Incredible document on the Watchtower and cognitive dissonance

by sabastious 27 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • sabastious

    I recieved an awesome document in my youtube messages yesterday. The person giving it told me it was the best description of the experience he had went through which involved entering and exiting the Watchtower over the course of only a few years.

    Written by Jamie Boyden [<--NOT sabastious] Sunday, 08 February 2009 14:19

    Taking the mystery out of why one chooses to become a Jehovah's Witness is important. Much can be gained from the fields of social psychology and sociology as to how this occurs. It should be noted then that unique, individual motivating factors predicting and accompanying a person to favorably select the JW position will not herein be considered, rather factors at large and how people respond to the factors will be the author's spotlight. It should also be stated that the focus of this article is on persons not "born into" the Watchtower Society organization.
    Would You Like to Study the Bible?

    Suffice it to say that most all prospective converts, after first meeting the JWs through a doorstep encounter, begin their indoctrination through a home book study. The weekly book study (which the Witnesses sometimes call a Bible study) is where the well-rehearsed JW and the newcomer go through a Watchtower publication together. Quite predictably, the Witness teacher asks the likely convert questions related to his reading assignments. He can read the questions written at the bottom of his study book and easily respond with the corresponding printed answers. He is continually praised for stating the appropriate Watchtower responses during his hour long book study. How important is this praise?

    Social psychologists view praise as an extremely potent social reward, not only predicting actions but also capable of altering an individual's underlying attitudes and beliefs (Insko, 1965). Research has demonstrated that people come to like those who view them positively (Byrne & Rhamey, 1965). During initial visits, it is common to hear reassuring comfort from the Witness teacher that the potential convert is wise and intelligent to be showing interest in the knowledge which his very life depends on. However, as the initiate enjoys the attention and praise of his weekly visitor, he may begin to acquire what social psychologists call attitude-discrepant behavior.

    Attitude-Discrepant Behavior

    A famous theory in social psychology is Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance1 theory (Festinger, 1957; Wichlund & Brehm, 1976). It is based on the premise that people can't live with inconsistencies. It works like this: On the one hand, the prospective convert usually has serious questions and doubts in the back of his mind about Jehovah's Witnesses and their teachings. It may be the blood transfusion issue, their view of the governments, their exclusive claims to Christianity, etc. Or, he may imagine the embarrassment of going door to door selling magazines. Yet, he is allowing the Witness teacher into his home and is participating in a socially rewarding book study. Since his behavior is not yet in line with his negative attitudes towards the JWs, he manifests attitude-discrepant behavior.2 He may also face harsh warnings from his family and friends who tell him not to study with the JWs because they are a cult. Yet he has an honest curiosity about what the Witnesses teach and believe. He may go as far as verbally giving answers to typical Witness book study questions but not actually believing what he is saying. These are inconsistencies between his attitudes and result in a very unpleasant feeling (Higgins, Rhodewalt, & Zanna, 1979). If the potential convert does not initially have conflicting attitudes towards studying with the JWs, it is very likely to appear in a short time. Perhaps he will come upon some critical literature exposing the JW teachings, or talk to a former JW or another educated person. Even if someone does not present him with a critical viewpoint, he will often pose questions which will force him into a dissonance-creating situation.

    I Wouldn't Do It If I Didn't Believe It!

    With regard to inconsistencies between attitudes, it should be noted that no one enjoys this unpleasant state to last long, so when faced with a decision, a choice between two alternatives must be made. After all, one can't possess two diametrically opposed religious views! Interestingly, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that the alternative (once chosen) becomes enhanced (Brehm, 1956; Knox & Inkster, 1968; Younger, Walker, & Arrowood, 1977; Converse & Cooper, 1979). Indeed, accepting one side ("I enjoy studying and what if the Witnesses are right?") without devaluing the other would allow inner turmoil (dissonance) to still prevail.3

    To cite a more familiar example, perhaps the reader has had a decisional conflict involving the advantages and disadvantages of a large purchase. And once the decision is made and the purchase is taken home, you evaluate more positive the purchase you chose and lower your perception of the alternative you discarded. Likewise, the prospective convert, in effect, does the same thing. His questions about the JWs are no longer seen as important or serious.

    I Suffered For It, It Must Be Right!

    Lastly, dissonance theory suggests that we are more likely to positively evaluate our choices that we have come to suffer for (Aronson & Mills, 1959; Gerard & Mathewson, 1966). When the convert has to deal with the negative consequences (profound embarrassment, persecution, friends viewing him as different, shedding worldly ties, etc.) of his decision to become a JW, he may justify himself by reasoning, "I suffered for it, it must be worth it."

    In review, the convert is receiving much praise and enjoying his attentive Witness teacher. He is impressed with the knowledge of Scripture his teacher possesses and the sincerity of the Witnesses in general. But simultaneously he must settle the guilt feelings of knowing he should at least investigate the Watchtower organization in light of the negative feelings he already has and the compounded warnings from friends and relatives. We learned that he must deal with the stress of dissonance by making an either/or choice and following that action. We also learned that he may choose relatively quickly (compared to the gravity of the decision) and may stick with the choice because cognitive dissonance theory predicts his decision, once made, is greatly enhanced. But now we will turn to why the prospective convert does not choose to obtain more information to weigh before he decides to believe the Witnesses.

    If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them!

    When dissonance occurs, the course of action taken is usually the one that offers the least resistance. Indeed, the potential convert can ignore the pleas of his friends and family and isolate himself from all Watchtower opposers, fleeing to his new Witness friends. In reality, many choose to continue studying with the Witnesses because it is the path they have already begun, that they are continually being reinforced to take, and the path with the advantages flashed in front of them each week in their intensive book studies. This is why during the wrestling with dissonance and choosing an alternative, many forfeit the opportunity of investigating counter-cult information. There are a number of tactics the Witnesses use to insure that the newcomer will not search out or listen to the anti-Witness alternative. This leaves the potential convert with the counter-cult alternative as the one easiest to discard, in contrast to the overabundant pro-Witness information and guidance available from the JWs themselves.

    Where Are My Friends at a Time Like This?

    One method the Witnesses use to prevent the prospective convert from investigating the Watchtower organization is to recommend that one only associates with Witnesses. During the book study the initiate's attitude towards outside ("worldly") ties is frowned upon. Hence, if one doesn't make contact with anyone other than a JW, it is highly unlikely that a counter argument will reach the convert's ears, or that warnings from friends will be a problem. Incidently, wouldn't it also make sense that the one willing to give up friendships and acquaintances probably lacks substantial and rewarding involvement with others in the first place?

    Sociologist James A. Beckford revealed evidence of predisposing conditions4 in a study of JWs conducted in Britain (1975). He found the second condition in rank of importance that allows for a positive view of the JWs (before the book study even takes place) was a secular occupation in volving little contact or interaction with the public or co-workers. The initiate would thus be missing important contacts with friends and workers for information and comparison. Another predisposing condition found was social isolation from others outside the family and work place. Truly, this lack of ties facilitates the absence of anti-Witness arguments, ideas, and data during the decisional conflict period. Beckford (p.183) writes: "Lack of enduring ties with social groups outside the family and work place implies that prospective converts have very little social support for their own ideas or for any resistance that they may wish to present to the arguments and blandishments of evangelists [JWs]. Social isolation may also have the direct consequence of heightening the pleasure to be derived from the opportunity of having regular home visits from Publishers [JWs] who appear to be genuinely concerned for one's personal welfare."

    They Are Right, It Must Be Satan!

    A second method the Witnesses use in the decisional conflict stage which eventually blinds the initiate from an investigation, is that the book study material directly discourages examination. "Apostate" literature is anything written which is critical of the Watchtower Society or their teachings. This is clearly demonstrated in the March 15, 1986 Watchtower magazine. Under the heading, "Have No Dealings With Apostates," it reads:

    . . . For example, what will you do if you receive a letter or some literature, open it, and see right away that it is from an apostate? Will curiosity cause you to read it, just to see what he has to say? You may even reason: `It won't affect me; I'm too strong in the truth. And besides, if we have the truth, we have nothing to fear. The truth will stand the test.' In thinking this way, some have fed their minds upon apostate reasoning and have fallen prey to serious questioning and doubt." (p. 12)

    As a result of this mentality being instilled in the initiate, he often declines seeking any information other than Watchtower publications (whereas the statement just quoted ought to be a cue to the wary reader who recognizes that avoiding information and contact with outsiders is a common trait of cults--Zimbardo, Ebbesen, Malach, 1977; Lifton, 1963). Hence, the potential JW convert becomes isolated to JW publications exclusively.

    Even more incredible is the Watchtower's emphasis on "avoiding independent thinking." Although the prospective convert may not come upon such statements in his initial readings, it will be the thinking patterns his Witness teacher is subtly persuading if not explicitly directing. In the January 15, 1983 Watchtower (p. 27) a whole section of an article is entitled, "Fight Against Independent Thinking." This serious crackdown on free thinking and behavior is enforced today when the Society must deal with JWs who are more than ever questioning and doubting the movement. This ultimate command of loyalty is a necessary last resort to maintain control over the Witnesses' lives.

    Their final and often most persuasive teaching is that Satan will persecute the initiate through friends and family who don't want him to find the truth. The Witnesses imply that persecution and doubt is the very sign that you must have found the right religion, so they warn not to succumb to it and fall prey to false teachings. This may be their most effective tool in terms of getting the convert to believe that he shouldn't investigate or question the Watchtower Society.

    How Can You Find It If You Don't Look?

    A third condition limiting an examination of the Watchtower cult during the decisional conflict stage is the very lack of information available to investigate. There is a lot of literature, books, tapes, and tracts exposing the teachings and history of the JWs, but it is often not as easy to find it at the exact time the initiate needs it. Even the libraries sometime lack any books on JWs. And if the prospective convert seeks clergy help (as is not often the case), he may be disillusioned that even they don't have an answer to every doctrine and issue in life like the Witnesses pretend to have. Hence, when the inner turmoil (dissonance) becomes overbearing, the case against the JWs is often waning at the very time the intense book study catered to his home is persisting. No wonder the path of least resistance is often to continue studying with the Witnesses!

    You Made Your Decision, Now You Are Stuck With It!

    Much can be gained from the behavioral sciences as to how to most effectively deter one from joining the Watchtower cult. The importance of acting fast in providing objective counter-cult materials during the informational weighing, decisional conflict period cannot be overstated. Personal contact as well as material intervention is most important. As was pointed out, a decision must be made by the initiate to avoid dissonance. Once formed, it quickly becomes elevated and highly resistant to change.

    What happens if later (after the initiate has fully become a Witness) he is presented with countercult materials or arguments? Most likely the Witness will be motivated to blindly disregard them, for to honestly consider them would bring back an occurrence of that extremely unpleasant feeling of dissonance--the guilt of not making a fully-informed decision. After his personal investment and suffering and hours of acting like a Witness, it becomes increasingly difficult to reason that he was wrong as the months go on. He may be tempted to reason: "I'm afraid to look, what if I find out I am wrong?" In fact, dissonance theory predicts that when a JW finds a true discrepancy in his belief system, rather than facing the truth, he may blatantly ignore it by suppressing or at most redefining his beliefs. Although he has the choice of abandoning his faith, this would be too much of a strain to contemplate. This can be illustrated with regard to failed Watchtower prophecy.

    Bryan Wilson (1978) utilized Leo Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory to examine the failed 1975 prophecy. The JWs expected the end of the world to occur in 1975. Instead of abandonment of belief after the long awaited date passed, reinterpretation was necessary. The point is that despite the obvious failed prophecy, annual growth did actually continue in 1976 in all of the principal countries but six. Whether growth was caused by all new members or the addition of some new members on top of existing JW adherents is yet to be known. But there was renewed growth. The Witnesses could only redefine and rededicate themselves to the cause they gave their lives to. Wilson writes: "Reinterpretation does not demand that mistakes or disappointments should be denied: indeed, error can be frankly admitted and disappointment acknowledged as part of the reaffirmation of faith. The expiation of error, and perhaps fleeting doubt, may indeed demand vigorous rededication to the cause, and, if the sect is at all given to proselytizing, to renewed commitment to field activities." (pp. 183-184) Bryan Wilson is noted among sociologists studying religion. He mentions that similar to the 1975 miscalculation was the 1914 failed end-of-the-world prophecy. Again, reinterpretation was necessary followed by rededication. Very much related to this cognitive dissonance phenomenon is that after a Christian has enabled a JW to see gross flaws in the Watchtower facade, the JW often becomes more adamant about his waning beliefs. It is very common to confront a JW with overwhelming arguments against their organization, only to have the JW come back a week later and say, "I'm glad I talked to you, as it gave me an opportunity to bolster my faith. Now I am more convinced than ever I am right."

    What Do You Call It?

    So, do potential JW converts go through a brainwashing process? It must be realized that brainwashing does not have to be mysterious, involve coercive mind control tactics, nor require drugs or hypnosis. Whether brainwashing techniques are so radical has been questioned by researchers (Schein, Schneier, & Barker, 196l; Szasz, 1976). Indeed, a model of brainwashing based on a traditional social-psychological study of intentional social influence and sociological conditions (as discussed throughout this paper) has been aptly described (Lifton, 1963; Zimbardo, Ebbesen, & Maslach, 1977). What do you call it?

    1. cognitive dissonance: knowing one is not in harmony with his own beliefs; the perception of disharmony or controversy.
    2. attitude-discrepant behavior: unusual behavior resulting from a discrepancy or disharmony in one's attitude towards something.
    3. called postdecisional dissonance) because of the obvious unsettled benefits (lingering personal doubts).
    4. conditions existing beforehand that affect one's decision.


    Aronson, E., & Mills, J. The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1959, 59, 177-181.
    Beckford, J. A. The Trumpet of Prophecy. New York: A Halsted Press Book, 1975.
    Brehm, J. W. Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1956, 52, 384-389.
    Byrne, D., & Rhamey, R. Magnitude of positive and negative reinforcement as a determinant of attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1965, 2, 884-889.
    Converse, J., Jr., & Cooper, J. The importance of decisions and freechoice attitude change: A curvilinear finding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1979, 15, 48-61.
    Festinger, L. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, Ill.: Row, Peterson, 1957
    Gerard, H. B., & Mathewson, G.C. The effects of severity of initiation on liking for a group: A replication. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1966, 2, 278-287.
    Higgins, E.T., Rhodewalt, F., & Zanna, M. P. Dissonance motivation: Its nature, persistence, and reinstatement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1979, 15, 16-34.
    Insko, C. Verbal reinforcement of attitude. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1965, 2, 261-623
    Knox, R.E., & Inkster, J.A. Postdecisional dissonance at post time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1968, 8, 319-323.
    Lifton, R.J. Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: A study of brainwashing in China. New York: Norton, 1963.
    Riess, M., & Schlenker, B.R. Attitude change and responsibility avoidance as modes of dilemma resolution in forced-compliance situations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1977, 35, 21-30.
    Schein, E.H., Schneier, I., & Barker, C. H. Coercive persuasion. New York: Norton, 1961.
    Szasz, T. Patty Hearst's conversion: Some call it brainwashing. The New Republic, 1976, 174, 10-12.
    Wicklund, R.A., & Brehm, J.W. Perspectives on cognitive dissonance. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1976.
    Wilson, B. When prophecy failed. New Society, 1978, 43, 799, Jan 26, 183-184.
    Younger, J.C., Walker, L., & Arrowood, A.J. Postdecisional dissonance at the fair. Personality and Social Psychology, 1979, 37, 284-287.
    Zimbardo, P., Ebbesen, E.B., & Maslach, C. Influencing attitudes and changing behavior (2nd ed.). Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1977

    ^ I would also like to add the Jehovah's Witnesses Reinstatement Process to this therum. In much the same way the reinstatement process is about inducing dissonance. Also many times after a Witness has been reinstated they are ecouraged to do another study similar to the ones that new converts get.


  • LostGeneration

    <edit> wrong thread...

  • BluesBrother

    This is spot on the money ! It could well be describing the course of events that happened to my one and only progressive study . I told him to expect family opposition, and it came. He had no job or friends so was glad of the association. He was impressed with the WT "knowledge" he was learning. I told him not to listen to opposers - so he did not.

    The last I heard he was still in it - I wish I could contact him to tell him a few things...

  • JonathanH

    Where was this published?

  • sabastious
    Where was this published?

    This is the only place I could find it posted on the net:


  • Mickey mouse
    Mickey mouse

    Interesting. Thanks sab.

  • elderelite

    This is extremely thought provoking and well written.... Much praise and credit to the author....

    But how do we help them is the unaswered question

  • sabastious
    But how do we help them is the unaswered question

    In creative ways.


  • NewChapter

    Wow. I was working in very isolated circumstances---I cleaned houses and wouldn't see anyone all day. Then I'd go home and just take care of my child. My husband and I were not getting along well, and most of my immediate family had just moved around an hour away. I was used to having them close by, and didn't get to see them as often as before. I did have some friends and one organization I belonged to---but that only met once a month. On top of that, the friends I did have were still in their party stage, and I had a marriage and child, so we didn't really talk much anymore. And we cerainly didn't do much together. I was extremely shy at the time with a lot of social phobias, so making new friends was very difficult. Along they came with smiles and praise, and I fell right in. I can totally see the truth in that article.

    Added to that were my many unanswered questions. I had reached an age where some of my older relatives started dying. I really struggled with this because I feared Hell. I'd try to talk to ministers and such, but they never had all the answers. JW's had ALL the answers!

    Wow again.


  • wannabefree

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