By Richard E. Kelly
In Robert Jay Lifton’s groundbreaking book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton describes the eight methods of control that unethical pseudo-religious groups use to psychologically manipulate the minds of their members.
In 1961, Lifton used the words thought reform to describe psychological manipulation, while today most people prefer to use the words mind control, undue influence or brainwashing.
So what are these eight methods, or criteria, of undue influence in a group setting? Does Watchtower use any of these methods to control the minds and behavior of eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses? To answer this question, let’s explore what these methods are, as follows:
- Milieu (Environmental) Control– Manipulative religious groups report to its members that all the information they need is to be provided only by the group’s leaders. Some information is even deliberately held back and distorted. What is known at any given time varies with the position the members hold in the group.
Members are told not to trust any material that is critical of the group, or read any literature that is not printed by the group. Members are not to get close to those outside the group, or associate with former members. Higher education is frowned upon, and member’s time is consumed with only group-approved activities.
- Mystical Manipulation– The group’s leaders arbitrary attribute God’s support on its projects, successes, special events, numerical increases, law suits that go in their favor, building projects and financial contributions that suit their best interests, etc.
Members are encouraged to have a child-like trust in whatever they are taught. The group is the only group God works with. Members are made to feel “chosen”; that their one true purpose in life is being fulfilled. In so doing, they lose their critical thinking skills and are unable to exercise their independence and their own decisions about the group’s beliefs with respect to basic human rights and good science.
The group is made to feel that they have a higher purpose than others outside the group; that members will be saved and rewarded because of being in the group. All things are attributed and linked to this higher purpose. Attention is given to the problems of worldly people and attributed to their not being in the group.
- Demand for Purity– The group imposes unreasonable rules and unreachable standards upon its members. The shaming aspect in that environment is gradually internalized by members as guilt, further magnifying their dependence on the group’s leaders. Individuals can easily feel inadequate and are submissive as critical questioning is not allowed, with mystical manipulation validating its rules.
Perfection and striving against sin, which is defined by the group’s leaders, is stressed, along with fear of what will happen if one fails, or leaves the group. These rules keep members isolated from the outside world and dependent on the group.
The purity of the group, known as “God’s organisation” is constantly being defined and redefined by the group’s leaders. Those who do not attend all the group’s meetings and scheduled activities are “spiritually weak”.
- Confession– There is a constant struggle regarding what to reveal and what to keep secret, but members feel a need to confess their thoughts, their experiences and all that the group considers sin, sexual misconduct, and reporting dissent.
Members are encouraged to go to local group leaders to confess sins. Deeply personal matters should be confessed to unqualified and uneducated men. This may include smoking tobacco or secret alcoholism. Or if a youngster “has a problem with masturbation”, he or she is expected to confess.
In smaller groups there will be members who regularly confess, or express anxiety about, “bad thoughts”, being in a constant state of uncertainty and unworthiness before God. Confession merges members with the group and its goals. And when members end up being made to feel it is their fault, they feel more hopeless, more guilty and more in need of striving.
- Sacred Science – The group’s teachings are presented as the ultimate truth and scientifically correct. It is the truth which God reveals only to the group’s leaders and not to be questioned because that would be questioning God. It is true science that if adhered to will give followers everlasting life or salvation.
The beliefs and regulations of the group are framed as perfect, absolute and non-negotiable. Rules and processes are to be followed without question.
- Loaded Language– The group’s language—its choice of words—serves the purpose of constructing groupthink and shutting down critical thinking skills. Groupspeak forces members to censor, edit and slow down spontaneous bursts of criticism or opposing ideas. Soon members find it easier to talk among themselves than with outsiders, who are given derogatory names like “worldly” or “apostates”.
New words and language are created to explain the new and profound meanings that have been discovered by the group’s leaders. Existing words are also hijacked and given new and different meaning, which is often called “new light”.
When the group’s leaders control the meaning of words, it controls how members think. In this way, black-and-white thinking is embedded in the language, so that wrong-doers are framed as evil and “turning their back on God”, while those who do right are “lovers of God”, which is of course defined by the group’s leaders.
The meaning of words is kept hidden to the outside world, giving a sense of exclusivity. And there are “trigger words” which control or affect members. Not only do these words set off “alarm bells” in the member’s minds and put them on guard, but also the way words are used repeatedly at meetings and in the group’s literature, conditions the way members view people and institutions in this world.
- Doctrine Over Person – As members rewrite their own personal history or ignore it, they are simultaneously taught to interpret reality through the group’s concepts and ignore their own experiences and feelings as they occur. Members learn to fit themselves into the group’s way of life and individuals are valued only as they conform to the group’s doctrines and policies.
Doctrine encompasses the entire group experience and is more real and valid than the person and his or her feelings and experiences. The past is to be considered of no consequence and is to be reinterpreted, or forgotten.
A new member’s individual potential or identity is subjugated to the group’s doctrine. Those who don’t conform are considered “deceived by the devil” and “spiritually weak” and driven out by excommunicating and shunning.
The importance of the group is elevated over the importance of the individual in all ways. Along with this comes the importance of the group’s ideas and rules over personal beliefs and values.
- Dispensing of Existence– The group’s totalistic environment emphasizes that the members are part of an elite or special group. Outsiders are considered unworthy or unenlightened. This thinking leads to the belief that the member’s whole existence centers on being a member of the group. If you leave, you join nothingness. This is the final step in creating members’ dependence on the group.
Members totally and completely believe that the group is “God’s organization here on earth” and only within it is “God’s Truth” preached. Members willingly alienate themselves from the activities and people in the “devil-controlled world”, who are all “deceived and following Satan”, and they allow their entire lives to circle around the group and “the end-time Work,” which alone gives them their purpose for being born.
To think any other way is to experience intensely uncomfortable feelings of confusion, guilt, fear and alienation. If they leave the group, they believe that they will not only lose “the Truth” and have their minds taken over by Satan, but they will lose the Holy Spirit, lose God, lose their chance for eternal life, and lose their purpose for living. Their existence has become the group.
People who leave the group are singled out as particularly evil, weak, lost or otherwise to be despised or pitied. Rather than being ignored or hidden, they are used as examples of how anyone who leaves will be looked down upon and publicly scorned.
People thus have a constant fear of being cast out, and consequently work hard to be accepted and not be ejected from the group. Outsiders who try to persuade the person to leave are doubly feared.
Dispensation also goes into all aspects of living within the group. Any and all aspects of existence within the group are subject to scrutiny and control. There is no privacy and, ultimately, no free will.
Additional thoughts by Robert J. Lifton
According to Lifton, it takes only six of the aforementioned psychological themes, or methods, for someone’s life to be controlled by an unethical pseudo-religious group. So what do you think? Are Jehovah’s Witnesses being psychologically manipulated by Watchtower? You decide.
But for me personally, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a …..
I read The Orwellian World of Jehovah Witnesses by Gary and Heather Botting back in the 80s. Good expose.
After Armageddon failed to occur by October 5, 1975, I church-hopped for five years and then became Catholic on Easter, 1980.
Rome sweet Home!
Monty. You mentioned you Church hopped for 5 years in the 80’s. Were you ever a JW or did you study with them also and what were some of the other Churches you checked out? I was a for 20 years but raised Catholic. I left the Catholic Church to become a JW, Then I realized the JW’s were a Cult although I felt it long before I left. After what I know about Roman Catholicism not sure I could ever go back to that as well. What made you go back to Roman Catholicism.?
I have failed to understand how WTS managed to brainwash even developed countries. It seems religions removes the barrier between developed and so called underdeveloped to show each and every human can be manipulated… Consider this story about Norway:
*** yb12 pp. 100-101 Norway ***
A useful preaching tool became available in 1910 in the form of a tract series called Peoples Pulpit. This helped more of the Bible Students to share actively in the preaching work. Eager to expose religious error and explain Bible truths, the brothers and sisters distributed thousands of copies free of charge, often as enclosures in newspapers.
The Bible Students were anxious to see what would happen in 1914. The book The Time Is at Hand (the second volume of the Millennial Dawn series) explained that the times of the Gentiles would end in 1914 and would be marked by trouble and anarchy, after which God’s Kingdom would begin to take control. The Bible Students also expected that Christ’s joint heirs would then receive their heavenly reward.
This subject often became a topic of conversation. For example, one evening in July 1914, Karl Kristiansen was playing in the Skien city orchestra. During the intermission he said to some of the people around him: “In a few weeks, something is going to happen. First there will be war, then revolution, then anarchy, and then God’s Kingdom will come.” When World War I broke out shortly after that, people came to Karl and wanted to know more.
Farther south along the coast, in Arendal, there was just one Bible Student in 1914. One day this sister met Mia Apesland on the street and told her that according to the Bible, there would be war in the autumn of 1914. “If that happens,” responded Mia, “I will believe.” Soon, when Mia saw that what the sister had told her was taking place, she lived up to her promise by becoming a true believer. Mia, the sister who spoke to her, and a few others formed the nucleus of the Arendal Congregation.
Anyone can be manipulated. Even well educated people can succumb to undue influence. I forgot where I read it but they kind of indoctrination program that the JWs use is apparently much more sophisticated that what what Lifton outlined above. And it is very effective. Our hope is that if we can educate people to see this for what it is then they will get fewer new recruits.
The Watchtower could not possibly fit the description any better than this in every single aspect!
The sad part is how deeply rooted these concepts & ideas are in the followers, to the point they’re willing to give up their lives for their beliefs. My mother actually told me she would be willing to jump off a bridge if she was told to do so for the Watchtower Governing Body if they had told her to do so. This really made me open my eyes even wider to what I was awakening to at the time.
Rick, what is amazing is that should most JWs read Lfton’s book or a post like this, they won’t be able to see it because they have been sufficiently manipulated to know that JWs are not being subjected to harmful mind control methods. That’s where cognitive dissonance comes in. But hopefully, we can educate the general public to what is going on in Watchtower Land. This is a dangerous cult, particularly for the children growing up in it. How many blood transfusion martyrs who have not reached adulthood will there be before the public says “no more”? How many more children will be sexually molested before the courts say “no more”? And the list goes on and on.
Great article provides good signposts … almost like a checklist for ones own analysis and awakening!
Richard E. Kelly you did a great job writing this blog. It’s perfect but most JW’S probably won’t read it. They would probably feel real guilty. Maybe by being in their own home where no one sees them they can relax and learn something.
Very sad and criminal of WT org. to control minds of the people with fear of losing “the truth”, Satan take over, lose Holy Spirit, lose God, lose their chance for eternal life, , purpose for living etc. It is only Wt lies None of them have any of these to lose! Please keep on wake people up to true light, knowledge, wisdom . There is a much better life away from the WT BEAST.
“The truth shall make you free.” Sometimes even those words of Jesus can be distorted to suit people’s fantasies and lies. But those words are still meaningful to all those who seek honestly.
Richard, I translated your article into Portuguese, I hope you don’t mind.
Fabio, I am sending my gratitude your way. Thank you for the translation for our friends in Brazil and Portugal.
I wish I could get my sister to read this. She and her husband have been trapped over forty years and of course, they are so dependant on watchtower now that they could read this article and see nothing but ‘ apostacy ‘. Such a waste of a family and so sad. I did 25 years myself and another 25 years worrying about it due to the issues raised above…into nothingness, evil and apostate. I see these issues reinforced by the terribly humiliating condescension expressed by Stephen Letts in his JW.org broadcasts as though witnesses are unable to think for themselves and then I realise, that in the majority, like my sister, they cannot think for themselves. My whole family is lost in a trail of mental destruction due to the dictat of the governing body. I wonder sometimes if they ever spend a moment in examining what it is that they do. But then, having read Franz, I have to agree with him, that they too are victims of victims. But there are other victims now and those are those poor brothers cast out on the street after years of sacrifice in terms of education, life experience, their own children, or lack of them, and family. What is to become of them? I feel Warwick is the tombstone to their work, fine and beautiful on the outside and full of decay and ungliness on the inside as the governing body wash their hands of them and move in to their fine apartments. How fitting it is that the whole edifice is built on toxic waste.
I’ve wasted 30 yrs and 20 in full time. My family still in. I always think how I woke up, I don’t know. It’s like woking up from sleep. My family still sleeping.
Great articles even the elder JW’s deny their past watchtower magazine writings that contradicts the new ones those zombies will eat it up for their pride that they would firmly say ”it is because humans are imperfect and that those writings are too early to tell something that they even hadn’t understand the true light ” these JWs are always telling their would be new converts.
Your post reminds me of the book “1984” by George Orwell. Big Brother and Newspeak. He describes a cult-like world exactly. What was true yesterday never happened. Only today. = New Light. They never even refer to what would be described as “Old Light” It is out of their minds and if they do think of it then they believe they are doubting and that of course is a sin
How many athiest assaults, drug addictions, sexual molestations, sexual abuse would have to go on before the courts realize that athiests actually do more crimes than the JW’s???
Ray, can you provide proof that Atheist commit more crimes? Lol Have you ever heard of the Australian Royal Commission Cases? Look it up. The GB themeselves can’t deny that the org hides pedophiles. There are thousands upon thousands of court cases on sexual abuse among JWs. Stop drinking the Kool-aid.
Early this afternoon, I received a call from my mother, a JW of 48 years, saying that her husband, a JW of about 10 years, and taken her SSS check, forged her name and cashed the check. While I was talking to my mother, who had been terrified her pioneering husband would return at any minute and catch her speaking to me, her husband waltzed into the house. I assured my mother I would everything I could to prevent her husband from being able to abuse his authority over her. At that moment, my mother’s husband flew into a fit of raged took her phone. After keeping my mouth shut for the last three months, I admit I spoke my mind to the fullest. My mother’s husband had claimed that the elder’s told him that he had the authority to handle my mother’s affairs. My mother has Parkinson’s, but she is very sharp and is nowhere near senile or incompetent, and as such, still has full control of her financial affairs.
Before my mother’s husband returned home, she gave me the number of an elder (we’ll call him elder pride) and I made an effort to call him. Elder Pride’s wife answered and she was a bit curt. She knew who my mother was and I introduced myself and let it be known that I was calling on my mother’s behalf. She said that her husband would call as soon as possible. For three hours I tried to call my mother back after her husband had snatched the phone and blocked my calls. By the third hour, I called the police and they said they would dispatch officers to check on my mother. About an hour after I called the police, Elder Pride contacted me. From the very beginning of the conversation, I knew the elder wasn’t under the guidance of the Holy Spirit because he was argumentative and somewhat snide. I immediately reminded Elder Pride that if he were truly a servant of Jehovah, then he would have no need to behave in a way that is antipathetic to the Holy Spirit; he would behave peacefully and with understanding. From that moment forward, Elder Pride was silent.
I told Elder pride why I had called which had been to either verify whether or not he or any other elder gave my mother’s husband the counsel that, because he was the man of the house, he had the authority to act on behalf of my mother’s finances (cashing checks and managing money). I reminded Elder Pride that elders have authority to act only on JW matters, but that telling a man that he has the authority to act on another’s behalf without judicial validation was a serious issue was legal issue. Immediately, Elder Pride blurted attempted to defend his position saying that giving counsel to my mother to allow her husband to administer her medicine was not legal counsel. Immediately, I peacefully, but sternly reminded Elder Pride that I was not speaking about the administrating of medicine, but about giving a man authority to do something that only a judge in a court of law could do. My mother’s husband is not her guardian. Once the truth penetrated to Elder Prides ego, he came back to earth and realized what I was saying. My mother told me that she felt that the elder’s believed that she was crazy, so I asked Elder Pride about that, and with the discretion of an attorney, reassured me that the elders didn’t think my mother was crazy. Elder Pride went on to say that after eight months of what seemed to be peace and calm, all the sudden my mother is having problems again which only verified to me that Elder Pride believed that my mother’s condition was at fault.
Elder Pride told me that he counseled my mother and her husband not to look outside of the congregation for help. He then said that he counseled against calling the police. Only after he realized what he sounded like, a cult figure, did he mention that my mother should call family. If my mother’s husband dies, who is going to have to take care of her? Not the elders or the congregation, so the first people, that should be contacted is family. I called the police because I couldn’t get a hold of my mother, yet Elder Pride counsels against calling the police. Three days ago, my mother called me and said if anything should ever happen to me, you’ll know why. Yet I’m not supposed to call the police. My mother’s husband sat before the elders and, Elder Pride namely, and told a bare face lie (that I had threatened to come to [where her congregation is – edited by AAWA to protect identity] with a gun). Like all the other lies my mother’s husband has told, Elder Pride believed that which is why he may have acted so foolishly when I first called. Don’t tell me that the JW’s religion isn’t a cult and does everything to control every aspect of its follower’s
I am very concerned about your mother’s well-being both physically and mentally. A diagnosis of Parkinson’s does not necessarily mean she has a diminished capacity either medically, as in taking her medication, or financially.
Unless her husband has a legal power of attorney he has no right to take charge of her financial affairs. If he had to forge his name on her SSS check then I assume he does not have this power of attorney or normal access to her account. He has broken the law. That should be reported to the police.
Your mother’s fear of him speaks very loudly that she may be in danger and from the response you got on the phone I would be very concerned as well.
I Googled “the town where she lives and elder abuse” and there is a department that deals with issues of abuse of the elderly. I strongly suggest you contact them and let them know you are afraid for your mother’s safety. Definitely let them know about the forged check.
The elders have no authority in legal or medical matters. Her husband has no right to forge her signature on checks. The elders have no right to tell her or you or anyone else not to go to the police.
The elders do have a history of protecting men over women and of hiding domestic violence as well as child abuse. Domestic violence includes verbal, physical, sexual, medical, emotional and financial abuse as well as neglect. Your mother should not have to live in fear. She should not be taken advantage of financially.
Please contact the number at that I gave you in a email so they can investigate what is happening and offer protection to your mother.
Warn them that she will be fearful of saying anything against him due to the authority the Witnesses give to men over their wives and the warnings not to talk to anyone other than the elders about what happens in the home. They will need to repeat to her many times that by law she needs to tell the truth and stress that word “truth”. As a person who loves the truth she needs to tell it to them regarding these matters. They also need to remember that the elders have an obligation to protect people within the congregation. In her case they are not protecting her. And in legal situations they have no authority to act in her behalf. Whoever does the investigation needs to know this religion operates on a hierarchy where women and children are at the bottom and are often abused and get no help from the elders and are strictly warned not to speak to the police or outsiders about what happens within the congregation or within a Witness family. This is clearly a cult but your mother does not realize that and telling her that it is a cult will only trigger her into silence. If they understand these issues they may get a lot further in getting her the help she needs.
Anyone can help me in Timor Leste? I was very much involving in this organization and help them to build the first congregation in this country. Now I realized that it is a cult and full of hypocrasy. I have a lot of influences in the government. I would like to do things in order for my friends to wake up and prevent more people from this cult.