures that are (A) guilt/punishment-based, (B) shame/loss-of-face-based, and (C) fear/overlording-based — and in fact, tactics that have strong social influence in one kind of culture may typically fail in a different kind of overall culture.

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Some Suggested Resources for Exploring

Survivors’ and Experts’ Views of Conditioning Tactics

Grooming, Mind-Control, Brainwashing, Recovery, “Reprogramming”


Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control by Dominic Streatfeild (Picador, 2008).

Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Other Abusive Relationships by Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich (Hunter House, 1995).

Combatting Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-Selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults by Steven Hassan (Park Street Press, 1990).

Cult Survivor’s Handbook: How to Live in the Material World Again by Nori Muster (Kindle Edition, 2010).

Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace by Margaret Thaler Sanger (2003, revised edition).

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965; Ace Trade, 2005). A classic work of sci-fi/speculative fiction that focuses on the dynamics of almost every source of abuse of power imaginable – family, gender, technology, profession, artisanship, genetics, political, cultural, etc.

Hearts of Fire: Cult Recovery and Spiritual Transformation by Kara Sorensen (2001). (This book is based in shamanic and esoteric spirituality traditions.)

The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning, and Indoctrination by Denise Winn (Malor Books, 2000).

Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins (University of Toronto Press, 2001). An important middle-road among the theoretical approaches to “cult studies.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949; Plume, 1983). A classic work of dystopian literature that embodies all kinds of mind-control and behavior-modification tactics, which typically show up in some form in extreme/cult groups.

Recovery from Abusive Groups by Wendy Ford and Wendy Wolfberg (American Family Foundation, 1993, revised edition).

Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse by Michael Langone (W. W. Norton & Company, 1995).

Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible by James Sire (InterVarsity Press, 1980).

Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias (Bay Tree Publishing, 2006, second edition).

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China by Robert J. Lifton (1963; University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

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Website: Out of the FOG

One of the most insightful catalogues of conditioning tactics I’ve found is on the Out of the FOG website. This website on personality disorders gives crucial information for those victimized, their support advocates, and professionals. See their Top 100 Traits & Behaviors of Personality-Disordered Individuals. They name the tactic; offer a brief definition of it; and then link to a separate page with a more extensive description, which often includes insights for how to respond constructively to it.

For additional help on what to do about abusive people, see their Toolbox page for an overview of their practical resource articles in three categories: What It Feels Like, What Not To Do, and What To Do.

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