Interview: Robert Jay Lifton on brainwashing and totalism

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In April 2014, Daniel Pick sat down with Robert Jay Lifton for a wide-ranging discussion about Prof. Lifton’s life and research.  In this first excerpt from the interview, Prof. Lifton speaks about writing his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, which describes the processes of re-education (considered by some to be ‘brainwashing’) that were used in Maoist China.


Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist and scholar who has written influentially since the 1960s on coercive persuasion in ideological movements, cults and other total organizations; genocide, nuclear war, Nazi medical experiments, and other war atrocities; and, most recently, drone warfare and climate change. He has developed an innovative approach to historical inquiry using in-depth interviewing, and drawing, critically and selectively, on psychoanalytic ideas (see for instance his celebrated book, The Nazi Doctors). Along with Erik Erikson and Bruce Mazlish, he co-founded the Wellfleet Psychohistory Group, which seeks in diverse ways to apply psychological and psychoanalytical insights to the study of history.


In the coming weeks, we will post additional excerpts from Daniel Pick’s conversation with Robert Jay Lifton to our website.


This interview was filmed by Doug Higginbotham, and edited by Ian Magor.