A few weeks ago CNN aired a special about the Jonestown Massacre and particularly focused on the survivors of this event. The documentary immediately engaged my focus as I recalled some of our class readings and discussions especially echoing Milgrim’s article on obedience as well as the Groupthink article. The question that seems to spring from horrific incidents like this one is how could this possibly have happened? The theories that seem to shed some light on a possible answer to this question lie in these aforementioned articles. But before I continue, the following is a brief summary of the Jonestown Massacre for those who aren’t as familiar:
In 1978, 909 Americans died in Jonestown, an area established in South America by the Reverend Jim Jones, from an apparent mass murder-suicide by poison commanded by the reverend himself. One third of those that died that day were children, most of who were poisoned by their own parents. Only 33 people survived the ordeal. Besides September 11, this incident has been the greatest single day, non-natural disaster loss of American lives.
What struck me while watching the documentary was - what was it about those who lived that enabled them to survive? The answer is likely found in the results of Milgrim’s experiments. Just as Milgrim sought to answer what possessed the Nazi’s to carry out the horrific acts of the holocaust by conducting his experiment, so too might the answer for Jonestown be found.
The results of the experiment and the outcome of Jonestown are contrary to what most would expect and hope to occur. Most people would think that when moral values and obedience to authority conflict that people would choose to follow their morality rather than submit to an authority that breaks with these morals, but sadly this does not appear to be the case. Instead, many people feel psychologically compelled to submit both because they defer responsibility for their actions to the authority and also to avoid the stress associated with disobeying. In Jonestown, this appears to be exactly what happened. The negatives associated with dissenting felt greater than the negatives of submitting to these people and the strength of this feeling swelled to the great level that it was, because of the grip Groupthink had on them.
Groupthink is cultivated in part by the notion of the dilemma of obedience and it became a behavioral tool that Jim Jones used horrifically well. Symptoms of Groupthink, especially in this situation, are paranoia and fear; from the outset, Jim Jones attracted people whose personalities alone made them more susceptible to become victimized by Groupthink. He appealed to the ‘wounded’ side of people who shared a disillusioned view of society because many of them were outcasts and he made them feel that he related and understood their plight. He also had a message that seemed to lift them from their troubles. Yet, Jones grounded this message in fear and in doing so, created a culture of followers that were steadfastly loyal and unquestioning of his mission. To further create an environment of followers that sought to avoid disobedient behavior, Jones began a procedure known as catharsis in which any member who had committed a wrong doing or had been disagreeable was publicly humiliated and punished in front of the entire congregation. This reinforcing mechanism, witnessed in real life by his followers, served to elevate Groupthink, and particularly the ‘obedience factor’, to a tremendously dangerous level. No one wanted to disagree or be known by others as having differing thoughts.
Eventually people became trapped in the thick blanket of Groupthink, yet they didn’t really recognize it. The phenomenon grew so powerful that Jones was able to plant the seed of his mass suicide idea without receiving direct criticism and without causing his followers to discuss their disagreements behind his back. If anyone disagreed, they kept it to themselves and followed along with how everyone else reacted. In November of 1978, when his command came, all but 33 individuals became victims of Groupthink and the obedience dilemma. In the documentary, the commentator describes the incredible courage and strength it took for those 33 to survive by dissenting, which to an outsider looking in would seem like an ironic characterization - why would it take great strength to disagree with someone who is asking you to commit suicide? Yet, when one delves deeper into the psychological components at play here, the dismaying events of this day and why they occurred reveal the extreme courage that these individuals displayed to emerge from the guise that Jim Jones had created.