Thought-terminating Cliches

I was running through a few Wikipedia entires today, and clicked through to “thought-terminating clichés”, which is part of the entry on the Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.  This was originally a 1956 book on the psychology of brainwashing in China.  The wiki entry has a nice bullet pointed list, which when I looked at it, my brain went “That would be handy for designing cults in roleplaying games!”

The eight criteria are:

  • milieu control
  • mystical manipulation
  • demand for purity
  • confession
  • sacred silence
  • thought-terminating clichés
  • doctrine over the person
  • dispensing of existence

Milieu Control

Isolating the individual from society and controlling their information and communications.  Armies do this on boot camp, but any suitably remote farmstead, castle or monastery will do.

Mystical Manipulation

Manipulating experiences to boost the credentials of the leadership, to emphasise the special nature of the group, or to reinterpret accepted truth (no really, it is the Illuminati behind everything).  Get them tired, do the ceremony at night with poor light, throw in a few psychotropic drugs, and babble some bollocks about midichlorians.

Demand for Purity

Use of guilt/shame as a control device, a world view that has no shades of grey, and requires conformity.  Mixing with outsiders is discouraged.  Special uniforms or other markers of belonging to the ‘elect’ can help here, as would markers of shame/guilt.


Sins are confessed to mentors and monitors, allowing their exploitation by leaders.

Sacred Science

The group possesses the ultimate truth!  No questions!  No disputes!  People outside the group do not know the truth.  The group leader, the holder of the truth, is above criticism.

Thought-terminating clichés

The group uses words/language in ways the outside world does not understand, or uses a code (Voynich Manuscript we’re looking at you!).  The jargon contains cliches that prevent critical thinking about the groups ideas.  Complex issues are reduced to simple buzzwords or phrases.  Twitter is perfect for them.

Doctrine over the Person

An individual’s experiences and knowledge are subordinate to the Sacred Science, and wrong-thinking (such as confessions made to monitors) must be reinterpreted until it conforms with the groups norms.

Dispensing of Existence

On one level, the group gets to choose who lives and who dies.  On another level, it chooses who it admits to the group and whether or not the Sacred Science is shared with new group members.  Those who do not share the Sacred Science are doomed to heck.  Those who leave the group become non-persons, less than human, people whose existence is to be denied.

Of course, there is no reason to restrict using this to just designing evil cults, you could also use it for “good” groups, such as Paladins.  Having recently watched the first four Star Wars movies again, an awful lot of these apply to how the Jedi order treated Annakin Skywalker.


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