The mass suicides, that took place under the influence of Reverend Jim Jones, can be explained from a sociological perspective. By looking at how the group dynamics played into the outcome one gets a better idea of the whys? of the massacre. The sociological explanation is but one way to explain this horrific event. It is , however, the only one explored in this essay for reasons of concision. At one level, the deaths at Jonestown can be viewed as the product of obedience, of people complying with the orders of a leader and reacting to the threat of force.
In the Peoples Temple, whatever Jim Jones commanded, the members did. When he gathered the community at the pavilion and the poison was brought out, the populace was surrounded by armed guards who were trusted lieutenants of Jones. There are reports that some people did not drink voluntarily but had the poison forced down their throats or injected. While there were isolated acts of resistance and suggestions of opposition to the suicides, excerpts from a tape, recorded as the final ritual was being enacted, reveal that such dissent was quickly dismissed or shouted down.
Jim Jones utilized the threat of severe punishment to impose the strict discipline and absolute devotion that he demanded, and he also took measures to eliminate those factors that might encourage resistance or rebellion among his followers. Research showed that the presence of a “disobedient” partner greatly reduced the extent o which most subjects in the Milgram situation (1965) obeyed the instructions to shock the person designated the “learner. Similarly, by including just one confederate who expressed an opinion different from the majority’s, Asch (1955) showed that the subject would also agree far less, even when the “other dissenters” judgment was also incorrect and differed from the subjects. In the Peoples Temple, Jones tolerated no dissent, made sure that members had no allegiance more powerful than to himself, and tried to make the alternative of leaving the Temple an unthinkable option.
Analyzing Jonestown in terms of obedience and the power of the situation can help to explain why the people acted as they did. Once the Peoples Temple had moved to Jonestown, there was little the members could do other than follow Jim Jones’s dictates. They were comforted by an authority of absolute power. They were left with few options, being surrounded by armed guards and by the jungle, having given their passports and various documents and confessions to Jones, and believing that conditions in the outside world were even more threatening.
The members poor diet, heavy workload, lack of sleep, and constant exposure to Jones’s diatribes exacerbated the coerciveness of their predicament; tremendous pressures encouraged them to obey. By the time of the final ritual, opposition or escape had become almost impossible for most of the members. Yet even then, it is doubtful that many wanted to resist or leave. Most had come to believe in Jones — one woman’s body was found with a message scribbled on her arm during the final hours: “Jim Jones is the only one” (Cahill, 1979).
They seemed to have accepted the necessity, and even the beauty, of dying — just before the ritual began, a guard approached Charles Garry, one of the Temples hired attorneys, and exclaimed, “Its a great moment… we all die” (Lifton, 1979). A survivor of Jonestown, who happened to be away at the dentist, was interviewed a year following the deaths: Deception. Recruits are duped into believing that the group is benevolent and will enrich their lives by, for example, advancing their spirituality or increasing their self-esteem and security.
As a result of this deception and the systematic use of highly manipulative techniques of influence, recruits come to commit themselves to the group’s prescribed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting; in other words, they become members or converts. Dependency. By gradually isolating members from outside influences, establishing unrealistically high and guilt-inducing expectations, punishing any expressions of “negativity,” and denigrating independent, critical thinking, the group causes members to become extremely dependent on the group’s compliance-oriented expressions of love and support. Dread.
Once a state of dependency is firmly established, the group’s control over members’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior is strengthened by the members’ growing dread of losing the group’s psychological support (physical threat also occurs in some groups), however much it may aim at ensuring their compliance with leadership’s often debilitating demands. Yes. Ordinary social conditioning differs from mind control in two important ways. First, parents, schools, churches, and other organizations do not as a rule utilize unethically manipulative techniques in socializing children, adolescents, and young adults.
Second, social conditioning is a slow process which promotes and encourages an initially “unformed” child to become an autonomous adult with a unique identity. Mind control, on the other hand, uses unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to induce dependency in a person with an established identity, which the manipulator seeks to alter radically without the informed consent of his targets. Cult leaders and members use mind control to inundate their message into the minds of prospective and existing followers.
Groups that demonstrate exaggerated devotion or commitment to some person, idea, or thing and demand an unquestioning loyalty, may potentially rationalize using the “means” of coercive persuasion to advance the “ends” of their group. It is possible to distinguish dangerous groups which use coercive persuasion from peaceful persuasion groups by de-emphasizing their coincidental similarities and concentrating on the methods of coercive persuasion. The beliefs of any group are not a clue to whether it uses coercive persuasion. Cults control an individual’s emotional life by manipulating a person’s range of feelings.
Guilt and fear are used to keep control. Cult members cannot see the control by guilt and like other abuse victims are conditioned to blame themselves when things are wrong, even grateful when a leader points our their transgressions. This control is so powerful that the cult member will actually participate in their own punishment and come to believe he deserves it. Fear is used to manipulate two ways. The first is to create an outside enemy (we vs them) who is persecuting. The second is the fear of punishment by the leaders if you are not “good enough. ” Being “good enough” is following the ideology perfectly.
The most powerful emotional control is phobia indoctrination. This can give the person a panic reaction at the very thought of leaving the group. It is almost impossible to conceive that there is any life outside the group. Although the threat is not a physical one the psychological jeopardy is just as if not more powerful. By putting a possible recruit or an existing member into a large group where everyone is in compliance a nonverbal suggestion to succumb to the teachings is created. A large display of positive reenforcement by those people who are in conformation is shown.
This creates peer-pressure which in itself is a highly motivating force. Outside feedback is carefully monitored in cults. No television or media reports of any kind are allowed to infiltrate the group. This creates a higher dependency on the people within the group. If the information needed to make a sound judgment is withheld A person will be incapable of doing so. People are trapped in cults because they are denied both the access to the critical information they need to assess their situation. The psychological constraints on their minds are just as powerful as if they were locked away physically from society.
Outside feedback is carefully monitored in cults. No television or media reports of any kind are allowed to infiltrate the group. This creates a higher dependency on the people within the group. If the information needed to make a sound judgment is withheld A person will be incapable of doing so. People are trapped in cults because they are denied both the access to the critical information they need to assess their situation. The psychological constraints on their minds are just as powerful as if they were locked away physically from society.
Thoughts are manipulated so that there are no grey areas only black and white. The teachings are that complete purity is accessible and that anything done in the name of that purity is moral. By defining and manipulating the criteria of purity and conducting an assault on impurity (Discord especially) the organization creates a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is maintained by a belief of constant reform, the demand that one aspire permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is alien to the human condition. Pure and impure is defined by the ideology of the organization.
Only those ideas, feelings and actions consistent with the ideology and policy are good. The individual conscience is not reliable. Under these conditions the individual expects humiliation, ostracism and punishment because of his inability to live up to the criteria and lives in a constant state of guilt and shame. Since the organization is the ultimate judge of good and evil, this guilt and shame is used to manipulate and control members. The organization becomes an authority without limit in the eyes of members and their power is nowhere more evident that in their capacity to “forgive”.
We live in a dangerous world, a world often caught in the midst of disastrous group dynamics. Cult leaders use their knowledge to bemire the minds of unsuspecting victims. Until, recently cult’s were able to run freely in public without anything more than slight amusement at the dress or the ethereal spouting. There was a time in the not so distant past that cult members were allowed to approach anyone in a place as public as an airport to share their beliefs’ and their tainted language. They were allowed access to our children and to our minds. It has been a long time coming, but the world is finally catching on.