This is the first in a series on techniques used by High Control Organisations (a more relevant term than ‘cult’) to control the beliefs and actions of their adherents. Here I look at techniques used to convince their members of doctrines Christianity has rejected for millennia.

Throughout human history there have been instances where a single leader, or a small group of leaders, has been able to control a much larger group of people in a way the rest of us struggle to understand. Examples like Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, who managed to convince his adherents to commit suicide, and Di Mambro of the Order of the Solar Temple who convinced many of his followers to do likewise, have highlighted the danger of this type of manipulation.

How is it that seemingly normal people can be so manipulated; does it take a particular type of person to fall for these ‘scams’ or are we all prone to such control? The Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not as extreme as those mentioned above, but use many of the same techniques to control their adherents.

There is little or no evidence that members of these High Control Organisations are any more gullible or of a lower intelligence than the general populace, though the Watchtower Society’s effective ban on higher education must lead to a much lower level of critical thinking skills.

So, how do these High Control Organisations control their members, convince them of things in a way that those outside the group struggle to understand? We will look at some of the psychological ‘tricks’ that are used,

helping those trying to evangelise them understand why they believe what they do.

When studying the doctrines of these groups it can seem incredible that anyone who claims to believe the Bible should follow these ideas. How can they get things so wrong and yet believe that they alone have the truth?

The Watchtower Society’s doctrines contradict traditional Christian teachings in their entirety. They agree with virtually nothing that has been taught for thousands of years.

This is often true of restoration movements who claim they are returning to or restoring the ‘original’ teachings of the Bible. Those doctrines taught by the Mormons seem even more bizarre once you look behind the veil of ‘normality’ they often project to the newcomer.

A better understanding of the barriers we meet may help us more effectively put the Bible’s true message across. It is not possible here to fully cover all aspects of techniques used, but check out the various references and suggested further reading below if you wish to delve deeper.

As my experience is mainly with Jehovah’s Witnesses many of the examples in this article emanate from that organisation. However, the general principles still apply to all High Control Organisations, in fact, to life in general – beware!

Spiritual Warfare

While there is undoubtedly a lot of secular mind control going on, as Christians we must understand that there is also a major spiritual element, that our battle is against the forces of darkness (Eph 6:12).

The Holy Spirit and prayer are our main weapons and we must not underestimate the importance of both when dealing with members of these groups. Satan has had many thousands of years to hone his tactics and he is very well aware of human vulnerabilities and how to exploit them.

Brainwashing vs Mind Control

People sometimes call High Control Organisation members ‘brainwashed’, but, for mainstream groups such as JWs, Mormons etc., this is inaccurate. The term ‘brainwashed’ has a specific meaning in psychology. It was first used in the 1950s during the Korean war to describe the processes used by the Chinese to drastically alter the outlook of American PoWs.

It refers to the use of overt and extreme psychological ‘tortures’ to rapidly alter the mind of the subject. Such tactics included; sleep and food deprivation, constant verbal and visual propaganda, and you would certainly know that you are being ‘brainwashed’ even though you may be unable to resist its effects.

Mind control is a much more covert and subtle process which the recipient is unlikely to realise they are undergoing. Being more subtle than brainwashing it takes longer to come into effect, but can be no less effective in controlling a person’s thoughts and actions in the long term.

BITE Model and Information Control

It can be difficult to determine exactly if an organisation can be termed as High Control, but the BITE model developed by Steven Hassan (1), a former member of the Moonies, gives specific pointers that can flag up areas of concern.

The BITE model describes how High Control Organisations manage their adherents in four specific areas: Behaviour, Information, Time, and Emotion. It is well worth visiting the Freedom of Mind website, (2) to learn more about the BITE model, as well as to make use of other resources there.

The ’I’ in BITE refers to Information. The controlling of the sources of information available is vital for any High Control Organisation. Before the internet became widely available it was easy to limit people’s access to information outside the group. The Watch Tower Society used to produce vast quantities of magazines, books, and booklets which left little time to do any other ‘research’.

With the availability of information on the internet it has been necessary for High Control Organisations to make great efforts to dissuade people from looking elsewhere. The May 2019 Watchtower (3) has an article on “Improve Your Study Habits” which makes much of doing ‘research’, but when looking at evolution it gives this advice;

Then using OUR PUBLICATIONS, do careful research” (Emphasis mine)

Even more telling is this statement:(4)

In Jehovah’s organization it is not necessary to spend a lot of time and energy in research, for there are brothers in the organization who are assigned to do that very thing, to help you who do not have so much time for this” (Emphasis mine)

Any secular researcher will tell you that looking at only one source is anathema in scholarly circles! But, the Watch Tower Society warns its members against looking at ‘apostate(5) material (6) and likens it to ‘gangrene’ (7) which may infect the whole congregational body requiring ‘amputation’ (disfellowshipping) of the member! The same article likens such material to ‘pornography(8). It’s no wonder JWs are scared to look outside the organisation for their information.

It is a truism that hearing only one side of an argument is likely to convince you of its truth; once the prosecution has made its case in a court of law a guilty verdict seems inevitable! The Watch Tower Society relies on this one-sided view of biblical study to put across its ideas. Sometimes, but rarely, an article will put across the opposite view (often as ‘myth busting’) but will only put across a twisted view of the opposition by way of a strawman argument (9) which is then easily shown to be wrong.

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.’ Proverbs 18:17

Cognitive Ease (10)

Much of what influences our thinking (and actions) goes on in our sub-conscious in a way of which we are often totally unaware. Our sub-conscious has been shown to be very lazy, it will usually choose the easy option and not work too hard to check its own work. Only should the situation be seen to be too hard work for the sub-conscious will it send it up to the conscious mind to sort out.

Many mind control techniques rely on this laziness by making the answer simple to digest and so not needing further investigation. The sub-conscious is easily fooled whereas the conscious mind is generally not so gullible.

The default position of the sub-conscious is to believe and it is up to the conscious mind to unbelieve, but to ‘unbelieve’ the conscious has to be engaged and this is what these techniques aim to avoid. The techniques highlighted here are therefore designed to make the ‘answer’ easy to see, and so easily digested by the reader’s sub-conscious, giving no need to call upon the more critical conscious mind.

No One Joins a Cult”

It is often asked why anyone would join a High Control Organisation in the first place, but of course people don’t, they join an organisation that appears loving and biblically based. They are slowly sucked into the system, only learning of the more outrageous ideas once they have been suitably indoctrinated.

For more information on this matter see the Reachout Trust video “5 Reasons People Join Cults” (11). Once they have been in the organisation for sometime they will have been taught to honour the leadership and to see them as the purveyors of truth, only then are the more obscure ideas made known.

High Control Organisations: The Authority Principal (12)

This principle is that we are generally more likely to believe someone in authority, which is perhaps an obvious idea. High Control Organisations always have a person or a group at their head to whom adherents are required to acquiesce. Once this authority is established, people are more easily manipulated into believing what they are told.

The term ‘cult’ is often defined as ‘a group centred around a usually charismatic leader.’ A quick search through the internet will bring up any number of ‘cults’ with such leaders. The JWs have their Governing Body (though they claim that the Governing Body are not the ‘leaders’ of the organisation, but this is difficult to justify in light of their responsibilities within the organisation (13)) The LDS have their president or ‘Prophet’ and the ‘First Presidency’.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong in any group having a leader, it’s when that leader becomes effectively all powerful, or puts themselves in between people and God, that problems can occur.

In many religious cults and High Control Organisations the leader claims to speak for God. Their utterances are to be considered as from God. Some even claim to be the ‘Messiah’ from God, such as Sun Myung Moon who started the Korean Unification Church, popularly known as the ‘Moonies’.

In a recent video on the speaker claimed that the Governing Body can be ‘likened to the voice of Jesus’ (14). The Governing Body claims the Watch Tower Society is Jehovah’s sole Organisation on earth; they alone speak for Him as the ‘faithful and discreet slave’ of Matthew 24 (15). The Governing Body also asserts that Jehovah and Jesus trust them and that those who listen to them are ‘blessed(16).

Such claims strongly reinforce the authority principal – who wouldn’t obey the voice of God?! JWs are exhorted to show that they ‘trust in Jehovah’s way of doing things’ by heeding the direction from the organisation (17). The Faithful and Discreet Slave is the ‘only’ channel that dispenses Jehovah’s ‘spiritual food’ so the motivation to obey everything they say is huge (18). This picture from a 1971 Watchtower exemplifies this (19)(20).

There is no access to Jehovah or Jesus for the JW except through the hierarchy of the organisation.

Without this intercessory status control can be lost if the adherent should start to look elsewhere for their spiritual guidance. Once the adherent accepts the leader’s authority the deference of the authority principal comes into full effect in their lives and it becomes very difficult to break free.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

The Watch Tower Society is very good at using words such as ‘clearly’ or ‘evidently’ when describing some idea that they are putting forward, even though it is not clear and there is precious little evidence to support it. But by the Governing Body saying that it is ‘clear’ or ‘evident’ it is difficult for JWs to argue with them (Authority Principal).

If it is not ‘clear’ or ‘evident’ to them then it must simply be because they are not clever enough to see it so will just accept it as the truth. Only a ‘fool’ could not see it! The term ‘honest hearted’ is similarly used; if you disagree then clearly you are not ‘honest hearted’.

Joining Words to Make a ‘Truth’ (Associative Activation)

If two different ideas are joined together into one phrase and presented often enough together eventually the ideas become seen as one. The Watch Tower Society does this regularly in its literature to try and give a scriptural basis for some of its theology.

One example is how often it uses the phrase ‘Jehovah and his organization’ such as in a Watchtower article entitled ‘Let Nothing Separate You From Jehovah’ where the phrase is used 13 times (21). By joining these two separate ideas so repeatedly (‘Jehovah’ and ‘his organisation’ meaning the Watch Tower Society) it becomes one idea, and the ‘organization’ is associated with Jehovah as if they were the same thing; whenever they hear ‘Jehovah’ they will think ‘organisation’.

The above article exhorts the JWs to ‘…keep your trust in Jehovah and his organization’, trusting his organisation as you would Jehovah Himself. Very quickly leaving the organisation becomes equivalent to ‘leaving Jehovah(22) and coming back to the organisation as ‘returning to Jehovah’ (23).

Another example is the Watch Tower Society’s use of the phrase ‘great crowd of other sheep(24) which merges two separate concepts from Rev 7:9 and John 10:16. This combined phrase never occurs in the Bible, but by aligning the two concepts, it supports the Watch Tower Society idea of a two class system; the ‘anointed’ 144,000 and the rest of us.

Without this it would be easy to see the ‘other sheep’ as the gentiles and the ’little flock’ of John 10 as the Jews, as Christianity has taught for millennia. Seeing it in that light would destroy a key teaching of the Watch Tower Society. Other examples are; ‘paradise earth’ and ‘kingdom government’, joint phrases that never occur in the Bible, but are very easily accepted as single truths.

Pairing words like this is known as Associative Activation, which results in seeing the second word whenever you see the first and associating the feelings of the first word with the second. JWs will have a good feeling about the word ‘Jehovah’ and so this feeling will be associated with the phrase ‘His organization’ too.

The same goes for ‘kingdom government’; we are often a bit ambivalent about the idea of a government, but by associating it with the word ‘kingdom’ which has pleasant connotations, the idea of the kingdom being a ‘government’ becomes more palatable, despite there being no scriptural support for the idea.

Sometimes these hybrid doctrines are supported by associating them with actual biblical truths relevant to only one part of the phrase.

Truth by Association

Here two concepts are presented side by side with the first supported by scripture, thus laying a foundation in truth. Then the second concept is automatically accepted even without scriptural support. For example, the Bible nowhere says that the 144,000 of Revelation 7 and 14 will ‘rule’ over anything, but this is a key Watchtower doctrine.

To try and scripturalise the doctrine they combine the rule of the 144,000 with a biblical truth, quoting a scripture but not one that says the 144,000 will rule. One example is:

They [Satan and his demons] will stay in this abyss while Jesus and the 144,000 rule from heaven for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:2,3)(25)

The quoted scripture supports the idea that Satan is thrown into the abyss and that Jesus will rule, but not that the 144,000 will rule too. It would be easy to miss this omission so reinforcing the idea that the 144,000 rule too.

The hybrid Watchtower doctrine of ‘Kingdom Government’ is often matched with scripture that talks about God’s kingdom, but never about it being a ‘government’ made up of 144,000 JWs. For example:

Satan has used politics to divide mankind and divert man’s attention away from the true hope for restored righteous rulership, namely, God’s Kingdom Government by Christ.—Matthew 4:23;9:35(26)

The scriptures in Matthew here talk of the ‘kingdom’ but not that it is a ‘government’. A quick search in the Watchtower library will bring up many such examples.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition (Mere-Exposure Effect)(27)

It is a well known cliché that if you hear something often enough you will start believing it and this is used with great effect by HCOs. Once you have heard or seen something your sub-conscious becomes more comfortable with it and the more often you see it the more comfortable (28).

This method is very effective when used in the written word but is even more powerful when used in verbal media; videos and podcasts etc., where repetitious use can become hypnotic. A good example of this can be found on the JW Broadcasting site as part of the Jan 2023 broadcast of the 2022 Annual Meeting, part 1 (29), where the Governing Body member, Gerrit Lösch, uses the word ‘truth’ 120 times in 17 minutes.

This is to link the word ’truth’ with the information supplied by the Governing Body as well as the organisation itself. It is also presented in a hypnotic tone of voice which discourages active, conscious and leaves the subconscious to digest the information with little effort.

This repetition process can be linked with the ‘Joining Words’ and ‘Truth by Association’ techniques described above to reinforce their acceptability as truth.

Read Part Two of the Series Here


  1. Steven Hassan is an American writer and mental health counsellor specialising in the work of the cults. He has written a number of books covering the psychology of the cult mind and carries out deprogramming work amongst members of these groups. His books include “Releasing the Bonds”, “Combatting Mind Control”, and “Freedom of Mind”
  3. Watchtower (Watchtower) May 2019 p 29
  4. Watchtower 1 June 1967 p 338
  5. To the Watchtower an apostate is anyone who has left the organisation. They are generally portrayed as embittered people who are simply out to get you and so to be avoided at all costs. Anything derogatory published about the organisation is often referred to as ‘apostate material’.
  6. Watchtower 15 Mar 1986 p 12
  7. ibid para 17 p15
  8. ibid para 11 p13
  9. A strawman argument sets up a false premise similar to the real one, then produces evidence to ‘burn’ down the false argument see
  10. The Convertize website is primarily marketing focussed, giving advice on the best ways to promote a product or a make a website more effective. Much of the information the site provides is very relevant to the way the cults market themselves. See also “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman Ch 5
  14. time position 3:30
  15. Watchtower 15 Jul 2013 p22
  16. Watchtower “They Keep Following the Lamb” 15 Feb 2009 p24-28
  17. Watchtower Feb 2022 p4
  18. Watchtower Nov 2016 p16
  19. Watchtower 15 Dec 1971 p 749
  20. Note: Since 2013 the Governing Body only is now the Faithful and Discreet Slave, it is no longer a ‘class’ Watchtower 15 Jul 2013 p22
  21. Watchtower Study Edition (SE) 2022 Nov p14
  22. Watchtower 1 Jun 1997 p27
  23. Watchtower 2015 Brochure ‘Return to Jehovah” p 12
  24. Watchtower 15 May 1960 p313
  25. Watchtower 15 Feb 2014 p 8 para 19
  26. Watchtower Awake Magazine 8 April 1985 Page 11
  28. Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman Ch 5
  29. starting at minute 16:30

Further Reading;

  1. “Thinking Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman ISBN 0141033576
  2. Combatting Mind Control” Steven Hassan ISBN 0892813113
  3. “Freedom of Mind” Steven Hassan ISBN 0967068819
  4. “Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves” Steven Hassan ISBN 0967068800
  5. “The Influential Mind – What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others” Talis Sharot ISBN 1408706067