reprint of the May-Aug 1989 Bethel Ministries Newsletters

brainwashing chair

Mind Control or Brainwashing?

Understanding Mind Control Among Jehovah's Witnesses

by Randall Watters

Two methods have traditionally been employed in attempting to free Jehovah's Witnesses from bondage to the Watchtower organization. They are:

* Discussing key Bible texts so as to reveal how the Watchtower has mistranslated or misinterpreted them.

* Exposing the past and present inconsistencies of the Watchtower in terms of their false prophecies, changes in doctrine, cover ups, etc.

Much has been written on the biblical approach. A few books have been written which document the Watchtower's false prophecies and changes as well, such as Thus Saith the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses. However, very little has yet been written clarifying their particular technique of mind control. I believe many will benefit from a new approach in talking to friends and relatives who are caught up in the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The first two techniques mentioned above have their merits, and they should not be neglected in reaching the Witness. Indeed, we need all the tools we can muster in reaching out to free them from mind control. Yet I believe that a person who is trying to reach Jehovah's Witnesses must truly understand the mindset of the person they are ministering to before they can set them free in many situations.

An excellent book has been published by Steven Hassan called Combatting Cult Mind Control. Having worked with Steve personally (and with good results), I feel that this type of information needs to be applied specifically to Jehovah's Witnesses.

What is "Mind Control"?

While many have spoken of the methods used by the cults as a form of brainwashing (a forced reprogramming of a person's thoughts), a more apt designation would be mind control. Hassan clarifies the difference between the two:

"Mind control, also called `thought reform,' is more subtle and sophisticated [than brainwashing]. Its perpetrators are regarded as friends or peers, so the person is much less defensive. He unwittingly participates by cooperating with his controllers and giving them private information that he does not know will be used against him. The new belief system is internalized into a new identity structure.

"Mind control involves little or no overt physical abuse. Instead, hypnotic processes are combined with group dynamics to create a potent indoctrination effect. The individual is deceived and manipulated--not directly threatened into making the prescribed choices. On the whole, he responds positively to what is done to him." (p. 56)

Hassan constructs his methodology from his own personal experiences, as well as Robert J. Lifton's classic study, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism and Leon Festinger's "cognitive dissonance theory" and its three marks of mind control. Hassan adds one more to make four:

* control of behavior

* control of thoughts

* control of emotions

* control of information

These methods, when used by unscrupulous cults, form a powerful tool for seducing converts. The appeal is not just to the ignorant and gullible, either; the best recruits are often quite intelligent.

What's Wrong with Mind Control?

Using mind control is a question of ethics in today's society; not all forms of mind control are harmful. Advertising and sales pitches seek to influence our minds daily. What we must take issue with, however, are certain methods of mind control employed that are not understood by the person seeking help. Often they do not know what they are getting into (until it's too late). Religious cults employ mind control tactics that are kept secret from the rank and file members; that is one reason why they are called cults. Cults believe that "the end justifies the means" when it comes to making converts. They sincerely believe that they have the only answers to life's problems, and since most people "don't know what is good for them," the cult leaders assume the role of "parents" to the victim, often referring to themselves as their "mother" or "father." Unlike a good parent who explains what he is doing to the child, however, the cult leader finds it to his advantage to keep the recruit as much in the dark as possible, preferring obedience and blind loyalty to making full disclosure. Cult leaders are sophisticated when it comes to understanding human nature! They know that the average person would object to the indoctrination program if they really understood the whole picture, so information is provided on a "need to know" basis only.

This reveals the underlying foundation of cult leadership--a total lack of faith in the neophyte's ability to make responsible decisions. The neophyte is viewed as a worthless individual unless their entire way of thinking is overhauled. They must have their minds swept clean of former ways of reacting to life's situations, and then reprogrammed entirely. The cult's program of mind control will ultimately only work if the person sublimates their former personality.

Hope for the Deceived

Is it a waste of time to try and get a Jehovah's Witness out of the organization after being in it for years? It might seem that way to outsiders. The blind zeal and imperviousness to critical thought on the part of the Witness might appear permanent to the relative trying to rescue their loved one caught up in the Watchtower.

Yet the organization itself is aware of the need to constantly drill their subjects with the same material week after week, lest the individual begin to think and act like the others who live and work around them once more. Sometimes all it takes is a long vacation from the Kingdom Hall activities, a time of emotional depression, or a bad experience with another Witness to spark doubt in the mind of the Witness. Many simply get tired of the very mind control process itself, and their cult identity loses its attraction.

Any exposure whatever to literature about mind control methods or experiences of others from various mind control cults may spark new or resurfaced doubts in the Witness mind. The goal is to help them see clearly that the Watchtower is no different than hundreds of other religious organizations that use the very same phobias, promises and mind control methods to seduce and retain their members. Such comparisons are devastating. Nothing can be more effective than a well-planned "casual" discussion between the Witness and a former member of another cult who simply feels like talking about his or her experience in the cult, without their even inferring the Witness is in a cult. One of the very first alarms that went off in my mind a year before my exiting the Watchtower was the reading of a Reader's Digest article on religious cults that, to my remembrance, didn't even mention the Watchtower. Something just clicked inside, as I asked my roommate, "Why doesn't the Watchtower reach out to cult victims?" Little did I know where attempting to answer that haunting question would lead. Freedom, for me at least, was just around the corner.

Understanding Watchtower Mind Control

I have found in the vast majority of cases where Christians are trying to talk to a Jehovah's Witness about the errors of the Watchtower, they are unable to relate to the Witness at all. They may be well acquainted with Watchtower theology, but then proceed as if the Witness is simply lacking factual material, naively assuming that once presented with the truth, the Witness will give his faith up and become a Christian. This almost never works.

The basic assumption of this approach is that (1) the person is merely lacking accurate information, and (2) once presented with the truth, it will "trouble" them enough to make an intelligent decision to leave the Watchtower. They are thereby making two generally false assumptions: that the person has not heard information critical of the Watchtower, and that the Witness is objective enough in their thinking to weigh the truthfulness of the Watchtower on their own.

It is uncommon to find a JW who has not seen or heard information exposing the dishonesty of the Watchtower. Why, then, do they not see a problem? Evidently, something else has prevented them from objectively analyzing factual information. Their minds are trained to stop short of doubting the organization. A wall has been erected which says, in effect, "This far you may go, and no further." The Christian or concerned relative does not realize that the person is a victim of mind control, and whatever biases or presuppositions that have been placed in their minds by the Watchtower will effectively prevent the JW from seeing things objectively.

One could liken it to a child who loves her mother very much (and who is loved by the mother) discovering that her mother is on trial for first degree murder in a court of law. Not yet having the maturity to understand human nature and the complexities of personalities, the child will be overwhelmingly driven by her feelings towards her mother and almost always reject (though without factual basis) any efforts to convince her that her mother is a murderer.

The illustration is not far off from what actually occurs within the mind of the Jehovah's Witness. The JW is taught that the organization is the "mother," and that Jehovah is the Father. Since Jehovah does not speak directly to the JW, he must rely on the organization for guidance and instruction. The JW is reminded over and over how trustworthy the "mother" is and how he cannot get along without her. Anyone else who tries to help the JW is viewed as "of the devil" and is considered dangerous. Since the JW is part of a family with its normal amount of brotherhood and togetherness (five meetings a week), the feeling of being safe and even "loved" reinforces what the "mother" is saying. The "mother" has taught him not to listen to anything critical of her, calling it satanic; thereby preventing the JW from thinking objectively and causing him to react with strong emotions whenever he senses a critical spirit towards the Watchtower. The JW will simply not question the motives or truthfulness of the "mother." Only if he begins to lose faith in the claims or nurturing ability of the mother (thereby breaking the emotional bond) will he start to think a little more objectively.

What Actually Does Work?

How does one plant doubts in the Witness mind about the truthfulness or nurturing ability of the Watchtower? Some have thought to do this by means of using Bible verses that the Watchtower misinterprets, showing them what the original Greek text really says, or how the organization has changed their interpretation over the years. There are two major pitfalls to this method, however. The first is, the Witness knows the Watchtower will have an answer to virtually ANY question that comes up in a conversation. The Witness is not trained to question the validity of their answer, only to be satisfied that the "mother" HAS an answer. So the Witness knows that even though he is stumped at the doorstep, he can go back to their books and magazines and get an answer. He thereby sidesteps any uncomfortableness that comes from not having an answer on the spot. In fact, he will often volunteer to come back with an answer. In the interim, the other Witnesses will convince him that the person challenging the Watchtower is not really interested in the truth, but is actually an "opposer of the truth." Therefore, few Witnesses ever actually do return to answer the questions of those critical to the Watchtower or its interpretations. As a Witness, I often did not return (nor did I offer), thinking to myself that I was wasting my time with someone who was "negative and not interested in the truth."

As a response to this pattern, some ministries have actually adopted the stance of not using the Bible at all with the Witness until they feel they are ready to discuss it objectively. While this may come as a surprise to many Christians, once you understand the intricacies of their mind control, it makes much more sense.

Others have sought to plant seeds of doubt about the "motherhood" of the Watchtower organization by pointing out their false prophecies and contradictions between faith and practice. This generally takes the form of showing them old Watchtower literature where they said one thing, then comparing that with what they say presently. Or, it may include pointing out the inconsistencies of Watchtower policy, such as their condoning the loss of homes and lives of tens of thousands of Witnesses in the African country of Malawi a few years ago (because of not buying a 25-cent party card) with the Watchtower's current condoning of bribery and military service by the JW in Mexico.

While this "using their own literature against them" approach can be used in situations where the person is actually willing to look at what you have in the way of evidence, most of the JWs will not look at anything that is critical of the Watchtower. Thus, in most cases, this approach will not prove effective. Most of the success in using old Watchtower literature has come when the JW's mind is somewhat open and they already possess a measure of objectivity. In that case, use whatever works! The major obstacle has been overcome.

Most will find, however, that one's conversation with the Witness must not directly involve the Watchtower, unless it is in a positive note. They simply will not listen to you for long otherwise. What, then, can one do?

Opening the Closed Mind by Discussion

One of the best way to reach a biased person and gently expose their bias (without offending their ego) is to have discussions on issues that have distinct similarities to the Watchtower brand of mind control, but of which they have no particular vested interest. For instance, Jehovah's Witnesses consider Mormons and the Moonies to be cults, but on the basis of their doctrines rather than their methodology. JWs will not be familiar with the mind control methods used by cults, so to share the methods of, let's say, the Moonies, will probably take them by surprise. As you discuss the four levels of control of the Unification Church over its members in terms of thought control, emotional control, control of behavior and of information, the Witness just may turn out to be a captive audience. You are not threatening them or their organization, after all! But what if they suspect you are trying to say that the Watchtower is like the Moonies?

It is therefore important to be as casual and inoffensive as possible when dealing with the JW. Since their training is to resist anything critical of the Watchtower, you must avoid discussing the Watchtower when trying to draw parallels in their mind. If you are, for instance, trying to explain the control of information as used by the Moonies, you do not want to simultaneously compare them with the Watchtower. Let the JW draw their own conclusions! Give them the benefit of the doubt that they are smart enough to sense the similarities in time...and time is what they need. Experience has shown that it might take several informal sessions of discussing mind control methods as used by other religious groups or political groups before the JW even begins to get the point. Watch movies together with them that are based on mind control themes. Give them time, and let them draw their own conclusions. They must make the information their own; it is their life.

Using A "Chance" Conversation

A proven method as used by professional exit counselors of cult members is to set up a planned conversation with the JW, who will hopefully not be threatened by it. People are not usually intimidated by someone sitting next to them at a bus stop or on the airplane or waiting in line or at the grocery store if the conversation comes up casually.

For instance: A man has a wife who is a JW, and he wants her to be free from Watchtower mind control. He knows the futility of arguing with her or trying to show her old Watchtower material that might show them up to be false prophets. So he arranges for an ex-Mormon or Moonie to sit next to her on some occasion while traveling, and the ex-cultist strikes up an informal conversation about what they used to be involved in, at the same time not asking the JW too many questions or being overly curious. The JW will often feel more at ease if the stranger doesn't even know they are a JW, especially if the subject is religious organizations that are mutually recognized as cults. Witnesses are not stupid; they know others consider them to be a cult, so they usually prefer to keep a low profile in such conversations. The stranger's job is not to show them the Watchtower is a cult, but to help them to see the similarities between the cults and their own faith in their own minds. That is simply too embarrassing. Jehovah's Witnesses must ultimately face what they have done with their own life. You are simply giving them opportunity to think objectively once more (something they may have unwittingly given up long ago with regards to the Bible or God).

Several well-planned conversations of this type can do much to prepare the ground for more intensive discussions, which are also planned in advance. The family member or Christian who is working to get the JW out of the Watchtower befriends an ex-cultist (not an ex-JW!) and invites him/her over for dinner. It is important that the JW is not intimidated, so please, no preaching allowed! (unless it is very clear that the Holy Spirit is moving you in this direction). The conversation should be directed towards subjects such as:

* manipulative techniques used by their former religion

* why they felt it was the "truth"

* how they woke up to the control they were under (avoid making this a religious discussion)

* how ex-members treated them and why they were considered apostates

* how the group they were in changed their doctrine or made false prophecies (again, avoid discussing the Scriptures)

* the fear and guilt fostered by the cult

* the false confidence the cult inspired

* the subtle self-righteousness the cult fostered

* the cult's ignorance of historic Christianity

The reader may be disturbed by the idea of not using the Bible at first. It must be understood that picking up the Bible triggers a "mode" of thought to the Witness. Though they are really ignorant of much of the Scriptures in context, they really feel at home in such discussions. Your goal is to get them into an area of uncomfortability; an area of thinking that does not come automatically to them. You are promoting thought on issues that they have conveniently brushed aside or never considered. Bringing out the Bible at such an inappropriate time will only snap them out of their pensive thoughtfulness (that you have painstakingly created) and restore their full confidence that they know all about the Bible and that you are not in "the truth," and therefore have no business trying to teach them. Many a Christian has shipwrecked their efforts to share with the Witness by getting into "Bible discussions." The sad part is that the Christian actually thinks they are getting through to the Witness by bringing up certain Scriptures or fine points they can't answer, yet the true fruitage is obvious when the JW will not talk to them again. They have not won the case at all; the Witness still believes that "they know the Bible and that they have the truth."

Fear of Apostasy

Apostates often appeal to the ego, claiming that we have been deprived of our freedoms, including the freedom to interpret the Bible for ourselves. (Compare Genesis 3:15.) In reality, these would-be defilers offer nothing more than a return to the nauseating teachings of "Babylon the Great." (Revelation 17:5; 2 Peter 2:19-22) Others appeal to the flesh, urging former associates to "take it easy" because the humble work of witnessing from house to house is "unnecessary" or "unscriptural." (Compare Matthew 16:22,23.) True, such smooth talkers may look outwardly clean in a physical and moral way. But inside they are spiritually unclean, having given in to prideful, independent thinking. They have forgotten all that they learned about Jehovah....

Typical words to be found within the pages of The Watchtower," a former Jehovah's Witness would say, regarding the above quote from the Watchtower of November 1, 1987 (p. 19,20). In fact, you might want to compare not only the message but the attitude behind it with the statement made by the Watchtower from their article on "An Open or a Closed Mind: Which Do You Have?" (Awake!, 11/22/84, p. 3,4). "Slurs and innuendoes" are indeed a mark of prejudice and a closed mind. Almost every Jehovah's Witness who decides to leave the Watchtower organization has had other members of his congregation make up lies about why they left or what their problem was. The JWs must comfort themselves with the thought that those who leave are certainly proud, despise door-to-door work or are homosexuals or prostitutes. "There is no honorable way out of this organization," some have said candidly.

I remember the spirit that was manifest among the Brooklyn headquarters of the Governing Body in 1979-1980 when word got out that their own Writing Department had discovered flaws in their dating system. This was information that was to be kept under wraps. To talk about it would bring doubts into the minds of the brothers, it was said. At times I heard factory overseers say, "You just can't trust the brothers." They had to be watched and policed, for fear they would get out of line. The flow of information had to be controlled, lest their tiny minds misunderstand it or develop new liberties in the flesh. I remember how Nathan Knorr, third president of the Watchtower, kept the Bethelites working a half a day every Saturday for years, because three or four brothers were killed in a car accident on a long weekend trip.

While life at Bethel may have eased over the years, the control over one's life pattern for all Witnesses has increased. Witnesses are not to have parties, special meetings on their own, develop their own public talks, or act as spokesmen for the Watchtower Society nowadays. The ever-increasing restrictions speak only too clear that the Watchtower trusts its own followers less and less. What is the reason for this trend?

Disturbing Similarities

Most cults based on the Bible go through similar transition stages. They begin by promising freedom from church tradition, false doctrine and hypocrisy. As time goes on and the prophecies fail and the people lose heart, the machine is kept going through new laws and requirements, designed to fortify the elitist mentality of the group. After all, to be the only true Christians requires a good outward appearance! As the idealism in the ranks wanes, it must be replaced with legalism and corporate mentality. Eventually, fear must become a motivating force to keep the people together. Fear of almost anything foreign to the group, including the devil, nonmembers, religious symbols, holidays, media programs, and especially ex-members. APOSTASY! is the word that strikes fear into their hearts, as the threat of dying at Armageddon, going to hell, or some other horrible fate is said to await them. Though "apostasy" means leaving the teachings of Christ in the Bible for another so-called "truth" (2 John 9,10), it is twisted around in the cults to mean the abandoning of one or more teachings of the cult as spelled out in its own publications. The Witness with doubts is not aware of the thousands of Mormons who have doubts, along with Moonies, Armstrongites, etc. who are struggling with crippling fear for the same reason. Cults believe that they are the only true religion, so to leave the organization is equated with leaving God Himself. Let us work and pray to set free the minds and hearts of those bound up with fear, through the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the mediator for "all men," regardless of what religious leaders may say. (1 Tim. 2:5,6)


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