Thursday, December 07, 2006

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Amway: Dissimilar Faces of Thought Reform

A friend, a family member, an acquaintance, or perhaps a stranger approaches you. A conversation is initiated regarding a problem in the world or your life that is in need of solution. A solution is presented, a hope for the future that can make numerous troubles disappear. If you show interest, you are presented with information that details your part in making the solution happen. You may allow yourself to be further educated on the solution. You learn more clearly the actual source of the solution, the organization that the presenting party represents. Beginning a process of education by the organization, you attend meetings where you are showered with affection and friendly interest. Soon, you are required to bring this same solution to the attention of others, friends, family, acquaintances and finally strangers. You are trained to teach others as you continue to be taught, and everyone involved is to look forward to the wonderful hope for the future. While you are discouraged by the organization from continuing association with anyone who is negative about your new found hope for the future, your entire life becomes centered on making your hope a reality, and everything you do and everyone you associate with is a part of the bigger plan.
Each of us may be familiar with an organization that recruits in the manner I describe. There is certainly more than one possibility, and I am presenting here two seemingly disparate organizations that use recruiting techniques that would be illustrated by the process I have presented. One promises financial salvation, the other eternal salvation. I refer to the multi-level-marketing organizations created by the very successful individual distributors of Amway Corporation products, and to the religious organization Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Besides the initial approach, are there other similarities between these two organizations? Interestingly, when one looks into the published research, the literature of the organizations, and the stories told by previous members of either of these two organizations, the similarities in description reach deep inside. The tactics used within the organizations in order to motivate members in the behaviors required by the organization are strikingly parallel, and the effects on the lives of the individuals subjected to them are comparable. It is interesting to note that many ex-members of each of the two organizations mentioned have left those organizations with a position of strong opposition to the tactics of the organization. They often describe the organization from which they have departed as a cult, and consider themselves to have been manipulated by the leadership and other members within the group. When analyzing the practices of the Amway organizations and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one will find that many of the similarities in behavior between the two groups are able to be categorized as what have been recognized as “thought control (Lifton 419-437)” or “brainwashing (Brown 26-28)” tactics.
During the initial stages of “prospecting” someone to become a distributor, the Amway representative will ask the individual to reveal his dreams and goals. The Amway recruiter will also attempt to inspire dreams and goals in his recruit is by taking him through the process of what Amway distributors refer to as “dreambuilding.” The recruit may be encouraged to shop around for material things he would like to acquire when his Amway business has become successful. In his analysis, Michael Pratt, finds that the dreams Amway draws upon are typically related to material wealth and possessions, independence from a traditional job, happiness for the family as may be provided by a better financial position, or the using of increased income to some altruistic end. Pratt compares the use of “dreambuilding” by Amway to the typically religious application of the term “seekership” wherein “a desire to find meaning that originates from a discontentment about who one is” has been instilled in the subject (Pratt 464). He describes this creating of seekership as part of a process used by Amway in which sensebreaking and the creation of seekership are followed by sensemaking as guided by the organization (Pratt 464-465) This process of sensebreaking, wherein the individual needs to resolve some unsatisfied dream, being followed by a sensemaking process, as fed by the organization, and in which the organization provides the solution to the problem or problems now facing the subject, is not unlike the approach of the Jehovah’s Witness ministry. First, the Witness approaches the potential student with one of a variety of problems facing the world of mankind or the individual. The problem may be war, illness, death, racism or anything that can open up the need for a solution. The prospective convert is then guided to the only “true” solution to such problems, the god of the Christian bible, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses understand him. In both Amway and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is a pattern of sensebreaking followed by sensemaking as guided by the ideology of the organization. This approach is just as that described by J.A.C. Brown in his Techniques of Persuasion From Propaganda to Brainwashing, where he writes of the approach of the propagandist, “Ordinarily he will want to arouse a desire for some goal, with a view to suggesting at a later stage that he alone has the means of satisfying that desire (24).”
In his Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton lists specific criteria found in his extensive research on “brainwashing” as carried out by communists in China (Lifton, 419-437). These criteria, “Milieu Control”, “Mystical Manipulation”, “The Demand for Purity”, “The Cult of Confession”, “The Sacred Science”, “Loading the Language”, “Doctrine Over Person”, and “The Dispensing of Existence” (419-437), have been widely recognized and continue to be applied in research related to the subject of mind control.
Lifton considers “Milieu Control” the most fundamental of all the criteria. He recognizes this as the control of the environment of the individual wherein the information to which he exposes himself, his communication and association with others, and even his communication with himself is under the regulation of the organization (420). Lifton also notes that the leaders of the organization have no need to conceal the fact that they are controlling the environment of those within the organization as these leaders consider themselves to be carrying out a necessary function to which they are entitled in their position of being the owners of truth. He explains that these leaders “consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this ‘truth’ (421).”
Jehovah’s Witnesses can be said to practice milieu control in that they discourage members’ association with anyone who is not a Jehovah’s Witness or an interested person. They consider those on the outside to be “worldly” people who are “bad association” and dangerous (PAYF, 22). In fact, as soon as one begins to study with the Witnesses, association with nonbelievers is viewed negatively. The student of the Witnesses is told that any discouraging remarks from friends, relatives, or others are really the tactics that Satan uses to keep them from learning the truth about the one true god. If this tactic is successful, it isolates the individual during the time in which he should be fully exposed to opposing and supporting views of the information he is receiving so that he can make a decision with all available information.
Information continues to be controlled by the organization as, over time, the student learns that “independent thinking” is something to be fought against (WT 1/15/83 p27). Independent thinking is viewed as a part of Satan’s plan, as illustrated in this quote from one article in the Watchtower, a journal used for study by the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “To this day, it has been Satan’s subtle design to infect God’s people with [independent] thinking.--2Timothy 3:1,13,21 How is such independent thinking manifested? A common way is by questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization (WT 1/15/83, 22).” In fact, anyone who teaches that the Jehovah’s Witness’ teachings are not the “truth” are considered “apostate” and evil, and no witness is to speak with such persons or read anything that has been written by them (WT 3/15/86 “Have No Dealings With Apostates” p12).” Jehovah’s Witnesses are instructed to “hate” or “feel a loathing” for those who teach that the Witnesses are not correct in their beliefs (WT 10/1/93,19). Anyone within the organization who disagrees with the teachings of the “governing body,” those men who are responsible for the literature and teachings of the
Jehovah’s Witnesses, will be disfellowshipped from the organization so that no Witness is able to speak to that person and be influenced by his thinking (WT 12/15/84 19).
Although it is perhaps less strictly regulated, the environment of the Amway distributor does come under the influence of environmental control. Amway distributors are fed the Amway “ideology” via something called the “Amway system” that “consists of books, tapes, seminars and rallies (“Building” 40).” Michael Pratt in “The good, the Bad, and the
Ambivalent: Managing Identification among Amway Distributors,” describes the management of Amway distributor relationships. He explains that association with those in your “upline” and “downline,” those who have brought you into Amway and those whom you have brought in, are considered very important, and that association with anyone who is discouraging about your goals in Amway is considered harmful. As an Amway “distributor,” one who has committed to sell Amway products, you are to attempt to get others to do the same. This starts with friends and family. You are taught that anyone among them who is not supportive or interested in joining Amway is not a “true friend”. Pratt also notes that the practice of distributors recruiting and training new distributors helps to ensure that much of the member’s time is spent with others who are supportive of Amway (GBA 470-473).
The Jehovah’s Witness is required to spend time every month attempting to convert others (Stark 137). He is also expected to attend and participate in a number of meetings every week, and to study in preparation for those meetings (Stark 146-7). This controls a great deal of the Witnesses’ time and social environment in which he is either teaching others about the beliefs of the Witnesses or he is studying them himself.
Milieu control by both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Amway may partially explain why these two organizations continue to successfully recruit individuals. Both groups make great effort to protect members and interested persons from negative perspectives on the organizations. The result is as recognized by Lifton where he notes that the individual under this type of environmental control is “deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity separate from it.”(421) Members are repeatedly exposed only to information that supports the reality the organization wants them to recognize.
It may be difficult for an outsider to understand why recruits of these organizations are willing to accept the restrictions set by the leadership or “upline.” One explanation can be found in Leon Festinger’s A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. He explains the drive of the individual to prevent himself from being exposed to information that will call into question his current understanding and or worldview:
1. The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.
2. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance. (3)
According to Festinger, this avoidance of conflicting information would be especially strong in cases where a significant decision or decisions have been made based on a particular ideology (130). In line with Festinger’s theory, Pratt notes that when free choice is involved, such as with the Amway distributor who is given the choice to become socially encapsulated within the Amway organization, that such “freely chosen” behaviors are “highly committing (GBA 474)”.
Lifton recognizes “mystical manipulation” as the “inevitable next step after milieu control (Lifton 422). Following the recruit’s acceptance of the environmental and informational boundaries placed on himself, and his drive to prevent dissonance, this “mystical manipulation” by the organization becomes acceptable to the recruit, perhaps greatly desired as evidence of the correctness of his choice to join the group. Using “mystical manipulation,” Lifton indicates that the leadership will establish themselves as the source of truth.
Within the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses, members are taught to recognize the leaders as the source of truth as ordained by God. The members are taught to avoid independent thinking and to follow the guidance of the leaders of the organization as they are the “channel of communication that God is using (WT 12/1/81)” ,(WT 9/1/89 15; WT 8/1/81 26;WT 8/15/84 9).
While Amway leaders do not appear to make outright claims of having been chosen by God or other to instruct members in their way of life, they do lead the distributors to see them as mentors that are to be sought for counsel related to a broad range of life decisions. Amway distributors who have been successfully brought into organizational thinking have come to recognize their “upline” members as parental figures and advisors (Pratt 475). These “upline” members become significant in helping the distributor form an understanding of the world around him. As explained by Pratt, these members “viewed their upline as critical sources of meaning in their lives. Among distributors who engaged in this type of sense-making, information from upline members -- and other sources of Amway information (e.g. , tapes, books, functions) --- was highly valued (GBA 476). “ Some previous members of Amway contend that the upline will instruct distributors regarding when and which house or car to buy, jewelry to wear, and books to read. They also concur that distributors are to listen to the counsel of the upline based on the premise that the upline would not counsel the downline distributor to do anything that would be harmful to the distributor, and would only direct the downline distributor to do what is beneficial to himself as it will result in benefit to his upline (Hoagland 9,Butterfield 26).
This type of manipulation is subtly evident in the way in which the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Amway proselytizers tell new recruits that certain outcomes will occur as a result of a person’s interest in participating in their organizations. Witnesses inform the student that
“Satan” will attempt to prevent them from learning the “truth” by causing friends and family to oppose his studying with the Witnesses. Amway recruiters tell prospective distributors that they must prepare for the fact that some of their friends and family members will be unsupportive of their interest and therefore prove themselves not to be true friends (Pratt, “GBA” 473). These predictions, always accurate simply because they describe normal reactions to the situation, take the form of prophecy when they are seen to be fulfilled. Quoting one Amway distributor regarding advice and counsel from her upline, “EVERYTHING they say is true (Amway distributor as quoted in Pratt, "GBA" 476).
As a result of leaders having convinced members of the group to see them as sources of ultimate truth, there is no room for questioning the statements of these leaders. Explaining his “sacred science” criteria, Lifton writes:
The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the Word itself. (Lifton 427-428)
For the Jehovah’s Witness, the governing body of the organization is seen as being the vessel of God, and not to be questioned in it’s authority (Stark & Iannaccone 146). Interestingly, Stephen Butterfield, an Ex-Amway distributor, writes of Amway that it not only offers the “dream of wealth,” but also “a faith to live by, a purpose to live for,” “a new set of goals and friends and associations and beliefs [...] in which all authority comes from the top down (4).” Amway is an organization that centers its ideology on religious values (“Building” 53) and in which, as Pratt notes, the “upline distributors act as sensegivers (GBA 474).”
In describing the "demand for purity" that he recognizes as a key element in thought control environments, Lifton explains a view of the world as sharply divided into pure and impure, "the absolutely good and the absolutely evil." He observes recognition by the organization of all thoughts and actions in agreement with the group ideology as “good and pure” while anything outside of these approved behaviors would be seen as “bad and impure”(423). This division of the world leaving anyone outside the group as being evil, ignorant, or in opposition to the only truth, becomes the “dispensing of existence” criteria wherein the member sees the group ideology as the only “valid mode of being” (433-434).
For the Jehovah’s Witness, the world is divided precisely in the manner described by Lifton. There are those who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, following the direction of the organization that represents the one true god Jehovah, and there are those on the outside, they being a part of Satan’s world (“WRRW” par.6-10). Dr. Jerry Bergman, in his "Paradise Postponed and Postponed: Why Jehovah's Witnesses Have a High Mental Illness Level," writes regarding the prohibitions the Watchtower places on Jehovah's Witnesses that these "reach into every area of life and cover minutia to the extreme." He describes how missing required meetings or associating with non-Witnesses outside of ministering to them is "condemned." Bergman explains that "they are taught that those of the world are evil, and even though worldly people may appear to be kind, this is one of Satan's tactics to lure people out of God's organization (5)."
The enactment of a “demand for purity” is also evident in the practice of publicly reproving or disfellowshipping those who do not obey the demands of the group.
Lifton describes an environment where the extreme expectations of the group result in members being continuously manipulated by guilt and shame:
Thought reform bears witness to its more malignant consequences: for by defining and manipulating the criteria of purity and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition. (Lifton 424)

Regarding Amway, Pratt notes that there is an effort by the organization to counsel members in “many areas of life: business, family, friends, and religion (“Building” 44). In Pratt’s analysis, he
finds a strong enforcement of spiritual values being presented to the Amway distributor as the source of success in financial terms. The individual’s having achieved financial independence is seen within Amway as a reflection of “God’s favor (“Building” 49).” Regarding his Amway experience, Stephen Butterfield reveals his understanding of the division between Amway and the outside world when he writes:
Moreover, to many of the leaders, anyone who sees the Amway “opportunity” and does not join is, purely and simply, a loser; and losers deserve to be broke, losers deserve to work wall their lives for low pay and retire on nothing. Poverty is the fault of the poor. Wealth is a sign of Grace.” (5)
Upline distributors, as noted by Pratt, believe that an Amway business is better than any other home business because of the lower start-up costs and the upline guidance you receive within the Amway organization. The expectation that any former friend will, either “wise up” and become supportive of Amway, or will prove not to be a true friend after all, is evidence of the division between the group and the outside world (GBA 472). One can only conclude that, if Amway is the opportunity it claims to be, and that God will bless anyone who makes the proper effort with success in the business, that a lack of success in the business indicates insufficient effort and a need to work harder or do more. Whether implied or explicit, this view would, in some cases, lead to a form of guilt and shame as motivation for the unfruitful distributor to become more involved in seeking his dreams through developing his business. As observed by one Ex-Amway distributor, John Hoagland, “If the “system for success doesn’t work for you, then YOU aren’t doing what you need to be doing. YOU know what has to be done (or hear it again from your upline), so go out and do it.” (Hoagland 5).”
As a result of many of the practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Amway organizations, some have chosen to define these groups as “cults.” It is not necessarily useful in itself to prove that an organization should be defined as a cult, but it can be useful if the term “cult” has been clearly defined as it has been used in the particular case of categorization. This is true simply because the definition of “cult” varies depending on the employer of the term. Some may apply a broad use of the term, such as in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, where it is simply defined as “A system of religious belief and worship,” as in “That which was the religion of Moses is the ceremonial or cult of the religion of Christ.” Other usage is more specific, and has a negative connotation to most readers, as in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: “A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.” Perhaps the most useful definition in analyzing the groups we discuss and others like them is that presented by the American Family Foundation:
Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the groups leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West and Langone as quoted in Longone)

Accepting this definition of the totalist cult, we can more specifically analyze the organizations in question and see that they fall into a sort of “gray area” or “borderline” in relation to the level in which they fulfill the criteria of this definition.
It would be more useful, rather than labeling such groups, to use these groups as examples to promote knowledge of how mind control environments operate in cases that are less extreme than those more obvious cases where the manipulation is more evident and the consequences more severe. It is significant to note that thought control does exist, and that it is not only found in environments of physical isolation, but also in communities such as the Witnesses and Amway, where the members are living in typical environments among non-members. Just as the thought control exists in varying degrees in these two organizations, there is more than one package in which this type of environment can present itself. Awareness of the tactics used by these organizations, and how they fit in the thought reform environment, is helpful in allowing us to identify these traits when they appear in other forms in our environment. Knowledge is prevention in the case of such groups where information is often the enemy.

Works cited

Bergman, Jerry. “Paradise Postponed…and Postponed: Why Jehovah’s Witnesses have a High Mental Illness Level,” Christian Research Journal. Summer 1996

Brown, J.A.C. Techniques of Persuasion from Propaganda to Brainwashing. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1963.

Butterfield, Stephen. Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise. Boston: South End Press. 1985

“Cult.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth Ed. 2000

“Cult.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. 1996.

Festinger, L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Hoagland, John. Amway: The Continuing Story. 16 March 2003

Langone, Michael. On Using the term Cult. 13 March 2003.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York: Norton, 1961 (Republished by University of North Carolina Press, 1989)

“Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock” Acts 20:28. [PAYF] Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1991.

Pratt, Michael G. “Building an Ideological Fortress: The Role of Spirituality, Encapsulation and Sensemaking,” Studies in Cultures, Organizations, and Societies 6.1 (Mar 2000): 35+.

---. ”The Good, The Bad, and the Ambivalent: Managing Identification Among Amway Distributors,” Administrative Science Quarterly 45 (2000): 456-493.

Stark, Rodney and Laurence R. Iannaccone. “Why the Jehovah’s Witnesses Grow so Rapidly,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 12.2 (1991): 133-157.

The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom [WT]. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. 1/15/1983
--- 3/15/1986


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