LinkedIn tracking pixel

Prof. Sean Elliot Martin discusses forced mental transformation

On Friday, March 26th, The Institute of World Politics hosted a webinar entitled “The Process of Forced Mental Transformation and its Role in World Events,” led by Professor Sean Elliot Martin of Point Park University. This lecture covered ATOP, Prof. Martin’s theory of the psychological processes used to force mental transformation in individuals.

About the Speaker

Professor Sean Elliot Martin is an Assistant Professor and the Coordinator of Undergraduate and Graduate Intelligence Studies at Point Park University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has a diverse academic background, as well as a range of collaborations with military and law enforcement entities. He applies creative, interactive methods to teach courses in Intelligence Analysis, Psychological Operations, Survival Combat, and related subjects.

Forced Mental Transformation Processes: What is “ATOP”?

After examining multiple historical phenomena that seem to challenge every notion that human beings are inherently good, Professor Martin concluded that in every one of these cases, there were reoccurring psychological processes in play. He finds that to manipulate human behavior, individuals, groups, and governments implement a process of radical behavioral transformation, which Prof. Martin terms “ATOP.” ATOP is an intricate, four-step mental manipulation theory consisting of the psychological tactics of alienation, terror, opportunity, and power.

Who Uses ATOP?

ATOP is used by any group or individual who wants to exercise control over their members and followers. Prof. Martin gave examples of groups who use ATOP, including cults, terrorists, gangs, and religious extremists. Some of the most prominent and malevolent users of ATOP include cult leaders, such as Charles Manson and Jim Jones, as well as political figures like Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and the Kim family. He also explained how users of this mental transformation theory do not always have malicious intentions but instead exercise these methods to monitor and manage civilian safety. These benevolent institutions which use ATOP include governments, military institutions, and correctional institutions.

The Hook: Appeal to Your Audience

Before one can begin the process of ATOP, Professor Martin explained that a group or individual must first appeal to their target audience. He calls this precursor to ATOP the “hook” and revealed that virtually all organizations use techniques to “hook” recruits and appeal to them with various approaches. The appeal is an essential catalyst to the start of ATOP because if an individual or group does not already have direct access to a target, they need to get that target’s attention to start to control them. Professor Martin also explained how the “hook” cannot be generalizable and, instead, must be specific and appeal to a particular target’s needs and concerns to be successful. For example, advertising a sense of self and belonging would be the perfect appeal for the target group of disenfranchised teenagers.


Professor Martin reveals that ATOP’s first process is alienation, where an individual or group makes their target vulnerable to their manipulation. Alienation can be exercised in two ways: psychological isolation and physical isolation. Regarding psychological alienation, ATOP’s user makes their target group begin to question pre-existing and familiar institutions, such as education, religion, and family. Prof. Martin explained that the targets are manipulated to think that said institutions intentionally misled them or that the leaders are naive to what is going on in the world. The targets’ newly acquired questioning of traditional forms of authority, therefore, allows ATOP users to infiltrate their targets’ cognitive processes to further the process of alienation. Prof. Martin discussed that, unlike psychological isolation, which is necessary to the ATOP process, individuals and groups may additionally use physical isolation to further alienate their targets. In ATOP, physical isolation can include imprisonment, quarantine, and removing targets from their family and community.


The second mental process involved in ATOP is terror. Professor Martin explained how terror is utilized when the target is manipulated to fear a group, an individual, or a large-scale threat so that the ATOP user can better control the target’s behaviors and reactions. When a target is taught to fear a group, you make them afraid of something outside of the ATOP user’s community. By making a target afraid of the “other,” he explained that they become more susceptible to manipulation caused by specific motivations that further the ATOP user’s desired goal. Another form of terror includes a target becoming afraid of the ATOP user because the ATOP user is the community’s disciplinarian. When an ATOP user becomes a disciplinarian, Professor Martin explained that they convince the target that they are punishing them for their own good and protection. The target, therefore, becomes terrified that without the presence of the ATOP user in their life, they are no longer safe from themselves or the terrors of the outside world. Finally, he reveals that when an ATOP user manipulates their target to fear a large-scale threat, like the apocalypse, the target begins to see the world around them as something they do not recognize, which causes them to build paranoia and seek out comfort from that ATOP user’s group.


Professor Martin then discussed the next step of ATOP, which is when the target is allowed to escape or defeat the object of their conditioned terror. In this step, the ATOP user gives the target an option that will alleviate the target’s anxiety of potentially encountering their fears when the right action is chosen. He revealed that such actions could include killing for, being an informant for, giving to, and joining an ATOP user’s group. The option given to the target is presented so that there is an illusion of free will; however, the target’s choice is actually extremely limited. Martin explains that, in reality, they are forced to comply with whatever option the ATOP user wants them to choose. By giving the target an option to escape their fears, the ATOP user gains obedience, service, and loyalty. The ATOP user is then able to exercise almost complete control over the target. However, Professor Martin suggested that, since the promise of escape from terror may not be enough to gain a target’s full cooperation and devotion, the final process of ATOP must be completed.


The final step in Professor Martin’s ATOP theory is the process where the target is offered some form of power that will ensure the target status and a level of invulnerability from the object of their terror in which they were previously manipulated to believe. Once a target processes this power, Professor Martin revealed that they will be very reluctant to give it up and, therefore, will pledge their devotion to the ATOP user and their group.

The Effects and Positive Uses of ATOP

Lastly, Professor Martin discussed the effects of ATOP and its positive applications. For him, ATOP is a “very powerful force” that carries tremendous manipulative power. When an individual, group, or institution learns how to use ATOP, it is like they are handed a “loaded gun that does not set off any alarms when walking around.” Because ATOP manipulates a person’s cognitive processes and beliefs, that person is changed forever, and their motivations become extreme. For example, once someone has been completely terrified and then allowed to escape or obtain the power to make sure that it never happens to them again, they will cling to that power and will do anything to keep it. ATOP, therefore, is the ultimate disguised weapon that can change the direction of world events without leaving a single physical trace.

However, Professor Martin explained that ATOP can also be used for positive means despite its prolific nefarious use. The example he gave is how the U.S. Military utilizes ATOP training to help prepare soldiers for armed conflict so that they can better protect American and foreign citizens from malicious intent. Therefore, while ATOP may seem like the psychological equivalent of the nuclear missile, Professor Martin stressed that it does not have to be solely used by malevolent institutions. Instead, it can be a tremendous and successful catalyst for good.

IWP and Point Park University

IWP Admissions