Psychological characteristics of ISKCON members

Dr Tadeusz Doktor (Institute for Social Sciences, Warsaw University)

There 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 societies?

The psychological 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.


Different methods (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 Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON), which attracted psychologists’ attention early on in its history.

Poling and Kenny, USA

Thomas Poling and Frank Kenny (1986) conducted one of the earliest studies on the personality of ISKCON members.

Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is based on Jung’s personality concept, they tested 93 initiated members of the Hare Krsna 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 biographical questionnaires.

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 understanding.

Biographical 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 (Myers 1962).

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 program.

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).

Weiss, USA

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 stability/neuroticism; extroversion/introversion, 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.

Factorial structure 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 devotees.

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).

Ross, USA

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, Germany

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 system:

We 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

Stones and 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).

Salvini, Italy

Research conducted 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 their self-image.

Powałka, Poland

Dorota Powałka (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).

Doktor, Poland

I myself 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.

After factorial 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.

The observed 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.

The Freudian 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.

The 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.

Devotees also 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 in some Western countries.


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