“I Have to Be All Things to All People”: Jim Jones, Nurture Failure, and Apocalypticism

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social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

  • James L. Kelley 3  

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In 1978, Jim Jones and over 900 of his followers perished in what has been called “The Jonestown Massacre”. This study uses methods of psychobiography and objection relations theory to account for Jones’ lifelong ambivalence toward those to whom he acted as caregiver. The author proposes a psychological schema he names “nurture failure” to account for Jim Jones’ style of leadership, which mixed solicitude with violence in the context of a religious organization that promised to right all of society’s wrongs. The means by which this utopia was to be brought about became more and more extreme until the infamous murder/suicide shattered the dream for good. The study’s findings expand our understanding of the motivational dynamics that undergird religious leaders’ often Januslike relations to their followers.

The chapter’s title was uttered by Jim Jones sometime in the mid-seventies, as relayed by eyewitness Hue Fortson in an interview by Guinn ( 2017a , p. 225).

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Kelley, J.L. (2019). “I Have to Be All Things to All People”: Jim Jones, Nurture Failure, and Apocalypticism. In: Mayer, CH., Kovary, Z. (eds) New Trends in Psychobiography. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-16953-4_20

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  • Case studies

Case Study A: The Peoples Temple And Jonestown

On November 18, 1978, over 900 people perished in the compound of the Peoples Temple in Guyana, South America. Many of the dead had apparently willingly drunk a poisoned fruit-punch at the command of the Rev. Jim Jones, the group’s leader. However, many of the dead were children convinced (or perhaps tricked or forced) to drink by their parents or other adults, and a few people appear to have been forced to drink at gunpoint (a handful died by gunshot). This remains one of modern history’s largest murder-suicide events, and religion was one of its central components.

The Peoples Temple emerged in the 1950s in Indianapolis, Indiana, as a fairly routine Protestant Christian sect. Perhaps its distinguishing feature, especially in its early years, was its strong pursuit of racial integration, a pointed departure from the prevailing racist segregationism of the day. To the very end, the Peoples Temple membership consisted of a thorough mix of white and black followers who worshipped, worked, and lived side-by-side.

Over time, Jim Jones added to the group’s basic evangelical and mildly Pentecostal Protestantism with an increasingly idiosyncratic set of teachings including apocalyptic expectations of a nuclear holocaust. In 1965 Jones moved the group to northern California, where for a time they were welcomed, even celebrated for their anti-racist ways. However, eventually the group was suspected of abusive behaviors toward its members, as well as of committing financial fraud. Amid growing suspicion, Jones decamped the group to the northern region of Guyana where they built up a sizeable compound with extensive agricultural holdings, dormitories, and large meeting halls. The dual goals of the group at this point were to show the world an example of a socialist utopia and survive the expected arrival of Armageddon.

Jones grew increasingly erratic and authoritarian, subjecting followers to harsh punishments and public humiliations for infraction of a growing list of rules, especially for any hints of disloyalty. It appears that some members may have been restrained from leaving, and rumors started to trickle out of tensions and abuses in the community. These reports prompted a visit from Leo Ryan, a U.S. Congressman from the Peoples Temple’s old home of California. Ryan and his entourage arrived on November 17, 1978, and toured the compound. While there seem to have been some tensions between Jones and Ryan, overall the visit largely passed without major incident, until some of Jones’ followers ambushed Ryan’s group as they prepared to depart from a nearby air field. Ryan and four others were shot dead.

Expecting that this assault would prompt intervention and retaliation from U.S. authorities, Jones activated a previously-rehearsed plan for mass suicide. A chilling tape recording of his final, 45-minute speech includes his admonishments to remain calm and his command to drink the poison (the recording is linked below). The resources below help fill in many details of this complicated case, from Jones’ difficult childhood, to his developing religious teachings, to life in the Jonestown compound, and specifics of the group’s final, tumultuous day. The list of resources is followed by suggestions for employing ideas from the book in making sense of this case.

A good start

  • A brief overview from the History Channel, with embedded links for more information:


  • A good overview documentary video,“Great Crimes and Trials: The Jonestown Massacre” (25 min., semi-graphic):


Digging deeper

The Peoples Temple/Jonestown have been studied extensively. Here is a sampling of some of the better research and reflection available:

  • The (in)famous recording of the last speech by Jim Jones, including his orders to the group to kill themselves. Officially known as “FBI Q 042,” it is often called “the Jonestown Death Tape” (45 min.):


  • First of a multi-part documentary video from ABC News from 20 years after the events (the remaining segments can also be found on YouTube):


  • A thoughtful scholarly study by one of the leading experts on the group:

Moore, Rebecca. “Rhetoric, Revolution, and Resistance in Jonestown, Guyana.” Journal of Religion and Violence 1, no. 3 (2013): 303–21. Available at: https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=67381

  • An updated version of a classic book presenting religious studies analysis of the Peoples Temple:

Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003 [1991].

  • A book-length study form the same author as the above article:

Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple . Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2009.

  • A classic essay from a giant of religious studies, seeking to interpret the Jonestown events in light of other episodes of religious violence:

Smith, Jonathan Z.  “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 102–20.

  • A welcome collection of studies of the role of race in the Peoples Temple:

Moore, Rebecca, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer, eds. Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.

  • The Peoples Temple and Jonestown considered in the context of apocalyptic “cults” and “new religious movements”:

Wessinger, Catherine Lowman. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate . New York: Seven Bridges, 2000.

Applying the book to this case

  • Ch. 3 considers the thought of Marx in relation to religious violence. The Peoples Temple’s commitment to racial equality might show some affinities with Marxist critiques of social and material injustice. Do these kinds of critiques illuminate the Peoples Temple case, including its violent end? Does the Peoples Temple add any complexity to thinking about critiques of injustice and the ways they may participate in violence?
  • Victor Turner (ch. 5) focuses attention on “liminal” states outside of established social structures. The Peoples Temple appears to have sought to generate a strong sense of “communitas” among its members, and the group’s move to Guyana and the establishing of Jonestown could be seen as deliberately entering a “liminal” state. How specifically did they pursue these states, and how might those efforts have contributed to the violence of the Jonestown murder-suicide?
  • The Peoples Temple is often described as a “cult” (or a “new religious movement”). Ch. 8 explores the meaning of this term in the wider context of the sociology of religion and the ways social formation of religious communities and organizations can affect religious violence (see esp. pp. 163–69). What light is shed on this case by consideration of these social dynamics?
  • For instance, the Peoples Temple seems to share some features of both a “sect” and a “cult,” including in its relationship to the wider society: a sect tends to offer a doctrinal and/or moral critique of the status quo, as the Peoples Temple seems to have done regarding race. However, the group may have shifted in the direction of a “cult” as Jim Jones developed more idiosyncratic teachings and a more self-centered leadership style. How might any of these factors have contributed to the group’s violent end?
  • Ch. 9 presents a set of “building blocks” of religious traditions that can readily contribute to religious violence. Apocalyptic expectations appear to have been a significant aspect of the Peoples Temple teachings; how might these contribute to violence (see pp. 192–3). What other categories discussed in the chapter (listed on p. 175) might be elements of the Jonestown case?
  • Review the typology of violence discussed in ch. 1 and the appendix, and consider whish specific forms of violence have occurred as part of the Peoples Temple murder-suicide. Self-directed harm, such as suicide, raises complex questions, since the perpetrator and target of violence might be one and the same, and the harm might be intended and desired by the target. Also, how might the prevalent issues of self-defense and vengeance play out in this case? What other specific forms of violence appear in this case?
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social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

Before the tragedy at Jonestown, the people of Peoples Temple had a dream

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

Emerita Professor of Religious Studies, San Diego State University

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Rebecca Moore does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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When people hear the word “Jonestown,” they usually think of horror and death.

Located in the South American country of Guyana, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was supposed to be the religious group’s “promised land.” In 1977 almost 1,000 Americans had moved to Jonestown, as it was called, hoping to create a new life.

Instead, tragedy struck. When U.S. Rep. Leo J. Ryan of California and three journalists attempted to leave after a visit to the community, a group of Jonestown residents assassinated them, fearing that negative reports would destroy their communal project.

A collective murder-suicide followed, a ritual that had been rehearsed on several occasions.

This time it was no rehearsal. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died, including my two sisters, Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, and my nephew, Kimo Prokes.

Photojournalist David Hume Kennerly’s aerial photograph of a landscape of brightly clothed lifeless bodies captures the magnitude of the disaster of that day.

In the more than 40 years since the tragedy, most stories, books, films and scholarship have tended to focus on the leader of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and the community that his followers attempted to carve out of the dense jungles of northwest Guyana. They might highlight the dangers of cults or the hazards of blind obedience .

But by fixating on the tragedy – and on the Jones of Jonestown – we miss the larger story of the Temple. We lose sight of a significant social movement that mobilized thousands of activists to change the world in ways small and large, from offering legal services to people too poor to afford a lawyer, to campaigning against apartheid.

It is a disservice to the lives, labors and aspirations of those who died to simply focus on their deaths.

I know that what happened on Nov. 18, 1978 doesn’t tell the complete story of my own family’s involvement – neither what happened in the years leading up to that dreadful day, nor the four decades that followed.

The impulse to learn the whole story prompted my husband, Fielding McGehee, and me to create the website Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple in 1998 – a large digital archive documenting the movement primarily in its own words through documents, reports and audiotapes. This, in turn, led the Special Collections Department at San Diego State University to develop the Peoples Temple Collection .

The problems with Jonestown are self-evident.

But that single event shouldn’t define the movement.

The Temple began as a church in the Pentecostal-Holiness tradition in Indianapolis in the 1950s.

In a deeply segregated city, it was one of the few places where black and white working-class congregants sat together in church on a Sunday morning. Its members provided various kinds of assistance to the poor – food, clothing, housing, legal advice – and the church and its pastor, Jim Jones, gained a reputation for fostering racial integration.

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

Investigative journalist Jeff Guinn has described the ways early incarnations of the Temple served the people of Indianapolis. The income generated through licensed care homes, operated by Jim Jones’ wife, Marceline Jones, subsidized The Free Restaurant, a cafeteria where anyone could eat at no cost.

Church members also mobilized to promote desegregation efforts at local restaurants and businesses, and the Temple formed an employment service that placed African-Americans in a number of entry-level positions.

While it’s the kind of action some churches engage in today, it was innovative – even radical – for the 1950s.

In 1962, Jones had a prophetic vision of a nuclear catastrophe, so he urged his Indiana congregation to relocate to Northern California.

Scholars suspect that an Esquire magazine article – which listed nine parts of the world that would be safe in the event of nuclear war, and included a region of Northern California – gave Jones the idea for the move.

In the mid-1960s, more than 80 members of the group packed up and headed west together.

Under the guidance of Marceline, the Temple acquired a number of properties in the Redwood Valley and established nine residential care facilities for the elderly, six homes for foster children, and Happy Acres, a state-licensed ranch for mentally disabled adults. In addition, Temple families took in others needing assistance through informal networks.

Sociologist of religion John R. Hall has studied the various ways the Temple raised money at that time. The care homes were profitable, as were other moneymaking ventures; there was a small food truck the Temple operated, and members were also able to sell grapes from the Temple’s vineyards to Parducci Wine Cellars.

These fundraising schemes, along with more traditional donations and tithes, helped underwrite free services.

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

It was at this time that young, college-educated white adults began to trickle in. They used their skills as teachers and social workers to attract more members to a movement they saw as preaching the social gospel of redistribution of wealth.

My younger sister, Annie, seemed to be drawn to the Temple’s ethos of diversity and equality.

“There is the largest group of people I have ever seen who are concerned about the world and are fighting for truth and justice for the world,” she wrote in a 1972 letter to me . “And all the people have come from such different backgrounds, every color, every age, every income group.”

But the core constituency comprised thousands of urban African-Americans, as the Temple expanded south to San Francisco, and eventually to Los Angeles.

Frequently depicted as poor and dispossessed, these new African-American recruits actually came from the working and professional classes: They were teachers, postal clerks, civil service employees, domestics, military veterans, laborers and more.

The promise of racial equality and social activism operating within a Christian context enticed them. The Temple’s revolutionary politics and substantial programs sold them.

Regardless of the motives of their leader, the followers wholeheartedly believed in the possibility of change.

During an era that witnessed the collapse of the civil rights movement, the decimation of the Black Panther Party and the assassinations of black activists, the group was especially committed to a program of racial reconciliation.

But even the Temple couldn’t escape structural racism, as “ eight revolutionaries ” pointed out in a letter to Jim Jones in 1973. These eight young adults left the organization, in part, because they watched new white members advance into leadership ahead of experienced, older black members.

Nevertheless, throughout the movement’s history, African-Americans and whites lived and worked side by side. It was one of the few long-term experiments in American interracial communalism, along with Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement , which Jim Jones emulated.

Members saw themselves as battling on the front lines against colonialism, as they listened to guests from Pan-African organizations and from the recently deposed Marxist Chilean government speak in their San Francisco gatherings. They joined coalition groups that were agitating against the Bakke case , which ruled that race-based admissions quotas were unconstitutional, and demonstrating in support of the Wilmington Ten , 10 African Americans who were wrongfully convicted of arson in North Carolina.

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

Members and nonmembers received a variety of free social services: rental assistance, funds for shopping trips, health exams, legal assistance and student scholarships. By pooling their resources, in addition to filling the collection plates, members received more in goods and services than they might have earned on their own. They called it “ apostolic socialism .”

Living communally not only saved money, but also built solidarity. Although communal housing existed in Redwood Valley, it was greatly expanded in San Francisco. Entire apartment buildings in the city were dedicated to accommodating unrelated Temple members – many of them senior citizens – who lived with and cared for one another.

As early as 1974, a few hardy volunteers began clearing land for an agricultural settlement in the Northwest District of Guyana , near the disputed border with Venezuela.

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

While the ostensible reason was to “provide food for the hungry,” the real reason was to create a community where they could escape the racism and injustice they experienced in the United States.

Even as they toiled to clear hundreds of acres of jungle, build roads and construct housing, the first settlers were filled with hope, freedom and a sense of possibility.

“My memories from 1974 till the beginning of ‘78 are many and full of love, and to this day they still bring tears to my eyes,” recalled Peoples Temple member Mike Touchette , who was working on a boat in the Caribbean as the deaths were occurring. “Not only the memories of building of Jonestown, but the friendships and camaraderie we had before 1978 is beyond words.”

But Jim Jones arrived 1977, and an influx of 1,000 immigrants – including more than 300 children and 200 senior citizens – followed. The situation changed. Conditions were primitive, and though the residents of Jonestown were no worse off than their Guyanese neighbors, it was a far cry from the lives they were used to.

The community of Jonestown is best understood as a small town in need of infrastructure, or, as one visitor described it , an “unfinished construction site.”

Everything – sidewalks, sanitation, housing, water, electricity, food production, livestock care, schools, libraries, meal preparation, laundry, security – had to be developed from scratch. Everyone but the youngest of children needed to pitch in to develop and maintain the community.

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

Some have described the project as a prison camp .

In several respects that is true: People weren’t free to leave. Dissidents were cruelly punished.

Others have described it as heaven on earth .

Undoubtedly it was both; it depends on who – and when – you ask.

But then there is the final day, which seems to erase all the promise of the Temple’s utopian experiment. It’s easy to identify the elements that contributed to the final tragedy: the anti-democratic hierarchy, the violence used against members, the culture of secrecy, the racism, and the inability to question the leader.

The failures are apparent. But the successes?

For years, Peoples Temple provided decent housing for hundreds of church members; it ran care homes for hundreds of mentally ill or disabled individuals; and it created a social and political space for African-Americans and whites to live and work together in California and in Guyana.

Most importantly, it mobilized thousands of people yearning for a just society.

To focus on the leader is to overlook the basic decency and genuine idealism of the members. Jim Jones would have accomplished nothing without the people of Peoples Temple. They were the activists, the foot soldiers, the letter writers, the demonstrators, the organizers.

Don Beck , a former Temple member, has written that the legacy of the movement is “to cherish the people and remember the goodness that brought us together.”

In the face of all those bodies, that’s a difficult thing to do.

But it’s worth a try.

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

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The Psychology Behind The Jonestown Massacre Finally Explained

Jim Jones

On November 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women, and children, died by suicide and murder at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana. As reported by History , the suicides and murders were committed under the direction of Reverend Jim Jones, who was the leader of the Peoples Temple religious sect.

Psychology Today reports, "suicide is usually an act of lonely desperation, carried out in isolation or near isolation." However, mass suicide, especially of the scale that happened at Jonestown, is extraordinarily rare.

For the last 43 years, people have questioned how one man could convince more than 900 others to knowingly kill their children and commit suicide. In addition to determining how and why the Jonestown Massacre happened, Psychologists want to make sure it never happens again.

As reported by The Washington Post , Jim Jones opened his first church in 1953, at the age of 22. Although he was not yet formally ordained, he gained respect, and a following, for his dedication to racial equality and human rights.

In the early 1960s, Jones was ordained as a Disciples of Christ minister and continued to build his following at The Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. However, by 1965, he became obsessed with concerns about a nuclear war. He eventually convinced his congregation to move with him to California, where he believed they would all be safe if a nuclear war occurred.

By the late 1970s, History reports some sources estimated Reverend Jim Jones had up to 20,000 followers.

What actually happened in Jonestown?

In 1974, Reverend Jim Jones signed a lease for 27,000 acres of land in Guyana. History reports Jones continued to lead his church in California. However, he sent a group of his followers to Guyana to prepare the land for farming and to establish a compound.

In 1977, Jim Jones and more than 1,000 of his followers moved to Guyana to live in the newly established Jonestown settlement. A little more than one year later, more than 900 of those followers were dead. Some survivors managed to escape.

History reports the Jonestown Massacre was prompted by a congressman visiting the compound. Amid reports of ongoing abuse, the congressman traveled to the compound to check the welfare of its residents. During the visit, several members asked the congressman to help them leave. However, the group was ambushed on their way back to the plane and four people were killed.

Within hours, Jones convinced his followers to poison their children and to take their own lives. As reported by History, Jones told them they were about to be attacked in retaliation for the ambush.

Psychologists believe Reverend Jim Jones used mental and physical abuse, blackmail, humiliation, and threats to break his followers down and ultimately convince them he was their savior. Those who weren't convinced were simply too frightened to leave.

As reported by Psychology Today , Jones routinely forced his followers to sign blank power of attorney forms and false confessions to crimes, including child molestation, to prove their loyalty to him and the church.

How Jim Jones gained control of his followers

As reported by Psychology Today , Jones also used degradation and humiliation to exert control over his followers. Although couples were prohibited from having sex with each other, they were forced to have sex with Jones or other members while their spouses were forced to watch. He also humiliated his followers by making them strip naked and criticizing their bodies in front of others.

Unfortunately, children were not exempt from Reverend Jim Jones' abuse. Children were routinely beaten, "tortured with electric shocks," and left in the bottom of an abandoned well as punishment. There are also reports that they were sexually abused.

Psychology Today reports Reverend Jones used abuse and humiliation to weaken his followers' willpower. However, the threats of blackmail ensured they would remain under his control.

In addition to the blackmail, Jones routinely threatened to have any defectors killed by his "angels." Not only were many followers afraid to leave, but they were also afraid of what might happen to any loved ones they left behind.

As reported by Psychology Today, Jonestown ultimately became "a twilight-zone reality in which people pretended to be enjoying a Utopian existence while living in constant fear for their lives."

With little willpower left, Jim Jones' followers were susceptible to his assertions that he was, in fact, God, and that he had their best interests in mind. He also convinced them they would be transported to another planet, where they would live in paradise if they ever died.

Dr. David Godot

Clinical Psychologist

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

Jonestown and The Social Psychology of Accepted Truth

Everybody “knows” what happened in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. At the behest of their charismatic leader, all the members of the Peoples Temple religious cult—the residents of Jonestown—“lined up in a pavilion in front of a vat containing a mixture of Kool-Aid and cyanide” and  “drank willingly of the deadly solution” (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2005, pp.4-5). That citation is taken from a popular Social Psychology textbook, and is a resounding demonstration of the phenomenon that this paper will attempt to explore: you see, the authors of that textbook feel so secure in their knowledge of the events surrounding the deaths in Jonestown that they feel no need to provide a reference for it. It is entered into the student consciousness as common knowledge. The fact that the popularly-accepted truth that Aronson, et al are parroting in this example is plainly false is almost beside the point, although this paper will provide a brief examination of some of the evidence which contradicts that accepted truth. The problem is much broader than the debunking of a single myth, and demands that some very important and difficult questions receive systematic evaluation: how is it that entire populations “know” things that contradict all available evidence, and what can be done to mediate this effect?

In considering the events of Jonestown, we might do well to start out by questioning our own credulity. What do we actually know about Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple, and from what sources? Does our understanding of the events stand up to logical scrutiny? Furthermore, as social psychologists, let us ask ourselves this very important question: In light of our current understanding of the power of social influence, do we believe it is plausible that 900 people took their own lives, simply because they were asked to? If so, are we willing to believe that we would behave in the same manner if subjected to similar social influences? As Aronson, et al (p.14) point out in their discussion of The Peoples Temple, “it is tempting and, in a strange way, comforting to write off the victims as flawed human beings. Doing so gives the rest of us the feeling that it could never happen to us.” The problem is that they use this rationale to imply that people would behave in a way that no empirical evidence has verified. Theirs is an argument from paranoia, having arisen out of its conclusion and stating as truism that which is both counterintuitive and unsupported. The idea here is not merely to pick on the authors of a textbook, but to pinpoint a mindset that is pervasive enough that it remains largely invisible in our society.

As Eileen Barker, the President of the Society for Scientific Study of Religions, has noted, “the belief in irresistible and irreversible mind-control techniques is so widespread that the democratic societies of Western Europe and North America appear to give ‘permission’ to citizens to carry out criminal attacks on someone merely on the grounds that he or she is a member of an unpopular religious group” (1996). Her research, however, does not support this belief. Furthermore, although there is very little research into the matter aside from her own, a small number of academics have taken up careers as “expert witnesses,” providing fervent yet unsubstantiated support to the idea. In the case of Jonestown, that man’s name was Dr. Hardat Sukhdeo. Jim Hougan writes:

Dr. Sukhdeo is, or was then, “an anti-cult activist” whose principal interests (as per an autobiographical note) are “homicide, suicide, and the behavior of animals in electro-magnetic fields.” His arrival in Jonestown on November 27, 1978 came only three weeks after he had been named as a defendant in a controversial “deprogramming” case. It is not entirely surprising, then, that within hours of his arrival in the capital, Dr. Sukhdeo began giving interviews to the press, including the New York Times, “explaining” what had happened.

Jim Jones, he said, “was a genius of mind control, a master.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  I have never seen anything like this…but the jungle, the isolation, gave him absolute control.”  Just what Dr. Sukhdeo had been able to see in his few minutes in Jonestown is unclear.  But his importance in shaping the story is undoubted: he was one of the few civilian professionals at the scene, and his task was, quite simply, to help the press make sense of what had happened and to console those who had survived.  He was widely quoted, and what he had to say was immediately echoed by colleagues back in the States. (1999)

The idea that a charismatic individual can completely overtake the decision-making power of random victims and use their mindless bodies to do his bidding even to the point of inciting a uniform mass suicide, with 600 adult individuals willfully—even joyously—killing themselves and their children is startling, anxiety-provoking, ambiguous, and enticing. It is, in short, good material for conversation. It is precisely the stuff of which rumors, gossip, and urban legends are made (Guerin & Miyazaki, 2006). It is not a realistic causal evaluation of plausible events, but is rather a good example of what is called “magical thinking,” the type of credulity typically associated with the pre-rational thought processes of young children. However, research indicates that as they mature, people tend to abandon magical beliefs in word only. “Indeed, in their general patterns of judgments, actions and justifications, adult participants seem to be prepared to respect both scientific and non-scientific causal explanations to an equal extent” (Subbotsky, 2001). By sharing rumors with amongst ourselves in the course of conversation and by receiving fantastical official versions through the media, this tendency toward fascination becomes manifest. Wherever mass media is the source of the information, we must also take into account the social component of individual judgement, which is a considerable influence (Joslyn, 1997). For, as McLuhan noted, sociality of mass media is profoundly experienced—when we watch television, we are influenced not only by the content of the programming but also by the knowledge that a large number of our peers are watching as well (1964).

This may help to explain why so many of us have accepted a version of the Jonestown events that are implausible. In addition to the psychological discrepancies we have already noted, let us observe that death by cyanide poisoning is a painful and grotesque affair. Central nervous system signals become scrambled, causing both voluntary and involuntary muscular systems to spasm violently. Twisted, contorted limbs and a terrible grimace known as cyanide rictus are typical of this cause of death (Jaffe, 1983 as cited in Judge, 1985). However, none of the more than 150 available photographs of the victims reveal these symptoms. Furthermore, the victims were laid out in neat rows, and some of the closer range photos reveal drag marks on the ground, indicating that the corpses were arranged in this way after their death. Based on an investigation that included the testimony of Dr. Leslie Mootoo, the top Guyanese pathologist who served as Chief Medical Examiner for the case and who personally examined many of the Jonestown bodies, a Guyanese grand jury concluded that only two of the 913 dead had committed suicide. Dr. Mootoo found fresh needle marks near the left shoulder blades of the vast majority of the victims he inspected, with some others exhibiting gunshot wounds or strangulation as the likely cause of death. The gun with which Jones himself is purported to have shot himself in the head was found lying nearly 60 feet from his body (Judge, 1985; Hougan, 1999; Schnepper, 1999). It is evident, then, that the supposed “mass suicide” was actually a massacre—but who would slaughter nearly a thousand U.S.citizens, nearly all of whom were African Americans, women, and underprivileged children?

There is a substantial body of evidence connecting Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple to the covert operations of the United States government intelligence community, not least of which are his longstanding ties with CIA operative Dan Mitrione, his adeptness at infiltrating and exploiting local governments, the suspicious circumstances surrounding the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan in Guyana the evening before the massacre (whose escort was a high-ranking CIA officer), and the enormous cache of psychiatric drugs found on the premises of the Peoples Temple colony—all of the type being experimented with at that time under the CIA’s MKULTRA mind-control project (Judge, 1985; Hougan, 1999). Additional evidence of U.S.government involvement in the affair involves the self-proclaimed “anti-cult activist” psychiatrist Dr. Sukhdeo, whose own attorney has stated that his trip to Guyana was funded by the U.S. State Department.

The possibility exists that Jonestown, Guyana was indeed one of the many government experiments in mind-control of the 1970s. If it is, however, it would seem that the experimental subjects included not only the members of the Peoples Temple, but also the public at large. Regardless of intention, we have here a clear case of a governmental bureaucracy producing and disseminating misinformation for one reason or another, and the public—including the scientific community—accepting it without question, repeating it with authority, and even using it as a basis for social theory. The danger that this presents to free society is enormous, and the need for a concerted scientific effort to understand its limits and to develop safeguards is equally enormous.

  • Aronson, Elliot, Wilson, Timothy D., & Akert, Robin M. (2005). Social Psychology, 5 th Edition .New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Barker, Eileen (1996). “The Freedom of the Cage.” Society, Vol. 33 Issue 3, pp53-59.
  • Guerin, Bernard & Miiyazaki, Yoshihiko (2006). The Psychological Record, Vol. 56, pp.23-24.
  • Hougan, Jim (1999). ‘‘Jonestown. The Secret Life of Jim Jones: A Parapolitical Fugue.’’ Lobster, Vol. 37, pp.2-20.
  • Joslyn, Mark R. (1997). Political Behavior, Vol. 19 No. 4, pp.337-343.
  • Judge, John (1985). ‘‘The Black Hole of Guyana: The Untold Story of the Jonestown Massacre.’’ In Keith, Jim (Ed.), Secret and Suppressed: Banned Ideas and Hidden History .Portland,OR: Feral House.
  • McLuhan, Marshall(1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Schnepper, Jeff A. (1999). “Jonestown Massacre: The unrevealed story.” USA Today Magazine, Vol. 127 Issue 2644, p26.
  • Subbotsky, Eugene(2001). British Journal of Developmental Psychology, Vol. 19 , pp.23-46.

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Jonestown--two faces of suicide: a Durkheimian analysis


  • 1 American Ethnic Studies Department, University of Washington, Seattle 98195.
  • PMID: 2087766

This paper takes exception to much of the literature on Jonestown. The authors of this literature claim that an explanation of the mass suicide in Jonestown requires an understanding of how its residents came to a common consciousness. Such an analysis implies that the residents of Jonestown died for essentially the same reason. This paper, using Durkheim's typology of suicides, demonstrates that the residents of Jonestown died for very different reasons and that two types of suicide occurred simultaneously on November 18, 1978: altruistic and fatalistic. Some of the residents of Jonestown died because they put the group above the self; they committed altruistic suicide. The majority, however, died for fatalistic reasons. Jonestown in fact had become a hopeless, demeaning, and antagonistic environment. The analysis here suggests caution to those who assume that a mass suicide is necessarily a homogeneous event.

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Durkheim's Sociological Perspectives: Mass Suicide And The Jonestown Massacre

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The Truth About Jonestown

Offers a look at the jonestown holocaust and explains why 13 years later, we should still be afraid. background; the peoples temple; the cult's founder and religious leader, reverend jim jones; the fundamental weakness of the human mind; the mass suicide of 912 people; comments from survivors; what jones talked the people into doing; discussion of many abuses; peoples' belief that he was god; how jones died..

By K. Harary published March 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

THE OLD PEOPLES TEMPLE BUILDING COLLAPSED in the last big San Francisco earthquake, leaving behind nothing but an empty plot of land to mark its passing. I'd avoided the place for nearly 10 years -- it always struck me as a dark reminder of the raw vulnerability of the human mind and the superficial nature of civilized behavior. In ways that I never expected when I first decided to investigate the Jonestown holocaust, the crimes that took place within that building and within the cult itself have become a part of my personal memory . If Jim Jones has finally become a metaphor, a symbol of power-hungry insanity—if not a term for insanity itself—for me he will always remain much too human.

SUICIDE IS USUALLY an act of lonely desperation, carried out in isolation or near isolation by those who see death as an acceptable alternative to the burdens of continued existence. It can also be an act of self-preservation among those who prefer a dignified death to the ravages of illness or some perceived humiliation . It is even, occasionally, a political statement. But it is rarely, if ever, a social event. The reported collective self-extermination of 912 individuals (913 when Jim Jones was counted among their number) therefore demanded more than an ordinary explanation.

The only information I had about Jim Jones was what I could gather from news accounts of the closing scene at the Jonestown compound. The details were sketchy but deeply disturbing: The decomposing corpses were discovered in the jungle in the stinking aftermath of a suicidal frenzy set around a vat of cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid. Littered among the dead like broken dolls were the bodies of 276 children. A United States congressman and three members of the press entourage traveling with him were ambushed and murdered on an airstrip not far from the scene. It had all been done in the name of a formerly lesser-known cult called the Peoples Temple.

The group was started years before with the avowed vision of abolishing racism . Although it was headquartered in San Francisco, its members sought to found their own Utopia in a nondescript plot of South American jungle near Georgetown, Guyana. The commune they created was named in honor of the cult's founder and religious leader , a charismatic figure in dark glasses named the Reverend Jim Jones.

While the news media treated the Jonestown holocaust like a fluke of nature, it seemed to me a unique opportunity to learn something crucial about the fundamental weakness of the human mind. In addition to my formal education in psychology, I had recently spent four years as a suicide-prevention counselor and had helped train dozens of other counselors working in the field. But even with that experience, the slaughter that took place in Jonestown seemed incomprehensible.

No casual observer could adequately explain what was happening in the minds of the Peoples Temple members when they allowed Jones to assume ultimate power over their lives. The question of how one person—nonetheless an entire group—could be motivated to give away such power was, however, the most critical one to ask. Not only was it essential to answer that question in order to explain what became of the Peoples Temple; it was equally crucial to answer it in order to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again in the future. Had the massacre succeeded in killing all the witnesses to what occurred inside the confines of Jonestown, it would have been impossible to get a believable answer. But there were a number of survivors: An old woman sleeping in a hut slipped the minds of her fellow members who were preoccupied with dying at the time; a nine-year-old girl survived having her throat cut by a member who then committed suicide; a young man worked his way to the edge of the compound and fled into the jungle. The only other eyewitness escaped when he was sent to get a stethoscope so the bodies could be checked to make certain they were dead.

Other survivors included a man wounded by gunfire at the airstrip who managed to escape by scrambling into the bush; the official Peoples Temple basketball team (including Jones's son), which was visiting Georgetown during the holocaust; a number of members stationed at the San Francisco headquarters; and a small group of defectors and relatives of those who had remained in the cult. The last was gathered at a place called the Human Freedom Center in Berkeley—a halfway house for cult defectors founded by Jeannie and Al Mills, two Peoples Temple expatriates.

Since most of the survivors lived in and around San Francisco, it was clear that in order to get to know any of them, I would have to be willing to go where the moment took me. I resigned from my position in the psychiatry department of a New York medical center, shipped most of what I owned to a storage facility, and moved to California. Shortly after arriving, I learned that the center was looking for a director of counseling. It was exactly the position I wanted.

It is impossible to look back on my first encounter with Jeannie and Al without coloring the memory with the knowledge that both of them were murdered almost exactly one year later. We met in the same room where they had once helped Congressman Leo Ryan plan his ill-fated expedition to Jonestown, which was mounted to give him and the press a close-up look at the cult and to offer any constituents who wanted safe passage an opportunity to return to San Francisco. They had hoped the visit would precipitate the demise of the Peoples Temple, but instead of allowing his game to be raided, Jones had Ryan killed and passed out the poison. The Millses never imagined the scenic route to hell they were paving with their good intentions: Had they not convinced the congressman to go to Guyana, the massacre would most likely never have happened.

In the years that have passed since the Millses' assassination, I have never again been able to take a death threat lightly.

The pair had been members of the Planning Commission—the elite inner circle of the Peoples Temple. They had been with Jim Jones since the early days of the cult and had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his cause. But Jeannie wanted a bigger role in running the group than Jones was prepared to give her. His refusal to allow her to manage the affairs of the temple created a bitter falling-out between them. She and Al quit after spending six years in the cult, fearing for their lives because Jones always threatened that anyone who left would be murdered by his "angels"—a euphemism for his personal squad of thugs.

Jones had forced them to prove their loyalty by signing blank pieces of paper, blank power-of-attorney forms, and false confessions that they had molested their children, conspired to overthrow the U. S. government, and committed other crimes while members of the cult. (It was the sort of thing Jones did to control people, like the time he tricked a member into putting her fingerprints on a gun and told her he would have someone killed with it and frame her for the murder if she ever left the group.)

There was a deliberate malevolence about the way Jones treated the members of his cult that went beyond mere perversion. It was all about forcing members to experience themselves as vulgar and despicable people who could never return to a normal life outside of the group. It was about destroying any personal relationships that might come ahead of the relationship each individual member had with him. It was about terrorizing children and turning them against their parents. It was about seeing Jim Jones as an omnipotent figure who could snuff out members' lives on a whim as easily as he had already snuffed out their self-respect. In short, it was about mind control. And, after all that, it was not incidentally about Jones's own sick fantasies and sexual perversions.

Both men and women were routinely beaten, coerced into having sex with Jones in private and with other people in public. Husbands and wives were forbidden to have sex with each other, but were forced to join other members in watching their spouses being sexually humiliated and abused. In order to prove that he wasn't a racist, a white man was coerced into having oral sex in front of a gathering of members with a black woman who was having her period. Another man was made to remove all his clothes, bend over and spread his legs before the congregation while being examined for signs of venereal disease. A woman had to strip in front of the group so that Jones could poke fun at her overweight body before telling her to submerge herself in a pool of ice-cold water. Another woman was made to squat in front of 100 members and defecate into a fruit can. Children were tortured with electric shocks, viciously beaten, punished by being kept in the bottom of a jungle well, forced to have hot peppers stuffed up their rectums, and made to eat their own vomit.

Dozens of suicide drills—or "white nights" as Jim Jones called them—were rehearsed in San Francisco and in the jungle in a prelude to the final curtain he said might fall at any moment. Members were given wine to drink, then told it had been poisoned to test their loyalty and get them used to the idea that they might all be asked to take their lives as a sign of their faith. Their deaths, Jones tried to convince them, would be honored by the world as a symbolic protest against the evils of mankind -- a collective self-immolation. (This would also serve to eliminate anyone who might reveal the dirty secrets of life with the Peoples Temple.) The faithful would be "transformed," Jones claimed, and live with him forever on another planet.

The abuses had been going on for years, which made it seem all the more unbelievable. Those who underestimated the fragility of the human mind could not comprehend how anyone in California could remain a member, let alone follow Jim Jones into the jungle. Yet those who believed in him could not consider any alternatives that were not among the choices he provided. Even those who might have been capable of imagining themselves getting free of the cult knew about the stated Policy of murdering defectors. And since any loved ones who were left behind would suffer retribution, few dared escape while family members remained in Jonestown. The practical effect of that double bind was a twilight-zone reality in which people pretended to be enjoying a Utopian existence while living in constant fear for their lives.

THE HUMAN freedom Center was a beaten-up, two-story wood-and-stucco building that had once been used as a private rest home. Its long rows of odd-size rooms filled with broken-down furniture could have served as a backdrop for a 1950s horror movie set in a sanitarium. Although most of the Peoples Temple survivors who might have taken refuge there were suddenly dead, the events in Jonestown instantly made many other organizations seem potentially as dangerous. Jeannie and Al decided to open the center to defectors from all sorts of cult groups, from the Unification Church to the Hare Krishnas. I had already decided that— whatever the pay—if they offered me the director of counseling position, I was going to take it.

Al Mills gripped my hand like an old war buddy the first time we met. His square chin and warm smile all but obliterated the other features on his face. He had marched with Martin Luther King and once believed that the Peoples Temple would fulfill his dream of integration and racial equality. (That belief was trampled when he realized that Jones rarely allowed blacks to assume positions of authority within the temple.)

My first discussion with Jeannie was less like a job interview than a confrontation. She looked straight at me and said that a Peoples Temple hit squad might burst in and kill us at any moment. Jim Jones, she said, had sworn in the midst of the holocaust that she and Al and everyone associated with them would eventually pay with their lives for betraying the cult and sending Ryan to Guyana. The possibility lent a certain sense of immediacy to our interaction.

My exact response seemed less important than the fact that I didn't make an excuse to leave the building immediately and that I had already demonstrated my commitment to understanding the cult mentality by dropping everything and moving to California. By the end of the meeting, Jeannie offered me a token salary for a job that would often require more than 12 hours a day and frequently seven days a week.

Most of the center's clients were people seeking help in extricating family members from various cults, or ex-cult members who were starting to put their own lives back together. Additionally, a couple of former Peoples Temple members lived on the premises, and others came in periodically to talk about their present feelings and past experiences.

The first thing that struck me when I met the clients and got to know them was that, although the specific details of their belief systems and activities varied considerably, those who became involved in cults had a frightening underlying commonality. They described their experiences as finding an unexpected sense of purpose, as though they were becoming a part of something extraordinarily significant that seemed to carry them beyond their feelings of isolation and toward an expanded sense of reality and the meaning of life. Nobody asked if they would be willing to commit suicide the first time they attended a meeting. Nor did anyone mention that the feeling of expansiveness they were enjoying would later be used to turn them against each other.

Instead they were told about the remarkable Reverend Jones, a self-professed social visionary and prophet who apparently could heal the sick and predict the future. Jim Jones did everything within his power to perpetuate that myth: fraudulent psychic-healing demonstrations using rotting animal organs as phony tumors; searching through members' garbage for information to reveal in fake psychic readings; drugging his followers to make it appear as though he were actually raising the dead. Even Jeannie Mills, who later told me she knowingly assisted Jones in his faked demonstrations said she did so because she believed she was helping him conserve his real supernatural powers for more important matters.

Critical levels of sleep deprivation can masquerade as noble dedication. A total lack of adequate nutrition can seem acceptable when presented as a reasonable sacrifice for a worthy cause. Combining the two for a prolonged length of time will inevitably break down the ability to make rational judgments and weaken the psychological resistance of anyone. So can the not-infrequent practice of putting drugs in the members' food. The old self, the one that previously felt lonely and lacking in a sense of purpose, is gradually overcome by a new sense of self inextricably linked with the feeling of expansiveness associated with originally joining the cult and becoming intrigued with its leader.

Belonging to the group gradually becomes more important than anything else. When applied in various combinations, fear of being rejected, of doing or saying something wrong that will blow the whole illusion wide open; being punished and degraded, subjected to physical threats, unprovoked violence, and sexual abuse ; fear of never amounting to anything; and the fear of returning to an old self associated almost exclusively with feelings of loneliness and a lack of meaning will confuse almost anyone. Patricia Hearst knows all about it. So did all the members of the Peoples Temple.

Once thrown off balance (in the exclusive company of other people who already believe it) and being shown evidence that supports the conclusion, it is not difficult to become convinced that you have actually met the Living God. In the glazed and pallid stupor associated with achieving that confused and dangerous state of mind, almost any conceivable act of self-sacrifice, self-degradation, and cruelty can become possible.

The truth of that realization was brought home to me by one survivor who, finding himself surrounded by rifles, was told he could take the poison quietly or they would stick it in his veins or blow his brains out. He didn't resist. Instead, he raised his cup and toasted those dying around him without drinking. "We'll see each other in the transformation," he said. Then he walked around the compound shaking hands until he'd worked his way to the edge of the jungle, where he ran and hid until he felt certain it had to be over.

"Why did you follow Jim Jones?" I asked him.

"Because I believed he was God," he answered. "We all believed he was God."

A number of Peoples Temple survivors told me they viewed Jones in the same way—not as God metaphorically, but as God literally. They would have done anything he asked of them, they said. Or almost anything.

The fact that some members held guns on the others and handled the syringes meant that what occurred in Jonestown was not only a mass suicide but also a mass murder . According to the witnesses, more than one member was physically restrained while being poisoned. A little girl kept spitting out the poison until they held her mouth closed and forced her to swallow it -- 276 children do not calmly kill themselves just because someone who claims to be God tells them to. A woman was found with nearly every joint in her body yanked apart from trying to pull away from the people who were holding her down and poisoning her. All 912 Peoples Temple members did not die easily.

Yet even if all the victims did not take their own lives willingly, enough of them probably did so that we cannot deny the force of their Conviction. Only a small contingent of Peoples Temple members asked to return with Leo Ryan to San Francisco. The rest chose to stay behind. Jim Jones may have had less to fear from Jeannie and Al Mills than he believed.

It should also be remembered that Jones never took the poison he gave to his followers but was shot by someone else during the final death scene in Jonestown. He created a false reality around himself in which the denial of his own mortality must have made his own demise seem inconceivable. The fact that he had millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts and had often alluded to starting over elsewhere led Jeannie to speculate that he planned to escape the holocaust but was murdered by one of his guards or mistresses.

It is difficult to imagine what incomprehensible sense of insecurity must have led Jim Jones to feel that he had to convince himself and other people that he was God incarnate. It was not a delusion that he ever suffered well. Some of those who knew him personally described him to me at various times as a mere voyeur, a master con artist, a sociopath , and a demon. Al Mills once said that any private interaction between Jones and another person always felt like a "conspiracy of two." For my own part, I resist any description of the man that might make any of us feel too secure in the notion that he was one of a kind and the likes of him will never come again.

After Jeannie and Al were murdered, I went back alone for a final look inside the Peoples Temple building where Jeannie once gave me a private tour. All that remained of that particular nightmare setting was a dusty maze of dimly lit corridors, hollow rooms, and twisting stairways. The daylight seemed reluctant to come in through the windows, as though it entered more out of a sense of obligation than any real desire to be there. It was impossible to walk through the place without feeling as though somebody were coming up behind me—nearly everything about it seemed haunted.

"This may not be the best idea in the world," I remembered Jeannie saying when she took me there. "There may be some people hanging around here who want to kill me." It may have been guilt that led her to say that, or paranoia , or the realistic conclusion that the relatives and friends of many of the victims must have held her at least partly responsible for what happened. The Jonestown holocaust might have been inevitable or it might have been avoided; but by turning up the pressure on Jones in the way that they did, Jeannie and Al inextricably became accessories to the disaster.

Under the circumstances, I suggested that getting the hell out of there might be the best approach. "Life is short, Keith," Jeannie told me. She showed me where Jones's personal armed guards had once been posted, before taking me to lunch at a hamburger stand where she used to hang out in the heyday of the temple.

In many ways, Jeannie was a social relic of the best and worst aspects of a way of life that died in the jungle with Jim Jones. She said and did things designed for their disarming effect, to crawl around under your skin and keep you off guard. She was an expert at making you feel that you were a part of something important, dangerous, and utterly surrealistic—and she may have been right. It did not surprise me to learn that she was monitoring my personal telephone conversations at the Human Freedom Center from a line she had installed at her home up the street. It was exactly the way things were done in the Peoples Temple.

Al Mills was found on the bedroom floor of the cottage that he and Jeannie shared, with a single bullet in the head. He may have been going for the gun he once told me that he kept there. Jeannie was found behind the kicked-in door of the adjoining bathroom, also shot once in the head. It looked as though she had tried to escape from her murderer by running into a room that had no exit. Their daughter, Daphene -- who may or may not have just happened to be there—was found lying on the bed above Al, with a bullet in her head and three or four other bullets in the mattress surrounding her. A neighbor had reportedly heard two male voices outside, and one of them saying, "You're not gonna pin it on me," before the three bodies were found. The victims were reportedly shot with .22-caliber bullets, coincidentally the alleged preferred choice of professional assassins. Jeannie and Al's young son, Eddie, was found listening to a stereo with headphones in the other room of the tiny cottage when the bodies were discovered. He told the police that he didn't hear anything at all while both his parents and his sister were being killed. He had grown up in the Peoples Temple. The case is still open.

For my own part, I believe that Jeannie and Al were victims of their fatalistic vision of reality and that whoever pulled the trigger completed a course of events that was set into motion years before. In their inability to otherwise put to rest their experiences in the cult, they had never really left the Peoples Temple.

FOR THOSE OF US WHOSE LIVES were directly touched by the massacre, the images of Jonestown have never entered the realm of dispassionate historical memory. They remain a part of the hidden present, providing a point of reference in defining the conditions under which people can be led across the boundary between rational and extremely irrational behavior.

Had more of the children of Jonestown survived, they might have tried to warn us that we have more to fear than the fact that whoever murdered Jeannie and Al is still on the loose and may kill again. A lone fanatic is much less dangerous than the potential that exists within all of us for committing evil ourselves or allowing it to be committed in the name of some supposed good. There is no doubt that there are—right now—other cult groups that hold the same potential for deadly violence as did the Peoples Temple.

Jim Jones did not create the human weaknesses that led so many people to follow him; he merely exploited them. Ultimate power is seductive not only to those who achieve it themselves but also to those who give up their own power in order to help others achieve it. It is the ability to answer the unanswerable questions about the meaning of life and death. And it does not matter if those answers make no sense—the belief in them and in the individual who bears them makes any sacrifice in the service of some more eternal purpose seem acceptable.

Most of us don't think of ourselves as the kind of person who could ever possibly become embroiled in a cult like the Peoples Temple. We are not at all correct in that assumption. Given an unfortunate turn of fate that leads to a moment of weakness, or a momentary lapse in judgment that expands into a shift in our perception, nearly any of us could find ourselves taking the cyanide in Jonestown—if not passing out the poison to other people.

People end up joining cults when events lead them to search for a deeper sense of belonging and for something more meaningful in their lives. They do so because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and are ripe for exploitation. They do so because they find themselves getting caught in the claws of a parasite before they realize what is happening to them.

Those who join cults don't do so with the intention of demeaning themselves or torturing children. They join in the hope of creating a better world, and because they believe in a lie, or a series of lies, in the same way that the rest of us sometimes find ourselves falling in love with the wrong person or allowing ourselves to be manipulated. The only real difference between them and us is the extent to which they are led to carry those same sorts of feelings to extremes.

The spectre of Jonestown has entered the social unconscious , leading to a kind of macabre fascination with Jim Jones and his victims. A Boston company recently sold out its first printing of "Death Cult" cards commemorating the massacre; they depict such images as "Spiking the Kool-Aid." At least for those not directly involved, the unthinkably horrific has become entertaining. We dissociate ourselves as human beings from any sense of connectedness to Jonestown by turning the event into a kind of theater. But it was that same sense of theater upon which Jim Jones depended, as has every cult leader who has ever exploited human weakness. If you have ever slowed down and stared at the results of a highway accident, you are not immune.

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social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

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By: History.com Editors

Updated: April 19, 2022 | Original: October 18, 2010

Flowers Growing by Jonestown Pavilion (Original Caption) Jonestown, Guyana: A 25-man work crew of the Guyanese government is making a half-hearted attempt to keep the jungle from reclaiming Jonestown. Flowers continue to grow outside the main assembly pavilion at Rev. Jim Jones' promised Marxist "heaven on earth," where a year ago 913 Peoples Temple cultists perished in mass murder-suicides. The only survivors from Jonestown still around the scene of the tragedy are the goats on a livestock farm a mile and a half from the main compound, plus two cats and a dog named "Fluffy."

The “Jonestown Massacre” occurred on November 18, 1978, when more than 900 members of an American cult called the Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide-murder under the direction of their leader Jim Jones (1931-78). It took place at the so-called Jonestown settlement in the South American nation of Guyana. Jones had founded what became the Peoples Temple in Indiana in the 1950s, then relocated his congregation to California in the 1960s. In the 1970s, following negative media attention, the powerful, controlling preacher moved with some 1,000 of his followers to the Guyanese jungle, where he promised they would establish a utopian community. On November 18, 1978, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, who had gone to Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse, was murdered along with four members of his delegation. That same day, Jones ordered his followers to ingest poison-laced punch while armed guards stood by.

Origins of the Peoples Temple

Prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 , the tragedy at Jonestown marked the single largest loss of U.S. civilian lives in a non-natural disaster. The megalomaniacal man behind the tragedy, Jim Jones , came from humble beginnings. Jones was born on May 13, 1931, in rural Indiana . In the early 1950s, he began working as a self-ordained Christian minister in small churches around Indianapolis. In order to raise money to start a church of his own, the charismatic Jones tried various ventures, including selling live monkeys door-to-door.

Did you know? More than 400 unclaimed bodies from the Jonestown tragedy are buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California, where many of Jim Jones' followers were from. A stone memorial to the Jonestown victims was unveiled at the cemetery in 2008.

Jones opened his first Peoples Temple church in Indianapolis in the mid-1950s. His congregation was racially integrated, something unusual at the time for a Midwestern church. In the mid-1960s, Jones moved his small congregation to Northern California , settling first in Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. In the early 1970s, the ambitious preacher relocated his organization’s headquarters to San Francisco and also opened a temple in Los Angeles.

Jim Jones: Rise of a Cult Leader

In San Francisco, Jones became a powerful figure. He curried favor with public officials and the media, donated money to numerous charitable causes and delivered votes for various politicians at election time. Peoples Temple ran social and medical programs for the needy, including a free dining hall, drug rehabilitation and legal aid services. Jones’ message of social equality and racial justice attracted a diverse group of followers, including idealistic young people who wanted to do something meaningful with their lives.

As Jones’ congregation grew (estimates of the group’s size vary; a 1977 expose by New West magazine put the number of Peoples Temple members at 20,000), negative reports began to surface about the man referred to as “Father” by his followers. Former members described being forced to give up their belongings, homes and even custody of their children. They told of being subjected to beatings, and said Jones staged fake “cancer healings.”

Faced with unflattering media attention and mounting investigations, the increasingly paranoid Jones, who often wore dark sunglasses and traveled with bodyguards, invited his congregation to move with him to Guyana, where he promised them they would build a socialist utopia.


Trouble in Paradise: Prelude to Jonestown

In 1974, a small group of Jones’ followers went to Guyana to establish an agricultural cooperative on a tract of jungle in the tiny nation of Guyana. (Guyana, which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966, is the only country in South America with English as its official language.) In 1977, Jones and more than 1,000 Temple members joined them and moved to Guyana. However, Jonestown did not turn out to be the paradise their leader had promised.

Temple members worked long days in the fields and were subjected to harsh punishments if they questioned Jones’ authority. Their passports and medications were confiscated and they were plagued by mosquitoes and tropical diseases. Armed guards patrolled the jungle compound. Members were encouraged to inform on one another and were forced to attend lengthy, late-night meetings. Their letters and phone calls were censored.

Jones, who by then was in declining mental health and addicted to drugs, had his own throne in the compound’s main pavilion and compared himself to Vladimir Lenin and Jesus Christ. He was convinced that the government, the media and others were out to destroy him. He also required Peoples Temple members to participate in mock suicide drills in the middle of the night.

Airstrip Ambush

Leo Ryan, a U.S. representative from California, heard from some of his constituents that their family members were people being held against their will at Jonestown and decided to go there to investigate. Ryan arrived in Guyana in November 1978, with a delegation that included news reporters and photographers, along with concerned relatives of some of the Peoples Temple members.

On November 17, the congressman and reporters were welcomed to the Jonestown compound, to their surprise, with a dinner and evening of entertainment. Jones even agreed to meet with reporters. However, during the visit, some Peoples Temple members asked Ryan’s group to help them get out of Jonestown.

On November 18, Ryan and his group, which also included a small contingent of Peoples Temple defectors, left Jonestown. While waiting at a nearby jungle airstrip, they were ambushed by gunmen sent by Jim Jones. Ryan was killed, along with a reporter and cameraman from NBC, a photographer from the San Francisco Examiner and a female Peoples Temple member who was attempting to leave.

900 Die at Jonestown

The same day as the murders at the airstrip, Jones told his followers that soldiers would come for them and torture them. He ordered everyone to gather in the main pavilion and commit what he termed a “revolutionary act.” The youngest members of the Peoples Temple were the first to die, as parents and nurses used syringes to drop a potent mix of cyanide, sedatives and powdered fruit juice into children’s throats. (Jones had reportedly obtained a jeweler’s license at some earlier point, which enabled him to stockpile cyanide.) Adults then lined up to drink the poison-laced concoction while armed guards surrounded the pavilion. This horrific event is the source of the phrase, “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

When Guyanese officials arrived at the Jonestown compound the next day, they found it carpeted with hundreds of bodies. Many people had perished with their arms around each other. Jim Jones, age 47, was found in a chair, dead from a single bullet wound to the head, most likely self-inflicted.

The death toll at Jonestown on November 18, 1978 was 909 people, a third of them children. A few people managed to escape into the jungle that day, while at least several dozen more Peoples Temple members, including several of Jones’ sons, were in another part of Guyana at the time. In total, only 33 survived .

A terrifying recording of the event, known as the “death tape,” helped investigators understand what happened that night. Researches also found over one thousand recordings of propaganda , conversations and sermons that painted a gruesome picture of the activities of the Peoples Temple.

social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

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Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple

Understanding Cult Membership: Beyond “Drinking the Kool-Aid”

By melissa m. greiser.

(Melissa Greiser wrote this thesis to fulfill a graduation requirement as an Honors student at SUNY New Paltz in 2019.)

While there is a plethora of research discussing the concepts of social psychology that are involved in cult membership, which explain that the people involved with cults are typical individuals and there are many basic factors that contribute to their involvement, public perception of cults and their members still seems to be deeply negative. It is possible that if these studies were more widely acknowledged, public perception of cult members would become less negative. Examining the psychology behind cult membership can shed light on the many factors that influence human behavior, which may make it easier for the public to understand how cults can be appealing. Fundamental concepts of social psychology, including affiliation motivation and the need to belong, persuasion and the factors that are responsible for making it more effective, cognitive dissonance, ingroup bias, and social identity theory, can be used to explain how people become involved in cults and why they choose to remain in the group.


When it comes to cult members, the general consensus seems to be deeply negative. Several studies examine public perception of cult members, the negative stereotypes and assumptions people hold, and the instances in which the media perpetuate these ideas. Cult members have been depicted as brainwashed followers (Bromley, 1993), and cults have been portrayed as being filled with violence, fraud, strange religious practices, and sexual depravity (Neal, 2011). Contrary to these widely held beliefs and media portrayals, it seems that cult membership can be explained, at least in part, by common psychological phenomena.

Psychological research suggests that cult members do not seem to be significantly different from ourselves or other people that we encounter every day. Additionally, the motivations and concepts that lead to cult membership may be more ubiquitous than they initially seem to the general public, and the persuasion techniques that cult leaders implement are some of the same that business leaders and marketing teams take advantage of on a regular basis. Analyzing cult membership through a psychological lens, taking into consideration fundamental human motivations, social influence, and persuasion, can help to mitigate the stigma and stereotypes regarding cult members and generate a more accurate discussion, making it easier to understand how cults can be appealing and why many typical people have become involved with such groups.

Defining “Cult”

When examining cults and their members, it is necessary to first define the term cult. Researchers have proposed a number of different definitions; the characteristics deemed necessary to qualify a group as a cult can vary greatly and some of these characteristics can be seen in mainstream, socially accepted groups. However, these definitions seem to focus on a few common characteristics, demonstrating at least some agreement between researchers about what it means for a group to be a cult. Galanter (1989) describes cults as charismatic groups, which have a shared belief system, maintain social cohesion, are run according to behavioral norms, and are led by a charismatic leader. Rhoads (1997, para. 2) defines a cult as “a group of people who organize around a strong authority figure.” This is a basic description that can be applied to many types of groups, but Rhoads explained that cults are distinct due to their extensive recruitment (traveling to find new members, creating a website and several videotapes advertising the group, or encouraging members to tell their friends and family about the group), methods of controlling members and encouraging changes in their identities (controlling their diets or sexual behaviors, insisting members give up the people and things that previously valued and that their membership with the group become important to their identities), and self-serving goals (cult leaders wanting to be seen as important or good or wanting to have power over their members). Groups that fall into the cult category typically exert immense influence over the personal details of the members’ lives, isolating them from outside social factors or support systems and insisting that adhering to the group’s strict guidelines is the best way to live. The leader will attempt to disguise his desire for power and control as he insists that he is looking out for the best interests of the members (Olsson, 2013). Cults leaders run the group according to their own agendas, taking advantage of coercive techniques to control the details of their members’ lives, and ultimately harming those involved.

Public Perception of Cult Members

The descriptions of cults and their practices demonstrate the differences between these types of groups and socially accepted mainstream groups. As mentioned, cults have a number of negative characteristics, such as their self-serving goals disguised as altruism and the extreme measures they take to accomplish these goals. After catastrophic cult conditions or events have been revealed, such as the siege that occurred in Waco, Texas with the Branch Davidians (Hinds, 1993), the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate (Rabinovitz, 1997), and the mass suicide/homicide of Peoples Temple (Cahill, 1979), it seems likely for people to wonder how the cult members had become involved with these groups in the first place. People may subsequently make assumptions that create a division between themselves and those that have been involved in cults. One way to cope with shocking or negative things is through distancing. When researchers presented individuals with images that depicted suffering, they sometimes engaged in distancing. When the images being shown were from locations farther from the individual, it seemed to be easier to rely on denial, stereotyping, dehumanization, and blaming the victim (Fernández Villanueva & Revilla Castro, 2016). Being physically farther away from a victim may also cause an individual to feel less personally responsible for that person’s suffering, making it easier to accept and to potentially continue inflicting pain on them (Milgram, 2004).

Distance may be created by assuming that there is some personal flaw or dispositional difference within cult members that led to their cult involvement. This can potentially provide comfort as they reassure themselves that they could never become involved in a cult group themselves and that those who had been involved with a cult had gotten what they deserved (Riggio & Garcia, 2009). This is an example of the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is the tendency for people to explain others’ behaviors as products of their dispositions rather than products of the situation (Ross, 1977). Assuming that people’s behavior is the result of their dispositions may seem to be easier and more helpful than assuming the situation is responsible; one’s personality is typically more obvious than the situational factors that are contributing to their behavior, and making assumptions about an individual’s personality makes it easier to create expectations for future behavior (Ichheiser, 1970). This concept was applied directly to Peoples Temple and Jonestown in a study conducted by Riggio and Garcia (2009), in which students were either exposed to a documentary that explored the situational factors involved with the events at Jonestown or a lecture that explained the Fundamental Attribution Error. Following the documentary or lecture, participants were asked to complete a measure, which detailed an individual’s day and asked to rate how important various situational and dispositional factors were to the day’s events. These responses were compared to the responses of a control group, which had been given a lecture about research methods. They found that students who had been made aware of the power of the situation through the documentary or taught about the concept of the Fundamental Attribution Error were less likely to engage in these assumptions and less likely to overestimate dispositional causes for the members’ involvement with the group as compared to students in the control group. This suggests it is possible to make the tendency to engage in the Fundamental Attribution Error less likely by educating the public about psychological concepts and situational factors involved with cults.

Zimbardo (2005) explained that it can be problematic to assume that one’s behaviors reflect their personality, and he insisted that situational factors are much more powerful than people usually realize. He maintains that behavior cannot be examined without considering the context in which the behavior occurs, especially since the responses from other people will help to encourage or discourage the behavior in the future. Milgram’s (1963) obedience study, in which participants were urged by an authority figure in a white lab coat to continue electrocuting another person whenever they answered a question incorrectly, also effectively demonstrates the power of situational factors. At one point in the study, the participants were led to believe that the other person had been in a significant amount of pain and had possibly died, but still approximately 60% of participants decided to carry on with the increasingly strong shocks; they acted in ways that were not consistent with their usual behavior or the expectations of researchers that Milgram consulted before the start of the study (Milgram, 1963). The same influence of situational factors has been demonstrated in less complex contexts as well. In Asch’s (1951) conformity study, participants had to determine which line matched the length of the given line and were able to answer the question correctly, but once the participants heard others give a different answer, they abandoned their correct answer for the incorrect one the confederates had reported. All of these studies support the idea that contexts can greatly impact the people within them, and, just like the circumstances presented in these studies, the situational pressures that exist in cults may plausibly produce the same compliance, conformity, and obedience found in these results.

In addition to this tendency to assume personality from behavior, people may also rely on schemas and stereotypes. Ashmore and Del Boca (1981) define a stereotype as “a set of beliefs about the personal attributes of a group of people” (16). People may be inclined to depend on stereotypes because attending to every detail of the world around us may be beyond our capabilities, and simplifying things seems to make it easier for human beings to understand them in general terms while avoiding expending too much of their cognitive resources on nuances (Levine, 2003). There are many stereotypes that exist regarding cults, including the assumption that cults always have massive followings, all cult leaders have amassed great wealth, and the followers have been brainwashed into docile compliance (Bromley, 1993). According to Neal’s (2011) analysis of television shows from 1958 to 2008, the media consistently perpetuate stereotypes about cults and their members, portraying them in the most extreme ways, emphasizing violence, fraud, and differences in clothing, setting, and lifestyle, lending credibility to mainstream religions while discrediting alternative religions or other groups. The media may portray all “cultic” groups as the same, participating in similar rituals and posing similar problems (Beckford, 1985). Neal (2011) states, “[T]elevision remains one of the most influential vehicles in American culture for the reification and proliferation of stereotypical imagery” (85). Both television news and fictional television shows seem to participate in this cycle of stereotypes, and since approximately 96% of households in the United States own a television, it is difficult to completely avoid being exposed to these stereotypes (Lynch, 2018). Television shows are fictional, so audiences may not necessarily be taking these fictional stories as factual. The creators of fictional shows may feel as if they are not responsible for generating realistic programs that can properly inform their audiences, but these shows may still have effects on the way people feel about the characters, events, or issues depicted. Researchers conducted a study that demonstrated how the consumption of fictional television shows can affect the viewers’ attitudes regarding politics and policies (Mutz & Nir, 2010). While, at least in theory, news sources are meant to convey accurate information, they may exaggerate stories for the sake of attracting viewers, especially when it comes to unusual stories (Kilgo, Harlow, García-Perdomo, & Salaverría, 2018). Perhaps then, when it comes to unique stories about alternative groups, the media will be more likely to use the term “cult,” which has come to carry a deeply negative connotation. Television news often reports on the aspects of a particular story that are consistent with the specific station’s agenda and established beliefs, providing their audience with only a snapshot of the events being discussed rather than the entirety of the story (Deikman, 2003).

Bromley (1993) argues that these myths presented by the media prevent the general public from putting more effort into understanding the mechanisms at work within cults. Robert Hicks (1993), a former police officer who worked with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, explained that, in his experience, law enforcement officers may be quick to use the term “cult” when dealing with alternative groups and are likely to assume that anyone involved with such groups are evil or morally corrupt in some way. Creating this gap between mainstream or acceptable groups and bad or unacceptable groups can dehumanize the members of cults. Hicks (1993) suggests that this language is what allowed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to carry out the assault on the cult of the Branch Davidians, which resulted in about 80 deaths. According to his theory, since the cult members had been viewed as less than, or not quite human, the government may have felt less obligated to handle this situation properly and instead acted in a way that led to a great loss of life. Tabor and Gallagher (1995) also suggest the government’s rhetoric contributed to this tragedy. Once the government and the media started referring to the Branch Davidians as a “cult,” the general public may have engaged in the same assumptions made by law enforcement. By doing so, this “unfortunately made it all too easy and attractive to deny Koresh and the other students of the Seven Seals of biblical prophecy their full and complex humanity” (Tabor & Gallagher, 1995, 118).

It seems that distancing and devaluing others without attempting to understand them may make harming them less difficult; rather than viewing them as human beings, they may be seen only as a member of a certain, undesirable group or enemy (Deikman, 1990). The use of the term “cult” and the negative connotations that come along with it seem to have led both the government/law enforcement and the general public to make assumptions without putting any effort into becoming more educated about the group, which may also have made it easier to blame the cult leader and his followers rather than holding the government accountable for their part in the deadly situation.

This tendency to refer to groups such as the Branch Davidians as “cults” and to engage in stereotyping does not seem to end with the demise of the group. As seen with the Jonestown tragedy, the use of terms with negative connotations, negative perceptions, and negative treatments of group members persist long after the death of the group and even the death of said group members. The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is still used in many different contexts and it seems that, at this point, many people may not even be aware of its origin (Moore, 2003).

According to Moore (2003), by using this phrase to convey unquestioning obedience in a variety of situations with no consideration for the original tragedy, with which many are still coping today, the survivors’ suffering is being systematically shunned. The experience of the cult members seems to have been ignored and reduced down to a phrase that transforms “tragedy to comedy” because it is “too terrifying to face directly” (Moore, 2003, 99). Olson (2006) conducted a study in which the public’s perceptions of cults were measured and compared with perceptions of New Religious Movements and perceptions of new Christian churches. Changing the term “cult” to NRM led to more positive responses, but the responses to questions regarding new Christian churches were more positive than responses to questions regarding both cults and NRMs.

While research shows that people hold negative views towards cult members and may try to put distance between themselves and the people that have been involved in cults, there do not seem to be any significant differences between “us” and “them.” The majority of cult members show no signs of mental health issues and come from “normal” families, and the remaining likely only show signs of “mild” psychological issues (Rhoads, 1997, para. 9). The desire to find differences between ourselves and the people who have been involved with or have fallen victim to the tragedies associated with cults may be an effective coping mechanism or system for simplifying incoming information, but may ultimately be dehumanizing and dangerous. Levine (2003) explained the better-than-average illusion, in which individuals tend to assume that they are less naive, less gullible, less conforming, more aware, more knowledgeable, possess above average critical thinking skills, and are overall above average than other people. Tim Carter (2003), who had been a member of Peoples Temple and experiences first-hand these negative effects, stated, “Many people maintain ‘they’ could never fall prey to a ‘cult’ or ‘mind control’ techniques, could never allow their beliefs to be manipulated, and could never surrender their independence” (para. 16). Many Jonestown survivors reveal through interviews, lectures, their writing, or art that they share that same sentiment, suffering in their own way not only from the losses they endured in 1978 but also from the judgment and stigma that still surrounds them today. While many people may hold negative stereotypes and assumptions regarding cult mrmbers, these beliefs may be inaccurate. However, analyzing cult membership in terms of typical human needs and motivations may reduce the prevalence of these negative ideas.

Affiliation Motivation and the Need to Belong

One important human motivation is called affiliation motivation, which is associated with the need to have social relationships (Schachter, 1959). Research suggests that these relationships may provide us with comfort and support. Schachter (1959) conducted a study in which he led participants to believe that they would be undergoing electric shocks. They were then given the choice to sit in a waiting room with others or alone. When participants were told that they would be subjected to a painful shock, they were more likely to choose to wait with other people, and they were even more likely to do so when they were under the impression that those other people were going to be enduring the same painful shocks. Results support the theorized importance of the human motivation to affiliate, especially when individuals are put in anxiety-inducing situations. Affiliation motivation has been studied in relation to an individual’s religious views as well (Van Cappellen, Fredrickson, Saroglou, & Corneille, 2017). The researchers hypothesized that an individual who considers themselves to be religious will have a stronger need or desire to form social relationships since religions are based on creating a community of individuals with shared beliefs. When individuals were instructed to sit in a waiting room, which contained a chair that had some other person’s belongings on it, those that identified themselves as being religious were more likely to sit closer to the chair. This behavior seems to be indicative of higher affiliation motivations, supporting the researchers’ hypothesis.

Many cults are religious in nature, and, just as some individuals may be motivated to join mainstream religious groups in order to establish and maintain social relationships, cult members may have also been influenced to become involved in their groups by affiliation motivation.

When considering affiliations, it may be helpful to discuss types of attachment as well. Attachment is an emotional bond between people that connects them across time and space (Bowlby, 1969). Bowlby (1982) studied attachment styles in children, suggesting that the need for attachment persists through adulthood. A child’s experience regarding attachments can be important enough to impact their future relationships, demonstrating that an individual’s relationships may be central to their identity. This apparent need for attachment early in life was thought to be driven solely by the need for nutrition, but studies with baby monkeys showed that this may not be the only factor that is important (Harlow, 1959). When presented with two fake mothers- one which was made of wire and wood, and the other which was covered in cloth- the monkeys consistently chose to spend more time clinging to the cloth monkey rather than the wire monkey, regardless of which fake mother was equipped with a nursing bottle. This suggests that seeking attachments that provide comfort may be a valuable and fundamental aspect of aspect of human nature.

Part of the need to form social relationships is the need to belong. According to Baumeister and Leary (1995), people are likely to seek out groups that make them feel like they belong and are accepted. Individuals readily form relationships with others with which they have something in common or others that they encounter frequently, and once formed, individuals are sensitive to losing these relationships. People who have been deprived of social relationships seem to be more at risk for psychological and physical health issues as well (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). This may mean becoming a part of an alternative group, like a cult, if they feel they don’t belong in any mainstream groups. Jim Jones, the leader of Peoples Temple, found popularity because of his inclusion of both white and African American people, providing a safe haven where people of any color could mingle and practice their religion (Layton, 1998). Charles Watson (1978), who had been a member of Manson Family and participated in the Tate-LaBianca murders, recounts the first time he met Charles Manson:

 [T]he first thing I felt was a sort of gentleness, an embracing kind of acceptance and love … Here I was, accepted in a world I’d never even dreamed about, mellow and at my ease. Charlie murmured in the background, something about love, finding love, letting yourself love. I suddenly realized that this was what I was looking for: love. (27)

The affiliation motivation and need to belong that contributes to an individual’s involvement with a religious group, community group, or any other group may be the same motivations that account for an individual’s involvement with a cult. Gebauer and Maio (2012) suggest that individuals may be motivated to believe in God, a figure that can symbolize acceptance, by the need to belong as well. While not all cults involve belief in a particular God, cults may still espouse beliefs of some sort of higher power or divine figure. Studies consistently demonstrate the potential influence that affiliation motivation and the need to belong can have and the way that they can push an individual to seek out and join various groups. It is also important to consider that, as Zimbardo (1997) points out, “No one ever joins a ‘cult.’ People join interesting groups that promise to fulfill their pressing needs. They become ‘cults’ when they are seen as deceptive, defective, dangerous, or as opposing basic values of their society” (14).

Processes of Indoctrination, Persuasion, and Cognitive Dissonance

The human drive to form social relationships and need to belong may contribute to an individual’s decision to seek out groups, including groups that encourage alternative lifestyles or groups that would be considered cults. Once the individual comes into contact with a cult, they are likely to be subjected to a process of indoctrination. Baron (2000) suggests that this process was responsible for the maintenance of groups such as Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate. He describes the four stages of the process, starting first with the

softening-up stage. During this stage, the individual is isolated from their previous life and social support system and is placed into conditions that cause stress and disorientation. Galanter (1989) stated that Jim Jones forced his followers to cut off communication with anyone outside of Jonestown and prevented them from being exposed to any new sources, and he explained that it seems that individuals may be more susceptible to social influence when in an unfamiliar situation that makes them feel or think differently than usual; these changes can interfere with beliefs and lead to the acceptance of new explanations and attitudes. Charles Manson persuaded his followers to move to Spahn Ranch, giving up their personal possessions and leaving their families behind. He would also often encourage drug use, which was disorienting and altered their state of mind (Watson, 1978). Drugs can influence perception, cognitions, and affect, and the physiological effects of drugs can impact mental states and social interactions (Galanter, 1989). Jim Jones was also known for providing a diet for his followers in Jonestown that would keep them too weak to fight back against him (Zimbardo, 2005). Next the individual is encouraged to engage in the cult’s norms and behaviors, which Baron (2000) calls the compliance stage. The first two stages seem to reflect the disrupt-then-reframe technique, which involves a small disruption that may be created by using unexpected phrasing followed by a direct reframing of the object as being desirable. This technique takes advantage of the effects of distraction on persuasion (Davis & Knowles, 1999). Salespeople who used this technique were more effective, and the mechanisms at work in this situation may also come into play within cults where leaders may introduce distracting conditions and then present the group’s characteristics in a positive light. Once the individual begins participating in the group’s behavioral conventions, he moves into the internalization stage, and starts to assimilate to this new culture. Finally in the consolidation stage, membership in the group becomes a part of the individual’s identity, and they may make sacrifices that demonstrate their commitment, as well as deny or rationalize the negative aspects of the group (Baron, 2000).

This process of exercising social control and convincing individuals to join a cult can be made more effective by the characteristics of the group’s leader, his physical appearance, his presentation of ideas, and his implementation of some basic persuasive techniques. A communicator’s appearance is important to consider when it comes to persuasion because it is easily observed by the target audience, and research exploring the impacts of a person’s attractiveness has demonstrated the privileges that have been afforded to those deemed more attractive (Patzer, 1985). In addition to these privileges related to friendships, relationships, and job opportunities, higher physical attractiveness has shown to improve the individual’s effectiveness when it comes to persuasion as well (Chaiken, 1979). Praxmarer (2011) maintains that regardless of the particular situation, if the source of the persuasion is attractive, the persuasion will be more successful. Attractiveness may seem more important when it comes to advertising for a beauty product than when one is considering joining a cult, but it seems that the individual may still be more likely to respond favorably when the group’s leader is attractive. Researchers suggest this increased compliance and preference for people who are considered attractive may be an evolutionary adaptation; people have come to naturally respond well to attractive people perhaps because, throughout the process of evolution, doing so has benefitted their chances of survival and so their genes and inclination to exhibit this behavior has been passed down to future generations (Little, Jones, & DeBruine, 2011). This theory is supported by a study with six-month-old infants, who consistently showed preferences for more attractive faces. This early emergence of a preference for attractiveness may act as the foundation of later behavior and more favorable treatment of more attractive individuals (Ramsey, Langlois, Hoss, Rubenstein, & Griffin, 2004). While there seems to be no definitive study that suggests cult leaders tend to be attractive, it is possible that some cult members may have found their leaders attractive and this may have played a role in them being persuaded.

As part of the process of indoctrination seen in cults, the leaders often isolate new members from their family and friends outside of the group. This isolation would likely prevent the members from being exposed to negative opinions towards the group or ideas that may contradict the beliefs of the group. When individuals are repeatedly exposed to a certain idea, even when that idea only comes from one source, they are more likely to assume that the idea is credible and widely accepted (Weaver, Garcia, Schwarz, & Miller, 2007). Cult leaders may attempt to bombard members with their beliefs, giving lectures or sermons or engaging in constant conversation. Jim Jones even went so far as installing loudspeakers around the grounds of Jonestown so that his persuasive communication with his followers was unrelenting (Baumeister & Bushman, 2016). The members of Peoples Temple in Jonestown may have been led to believe that all the members in the group believed in Jones’ ideas and that his ideas were the only credible ones since they were hearing them often. The frequency of these broadcasts may have been influential, but the fact that Jones even decided to use loudspeakers to communicate with his followers affected his persuasiveness as well. A study done by Cantril and Allport (1935) shows that when a message is conveyed over a loudspeaker, “the listener is on the whole less analytical, less alert, less involved personally and socially, and more passively receptive than he is in the face-to-face situation” (157).

While these specific features of the speaker and the way he presents his ideas seem to contribute to his ability to persuade his followers, some basic, everyday techniques may also be implemented by these cult leaders. One of these methods is called the foot-in-the-door technique; when someone complies with a small request, they are more likely to comply with a subsequent larger request made by the same person (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). As explained, cult leaders typically require members to sacrifice many aspects of their lives upon entering the group. These sacrifices represent the leader’s first requests. Later, when leaders ask members to make larger sacrifices, the members may be more inclined to comply. Jim Jones, for example, made it clear that he did not expect much from new members, but after some time, he would ask his followers to attend lengthy services, sign over their personal property and life insurance, live in a collective community, and even write false statement that Jones could then use as blackmail in case he ever felt it was necessary (Levine, 2003). Another relevant factor is the norm of reciprocity. This theory explains that when someone offers help to another, the individual that received the favor may feel compelled to return the favor in the future (Regan, 1971). Gouldner (1960) suggests that this reciprocity is essential for the development and maintenance of social relationships. He also explains the concept of exploitation, which occurs when one side of the relationship provides more than the other, like when members may sacrifice much of their lives, possessions, and identities, only to receive the ability to say they are a member of the group in return. When an individual received a soda from a confederate in a study, that person was then more likely to comply when the confederate asked them to buy raffle tickets (Regan, 1971). The act of offering a soda to another person seems to have influenced that person, making them feel more obligated to give something back. Mike Cartmell, who belonged to Peoples Temple prior to the tragedy in Jonestown, explains, “He [Jim Jones] gave you your five minutes, and in return, you gave him your life” (qtd. in Zimbardo, 2005, para. 83).

During the process of indoctrination and the consolidation stage, cult members who stay with the group may attempt to rationalize their involvement with the group. This rationalization is part of the concept of cognitive dissonance. This theory suggests that when an individual acknowledges that some of his cognitions are not consistent or his behavior is not consistent with his cognitions, he is put in an uncomfortable state and will be motivated to reduce this conflict by changing one of the components that are creating it (Festinger, 1957). According to Festinger and Carlsmith (1959), when an individual is encouraged to express an opinion with which they do not personally agree, they will modify their own beliefs to be more aligned with that expressed opinion. In their study, participants completed dull tasks, but were paid either one dollar or twenty dollars to tell a waiting participant that the tasks were actually enjoyable. Since the participants’ actions were not consonant with their thoughts, they experienced cognitive dissonance and attempted to resolve this conflict by rating the tasks favorably during the interview that followed. This conflict and attempted resolution was especially prominent when the individual was only paid one dollar since, not only did they have to endure monotonous tasks, they were not well-rewarded for their compliance. An individual seems to be more inclined to change their beliefs when the rewards they received after participating in such a situation were insufficient. Festinger (1961) explains:

It seems clear that the inclination to engage in behavior after extrinsic rewards are removed is not so much a function of past rewards themselves. Rather, and paradoxically, such persistence in behavior is increased by a history of nonrewards or inadequate rewards. I sometimes like to summarize all this by saying that rats and people come to love things for which they have suffered. (11)

Once members have dedicated themselves to the group and have observed the negative aspects of it, they may justify the time and energy they’ve spent and the sacrifices they’ve made in order to be a member of the group. They will try to explain their commitment by telling themselves that it must be worth it and will, therefore, become even more devoted to the cult. Cults seem to be a potential source of cognitive dissonance as they may introduce new beliefs to their members, but this perpetuates membership as individuals rely on and become more devoted to the group in order to reduce this dissonance. People may even recruit others to join the group and try to convince them the group’s beliefs are good and valid, and if these recruitment efforts are successful, they are able to further rationalize and convince themselves that the beliefs are good and valid (Festinger, 1957). Jim Jones actually forced his followers to express gratitude towards him and the group, replicating, in real life, Festinger and Carlsmith’s conditions (Zimbardo, 2005). It is possible that the act of declaring their happiness and love of Jonestown- when the members may not have all been truly feeling this way- had the same effect, making their dedication to the group even stronger even though they were being subjected to deeply unpleasant conditions.

Ingroup Bias/Outgroup Derogation and Social Identity Benefits

The concept of cognitive dissonance helps account for cult members’ continued involvement with the group, but understanding the tendency to engage in ingroup bias and the ways that an individual can benefit from their social identity can also explain why people remain in cults, or any other group for that matter. Ingroup bias is an individual’s preference for and more favorable treatment of people that are in their group (Turner, Brown, & Tajfel, 1979). Deikman (1990) explained that cult members may be threatened by outsiders and react by holding onto the belief that their group is special or superior, which results in the devaluing of individuals and beliefs that remain outside of their group. Just like the general public may not consider the motivations, precise mechanisms, and individual differences that exist within cults, once cult members are dedicated to the group, they may not attempt to understand the view of any outsiders and may instead assume that outsiders share all the same negative traits (Deikman, 1990).

In a study conducted by Van Cappellen, Fredrickson, Saroglou, and Corneille (2017), they tested the relationship between religiosity (strong religious beliefs and identities) and bias in social interactions. Their studies found that individuals with strong religious associations seemed to demonstrate ingroup bias. Participants in one study were told the chair in the waiting room had been occupied by either a Christian or an atheist, and the participants who themselves were Christian were more likely to sit closer to the occupied chair when they were led to believe that person was Christian. In another study, participants engaged in a Cyberball game (an online ball tossing game) with a Christian player, an atheist player, and another player of unknown religious associations. During this game, Christian participants again showed ingroup bias by favoring the Christian player. Sherif (1956) demonstrated that this tendency to exhibit ingroup bias seems to persist even when the groups we associate with are arbitrary. During his study, he assigned young boys to different groups at a summer camp. The two teams were initially kept separated and the boys in each group immediately started to form friendships, a group hierarchy, and came to a consensus on a group name. Once it was clear that the boys were identifying with the other members in their groups, the two groups were introduced to each other. Not only did they show a very strong ingroup bias, they also showed the accompanying outgroup derogation, treating members of the other group badly. The boys became competitive and aggressive, calling each other names and getting into physical fights. While the boys in this study had been randomly assigned, they had time to spend together and form bonds; other studies find evidence for a strong tendency to engage in ingroup bias in situations where there are even more basic commonalities between individuals. People are motivated to show a preference for other individuals based on sharing the same birthday, demonstrating more cooperation and making decisions that favor others with the same birthday more than if the other person did not have their same birthday (Miller, Downs, & Prentice, 1998).

These concepts of ingroup bias and outgroup derogation were studied more extensively by Turner, Brown, and Tajfel (1979), who tested their hypothesis that, when given the responsibility to determine how much money each individual should be given for participating in a study, participants made decisions that most favored their own group and acted as a disadvantage for the other groups. They found that participants would sacrifice earning for themselves and their groups for the sake of creating larger disparities between themselves and the other groups. Ingroup bias can be observed in young children as well as they may associate familiarity with goodness. While this ingroup bias does not necessarily mean the children will also exhibit outgroup derogation, it’s possible that it sets the stage for the child to be influenced by society later on and to develop prejudiced attitudes (Cameron, Alvarez, Ruble, & Fuligni, 2001). As Brewer (2007) observed, conflict is not a requirement for producing ingroup bias, and the presence of ingroup bias does not always mean the individual will treat the outgroup poorly. Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that the tendency to create social categorizes and engage in ingroup bias stems from our ancestors’ tendencies to interact with people who were similar and familiar to them, which may have ensured their safety and increased their chances of survival (Brewer, 2007). Once an individual undergoes the process of indoctrination that is present in a cult and becomes invested in the group, they may engage in ingroup bias, just like members of any other group may be likely to do so.

The tendency to favor the group to which you belong can also be explained, in part, by social identity theory. Once an individual becomes a member of a group, they are likely to incorporate their membership in the group into their self-concept, considering their involvement as part of their identity (Turner, 1982). As explained, the desire to form social relationships is a powerful motivator, so being able to consider social relationships as associated with who we are as individuals seems to be important to us as social beings. Individuals may seek out favorable evaluations of themselves from others in order to maintain a positive self-esteem, but social identity theory describes how individuals may also express positive appraisals of the groups with which they are involved for the same purpose (Tajfel, 1982). Since the groups that one associates with can be very important to them and become a part of their identity, feeling good about those groups may help them feel better about themselves. Attempts to reduce cognitive dissonance may also contribute to this process; individuals who have experienced negative aspects of a group they have become dedicated to may try to justify their membership, looking for positive aspects of the group and convincing themselves that it is superior in some way. In addition to forming positive evaluations of their groups, individuals may also come to see their groups as being distinct from other groups and their members (Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994). Social identity theory explains that an individual’s social identity is one component of their whole identity and individuals are motivated to achieve and maintain positive social identities; this can be accomplished by establishing distinctions between ingroups and outgroups and creating more favorable evaluations towards their own groups compared to other groups (Tajfel & Turner, 2004). This reinforces the tendency to favor members of one’s own group and the potential to treat members of other groups poorly.

Contrary to popular belief, the negative assumptions and stereotypes that exist in regards to cult members do not tell an accurate story of their lives and involvement with cults. While looking for dispositional flaws or abnormal motivations may be easier and provide a more satisfying or comforting answer, evidence suggests that cult members are no different from any other person that belongs to any other group. Instead of continuing to blame cult members, who are often victims in many ways, it may be much more helpful to consider the situational factors and typical motivations, needs, and behaviors that contribute to cult membership.

As research has shown, human behaviors reflect not only the personality of individuals, but also the context in which the behaviors have occurred. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that cults do not typically receive that label until after the fact, and that the people who have joined these groups do not do so with the idea that they would eventually be considered cults. Driven by affiliation motivation and the need to belong, typical individuals seek out groups to satisfy the human need for social relationships and acceptance. Sometimes people turn to small community clubs or large religious organizations, and sometimes others find themselves associating with a group that is later deemed a cult. In all of these cases, the individuals had become affiliated with a social system they believed to be good. Following one’s exposure to any group, there is usually a process of indoctrination that occurs to solidify the person’s commitment to the group. Cult leaders exercise social control over their followers, and there are many factors that can make their persuasion more effective, such as the leader’s attractiveness, the leader’s use of repetitive communication, the use of the foot-in-the-door technique, and taking advantage of the norm of reciprocity.

Cognitive dissonance may also play a role in one’s decision to remain in a cult, even after  experiencing the negative aspects cults are known for. Individuals will rationalize their cult involvement by convincing themselves the group is good and their membership is worth the hardships; it seems counterintuitive, but suffering can actually make an individual’s allegiance to the group even stronger. This dedication tends to manifest as ingroup bias, and individuals will favor others who are also members of their group. Not only does this perpetuate their membership as they will lend more credibility to fellow members or the beliefs of the group while simultaneously shunning outside opinions, it also conducive to social identity benefits.

Social identity theory maintains that individuals tend to express positive evaluations of the groups they are associated with, which translate to positive evaluations of themselves since they are members of those groups.

All of these factors may have contributed to the establishment and maintenance of many cults, including the Branch Davidians, the Manson Family, and Peoples Temple. Research aims to educate the general public and encourage a greater understanding of cults. This knowledge may help individuals recognize the warning signs of a harmful cult and avoid meeting the same fate as the members of the previously mentioned cults. Additionally, being able to acknowledge the many factors that influence cult membership allows for greater respect and sympathy for the victims of cult tragedies. The mass suicide/murder that occurred at Jonestown, for example, which took the lives of over nine hundred people and changed the lives of many more, cannot and should not be reduced to a popular phrase that casually gets thrown around; it was much more and far beyond “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

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  • About Jonestown >
  • the jonestown report archive >
  • the jonestown report , Volume 22, October 2020 >
  • Understanding Cult Membership: Beyond “Drinking the Kool-Aid” >


  1. Jonestown Review Chart

    social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

  2. Jonestown_Social_Psychology_Review_1.pdf

    social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

  3. Unveiling the Psychology of Cults: An In-Depth Look at the Jonestown

    social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

  4. The Jonestown Massacre, 40 years on: an isolated tragedy?

    social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

  5. Jonestown Massacre 40 years on

    social psychology case study the jonestown massacre

  6. Jonestown Massacre: What You Should Know About Cult Murder-Suicide

    social psychology case study the jonestown massacre


  1. experiment No. 140 brian jonestown massacre (demo)

  2. Case 60: Jonestown (Part 1)

  3. Investigating Jonestown: A Chilling Tale of Manipulation and Tragedy


  1. Lessons from Jonestown

    Jonestown, they say, offers important lessons for psychology, such as the power of situational and social influences and the consequences of a leader using such influences to destructively manipulate others' behavior. Most disturbingly, perhaps, leaders such as Jones appear to have derived some of their techniques from social psychologists ...

  2. Jonestown Social Psychology Review AP DE PSYCHOLOGY

    Terms in this set (35) Definition: The theory that we explain someone's behavior by crediting either the situation or the person's disposition. Jonestown Social Psychology Review Ex.: When Jones' mother believed she had given birth to the Messiah, she was giving an example of the attribution theory. When Jones stabbed a cat to death in order to ...

  3. The psychological massacre: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple ...

    Stanford University psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo believed that Jones was influenced in particular by George Orwell, whose futuristic book 1984 explores social psychology and the effects of mind control on the masses (Dittmann). Techniques which Jones borrowed from Orwell included the idea of "big brother is watching you" and self ...

  4. The Truth About Jonestown

    The spectre of Jonestown has entered the social unconscious, leading to a kind of macabre fascination with Jim Jones and his victims. A Boston company recently sold out its first printing of ...

  5. Lessons from Jonestown

    APA Monitor article on the 1978 mass suicide of followers of the People's Temple cult in Jonestown, Guyana. It is asserted that this extreme example of mind control teaches psychologists what happens when social psychology is placed in the wrong hands. If cults are going to abuse lessons from social psychology, psychologists must study how they are doing this. (PsycEXTRA Database Record (c ...

  6. An Investigation into the Tragedy of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown

    While members of the Peoples Temple described Jonestown as a utopia, evidence has portrayed how their behaviours reflect a counter-culture. The adversities experienced by members of the Peoples Temple is conclusive: Jonestown strongly resembled the characteristics of a cult. Social, psychological, and cultural ramifications following this

  7. "I Have to Be All Things to All People": Jim Jones ...

    On 18 November 1978, over 900 human beings perished at Jonestown, Guyana. Controversy has since surrounded almost every aspect of the event, from the motivations of the victims (Kilduff & Javers, 1978, pp. 186-188; Dieckman, 2006), to the plausibility of a government conspiracy behind the tragedy (Moore, 2002).However, attempts to make sense of Jonestown, it could be argued, falter most when ...

  8. Case Study A: The Peoples Temple And Jonestown

    A book-length study form the same author as the above article: Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2009. A classic essay from a giant of religious studies, seeking to interpret the Jonestown events in light of other episodes of religious violence: Smith, Jonathan Z.

  9. PDF Jonestown: The Psychological Massacre

    Part of the Personality and Social Contexts Commons, and the Social Psychology Commons Recommended Citation Wiles, Alexis A. (2018) "Jonestown: The Psychological Massacre," WRIT: Journal of First-Year Writing: Vol. ... The Jonestown massacre was the largest mass killing up to the attack on the twin towers on September 11, 2001. As a result of ...

  10. Before the tragedy at Jonestown, the people of ...

    Jonestown residents work at the community sawmill. Peoples Temple Collection, 1942-2015, (I.D. MS-0183), Special Collections and University Archives, San Diego State University Some have ...

  11. Unveiling the Psychology of Cults: An In-Depth Look at the Jonestown

    Share on: On November 18, 1978, more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in a mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. This tragedy, marked by manipulation and blind obedience, provides a critical case study in understanding the psychology of cults. Today, the prevalence and influence of cults remain significant.

  12. Jonestown

    We are now entering the 42nd year that Jonestown has been in my mind. It coincides with a time of dueling fact perceptions (the focus of this blog) and the two seem connected in important ways ...

  13. The Psychology Behind The Jonestown Massacre Finally Explained

    On November 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women, and children died by suicide and murder in the Jonestown settlement of Guyana at the behest of cult leader Ji...

  14. The Psychology Behind The Jonestown Massacre Finally Explained

    On November 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women, and children, died by suicide and murder at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana. As reported by History, the suicides and murders were committed under the direction of Reverend Jim Jones, who was the leader of the Peoples Temple religious sect. Psychology Today reports, "suicide is usually an act ...

  15. Jonestown: A case study in examining disparities of differing types of

    Jonestown: A case study in examining disparities of differing types of history in the construction of atrocity ... identifiable biases, features and purpose. Exemplary of this phenomenon is the historical construction of the Jonestown massacre, in which the popular canon is developed to simplify and sensationalise the complex factors that ...

  16. Jonestown and The Social Psychology of Accepted Truth

    Everybody "knows" what happened in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. At the behest of their charismatic leader, all the members of the Peoples Temple religious cult—the residents of Jonestown—"lined up in a pavilion in front of a vat containing a mixture of Kool-Aid and cyanide" and "drank willingly of the deadly solution" (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2005, pp.4-5).


    The Jonestown Massacre, which occurred on November 18, 1978, remains one of the darkest and most tragic events in modern history. This event is the result of a collective suicide and murder carried…

  18. Jonestown

    Jonestown, (November 18, 1978), location of the mass murder-suicide of members of the California -based Peoples Temple cult at the behest of their charismatic but paranoid leader, Jim Jones, in Jonestown agricultural commune, Guyana. The death toll exceeded 900, including some 300 who were age 17 and under, making the incident one of the ...

  19. Jonestown--two faces of suicide: a Durkheimian analysis

    This paper, using Durkheim's typology of suicides, demonstrates that the residents of Jonestown died for very different reasons and that two types of suicide occurred simultaneously on November 18, 1978: altruistic and fatalistic. Some of the residents of Jonestown died because they put the group above the self; they committed altruistic suicide.

  20. Durkheim's Sociological Perspectives: Mass Suicide And The Jonestown

    In the Jonestown massacre case study there are two "great collective shocks" (Durkheim, 2009, p. 53). The first one is the investigation of the sect by the IRS (internal revenue service) and "the negative press mounting against radical church" (Jennifer Rosenberg, 2014, p. 1), which led Jim Jones to relocate his community in the Guyana ...

  21. The Truth About Jonestown

    The spectre of Jonestown has entered the social unconscious, leading to a kind of macabre fascination with Jim Jones and his victims. A Boston company recently sold out its first printing of ...

  22. Jonestown

    The "Jonestown Massacre" took place on November 18, 1978, after more than 900 members of an American cult called the Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide-murder under the direction of their ...

  23. Understanding Cult Membership: Beyond "Drinking the Kool ...

    (Melissa Greiser wrote this thesis to fulfill a graduation requirement as an Honors student at SUNY New Paltz in 2019.) Abstract. While there is a plethora of research discussing the concepts of social psychology that are involved in cult membership, which explain that the people involved with cults are typical individuals and there are many basic factors that contribute to their involvement ...