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Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'brainwashing' in China [Kindle Edition]

Robert Jay Lifton
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Informed by Erik Erikson's concept of the formation of ego identity, this book, which first appreared in 1961, is an analysis of the experiences of fifteen Chinese citizens and twenty-five Westerners who underwent "brainwashing" by the Communist Chinese government. Robert Lifton constructs these case histories through personal interviews and outlines a thematic pattern of death and rebirth, accompanied by feelings of guilt, that characterizes the process of "thought reform." In a new preface, Lifton addresses the implications of his model for the study of American religious cults.

Editorial Reviews


Lifton has written a book with the rare virtue of being at once a rich source of information vital to international relations, and an interesting exploration of several aspects of ideology and identity.--Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease|While exploring the dynamics of Chinese Communist 'thought reform,' Lifton has performed the extraordinary feat of successfully linking . . . distinctly Chinese experiences with universal knowledge about human behavior.--Journal of Asian Studies

About the Author

Robert Jay Lifton is lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima and The Nazi Doctors.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2222 KB
  • Print Length: 524 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0807842532
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; 1 edition (July 31, 1989)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B006M9RZQA
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #96,746 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Seminal Work on Mind Control. July 30, 1999
By A Customer
This book may date from 1961, but it continues to be an essential work for understanding the techniques of mind control that continue to be utilized by authoritarian governments as well as by destructive cults. Those who have been watching with horror the crackdown by the Communist Chinese government on the peaceful falun gong religious sect will recognize in Lifton's book the same tyrannical mindset as it operated at its origins. Obviously, not much has changed in 40 years. Especially worthwhile in this book is the description of the eight conditions underlying any thought reform program. "Milieu control", for example, is the imposition of an entire controlling environment that permits a person no unapproved interactions, no free time, and no access to unapproved information. "Doctrine over person" is a state of affairs where, in any situation where ideology is contradicted by real experience, the ideology, not the experience, is believed. This can lead to a situation where a fictitious construct -- "the People" -- is defined differently from that of real people, who are not considered to be "real" people if their experience differs from ideology. Lifton calls this viewpoint "dispensing of existence." Cult survivors such as myself (a former 10-year member of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church) will recognize these and the other conditions Lifton enumerates.
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67 of 72 people found the following review helpful
Upon seeing the review below, from the reader in Rio de Janeiro, I had to write my own thoughts and share them. As a former cult member myself and current volunteer in anti-cult activism, I can personally attest that what Dr. Lifton wrote about concerning destructive groups and mind control absolutely exists. The famous chapter 22, where Dr. Lifton lays out the famous "eight criteria", to me isn't a chapter in a book but how my adolescense was in this particular group. It's true; it exists. The reader from Rio said that mind control was a failure; well, ultimately, yes it is, total control over a person's mind isn't 100%, and won't last forever. However, individuals and destructive groups (cults) know how to exploit mind control techniques to allow them control over a person's thoughts and actions long enough to get that person to do what they want, and often when people leave cults they suffer psychological damages for years afterward. This is also not about West superior over East; Dr. Lifton also chronicled how many Chinese were hurt by the mind control imposed by the Communists. All in all, this is a terrific book about mind control and its damaging effects; I highly recommend it.
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37 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important book June 6, 2000
By A Customer
This book has created a lot of controversies envolving new religious movements. Although it describes a research made with POWs e somes Chinese intellectuals, it has been frequently used attacks against some new religious movements.
The concept "brainwashing" first came into public use during the Korean War in the 1950s as an explanation for why a few American GIs defected to the Communists. The two most authoritative studies of the Korean War defections (and this book was one of them) concluded that "brainwashing" was an inappropriate concept to account for this renunciation of U.S. citizenship. When several new religious came into high profile during the youth counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s the concept "brainwashing" was again employed as a culturally acceptable explanation to account for the fact that some idealistic "flower children" came under the influence of "cult" leaders. A quarter-of-a-century of scholarly research on why people join new religions has come to essentially the same conclusion as the Korean War studies -- "brainwashing" is not a viable concept to describe the dynamics of affiliation with new religions. Defenders of "brainwashing" have used other concepts like "mind control" and "thought reform," but they have failed to produce a scholarly literature to support their claims. Thus, whatever euphemisms may be employed, the basic conclusion against the brainwashing thesis is not altered. Still, the mass media continues to report claims of "brainwashing" as if the alleged phenomenon were real. And, as a result, the concept "brainwashing" sustains considerable currency in popular culture. It is, to be sure, a powerful metaphor.
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33 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Totalism and Psychotherapy January 25, 2002
Lifton provides content and commentary regarding attempts by the People's Republic of China to 're-educate' Westerners and citizens according to Communist ideology. Actual contents of his one-on-one interviews are particularly useful, as are Lifton's evaluations of the effects and causes of 're-education'.
Lifton's principal shortcoming is the overarching psychotherapeutic interpretations, which sometimes stretch the imagination.
Lifton's book is often misunderstood and misrepresented as a polemic against 'brainwashing' and religious 'cultism'. 'Brainwashing' usually means the hypnotic manipulation of one's thoughts forcing someone to change their beliefs counter to their awareness or conscious will; Lifton denies emphatically that this happened in China or that it can happen. It appears that many who cite his work (and some of the reviewers here) have never read the book, other than through excerpts and summaries.
Lifton himself admits that 'brainwashing' is a misnomer; he denies that 're-education' was effective or that it converted people against their will. Furthermore, he argues that the principal difference between Chinese methods of thought-reform and normal, usual persuasion is the Chinese use of physical violence and imprisonment.
Lifton never intended for his book to be used by the anti-cult industry to attack religious non-orthodoxy and constitutionally guaranteed religious expression.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Still the formative work on thought reform
Still the formative work on thought reform. This should be required reading for every freshman college student and every conscientious citizen of the world. Read more
Published 1 month ago by aquagirl
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
I Used Lifton's book and his concept of Totalism to write my Master's thesis. I highly recommend if you are interested in "cult" mindset, group think, or brainwashing.
Published 12 months ago by Anastasia E
5.0 out of 5 stars THE Definitive Work on this Subject so Relevant Today
Lifton relates his fine research of mostly Westerners caught up in Maoist China's thought reform camps of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Renée
5.0 out of 5 stars Religious totalism
Growing up one of Jehovah's Witnesses, some of what Lifton describes in this book I have definitely seen and it really rang true for me. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars A Prescient Warning We Need to Remember
There is no higher praise I can offer Robert Jay Lifton than this: his 50 year old book which deconstructs the mechanisms of Chinese Communist "re-education" efforts remains, to... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Gregory J. Jemsek, author
5.0 out of 5 stars Scary truth.
This book is filled with scary truth about totalism. It was heart
wrenching to read, and I wish more people were reading it.
Published on February 16, 2013 by lecmt
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Insight!
Lifton helps us to see how Mind control is being use even in our day. If you look at how even at the highest levels of Government we are being manipulated with Mind control you... Read more
Published on February 16, 2013 by Tomcat
5.0 out of 5 stars very important work
Many who have written reviews here obviously are in a defensive stance in regard to some personal feelings about new religions. Read more
Published on September 24, 2011 by gary32
5.0 out of 5 stars Speaks About Some our Politicians
This book explains how President Obama became the man he is today. He was primed by the methods in this book.
Published on September 15, 2009 by Hack Attack
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
This book divides the population studied into western and eastern groups and then creates subgroups based upon personal history and reactions to thought reform. Read more
Published on April 10, 2008 by hiddenInClouds
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