Cognitive Dissonance, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Me

distortionRecently, some interesting discussion began on this website about the concept from social psychology known as cognitive dissonance. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” According to Wikipedia — our authoritative, infallible and inerrant source for knowledge of all things — the term first appeared in 1956 in a book titled When Prophecy Fails.  In that book, the authors explored the behavior of the members of a small UFO-obsessed cult, how they coped with the inner conflict that came when their predictions about alien invasions didn’t come true.

Our friend Vitaly alerted us to a YouTube video called The Witnesses at Your Door which illustrates cognitive dissonance. Vitaly wrote:

I liked this video after I left ubf. There seems to be very many similarities especially in the leaving process.

Vitaly’s comment, and the interesting discussion that he started with Chris, can be found here.

The video is 37 minutes long, and I think it is well worth watching. So I made a unilateral decision (sorry, Vitaly, hope you don’t mind!) to pull the video out of his comment and place it here in an article of its own, so that it gets more attention.

Please note that by posting this video, we are not claiming that UBF is a cult. Readers of this website have expressed many varying opinions on that issue. Although that topic is worth considering and discussing, I would prefer that we keep the discussion here focused on cognitive dissonance — how we have personally experienced it, and how we have personally handled it. Your comments about UBF, cults and the like can continue at Ben’s recent article.

And please note that cognitive dissonance is not limited to members of cults. The phenomenon, in differing ways and degrees, is experienced by all human beings at various times in their lives. I’m quite sure that everyone who holds religious beliefs and commitments has experienced cognitive dissonance. In fact, I would argue that wrestling with cognitive dissonance lies at the heart of true, growing faith. If you’d like to see some examples of cognitive dissonance, check out Hebrews chapter 11.

With that in mind, please watch the video and tell us what you think.



Here are some questions to ponder.

  • Which characters and situations in this video do you identify with?
  • At what time(s) in your life did you experience intense cognitive dissonance? What coping mechanism(s) did you use?
  • Are you experiencing any measure of cognitive dissonance now? How are you coping with it?




  1. Now we’re getting to some deep and highly meaningful topics. I have to process “cognitive dissonance” some more…and after watching the video I plan to share my thoughts on the questions.

    I think the line from the Truman Show sums up our human nature quite well: “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” This, I believe, is our starting point. We are all human, which means we start with accepting, observing, exploring, and even changing our world.

    So before we find ourselves in a state of dissonance, it seems to me that we start with observing and accepting the world around us as it is presented to us.

  2. Joe Schafer

    As I prepared my message on Hebrews 2:5-9 for The Well, and during the Well conference itself, I thought a great deal about cognitive dissonance. Discussions in our group Bible study with Andy Stumpf touched on this also. Here is some of what I learned.

    At the end of Romans chapter 7, the Apostle Paul describes his inner turmoil and anguish. He knows that he shouldn’t sin, and parts of him don’t want to sin, but other parts of him want to sin so badly that he cannot stop. Paul is at war with himself. Then, in chapter 8, the peaceful resolution comes through the work of the Holy Spirit. That word “Holy” in Holy Spirit (in the English language, at least) has the connotation of wholeness, completeness, and health. From that perspective, a person who is at war with himself (as in cognitive dissonance) is in a state of unholiness. The work of the gospel is to make us holy, to restore us as whole, healthy, normal human beings who are fully alive.

    And I was thinking about this in relation to evangelicalism. I had been reading Mark Noll’s classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (which is truly a must-read). Noll says that the present evangelical church in the United States was shaped by three Christian movements during the last century.

    First was the Holiness movement, which encouraged people to forsake all idols and pleasures of this world and dedicate themselves fully to God. (As that old hymn asks, “Have you all on the altar of sacrifice laid?”) Their motto was: Just give up and let go of all worldly passions, and you will experience victory.

    Second was the Pentecostal movement, which encouraged people to seek supernatural signs and gifts of the Holy Spirit. In effect, their motto was: Just receive the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, and you will experience victory.

    Third was Fundamentalism, which encouraged people to forsake all sources of knowledge other than the Bible and seek the answers to life’s questions through inductive study of the plain-sense meaning of Scripture. Their motto was: Just go back to the Bible, and you will experience victory.

    Each of these movements was gifted at reaching people in a certain way. Each one attended to some crucial aspect of the human person. And each one preserved an important aspect of a genuine, orthodox Christian faith that was under attack in the broader culture. But each one spawned organizations and denominations which claimed that their particular ministry emphasis was the secret formula for success. Each one used that word “just” as in “Just pay attention to one aspect of your humanity, and ignore the other aspects of your humanity, and you will be fine.” Each movement’s theology pitted certain parts of the human being against other parts, creating cognitive dissonance. This is why none of them could create or sustain a healthy, robust Christian culture in the long term.

    Interestingly, all three of those historical influences were palpable at The Well. We saw wholehearted sacrifice and dedication, elements of pentecostalism (which made a few people uncomfortable), and the old-school ubf emphasis on Bible study. But instead of being at war with one another, those three aspects were working together in complementary ways in a spirit of unity. That’s one reason why I felt that the atmosphere at The Well was wholesome and holy.

    Those are some of my rambling thoughts.

    • Joe, some of you thoughts remind me of what this blogger observes:

      “A powerful cause of dissonance in this case is any idea that is in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept in the sinner, such as “I am a good person” or “I make good decisions.” The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization of behaviors, and the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one’s sin.”

      I’m glad to hear you report that all three influences were at the Well, Holiness, Spirit and Scripture. That is what I have seen as I have interacted with our friend John Y. as he and his team prepared the Well. Such ministries are evidence of the Triune God working in and among people. And such a ministry is real hope we can trust in. Instead of working so hard to build up young people as “hope carriers” through authority and obedience and conformance to an ideology, I suggest that we allow Holiness, Spirit and Scripture to shape us and mold us.

    • Joe Schafer

      Amen. In your last sentence, “allow” is key. Leaders at The Well didn’t try to control everything, but allowed the event to evolve and take on a life of its own. When leaders obsessively try to manage and control such things, they may inadvertently kill them.

  3. Ok I watched the movie clip above.

    First of all, I must say, YEA MRS. WILLIAMS!

    Mrs. Williams reminds me of our friend Desiree, who prayed for so many of us. I was glad to speak to her for nearly an hour over the holiday break. Thank you Desiree.

    And yes, 2 Corinthians 13:5 is what this is all about– the mystery is Christ in you! That is the test. The gospel is not obedience but Christ living in you which produces obedience through transformation.

    As I watched the movie, my emotions ranged from stunned silence because of the similarity to my old life for two decades, to twinges of anger over the falsehood being spun around Joe and perpetuated even by Joe himself. I could easily see the similarity to my own hope of building a glorious kingdom for God on this earth.

    The meeting at 23:00 brought tears of pain to me. I’ve sat in so many of those kinds of meetings as an observer to the one who was “rebellious” :(

    “Which characters and situations in this video do you identify with?”

    I first identified with Ralph, the yes-man enabler. That was my role for many years. But throughout I also identified with Joe numerous times.

    At 25:25 Joe tells the elders “I want my family back.” That is what both my wife and I said in 2011.

    Later Joe tell his wife, “I did all the things the organization expected of me.” That is also what I did for 24 years.

    Joe’s prayer at the end brought tears of joy: “Thank you for giving me back my wife and my daugher. Give me the strength to face the elders. Thank you for your free gift of salvation which I gladly receive.”

    The confrontation meeting at the end was all-too-familiar to me. I had to laugh at Leo’s words at 34:10: “we’ve missed you at the meetings. We’re concerned about you. You haven’t turned in your field service reports.”

    I simply love Joe’s response: “I have given my life to Him and I will no longer serve your false organization.” And his last line (which I won’t share so you can watch it) to Leo is classic :)

    “At what time(s) in your life did you experience intense cognitive dissonance?”

    I’m not able to process this one yet. There were so many times. I can say that I feel free from dissonance now! For the past two years I have felt more alive, more happy and more at peace than ever before. The conflicting voices in my head are gone.

    “What coping mechanism(s) did you use?”

    I found this helpful list and related blog post:

    I can see that I used a lost of these methods below, and perhaps have been using some of them lately:


    Often those who experience cognitive dissonance use these ego-defense mechanisms to resolve the dissonance:

    Denial – Arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn’t exist. An example would be denying that your physician’s diagnosis of cancer is correct and seeking a second opinion.

    Displacement – Taking out impulses on a less threatening target. Slamming a door instead of hitting as person, yelling at your spouse after an argument with your boss are great examples.

    Intellectualization – avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects. Ex: Focusing on the details of a funeral as opposed to the sadness and grief.

    Projection – Placing unacceptable impulses in yourself onto someone else. Ex: When losing an argument, you state “You’re just Stupid;”

    Rationalization – Supplying a logical or rational reason as opposed to the real reason. Ex: Stating that you were fired because you didn’t kiss up the boss, when the real reason was your poor performance.

    Reaction Formation – Taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. Ex: Having a bias against a particular race or culture and then embracing that race or culture to the extreme.

    Regression – Returning to a previous stage of development. Ex: Sitting in a corner and crying after hearing bad news; throwing a temper tantrum when you don’t get your way. Spiritually remaining in infancy.

    Repression – Pulling into the unconscious. Ex: Forgetting abuse from your childhood due to the trauma and anxiety.

    Sublimation – Acting out unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way. Ex: Sublimating your aggressive impulses toward a career as a boxer; becoming a surgeon because of your desire to cut; lifting weights to release ‘pent up’ energy.

    Suppression – Pushing these ideas into the unconscious. Ex: Trying to forget something that causes you anxiety.

    Taken from

    • Joe Schafer

      Yeah, that Mrs. Williams is one bad-ass apologist.

      Your list of coping mechanisms is very insightful.

  4. Joe Schafer

    Here is one aspect of faith where I believe almost all of us have experienced cognitive dissonance.

    It’s the hard-core evangelical doctrine about hell. The teaching that says: Everyone who doesn’t get evangelized by Christians and makes a profession of faith in Jesus before they die will be thrown into gehenna to suffer eternal, conscious torment.

    This teaching creates so much cognitive dissonance in people that almost everyone adds nuance. (What happens to babies who die? Most would say, with little or no biblical support, that all the babies go to heaven.)

    If Christians really, truly believed in eternal, conscious torment for all non-believers deep down in their souls, then wouldn’t they be making every effort, spending every minute of every day, walking around asking people, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” and then urgently steering every conversation to some presentation of the gospel to get people off the road to hell? If they truly believed this doctrine, why would Christian parents ever send any of their children to school to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. instead of training them to be streetcorner evangelists? Why would evangelicals devote any resources to hold worship services, establish seminaries, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.? Those would be foolish diversions from the urgent work of saving souls.

    Here is my speculative answer to these questions. I’m guessing that most born-again evangelicals, in the deepest recesses of their souls, have subconscious doubt about this doctrine and add nuance and exceptions to it. And it is those doubts and exceptions — or simply avoiding thinking about the doctrine altogether — that give them the freedom to hold secular jobs, attend school, watch movies, surf the internet, take vacations, play sports, enjoy music, and thus live out fairly normal and ordinary lives among their non-born-again peers.

    There’s a new documentary film about this subject called Hellbound:

    I really want to attend a screening of this movie and engage in Q&A with the filmmaker. Hey, UBFriends readers in North America: Anyone up for this?

    • David Bychkov

      Hi Joe. I don’t think it is difficult to find reasons for doing seculiar works even in sight of the hell doctrine
      1) If we beleive that we live mainly not to save others but to fulfill his will, being his church, his representers etc. in this world, and if that mean to live seculiar lives – that is a good reason to do it.
      2) if we believe it mainly God who saves people, then we are to accept his sovereignity
      3) if we believe that we participate in others salvation according to God established ways, we can accept our jobs etc as the witness.

    • This is another great topic, Joe. And one which deserves thoughtful dialogue. I would very much interested in these kinds of things. I find that I am no longer interested in listening to lectures, but in engaging in dialogue, especially with people willing to ask questions, challenge ideas and learn from each other.

      Not to delve to much into this topic (would make a great article though!), but as I continue to go through my own paradigm-shift, I think the hell doctrines of classical Evangelicalism need to be re-examined. I see this as yet another topic stemming from the magnificence of the gospel. For me the question is not whether hell exists (I believe it does), but whether anyone will be in it, or if so, who would be in it?

      I believe it is possible that on judgement day we may be asked who should be in hell. And when we list off certain kinds of people or people by name, we then have to watch those people enter the Kingdom before us. I think judgement day will be like Luke 18:9-14.

  5. Joe Schafer

    David, I largely agree with these points. But these are not teachings that are emphasized in many American evangelical churches (perhaps they are common in Reformed circles). I think these are doctrines that some people believe without anyone teaching them because it lessens the cognitive dissonance about hell and evangelism. For example, I agree with your #2: it is mainly God who saves people. But if we believe that, then does it become less urgent that we evangelize our neighbors? Many pastors would say no, but in many people’s minds I think yes.

    • David Bychkov

      yeah Joe, after posting my comment I also thought that you probably are talking mainly about the certain ideas of evangelical tradition, and I am speaking mostly from Reformed perspective. Regarding the #2 I highly recommend the work of James Parker “Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God”.

    • Joe Schafer

      Thanks for the book suggestion. I’ve heard of that book but haven’t read it yet.

      The one book that I have read that deals with that issue is The Open Secret by Lesslie Newbigin. I think that Newbigin’s treatment, which focuses on Paul’s teaching on election, is different from the Reformed perspective.

    • David Bychkov

      thank Joe. I would like to read it once have a chance. The election is very interesting topic for me.

    • Joe Schafer

      The essence of his argument, as I recall is that Paul’s message about election in Romans 9-11 is not “election to personal salvation” but “election to a particular mission in this world.” If you ever get to read it, I would love to hear your thoughts.

  6. Joe Schafer

    Dear UBFriends,

    About 10 days ago, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses (two women) came to my door and started a conversation with me. They were very polite and my conscience didn’t allow me to tell them to go away. I asked them a few questions about the Bible, based on some passages that I had read that day.

    After they left, they must have filed a report about me, because two days ago I was visited again. Two men, who were older and apparently more advanced in the JW organization, came to look for me. The found me shoveling snow outside my house. They were extremely friendly and polite. Once again, my conscience didn’t allow me to tell them to go away. I tentatively agreed to meet them sometime soon (maybe this Saturday) for a cup of coffee and conversation.

    Personally, I don’t feel led to start trading Bible verses with them to prove that they are wrong. They are pretty good at that game, and if I were to study up on how to defeat them with superior arguments and logic, I would probably scare them off. I’d prefer to do something that they won’t expect, trying to connect with them in a less abstract, less argumentative and more human level.

    Does anyone have any suggestions?

    • Well, JW are people with a specific agenda. I think most of us here have gotten used to dealing with agenda-first people, especially agenda-first Christians.

      I’ve found that the most shocking thing for such people is to have someone willingly, graciously and openly continue the discussion while refusing to accept their agenda.

      I do this often to discover whether someone really wants to dialogue for the sake of learning, or whether they just want me to conform to their agenda.

    • Joe Schafer

      Yes, they have an agenda. But I’m not sure what that agenda is. It might be to convert me to JW-ism. But maybe not. After all, they believe (I think) that only 144,000 JW’s are going to be saved. If I were to become a JW too, it would reduce their chances of salvation. On the other hand, doing evangelism is supposed to earn them points that increase their chances of being saved. Perhaps they just want to do a really good job of sharing their faith with me, while secretly hoping and praying that I will reject the message.

  7. Now you’re describing my exact thoughts when I used to “go fishing” on campus:

    “Perhaps they just want to do a really good job of sharing their faith with me, while secretly hoping and praying that I will reject the message.”

    I really, really hoped no one would accept my 1:1 invitation because if they did, then that meant I would have to enforce conformance and have a whole new set of rules to live by: The rules of directing someone’s life to conform to an ideology.

    I like it when I got a lot of names on my list and could report “full rejection”. That kept the pressure off, earned me brownie points and didn’t add additional responsibility for someone else’s life.