Losing Reality

On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry

A definitive account of the psychology of zealotry, from a National Book Award winner and a leading authority on the nature of cults, political absolutism, and mind control

“One of the world’s foremost thinkers on why we humans do such awful things to each other.” —Bill Moyers

In this unique and timely volume Robert Jay Lifton, the National Book Award–winning psychiatrist, historian, and public intellectual proposes a radical idea: that the psychological relationship between extremist political movements and fanatical religious cults may be much closer than anyone thought. Exploring the most extreme manifestations of human zealotry, Lifton highlights an array of leaders—from Mao to Hitler to the Japanese apocalyptic cult leader Shōkō Asahara to Donald Trump—who have sought the control of human minds and the ownership of reality.

Lifton has spent decades exploring psychological extremism. His pioneering concept of the “Eight Deadly Sins” of ideological totalism—originally devised to identify “brainwashing” (or “thought reform”) in political movements—has been widely quoted in writings about cults, and embraced by members and former members of religious cults seeking to understand their experiences.

In Losing Reality Lifton makes clear that the apocalyptic impulse—that of destroying the world in order to remake it in purified form—is not limited to religious groups but is prominent in extremist political movements such as Nazism and Chinese Communism, and also in groups surrounding Donald Trump. Lifton applies his concept of “malignant normality” to Trump’s efforts to render his destructive falsehoods a routine part of American life. But Lifton sees the human species as capable of “regaining reality” by means of our “protean” psychological capacities and our ethical and political commitments as “witnessing professionals.”

Lifton weaves together some of his finest work with extensive new commentary to provide vital understanding of our struggle with mental predators. Losing Reality is a book not only of stunning scholarship, but also of huge relevance for these troubled times.


“At the core of this work is the problem of the ownership of our mind, a problem thrown into relief at those historical moments when it is challenged—by ideology, totalitarian politics, disinformation, cults, even social media. Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton considers the psycho-politics of what he calls mental predation and how it can end up changing the way we see reality itself. Required reading for a necessary conversation.”
—Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
“For decades, Robert Jay Lifton’s work on the sources and dangers of inhuman zealotry—brainwashers, mass murderers, religious extremists, political cultists—has been a bulwark of democratic liberalism, a touchstone of public sanity. Now, with this selection of classic passages, in urgent combination with fresh reflections, Lifton has given us precisely what we need to understand, resist, and survive the unmoored chaos of the age of Trump. Lifton’s writing, a long-established treasure, has never mattered more.”
—James Carroll, author of The Cloister
“Persuasive. . . . Unsparing. . . . Robert Jay Lifton returns to his classic works on the dangers of extremist cults and updates them with new material.”
Shelf Awareness
“In this distillation of a lifetime of scholarship and wisdom, Lifton delineates the psychology of fanaticism, from isolated cults to vast totalitarian systems. A treasure for our time.”
—Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery
“One of the world’s foremost thinkers on why we humans do such awful things to each other.”
—Bill Moyers

News and Reviews

Spirituality & Practice

Named One of the Best Spiritual Books of 2019 by Spirituality & Practice

Shelf Awareness

Read a review of Losing Reality in Shelf Awareness.

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Surviving Our Catastrophes
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Goodreads Reviews