Why Won’t They Listen?

This is the latest in a series on psychological techniques of High Control Organisations, such as the Watchtower Society (WtS)(Jehovah’s Witnesses [JWs]) and Latter Day Saints (LDS)(Mormons). I am going to look at why their adherents usually refuse to accept what they are being told by Christians who discuss the Bible with them.

It can be sometimes difficult to understand why members of High Control Organisations are unable to see the seemingly obvious messages of scripture we present to them. They cling to the ideas of their leaders with apparent abandonment of logic and sound biblical exegesis; why is this? Many of the reasons why they believe what they believe (see the previous articles in this series(1)) apply to their resistance to accepting new ideas and it will be worth reading the first part of this series if you have not already done so.

I have tried to present some ways of combating the psychological processes holding those adherents back, but not all are easily countered in the short term. Sometimes professional counselling is needed to break them free of the effects of long term exposure to the mind control, including C -PTSD (2), something I am neither trained nor qualified to offer. We must continue to pray for all those with whom we discuss the Bible in the sincere hope that at some time in the future they will come to see the truth and search for and find God’s Kingdom.

The Spiritual Battle

The refusal of many High Control Organisation members to listen to logical and biblical arguments against their beliefs can be seen in the light of demonic forces blinding them and covering over their spiritual ‘ears’ and ‘eyes’ to prevent them seeing or hearing the truth (2 Cor 4:4(3)).

I watched a recent JW Broadcasting video where the presenter encouraged the viewers to wear the discrete slaves’ (4)noise cancelling headphones” in order to cut out the words of ‘apostates(5)etc. The books of Frank Peretti (6) are enlightening fictional representations of how spiritual warfare could be being conducted all around us; how true are those representations is a matter of conjecture, but it certainly has an air of truth when seen in the light of ‘warfare’ with High Control Organisations.

The best form of attack against such spiritual warfare is prayer and the Holy Spirit. God’s armour (Eph 6:17 (7)) includes the sword of the Spirit and it is this we need to wield to overcome the forces of darkness.

Proof vs Evidence

JWs at your door

When presenting our biblical case to someone we must remember that, there are no proof texts or silver bullets (for more see the Reachout Trust video “The Myth of the Killer Text”(8)), certain biblical passages that prove beyond doubt a point being made.

We must realise that the only one able to actually prove anything to anyone is themselves. The best we can do is to present evidence to back up our point. Only the recipient can decide whether there is sufficient evidence to convince them of its truth, to prove the point.

Consider a court case; there is a jury of twelve persons all of whom are shown the same evidence and hear the same arguments. But, when it comes to deciding whether the case has been proven or not, some will decide that it has whilst others will decide it has not. What causes this apparent paradox? Basically, it comes down to the individual juror and their history, what events have shaped their lives thus far.

They may have a racial or other prejudice, have suffered the same crime as that being tried, dislike/like the ‘look’ of the defendant, or some other possibly minor bias that changes their threshold of evidence for proof.

They may not even be aware of these biases, but their subconscious will affect their thinking nonetheless. It is the same with members of High Control Organisations; they have a large amount of ‘history’ to contend with which strongly affects their responses to evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

The following cognitive (mind) controls are part of this ‘history’ and show how hard it can be for a member to accept evidence as sufficient to prove something. It must be pointed out that we are all subject to these controls as we are all human, it is just that HCOs use them to great effect in controlling the thoughts of their members.

High Control Organisations need to use these methods otherwise their members would too easily see reason (as we would view it) and so give up their dedication to the group. Consider this statement from the Watchtower of Aug 1981:

They [independent thinkers within the ranks of JWs] say that it is sufficient to read the Bible exclusively, either alone or in small groups at home. But, strangely, through such ‘Bible reading’ they have reverted right back to the apostate doctrines that commentaries by Christendom’s clergy were teaching 100 years ago…” (9)

A Jehovah’s Witness has been taught that everything in the Watchtower is from Jehovah, that ‘apostates’ are evil people used by Satan to draw them away from Jehovah (10). They believe that ‘Christendom’s clergy’ are false prophets, pumping out lies (11) and represent the ‘man of lawlessness’ of 2 Thess 2:3 (12). Consequently, they will see your ‘evidence’ as proof that they must not read the Bible alone, without the guidance of the Watchtower’s literature.

To someone not so indoctrinated this statement means something else. That the Watchtower Society (WtS) agrees that stopping reading the uninspired words of imperfect men who can err doctrinally (their words not mine (13)) and reading only the inspired and perfect word of God leads you to reject the doctrine of those men and to believe what the church has taught for centuries thus ‘proving’ that the Watchtower is wrong.

All we can do is provide the evidence supporting our case and pray that the Spirit will work in their lives to confirm its accuracy and truth at some point in the future.

Understanding Cognitive Processes

The concept of the human mind working in two different ways, or ‘systems’, was popularised by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman (14) in his 2011 book “Thinking Fast and Slow(15). In this work he identified:

System 1’ thinking (sub-conscious) as “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, unconscious

System 2’ thinking (conscious) as “Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious”.

System 1 thinking is easily manipulated by past experiences whereas System 2 thinking is not. System 1 thinking requires little effort from the brain and so is the brain’s preferred mode of operation. System 2 thinking requires significantly more effort and energy and so is only used when System 1 is effectively out of its depth. Understanding the relationship between these two systems opens up a window into how High Control Organisations manipulate the thoughts and beliefs of their adherents.

Manipulating System 1 can still affect System 2 thinking, but it is primarily an influencer and as such can still be overridden by conscious thought, though this takes some effort and a willingness to do so. The control techniques available to the High Control Organisations are hard wired into the human mind and are core to the brain’s ability to process the vast amounts of information that come our way throughout our lives.

It has been estimated that the conscious mind only makes up 1% of the ‘world’ we see around us, the other 99% is made up by the sub-conscious mind. This can be seen in many optical illusions where the mind is tricked in to seeing what is not there because it is ‘guessing’ at what it sees.

Again, it has been estimated that the human brain as a whole can process 11 million (digital) bits of information every second, whereas the conscious aspect can only handle 40-50 bits per second (16). The brain needs to take ‘shortcuts’ (known as ‘heuristics’) (17) to manage all this data and these are what lead to unconscious biases.

Cognitive Dissonance (18)

When the mind comes up against ideas or evidence that contradicts its own beliefs or actions then dissonance occurs; ‘brain pain’. The mind will try and limit this dissonance by employing various tactics, often without the person realising that is what is happening.

The classic example is of the smoker who is made aware of the health risks of the habit. They may come up with answers such as; “my grandma smoked 40 a day and she lived to be 90”, “I’m only an occasional smoker”, “I feel perfectly healthy”, “it’s all a conspiracy”, “it won’t happen to me”.

By accepting these ideas there is no need for them to confront the incontrovertible fact that smoking kills and is very bad for your health. When an High Control Organisation adherent comes up against information that contradicts what they believe there is dissonance and the mind looks for ways out.

The cognitive biases discussed here may also be brought into action to nullify the information being given and so reduce the dissonance. If the conscious mind can be brought into play and the evidence openly analysed, the dissonance may be overcome and the truth discovered.

Cognitive Ease and Biases (19)

The tendency of the sub-conscious to be lazy and always take the easy option is known as Cognitive Ease. One bias in any given situation is that the option that has been tried successfully before with no ill effects will generally be used again.

As a slightly trivial example; in your church do people generally sit in the same place or the same side each Sunday? Do you have lefties and righties? This is cognitive ease; the times before when you have sat in those places you have been safe, nothing has attacked you and you came to no harm, so the mind naturally encourages you to repeat the process. Sit somewhere else and you may initially feel a slight sense of unease without knowing exactly why.

The same effect can be seen with knowledge; it is easier for the mind to accept something that it already believes rather than agree with some new idea. Presented both with evidence that contradicts those beliefs and evidence that supports them, the sub-conscious will tend to ignore the former and accept the latter without much analysis.

This leads to cognitive bias; always leaning towards what we believe and disregarding evidence to the contrary. Only if the conscious mind is fully engaged to study the evidence can the established beliefs be challenged.

Because the High Control Organisation adherent has bought in to what they were taught by the HCO they will always give those ideas a far greater priority than anything you are telling them. There will be a much greater threshold of evidence required by them to ‘prove’ what you are trying to show them.

If you present them with a verse to prove your point it is more effective if you can get them to actually read the verse out loud rather than you read it to them. By requiring them to voice the words the conscious mind is engaged, which may not occur if they simply listen to the words spoken by you. Following this up with “what do you think this verse means” can, again, encourage them to engage system 2 processes, increasing the likelihood of understanding for them.

Anchoring Effect (20)

We have all heard the saying first impressions count and this is true of ideas too. Our sub-conscious tends to assess truth in a relative way rather than an absolute way. We will compare evidence rather than look at it objectively, this is called ‘anchoring’. The first time we encounter an idea we have little to compare it to and so will tend to accept it as the truth. Everything else we encounter after that will be compared to this ‘truth’ and, yet again, the threshold of proof will be higher before we will reject the original idea.

Our first (sub-conscious) reaction is to reject the new idea and, unless we can fully engage the conscious mind to properly and unbiased evaluate the evidence, this will be our default response.

Supplying significant amounts of evidence to support your idea can help overcome the anchoring effect, but this relies on you having the time and resources to do so. If you have a meeting coming up with an adherent it is wise to prepare well and have your evidence to hand.

Being able to give something to them to take away with them is ideal so as to cement the points. With JWs this may not be possible due to the ‘spiritual pornography’ idea (see later in this series), but hand written notes may be more acceptable to them than tracts or type-written articles.


There will be further points raised in the next article, but it can already be seen how hard it is for the adherent to accept ideas that differ from their teachings. Much work is necessary on behalf of the evangelist in trying to overcome these biases.


  1. https://reachouttrust.org/high-control-organisations-2/ , https://reachouttrust.org/high-control-organisations/
  2. C-PTSD Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from long-term trauma
  3. 2 Cor 4 v 4 “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” NIV
  4. ‘discrete slave’ is their term for the Governing Body from Matt 24
  5. JWs class any person who has left the organisation as an ‘apostate’.
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_E._Peretti
  7. Eph 6 v 17 “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” NIV
  8. The Myth of the Killer Text https://youtu.be/L24ofjsLJMY
  9. WT 15 Aug 1981 pages 28/29
  10. WT 15 Feb 2004 p16 para 6
  11. WT 1 Mar 1994 p 8-13
  12. WT 15 Jan 1990 p18 Para
  13. WT Feb 2017 SE p26
  14. Recently deceased 27 Mar 2024
  15. Daniel Kahneman 2011 “Thinking Fast and Slow” ISBN 978-03742756311
  16. https://www.npr.org/2020/07/14/891140598/understanding-unconscious-bias
  17. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-heuristic-2795235
  18. https://tactics.convertize.com/definitions/cognitive-dissonance
  19. Daniel Kahneman “Thinking Fast and Slow” p 59-70
  20. https://tactics.convertize.com/definitions/anchoring-effect