|Robert Jay Lifton|
Brooklyn, New York
|Fields||psychiatry, mind control, thought reform|
Washington School of Psychiatry
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
New York Medical College
|Known for||Author, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism|
|Notable awards||Leo J. Ryan Award, 1987 Honorary Doctorate - Stonehill College (2008)|
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 Brooklyn, New York, the son of Harold A. (a businessman) and Ciel (Roth) Lifton. 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 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.
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.
Lifton investigated the thought-reform procedures used against American POWs returning from the Korean War while involved in their psychiatric evaluation. 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 which he says are used to change people's minds without their agreement:
His name became further popularly associated with those terms when he testified as a defense witness in the 1976 trial of Patty Hearst, stating that the Symbionese Liberation Army had used similar techniques to produce a behavioral change in Hearst.
Contrary to popular notions of "brainwashing", Lifton always maintained that such coercion could only influence short-term behavior or produce general neuroses, not permanently change beliefs or personality. Psychologists like Margaret Singer and Steven Hassan (author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control), later loosely adapted his theories and applied his terms "totalism" and "thought reform" to the practices of certain religious and other types of groups.
The American Sociological Association has stated that it does not consider such an analysis scientifically valid, but have not disavowed Lifton's original work. The American Psychological Association has taken the position that no definite conclusion has yet been reached. (See DIMPAC.)
The term thought-terminating cliché was popularized by Robert Lifton in this book.
His most influential books, 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), focused on the mental adaptations made by humans in extreme wartime environments—whether as survivors of atrocities or, in the latter case, perpetrators. In each case 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 his work with Vietnam veterans, Lifton was one of the first organizers of therapeutic discussion groups in which mental health practitioners met with veterans, and he lobbied for the inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
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 reactionary and fundamentalist movements oppose.
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 has also criticized the current "War on Terrorism" as a misguided and dangerous attempt to "destroy all vulnerability". However, he regards terrorism itself as an increasingly serious threat due to the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons and totalist ideologies. His 1999 book Destroying the World to Save It described the apocalyptic terrorist sect Aum Shinrikyo as a forerunner of "the new global terrorism".