Thought Reform

Oct 23, 2021| Daniel Jones

I’ve previously written a blog post about strategies to effect mindset change, because EngineerBetter is in the business of helping organisations to perform cultural transformations. I feel a moral obligation to bring people’s attention to the malevolent side of mindset change. Just as I taught physical self-defence on a voluntary basis, I believe that it is important to raise awareness of intellectual self-defence.

Robert Jay Lifton identified eight criteria for thought reform - a somewhat euphemistic term used to less-sensationally describe what was feverishly reported as “brainwashing”. These themes were synthesised in part from his involvement in treating and studying surviving American prisoners of (what the West calls) the Korean war. A small percentage of survivors opted to not return to the USA upon being granted their freedom, apparently having been ‘converted’ to support communist ideology and forsake their own.

I shall describe the eight criteria, in places using examples from the IT industry.

Can you spot these tactics in the workplace? Are you in a toxic team? Are you trying to improve an organisation’s culture? Identifying and naming the techniques used to coerce and maintain social control are the first steps towards being able to challenge them.

I invite the reader to consider the eight methods of thought reform, and compare them to any attempt to change your mindset. Hold them up against your workplace transformation and education initiatives. Contrast them to your least-favourite political movement. Most importantly of all, reflect on how they may be exploited by your favourite political movement.

1. Milieu control

This is the control over humans’ environments and communication, often exerted with social pressure. Examples include restrictions in who may speak, what they may speak about, what words they may use, as well as they manner in which they communicate (dialects, accents, use of slang).

In its most extreme form milieu control attempts to cut off individuals entirely from contact with outsiders, be they strangers or even loved ones.

In the less extreme world of office work this can be banning or discouraging communication between groups, or the separation of teams. It may be “we don’t use that term here,” or “don’t speak to them about that.”

2. Mystical manipulation

The appeal to mysticism as validation of group beliefs. This can work in two manners:

Use of the term “mystical” here has the potential to be misleading. Opportunistic after-the-fact claims of validation despite an absence of initial hypothesis most certainly qualify: I’m sure we can bring to mind examples in social discourse.

In the IT workplace this goes hand-in-hand with a lack of scientific thinking and product management. “The outage proves that we should re-write everything in Rust!” “Our record sales shows that we were right to use a monorepo!”

3. Demand for purity

Good and bad are presented as binary choices, disallowing nuanced understanding. The in-group identifies unattainable paradigms of good virtue, and members must continually strive to achieve them. Being paradigms, these ideals can never be met, and so a perpetual sense of guilt is fostered in those continually failing.

Role models and aspirations are valuable to drive improvement. When this is combined with castigation for failure to achieve those lofty heights, a transition is made from benevolent carrot to malevolent manipulation.

Poor implementations can exploit this technique - shutting down pragmatic compromises because they do not exhibit ideological purity.

4. Confession

Failures to attain purity and transgressions from the ideals of the group are to be publicly acknowledged and shared. If you have been bad, you must confess to the group and bear the brunt of their shame.

Past indiscretions must also be admitted to and publicly scrutinised.

Through these confessions, the levers of guilt and shame are exploited, and incriminating evidence is provided ready to be weaponised.

Well-meaning activities, intended to develop people’s ability to demonstrate vulnerability by cataloguing their failures, can easily slip into confession sessions. Individuals can paradoxically signal their virtue by highlighting their remorse for failing to live up to the group’s standards.

5. Sacred science

The in-group’s ideals are the only truth, and cannot be called into question. This is especially pernicious when the term “science” is a misnomer, and unfalsifiable beliefs are professed as truth. Consider ‘tails I win, heads you lose’ scenarios and conjectures such as ‘there is a teapot orbiting the sun’.

This criterion is often apparent in methodological transformations, perhaps unwittingly by those of limited education and experience. How many of us have experienced a way of working being presented as the only option, simply because those in authority have no experience of alternatives and no understanding of the methodology from first principles?

I shall leave the reader to identify unquestionable and unfalsifiable ‘sciences’ in the wider public discourse.

6. Loading the language

New words and phrases are invented to further define the in-group. Existing terms are redefined in order to confuse and undermine outsiders. Thought-terminating clichés are used in order to prevent meaningful discussion and debate (“that’s just one way of doing it” being an example that suggests that all approaches are equal).

The technology sector has quite the problem with inventing and overloading terms, and abusing them in order to sell products. The term “agile” seems to have been warped beyond all usefulness except meaning ‘not waterfall’. If you’re not “cloud native”, then you’re not part of the in-group. Many people would have you believe that continuous delivery doesn’t require trunk-based development (spoiler: it does).

7. Doctrine over person

Individuals’ experiences, emotions, values and needs are all subordinate to the ideals of the group. Any personal experience that does not fit the ideals must be discredited or discarded out of hand.

This aspect is often combined with others, such as the demand for purity and sacred science:

You tried this at a previous workplace and it didn’t work? You just didn’t try hard enough - it’s not the methodology’s fault, you were just inept.

8. Dispensing of existence

Luckily only literal in the most abject moments of humanity, this can often be presented as a clear divide between the in-group and the out-group, whereby the latter are not worth listening to. In true totalitarianism this is manifested as dehumanisation, a necessary but not sufficient precursor to genocide.

In the workplace this is likely to show up as a disregard for any outsider and their ideas. People are either true believers and followers of the cause, or they’re not. Fear of expulsion from the blessed few keeps people toeing the in-group’s line.

A dismaying true story: I was speaking to a friend at a very large technology company, after their reasonably-large employer was acquired. A change of technical direction had been mandated, and my friend had the temerity to say “this new project that we’re inventing from the ground up sounds a lot like the old thing we’re discarding.” He was taken to one side afterwards, and advised that referring to the old technology would give the impression that he wasn’t committed to the new journey, and his career prospects may be at stake. Ideas from out-group were dispensed with, and fear of expulsion was used to maintain group-think.

Why is this important?

A willingness to consider new ideas and change one’s beliefs is a virtue. Sharing with people novel and beneficial ways of thinking is a noble aim. Using the levers of negative emotion to control individuals and perpetuate flawed thinking is abuse.

For those aiming to effect cultural change, be mindful about how you do so. Changing minds is hard, and rightfully so. If it is too easy, perhaps you are using immoral levers.

Be aware of attempts to manipulate you. Perhaps being part of the in-group feels good, and perhaps their aims seem admirable. Perhaps you find yourself on the receiving end of unfalsifiable arguments, and perhaps you find your experience being dispensed and voice being shut down with thought-terminating clichés. Be alert to this, and consider the motives of those around you.

Perhaps you might identify these tactics being used outside of the workplace, too.

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