His name was Reverend Jim Jones and he committed a crime so heinous, it resulted in the mass suicide of almost a 1,000 of his followers. In the 1970s, Jones formed a Peoples Temple, aiming to practice what he called “apostolic socialism.” After a few years of gaining momentum, the group started facing government persecution and media criticism. Jones managed to convince his followers that the only way they could escape the hatred was to set up their own community in Guyana (South America). Can you imagine convincing a 1,000 people that his cause was such a worthy one, that people actually packed their lives and left everyone behind to set us base in this new alien country? Jones set up Jonestown, his socialist paradise. Eventually the US government learned of his activities in his new home and sent federal agents and other concerned relatives to rescue those that were believed to have fled but were forced into staying. Hearing that reinforcements were on their way, Jones could not stand the thought of people leaving, or of being shut down- he maintained that “You can go down in history, saying you chose your own way to go, and it is your commitment to refuse capitalism and in support of socialism.” Afraid of what was going to happen, Jones was able to successfully convince the entire group to drink a poisonous concoction of Kool Aid and Cyanide. Except for very few survivors who managed to escape, everyone died.
It was a tragic mass suicide, the largest such event in modern history that resulted in the largest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11. The first person to consume the deadly mixture was Ruletta Paul who squirted the poison into the mouth of her one year old infant (yes, that’s one year old), and then allowed someone else to squirt it into her own mouth. Can you imagine what it takes to convince a mother to kill her own child? What really went through the minds of those that killed themselves on the day of November 18, 1978? How fatally charismatic was this Jones?
But it’s not so much how persuasive Jones was. Certainly, his persona did exude a degree of authority that is unparalleled. But the example shows just how much group membership can be such an important part of your identity. Just how powerful is groupthink? Could group peer pressure at its extreme be harmful to you? Perhaps those members in specific were all coincidentally vulnerable, and that allowed them to be easily manipulated. It is a sad tragedy, for someone, or some group, to either prey on your weaknesses, or for a group to exert such an enormous amount of conforming pressure, it can kill you.