Lifton's eight Criteria of Thought Manipulation

Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Criteria for Thought Reform
***Excerpted from: Thought Reform And The Psychology of Totalism, Chapter 22, p420 (Chapel Hill, 1989) ***

"These criteria consist of eight psychological themes which are predominant within the social field of the thought reform milieu. Each has a totalistic quality; each depends upon an equally absolute philosophical assumption; and each mobilises certain individual emotional tendencies, mostly of a polarising nature.

Psychological theme, philosophical rationale, and polarised individual tendencies are interdependent; they require, rather than directly cause, each other. In combination they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energise or exhilarate, but which at the same time poses the gravest of human threats." (Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism p 420)

MILIEU CONTROL (50% match)

  • Attempt to control over all a person sees, hears, reads, writes (information control). . This creates conflicts in respect to individual autonomy (never mention current or encourage the reading of current Muslim scholars, ideas, current events. Cannot write or publish anything about religion without approval), etc. From another aspect, rarely is there any research or extensive discussion about the books and writings of the Founder, or other literary history of the Ahmadiyya.
  • No gatherings or groups except as authorized.
  • During meetings, no comments or questions and no encouragement to think.
  • No scholarship encouraged except by the Head or encouraged by him.
  • Often a sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures, group encounters, which become increasingly intense and increasingly isolated, making it extremely difficult– both physically and psychologically–for one to leave. Continuous activity, like meetings, gatherings, etc., that leaves little room for anything else. Extreme discouragement of meeting mainstream Muslims and socializing with them.
  • Sets up a sense of antagonism with the outside world; it’s "us against them"
  • Closely connected to the process of individual change **(personal faith is measured by the participation in these group activities) **

MYSTICAL MANIPULATION (Planned spontaneity) (100% match)

  • Extensive personal manipulation
  • Seeks to promote specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that it appears to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment, while it actually has been orchestrated — like collective ‘bai`t’ , orchestrated slogans.
  • Totalist leaders claim to be agents chosen by God, history, or some supernatural force, to carry out the mystical imperative‘Khilafat’ Day, ‘khalifa’ is made by God, etc., ‘Musleh Mau’ood Day’ – i.e. claims instead of actions.
  • The "principles" (God-centered or otherwise) can be put forcibly and claimed exclusively, so that the cult and its beliefs become the only true path to salvation (or enlightenment) – ‘imam-uz-zamaan’, believing in Mahdi an article of faith etc.
  • The individual then develops the psychology of the pawn, and participates actively in the manipulation of others – ‘da`wat il-Allah’ is rarely that – it is invitation to join Ahmadiyya – by whatever means – more on that in another section.
  • The leader who becomes the center of the mystical manipulation (or the person in whose name it is done) can be sometimes more real than an abstract god and therefore attractive to cult members – the manipulative misuse of common things like meeting with or writing letters to ‘Khalifa’, attachment to ‘Khalifa’, request for prayers, etc.
  • Legitimizes the deception used to recruit new members and/or raise funds, and the deception used on the "outside world" – spending of funds is entirely on maintaining the atmosphere for the converted, extremely deceptive practices to recruit, and recently – officially legitimizing it and calling it the difference between Ahmadi and mu’min.


  • The world becomes sharply divided into the pure and the impure, the absolutely good (the group/ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group) – especially Muslims who are ‘ghair Ahmadi’ – a term that has a colloquial connotation within the Ahmadiyya as worse than Europeans or Americans.
  • One must continually change or conform to the group "norm"
  • Tendencies towards guilt and shame are used as emotional levers for the group’s controlling and manipulative influences
  • Once a person has experienced the totalist polarization of good/evil (black/white thinking), he has great difficulty in regaining a more balanced inner sensitivity to the complexities of human morality .
    (Most common Ahmadis have a very stunted concept of social interaction, tolerance and the need for compromise and organization to achieve communal results. Too much relying on destiny as promised by the headers)
  • The radical separation of pure/impure is both within the environment (the group) and the individual
  • Ties in with the process of confession — one must confess when one is not conforming

CONFESSION (no match – applies more to
Christian cults)

  • Cultic confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself
  • Sessions in which one confesses to one’s sin are accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism, generally transpiring within small groups with an active and dynamic thrust toward personal change
  • Is an act of symbolic self-surrender
  • Makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility
  • A person confessing to various sins of pre-cultic existence can both believe in those sins and be covering over other ideas and feelings that s/he is either unaware of or reluctant to discuss
  • Often a person will confess to lesser sins while holding on to other secrets (often criticisms/questions/doubts about the group/leaders that may cause them not to advance to a leadership position)
  • "The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you"

SACRED SCIENCE (100% match)

  • The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic doctrine or ideology, holding it as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence – **‘the True Islam’, Ahmadiyyat (as a standalone word), the Messiah of all religions. **
  • Questioning or criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited – absolutely.
  • A reverence is demanded for the ideology/doctrine, the originators of the ideology/doctrine, the present bearers of the ideology/doctrine (Ahmadiyyat, ‘Masih Mauood’, ‘Musleh Mauood’, ‘Khalifa-I-Waqt’)
  • Offers considerable security to young people because it greatly simplifies the world and answers a contemporary need to combine a sacred set of dogmatic principles with a claim to a science embodying the truth about human behavior and human psychology (does not apply exactly to young people, but gives a simplistic theology of the revival of Islam that is very appealing).


  • The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche (thought-stoppers) – where will you go from here, if you deny the Messiah, you will one day deny Muhammad(saw) and Islam
  • Repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon (Mahdi, Messiah, khalifa, aakhir-uz-zamaan – the last Age, etc.)
  • "The language of non-thought" – **‘obedience’ that is supposed to be blind, weakness of faith, **
  • Words are given new meanings — the outside world does not use the words or phrases in the same way — it becomes a "group" word or phrase – bai’t, khalifa, ilhaam, chanda, donation, zakat, jalsa, Messiah, ummat, and many others, see separate section.


  • Every issue in one’s life can be reduced to a single set of principles that have an inner coherence to the point that one can claim the experience of truth and feel it
  • The pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or ideology says one should experience
  • If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question — it is always "turned around" on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly – weakness of faith, lack of obedience etc.
  • The underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience and one must subject one’s experience to that "truth"
  • The experience of contradiction can be immediately associated with guilt
  • One is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one’s own evil
  • When doubt arises, conflicts become intense


  • Since the group has an absolute or totalist vision of truth, those who are not in the group are bound up in evil, are not enlightened, are not saved, and do not have the right to exist (a large party, most or all Muslims must ultimately be converted in order to have the victory of Islam)
  • "Being versus nothingness" (to varying degrees, other Muslims are infidels)
  • Impediments to legitimate being must be pushed away or destroyed (to its credit, the Ahmadiyya are non-violent (except for rare reports), but viciously protective of the status quo)
  • One outside the group may always receive their right of existence by joining the group
  • Fear manipulation — if one leaves this group, one leaves God or loses their transformation, for something bad will happen to them (totally Ahmadiyya!)
  • The group is the "elite", outsiders are "of the world", "evil", "unenlightened", etc. (totally Ahmadiyya!)