Salutary, Pathogenic and Pathoplastic Aspects of the Jehovah’s Witness Culture:
By Richard E. Kelly
I am pleased to share a research paper that was published this month in the Journal of Family Studies about the culture of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) living in Poland. It is the work of Igor J. Pietkiewicz, from the Psychology Faculty at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Katowice, Poland.
Don’t let words like salutary, pathogenic and pathoplastic scare you. You can replace salutary with “beneficial”, pathogenic with “harmful”, and pathoplastic with “how culture allows individuals to express their symptoms and problems in a socially meaningful way.” Restated, the object of the study is to report:
Beneficial, Harmful and Modeling Aspects of the Jehovah’s Witness Culture
In my opinion, this research paper provides an accurate snapshot of the good and the bad aspects of the JW culture. I believe it to be fair, balanced and well worth your time to read it.
While I would have liked to have seen more, this paper is a good start, and it makes a strong case from what it doesn’t report. Yes, the JW culture of undue influence still requires more research. I am pleased to report that necessary task is now in its incubation stages.
But why is this research project and related report so important right now? One of my colleagues answered that question by saying, “Independent research like this starts and/or adds to a debate. In universities, in policy contexts, evidence is sought and minds are influenced. This is just one part of a process that can create change. This kind of report also supports the need for more research, gives credibility to those involved in the project and, hopefully, the money and resources will follow for more exploration, networking, case studies and evidence.”
When I asked Professor Pietkiewicz what his expectations were for this research paper, he said, “The target of this paper is psychologists, doctors, and educators, who come into contact with representatives of the JW Community (JWC). I wanted to make them aware of specific cultural norms they need to consider when working with JWs. I am going to look closer into specific problems now—challenges to develop bi-cultural identity by JW adolescents whose peers at school represent other communities and the experiences of shunning and disfellowshiping. I am mostly focused on what healthcare providers should know about this group to provide appropriate services and interventions.”
When he asked me if I had any ideas, I said, “The research paper begs for more research on JWs and ex-JWs, because I believe there are more ex-JWs than JWs in North America and Europe, and the toxicity of that experience is not very good. The JW culture is slowly becoming more egregious every day and this will change some of your assumptions about the cultural identity of JWs. The JW world that I grew up in the 1950s was definitely high-control and cult-like, but mild compared to how Watchtower manipulates the minds of its members today.”
Mr. Pietkiewicz responded poignantly by saying that he agreed with me and that “…the high control of the community over individuals can be very harmful. It seems that JWs do not trust their own basic goodness and fear their own instincts. That is why they need so much control and they tend to concentrate on fighting the evil, instead of cherishing love, acceptance, and freedom. Many of them see phenomena as either all-good or all-bad, without any shades in between. Such perception and thinking is characteristic of small children. Children grow up, however, and learn that the world is more diverse and there are not always straightforward answers to all questions.
“I can see that many JWs have a strong need for dependence from a controlling authority (parent, organization) and low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. They remain in a child’s role and refrain from growing up. The latter would involve questioning parents’ authority and developing one’s own views. But many children fear autonomy and want to stay with their parents, even as adults when their careers seem too demanding and controlling. Maturity is not something you get from your parents but something you manifest for yourself, despite outer conditions.
“So, you cannot only blame the community culture for all problems. It is people who create their culture and not the governing body. You are right, that the organization does not encourage autonomy and development, but people need to have a certain mindset to play that game.”
However, as a researcher he was obliged to take a neutral stance, although he clearly saw the risks and negative consequences of involvement with the JWC. And that is why he wants to do more studies on the acculturation of Jehovah’s Witness adolescents and also an epidemiological study of disfellowshipment.
While I have provided a link to the research paper in its entirety below, let me share the first page here that will explain the background of the study and provide more information about the man behind the research:
SALUTARY, PATHOGENIC, AND PATHOPLASTIC
ASPECTS OF THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESS CULTURE
Igor J. Pietkiewicz University of Social Sciences & Humanities Faculty of psychology in Katowice, Poland
Email: [email protected]
The aim of this study was to gather information about religious values, beliefs, and normative practices in the Jehovah’s Witness community to observe how these affect individual and family lives or well-being. Fifteen semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 10 participants (six women and four men, aged between 19 and 62), who were active or former members of the community. Interview transcripts were analyzed together with the community’s official website contents and publications used for religious socialization, with Nvivo10, using the procedures of the constructivist grounded theory. Pathways for becoming a Jehovah’s Witness and numerous social norms are discussed in the paper with reference to their potentially salutogenic, pathogenic, or pathoplastic aspect. Special attention is paid to cultural shifts associated with conversion, expected acculturation styles, and the consequences of potential social exclusion when accepted norms are broken. It is claimed that understanding the culture of this specific religious group is crucial for healthcare providers, counselors and teachers who come into contact with community members in order to recognize risk factors and potential areas of conflict.
Keywords: Jehovah’s Witness; religiosity; values & norms; social exclusion; qualitative research
Igor Pietkiewicz, PhD is an academic teacher, as well as a psychotherapist and psychotherapy supervisor of the Polish Psychiatric Association. He has done multiple studies in community health psychology and psychology of religion. His recent publications focused on illness-behavior, help-seeking, and coping strategies of Tibetan Buddhists in India, South-Asian women acculturating in Canada, Roman Catholic priests in Poland. He also runs studies on Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is now developing a European support program for members and ex-members of religious or ideological communities, to encourage help-seeking, develop a referral system, and provide online and onsite counseling.
Link to PDF of full report:
As studies go this was an extremely small sample and it is usually difficult to generalize the findings to the whole cultural group. Despite that I think the author makes some very valid points. I especially noted his use of terms like dependent, child-like and high rigidity of members. Over the years I have experienced all of the above from both members and those newly out.. I suspect that the high-rigidity of members is based on their intense need to follow the rules. Failing to do so could result in exclusion (disfellowshipping) and shunning by group members.
As a counselor I had several clients who suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities). I became quite adept at spotting the switch from one personae to another. Sometimes the switch was very subtle so it took a keen eye and effort to notice the subtle shifts. Other times the switches would be dramatic – from a belligerent teen to a scared child. Not only does the voice change but the posture and facial expressions change as well. Although I had been doing this work for many years I had never considered how this might impact Jehovah’s Witnesses.
One day I was in a shopping mall and noticed a Witness who I had admired all my years as a Witness. She was a dignified woman who seemed secure in her role as an adult and as a Witness. I knew that her husband had died. I had admired him as well. I wanted to offer my condolences but knew she could not be seen talking to me. I approached her and stood on the far side of a bin of objects and quietly said I was sorry to hear about her husband and offered my condolences. And I watched her switch. In front of me she turned into a scared child who was afraid of being caught doing something she wasn’t supposed. to do. She cowered and lowered her head. Her shoulders turning inward. Quietly she said thank you but stayed rooted to the spot. If I hadn’t seen it or had no experience with it I might have missed it for what it was.
When potential converts begin to study with Witnesses they are told to put on “the new personality”, as defined in the Bible. For Witnesses this means a whole set of behaviors, beliefs and emotions that are external to them but must be internalized. The person they were before becomes submerged while the “new personality” takes the active role in the life of the Witness.
I think mental health care professionals need to be aware of this submerged self and recognize that for the most part they are dealing with the cult personality.
The other thing to be aware of is that some people might reach out for counseling but they will often be given the counsel by elders to not disclose that they are Witnesses. Supposedly this would bring reproach on their beliefs. It might only be by looking at what isn’t being said that a mental health worker might consider that some mechanism is in effect that is preventing the patient/client from being more open.
wow lee that was really helpful!
Lee, thank you for sharing your insights. Amazing observations, and thoughts that should be very helpful to researchers, medical personnel, legal experts and educators.
I want to thank Mr. Pietkiewicz! This is just the beginning. I look forward to his future studies – we need more therapists and psychologists that can understand the cult mindset. We need those people to help those who want to leave or who have just left.
I also thought it was quite a profound statement to say that the “organization does not encourage autonomy and development, but people need to have a certain mindset to play that game.” Haven’t we always said that many unbalanced people are drawn to these types of cults, because it so much easier to have other people do your thinking for you? Or as he said, it include having that childlike mindset where everything is just black and white. I think as Mr. Pietkiewicz continues his studies on JWs, he is going to see who mentally handicapped a person can be when living under the thumb of the Watchtower.
Thanks for sharing this report Richard!
Darlene (aka Isabella B.)
The studies I know of that involve JWs seem – unfortunately – to involve small sample sizes. It’s one of my bigger hangups about citing them as evidence. Unfortunately, in the bigger scheme of things, JWs just aren’t that important or worth devoting large resources to studying. I would love to hear about well-done studies that involve larger groups of JWs, however.
We are in the process of working with three major universities with a significant number of ex-JWs participating in the studies. Frankly, I was very surprised that Professor Pietkiewicz could get as many JWs to participate in his study. Normally, they won’t participate. And even those that did, all seven of them, had to bring another JW with them while they were being interviewed. Very telling.
Thank you for conducting and posting this interesting study. I am currently writing a book about growing up a JW and will definitely cite your work. It is my hope that in the near future we will see class action suits against the Society for the indelible emotional scars and irreparable psychological damage it has caused to countless innocent people. My life was greatly (and negatively) affected, and if you ever need any “subjects” for your research, I am at your disposal (I was a JW from age 7 to 27). Cheers, C.
Just read your reply tonite. You said you were in from 7 to 27. What year was that and what part of the country.?