Jim Jones’ Mind Control Techniques
On November 18, 1978, 909 Americans died in the Jonestown commune – also known as the People’s Temple Agricultural Project – in what was the worst ever single loss of American life until 9/11. Guzzling down cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, almost everyone that died in that Guyana jungle community did so willingly, helping the 304 minors that made up a third of the dead before tending to themselves. Referring to the more popular brand of grape-flavored beverage at the time, the phrase ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ has become synonymous with following somebody blindly, at possible risk to your own well-being. How did James Warren “Jim” Jones, Indiana-born preacher turned self-styled messiah, convince almost a thousand people to kill themselves? To put it bluntly: what were Jim Jones’ mind control techniques?
The Psychology of Sales – Foot In The Door
Before Jim Jones founded the People’s Temple, he had held a few positions that would give him some of the experience and social tools necessary to influence people. Aside from being a student pastor and activist for racial harmony, Jones worked another job to help save up for the creation of his church: he went door-to-door selling pet monkeys imported from India and South America.
As you can imagine, it would probably be one of the more difficult things to sell to people on their doorstep, somewhere up there with actual doors. This meant that it would have taken a considerable amount of psychological persuasion for Jimbo to sell enough of the little critters to come away with an amount of money capable of starting a church. Most likely, Jones employed a tactic that salesmen have employed for as long as sales has existed: getting a foot in the door. Asking for some small concession – maybe an admission that yes, the family would indeed enjoy having a pet, or that it does get lonely during the days when Daddy and little Billy are working at the mill – provides a way in. After that first little transaction, it becomes easier to upsell and get the buyer to accept more and/or bigger concessions, leading ultimately to the full sale (and a house covered in monkey shit). This process is backed by numerous scientific studies into the psychology of sales and human reaction, shining a light on yet another reason why we’re not as smart as we think we are.
Jones was aware of this common foible and used it to great advantage when asking for donations from his followers. Small, reasonable amounts given to the church would over time become entire life savings and property signed over to Jim and the People’s Temple. Each time the increase would be explained away as just a little more than they were asked for the last time. The same applied to working hours and the sexual adventures that people would be encouraged to take on. However, in a vacuum, this technique would only be so effective. That’s why it was used in conjunction with…
Conformity – Come Together, Right Now
Does everybody remember that scene from Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams takes all the kids out to the courtyard to practice walking funny? They all start out with their own unique walk, but after a little while, they end up almost marching in time without any coercion from either Williams or other students. They automatically conform to a standard and cast off their own individual style. I know that there are probably more in-depth examples, but this one seems to be the least depressing – and Robin Williams is dead.
We know the way that Nazi agents would infiltrate crowds and say things to suggest that Hitler was a cool dude, and people went along with it because they believed that’s what everyone else was thinking. Dissenters and people that spoke out against Stalin’s regime would disappear into the night, scaring others into toeing the line. Studies show that most people will deliberately choose the obviously wrong answer on a test if everybody else in the room also chose that answer, just to avoid being outliers. People are terrified of being the odd ones out, the other, and manipulative people are well aware of this fact. Jones exploited this tendency towards conformity to startling effect. Discovering the voices of internal opposition using informers and silencing them with beatings and public humiliations quelled any chance of uprising or doubt. Families were split up to dissuade loyalties, and he isolated the congregation from the outside world with constant relocations, eventually ending up in complete control in Guyana, hundreds of miles from his follower’s homes. The applause that rang out when Jones told them at Jonestown to kill the children first is solemn proof that he had a handle on that shit. I’m just glad to live in an age where people are aware of the dangers of conformity and everyone strives to be unique…
And You Will Know I Am The Lord…
Everybody loves a good miracle. Most events in Western history and their causes are centered around the issue that this guy with a beard could perform them and people were into it. It’s like when an underdog team makes it to the quarter-finals and everyone loses their shit and makes a load of movies inspired by them. Jones was more into performing the stock miracles associated with a church: having the voice of God in your ear, healing the sick, feeding the hungry with magic chicken wings from KFC – standard stuff like that. His background in evangelical shows and pray-per-view gave him the stage presence necessary to help bullshit his way to messiah status in the hearts of many. He would pull cancerous tumors from people’s mouths that were actually rancid gizzards concealed by sleight-of-hand. Lame people that hobbled up to the stage and walked away cured were actually part of his inner circle pretending to be crippled. They explained away the sham and their continued devotion with the reasoning that Jones was actually saving his powers for the real miracles, whenever he decided he was actually going to perform them. Nevertheless, it was enough to convince plenty of down-trodden and otherwise gullible folk into worshipping the man, even when the shit got weird…
Hazing – May I Have Another?
Taking all of that stuff into account, you might reasonably be saying to yourself, “Okay, maybe he had a strong psychological hold and was able to manipulate these people, punishing them for pushing back against him. But surely after a while people would just snap and call him on his bullshit, right?” You would think that, but as you can probably tell by the tone of the article – and the fact that they all died – that’s not what happened. And who do we have to thank for it? That’s right: fucking science again.
People are fantastic at mental gymnastics, especially when it comes to the shitty things they do and/or put up with. There’s an idea called effort justification which basically explains that the more effort or suffering that went into something, the more it is worth to that person. Take a look at any hazing rituals that initiates go through to be accepted in the army, or a prestigious school, or a secret society. Pain and humiliation as a means to bring people into the group. Horrendous shit like blanket parties and pig-fucking would be enough to turn anyone off, right? Wrong. After going through all of that, they are actually closer to the group than they were before, justifying the negative experience by believing that membership in the group is now worth the pain.
Jones routinely punished and humiliated his followers, encouraging them to police themselves. Weird rituals like locking offenders in wooden boxes and reprimanding them, or using cattle prods to electrocute unruly kids was accepted and ended up bringing people even further into the cult. Combined with the regular study sessions and sermons that were mandatory, on top of the gruelling work days, the self-justification was off the chart. In the end, these people were broken and molded by Jim Jones’ mind control techniques into the loyal lemmings of the People’s Temple. What’s important to realize is that the methods he used have a solid basis in human psychology, and can still be applied to vulnerable members of society today to get them to unwittingly sign over their will to a cult. Sometimes, those people don’t even have to be that vulnerable.