Dr Tadeusz Doktor
(Institute for Social Sciences, Warsaw University)
is a question of great interest in countries where ISKCON’s
freedom to practice may be under threat: What effect does membership
of ISKCON have on the personality and mental health of its members?
Dr Tadeusz Doktor of Warsaw University notes that, although
mental health is often mentioned in debates on religious freedom,
actual scientific research is rarely referred to. In this paper he
begins to address this deficiency by summarising the major research
projects on this subject. Are the effects of membership negative or
positive? How do these changes occur over time? How do they compare
to those experienced by converts to other traditions? A further
question: Do these findings take into account possible conflicts
between concepts of ‘normality’ in western and eastern
characteristics of the members of new religious movements are the
subject of lively discussion, not only among scientists but also in
the media and even in some parliaments. This issue is important to
those who oppose new religious movements and who wish to restrict
their activities as well to those who hold that the state should not
interfere in the religious freedom of its citizens. The resolution of
this issue often has a direct bearing on legislation regarding
religious minorities (although in some countries, such as France,
psychological arguments are presented in the absence of scientific
research). Those who support new religious movements and those who
are opposed to them are eager to use psychological argumentation, but
they do not always cite the findings of existing research; yet the
scientific literature on this issue is quite extensive. Most studies
have a speculative character, and only a very few are based directly
upon qualitative or quantitative empirical tests. Although most such
studies were carried out in the United States and Western Europe, the
conclusions of these studies have a global character as the majority
of the movements that are the subject of such studies are worldwide
in scope. This is especially so for those studies that used
standardised psychological tests.
(qualitative and quantitative) have been used to study members of new
religious movements. Many studies used standardised psychological
tests, enabling comparative analysis and meta-analysis of results. A
significant proportion of the studies employ theoretical
interpretations regarding the psychological causes and consequences
of membership in new religious movements. Such tests can be regarded
as sources for descriptive material and theoretical hypothesis. To
some degree this is true for studies that do not define a theoretical
context; for such studies, theoretical contexts may be interpreted
through a secondary analysis of the results. The most commonly
employed theoretical concepts derive from psychoanalytical theory
(such concepts include narcissism and father absence); analytical
psychology; and existential phenomenology (purpose in life,
self-realisation, and self-acceptance).
The study of the
psychological characteristics of members of new religious movements
encompasses two main kinds of problems: the evaluation of members’
mental health, and the evaluation of their personality
characteristics. With regard to mental health evaluation, there are
quantitative and qualitative clinical studies. With regard to
personality evaluation, there are studies that employ tools for the
assessment of normal personality; although some conclusions regarding
mental health may follow indirectly.
The evaluation of mental health
Among the most often
studied new religious movements is the International Society for
Consciousness (ISKCON), which attracted psychologists’
attention early on in its history.
Poling and Kenny,
Thomas Poling and
Frank Kenny (1986) conducted one of the earliest studies on the
personality of ISKCON members.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is based on Jung’s
personality concept, they tested 93 initiated members of the Hare
movement in the United States. Twenty-nine members underwent
Rokeach’s Dogmatism Scale test. In addition to the standardised
personality measurement tools, the researchers used qualitative
methods: participant observation, in-depth interviews, and
In their research
summary, the authors stated that the subjects showed a high degree of
similarity in social background, lifestyle, and personality features.
With regard to family background, the ISKCON members who were tested
were characterised as coming from a socially and economically
privileged milieu. They experienced early socialisation,
characterised by conflicts and identity crisis, and they rejected
parental authority and their parents’ value system. Yet, at the
same time, they felt a need for a strong, masculine, authority
substitute. Regarding disturbances in the socialisation process, the
authors note the death of one parent (experienced by 31% of
participants) or the divorce of parents (also experienced by 31%).
Such loss could be compensated through the authority of a guru, who
is seen as an ideal father figure: firm, experienced, and full of
research has been supplemented by personality studies carried out
using the Myers-Briggs questionnaire, in which personality is divided
into sixteen types based on four basic dimensions: thinking/feeling,
sense-perception/intuition, introversion/extroversion, and
judging/perceiving. The first three of these dimensions come from
Jung’s theory of personality; the last, judging–perceiving,
was added by Myers and indicates preferences for an orderly lifestyle
or a more spontaneous life directed toward experience and perception
The most common
personality type among the ISKCON members studied (40%) was the
combination of introvert-sensual-thinking-judging (82% were
classified as sensual, 78% as thinking, 90% as judging, and 55% as
introvert). This combination of sensual orientation with the
predominance of thinking and judging was interpreted by the authors
as an attempt to control the sensual orientation through thinking and
judging (Poling and Kenny 1986, p. 108).
According to this
interpretation, ISKCON may be regarded as a therapeutic institution
that specialises in influencing the sensual personality, directing
material sensibility towards the spiritual. This mechanism may
explain the therapeutic success of this movement among drug addicts
from the counterculture. Poling and Kenney concluded that, from 1967
to 1975, ISKCON functioned as a detoxification centre for drug
addicts from the youth counterculture, and, since 1975, it is a
peculiar equivalent to Alcoholics Anonymous with its rehabilitation
However, control of
the sensual impulse has its price: in this case it is some rigidity
of intellectual orientation. The dominance of the judging orientation
(90% of tested persons classified for this type) is related to a
tendency to adjust to proper standards; to the constant endeavour to
realise goals; to the need for a well-planned life, full of purpose
and meaning; to goal-oriented self-discipline and routine; and to
dogmatic thinking and intolerance against other beliefs or lifestyles
(Poling and Kenny 1986, p. 135).
The most extensive
personality research of ISKCON members are analyses by Arnold Weiss
(doctoral dissertation, 1985; Weiss 1987; Weiss and Comrey 1987a, b,
c; Weiss and Mendoza 1990). Weiss assessed 184 Hare Krsna
devotees and 40 of the movement’s sympathisers using the Comrey
Personality Scales (Comrey 1980) and RAND Corporation's Mental Health
Inventory (Veit and Ware 1983). The first of these questionnaires
assesses personality according to eight two-pole dimensions (high
results indicate the dominance of the first dimension):
trust/defensiveness; orderliness/lack of compulsion; social
conformity/rebelliousness; activity/lack of energy; emotional
masculinity/femininity; empathy/egocentrism. Two additional scales,
validity and response-bias, function as control scales to detect
distorted-responses and faking respectively. The results were
compared to those from a control group.
of the test results in the group of Hare Krsna
devotees was the same as in other tested groups. The only exception
was the social conformity factor, which did not appear in factorial
analysis because of the low variance level in answering questions
connected with that scale. The biggest surprise for the authors was
not the fact that such differences (which were relatively small) do
exist but that Hare Krsna
devotees were quite similar to other groups. Despite the significant
cultural distinctness of the Hare Krsnas,
this group could be described using the same personality dimensions
as for culturally ‘typical’ Americans (Weiss and Comrey
1987c, pp. 317–28).
The results were,
however, significantly differentiated with regard to gender. The
results returned by men from the Hare Krsna
movement were significantly higher than those of the control group in
five dimensions: orderliness, social conformity, emotional stability,
extroversion, and empathy; their results were lower in trust and
manhood scales. Women achieved significantly higher results in
orderliness and significantly lower ones in the trust scale. These
indicate personality features characteristic of people who are
meticulous, compulsive, well-organised, conscientious, punctual,
neat, tidy, feeling that they always have to correct mistakes and to
complete tasks, but who are often tormented by obsessive behaviour
(Comrey 1980, p. 22).
Although the authors
state that compulsive behaviour is a hallmark characteristic of
devotees’ personalities, they emphasise that this is not a
pathological character trait; the diagnosis of Compulsive Personality
Disorder requires that scores for social conformity be elevated, but
this was not found to be the case (Weiss and Comrey 1987a, pp.
399–413). The authors concluded
that the compulsion of Hare Krsna
devotees is connected with religious practice regulated by quite
strict rules and regulations. The associated perfectionism and
meticulousness may, however, cause some tension,
especially among men, who, according to the test results, are more
compulsive and inclined to conform than women. Devotees of both
genders were also found to be significantly less trusting of the
social system. With regard to this parameter, more distinctive
differences were found amongst the women. The authors believe this is
a result of the noticeably lower position of women in the movement.
For both genders, however, lower results in the trust scale (trust in
the social system and its values) may be a factor that induced them
to look for such values in other cultures. It could also be the
result of some defensive reaction toward hostility in the social
environment because of the cultural distinctiveness of Hare Krsna
In the results of
the RAND Corporation’s Mental Health Inventory, Weiss (1987,
pp. 23–35) observed another feature among male devotees. ISKCON
men had significantly better results than ISKCON women and the
control group in psychic well-being as well as a more positive
attitude. Higher scores in these scales were not balanced by lower
results in the psychological distress scale however. Weiss interprets
this as a ‘positive-attitude effect’, which may result
from their religious experiences and life-style, or ‘it may
represent an intentional “high” that they have fostered
within themselves, perhaps unconsciously, to justify their religious
position’ (Weiss, p. 32).
The results of tests
of Hare Krsna
devotees were analysed in relation to their acculturation degree and
measured against a specially constructed scale, which included
questions regarding diet, sexual customs, ways of raising children,
religious beliefs and practice, time and money devoted to religious
goals, and the like. These tests showed a
positive correlation between
acculturation and mental health criteria (as
assessed with the Mental Health Index).
These results may reflect the
fact that only mentally healthier individuals are able to follow the
strict rules and regulations of this movement. Alternatively, these
results may indicate that the movement has a therapeutic effect on
its members; ISKCON’s social structure, the presence of
parental surrogates, and positive feedback regarding ego functioning
(narcissistic mirroring) may enhance emotional problem solving (Weiss
and Mendoza, pp. 173–84).
Michael Ross (1983,
pp. 416–20) conducted a study 42 devotees in the Melbourne
temple using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI),
the General Health Questionnaire, and Eysenck’s Personality
Questionnaire. All scores were within the normal range for all three
instruments of research.
The MMPI results
were analysed by experienced clinicians who did not know the origin
of the analysed materials. No signs of pathology were observed. Ross
also analysed the results with respect to length of membership in the
movement. The results showed a
significant decrease in scores for psychasthenia, schizophrenia, and
mania in the devotees whose membership period was of medium length.
The results also showed a growth in
psychological adjustment for devotees with longer time of membership.
The results were interpreted as indicating a temporary decrease of
adjustment after the ‘initial elation of becoming a devotee had
palled somewhat’ (Ross 1983a, p. 419).
Ross returned to the
Melbourne temple four years after his first visit and repeated his
tests with the 25 devotees who had been previously tested and who
were still at that temple. The socio-demographic profile and MMPI
results were quite similar to the previous results. The observed
changes (with one exception) were beneficial from the mental health
point of view (Ross 1985, pp. 65–7).
Kraus and Eckert,
Extensive study of
222 ISKCON members was conducted in Germany, using the Narcissism
Inventory and a questionnaire for assessing interpersonal problems
(Kraus, pp. 263–281). The Narcissism Inventory is based on the
model of the self-system and a variety of narcissistic
defence-mechanisms that maintain it (Deneke, pp. 577–608).
Deneke and Hilgenstock (1989) were able to empirically identify 18
types of narcissistic defence mechanisms, which they divided into
four dimensions. The first dimension indicates an unstable regulation
of self-experience as derealisation and depersonalisation, negative
body images, loss of basic hope, social isolation, or archaic
fantasies of retreat. The second dimension relates to ‘classical’
narcissistic regulations such as delusions of grandeur, idealising
transferences, desire for praise and approval, or narcissistic anger.
The third dimension consists of different types of ideas such as
overemphasising autarchy, seeing others as worthless, overemphasising
values, or symbiotic fantasies. The fourth dimension relates to the
body and includes hypochondria and narcissistic gain from illness.
In their study of
ISKCON members, Kraus and Eckert (1997a, pp. 21–6) regarded the
most striking result as being the elevation of the scores measuring
idealising transference and overemphasis of values; these scores
exceeded the mean for a sample of psychiatric patients. The devotees’
scores were also higher on the derealisation/depersonalisation scale;
these scores were significantly higher only in relation to the
‘normal’ sample. The authors interpreted these results as
indicating that the members gain stabilisation of their internal
image through idealisation transfer and overemphasis of their value
interpreted these results as supporting the first hypothesis, which
stated that, comparatively, the Hare Krsnas
are often persons with narcissistic deficiencies which they try to
regulate by specific defence mechanisms. By idealising religious
leaders and overemphasising certain values, the Hare Krsnas
use one ‘classical’ and one idealistic narcissistic
defence-mechanism. The idealisation of religious leaders brings about
an elevation of self-worth and serves as a defence mechanism against
disappointment. The overemphasis of certain values allows a concealed
release of aggressive impulses, for example, by blaming others for
moral failures. Further, it can be said that the narcissistic
regulation of the Hare Krsnas
seems to be confined to these two defence mechanisms. The second
hypothesis, which stated that life in the Hare Krsna
movement helps to stabilise self-experience, was also supported. On
the whole the Hare Krsnas
do not complain about an unstable regulation of self-experience. In
addition, the lower scores of long-term members in comparison with
novices on two scales of the first dimension give some further
support to our second hypothesis. (Kraus 1999, p. 278).
In contrast to the
results of the Narcissistic Inventory, the level of interpersonal
problems of ISKCON members was lower than in the representative
sample (Kraus and Eckert 1997b, pp. 281–95). Two
interpretations were offered by the authors. The first is that being
a member of the movement may have beneficial effect; either because
of the increased sense of self-worth, identity, and meaning in life,
which influences interpersonal experience positively, or because of a
life-style which is highly structured by rules and regulations and
leaves limited space for personal decisions. A second interpretation
is related to the possibility that the Hare Krsnas
might have given socially desirable answers as a reaction to being
heavily criticised in public.
Studies of personality traits
Philbrick, South Africa
In South Africa,
researchers investigated converts from three new religious movements:
People of Jesus, Divine Light Mission and ISKCON. Twenty-five members
were studied from each movement; in addition, 25 clergymen who were
to enter a Catholic seminary were studied. The research showed that
in the first four months after having joined the movement or
seminary, meaning in life, as measured by the Crumbaugh and Maholick
Purpose in Life Test (1969), significantly increased. The increase
was the biggest in case of Hare Krsna
devotees. Before their conversions, the devotees’ scores on
this scale were lower than the American norm (there is no South
African normalisation of the test); indeed, they were the lowest
among all the tested groups. In the authors’ opinion, this
clearly indicates existential crisis during the period before
conversion. High scores with regard to the meaning in life after
conversion, which was even higher than the average for well-adapted
Americans, indicates that religious conversion, regardless of the
kind of religious group, has positive therapeutic effect on
existential crisis and may counteract the possible development of
noogenic neurosis (Stones and Philbrick, pp. 739–42).
in Italy examined the self-image of members of three religious
movements: Hare Krsna
devotees, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Catholic
movement Communione e Liberazione. Thirty-six members were studied
from each movement; in addition, 37 members of a secular sport
society were studied. The research employed the Adjective Check List
(Salvini et al., pp. 37–47). The results indicated significant
differences regarding participants’ self-image as interpreted
through semantic manifestations of the ethical-behavioural models
with which members identify themselves. Through explorative factorial
analysis, five factors were distinguished on the basis of a grouping
of 114 most often chosen adjectives. Hare Krsna
devotees differed from other groups most significantly by factor No.
5, called by the authors ‘initial distance’, by their use
of such adjectives as ‘severe’ and ‘restrained’.
For the other factors, the Hare Krsna devotees were most similar to
members of the Catholic movement Communione e Liberazione regarding
(1996, pp. 217–72) studied 33 members of ISKCON in Poland and
observed higher levels of external control than was seen in members
of Catholic religious movements and the Unification Church. The
results, however, were lower than in a control group of students.
With regard to ego strength, measured by Barron’s scale, the
scores obtained by ISKCON members were similar to those of members of
other new religious movements but were higher than in the control
group. In the conclusion to the study, the author states: ‘Summing
up the research results regarding members of some chosen religious
movements, which considered their localisation of control, ego power
and need for social acceptance, we can state that no evidence of
negative influence of these movements on their members’
personalities has been found’ (Powałka 1996, p. 266).
researched 125 ISKCON members and 105 members of
Catholic religious movements using IPAT (Institute for Personality
and Ability Testing) and the Adjectives Check List (Doktor,
pp. 21–51.). Anxiety Scale indicated that ISKCON members are
better psychologically adjusted than participants from the control
group and the Catholic movements’ members because of their
lower anxiety level and higher self-acceptance level, as indicated by
the smaller discrepancy between real and ideal self-image.
analysis of the scores for 37 Achievement Check List scales, six
factors emerge, which basically resemble the pattern observed in the
general population in the United States and Poland (Gough and
Heilbrun 1980, Juros and Oleś. pp. 171–201). ISKCON
members scored higher on the first factor (with highest loading on
scales for achievement, endurance and order), which may be
interpreted as reflecting ego strength, but these scores also
indicate a tendency for compulsive behaviour, as observed in American
ISKCON members by Arnold Weiss. Among members of Catholic movements,
quite similar tendencies were observed, although they were less
clearly emphasised. These results might be interpreted through
Freudian psychoanalytical categories. In Freud’s opinion,
religious compulsive behaviour such as meticulousness in following
the prescribed rituals might be understood as defence against fear.
The lower anxiety levels observed in ISKCON members also seem to
confirm this thesis.
Members of both
religious movements differed from the control group in that they had
lower scores for the fourth factor, which concerns gender roles. The
results might be interpreted as confirming the hypothesis that being
a member of a new religious movement brings solution to dilemmas
related to vagueness of a gender role in the modern culture (Aidala,
pp. 287–314). Clear regulations regarding sexual behaviour may
remove tensions coming from vague or contradicting norms related to
gender in the wider society.
correlation coefficients with length of membership seem to indicate
more positive psychological changes in members of Catholic movements
(decrease of anxiety and increase in self-acceptance, as well as the
direction of changes of individual Achievement Check List scales with
the time of membership). Lack of such observed changes in ISKCON
members may partially result from the fact that the composition of
this group was different with regard to length of membership
(domination of more senior members); when these proportions are
balanced, the differences decrease significantly. Yet another reason
for the relatively high anxiety level observed in the most senior
ISKCON members might be related to the changes that ISKCON underwent
in its development. Early in its history, ISKCON was much more
tightly connected with the counterculture, which resulted in higher
tension with the social environment; this could influence the motives
and personal characteristics of the people who joined.
The research results
presented here do not indicate that members of new religious
movements are characterised by worse mental health. On the contrary,
in many cases, membership causes favourable changes (for example,
increasing the feeling of purpose in life) and generally serves a
stabilising function for the members’ personalities.
interpretation of findings relates to narcissistic and compulsive
traits observed in members of ISKCON. These traits do not take a
pathological form; rather, they seem to result from the specific
forms of the movement’s social structure, doctrine, and ritual
and emphasise the role of mystical experience. All these features may
be typical for many new religious movements, especially those which
come from the Eastern tradition.
Some features may
manifest themselves in different degrees in members who joined the
movement at different stages in its development. For instance, in
earlier stages, there was more emphasis on the spiritual master’s
role, and there was a higher level of conflict between the movement
and the wider social environment. Moreover, the earlier research
significantly over-represented persons who had grown up without a
father, and (as Poling and Kenny did)
thus interpreted membership in ISKCON as a
search for a father substitute in the person of a spiritual master.
In this interpretation, the role of father was successfully filled by
the movement’s founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, and the
spiritual masters initiated by him. His passing away in 1977 and the
disappointment of adepts toward some of his successor spiritual
masters, partially caused by the improper behaviour of the latter,
might be interpreted as narcissistic devaluation of a previously
idealised person. In more recent years, the diminished role of
individual spiritual masters and the placing of more stress on
collective leadership may have led to the recruitment of members who
were not longing for an idealised father substitute.
tensions in the movement’s relations with society at large have
also tended to diminish; this may have led to a gradual decrease in
the narcissistic self-esteem that came with being a member of a
movement so different from the social environment. Although some
narcissistic features are still present among the devotees, the
existing studies (with the exception of the German studies cited) do
not show these features as having pathological character. In Germany,
the level of tension with regard to the movement’s relation to
its socio-cultural environment may be higher than in other countries.
manifest some features that are not related to narcissistic
personality, such as compulsivity and dogmatism. In Freud’s
opinion this is related to the monotheistic tradition. Because of its
personal concept of God, which not all Hindu traditions share, Krsna
consciousness may be considered as being closer to the vision of
Personal God that is characteristic of occidental religions. This
could be one explanation for the relative success ISKCON has achieved
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