Sigmund Freud’s Approach to Intergroup Relations Applied to Peoples Temple

by Shailee Dyssell-Pillay

(Shailee Dyssell-Pillay was born in South Africa and attends the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where she is completing her degree in Psychology and English Literature. She can be reached at: shaileedyssell@gmail.com.)

Sigmund Freud is known among as the leading theorist in psychoanalysis and for his works on The Interpretation of Dreams and The Ego and the Id. Many of Freud’s theories are controversial and critiqued, but his theoretical approach to intergroup relations provides a possible method in understanding the formation of Peoples Temple and its activities leading up to the tragic mass murder/suicide on November 18, 1978.

Freud’s approach to intergroup relations is distinctive in orientation and favours intra-group dynamics that is more focussed on the analysis within the individual and understanding internal processes of thought and emotion. Additionally, Freud was interested in groups with leaders and the psychological processes involved when a follower identifies with a leader. According to this theory, the first stage in becoming a part of a group is identification. “Freud sees identification as forming the essential link between the leader and followers.”[1] Peoples Temple members – who were overwhelmingly African American – identified with Jim Jones’ views on racial integration and equal rights for all ethnicities whereas the rest of society opposed these views.

This theory further describes that if identification between followers and the leader is strong, then a stronger tie will develop within the group. This can be seen in the number of members who became involved in Peoples Temple. As the numbers grew and as Jones’ popularity rose, existing members spread the word to friends and family who would also identify with him, his views on integration and the cohesion that was provided through the church. “Jones’ congregation grew (estimates of the group’s size vary; a 1977 exposé by New West magazine put the number of Peoples Temple members at 20,000).”[2] The most observable strength in the ties between Peoples Temple members and Jim Jones occurred when more than 1000 members travelled with Jones to Guyana to establish an agricultural cooperative that Jones intended to become the member’s “utopia.”

It is in Jonestown where the second stage of Freud’s theory can be recognised. This stage involves the ways in which a group influences the mental life of the individual. “Freud makes repeated use of descriptions by Le Bon and others depicting human groups as being easily swayed, contradictory and ruled by emotions.”[3] Everything that was created in Jonestown was built by Peoples Temple members. They worked themselves to exhaustion to develop the community and its agricultural projects, and were punished if they did not adhere to the rules. It is thus no surprise that the members could not think for themselves anymore and trusted Jones to make decisions for them and their families.

Moreover, Temple members believed that their individual and group actions were making a positive difference in the world, and Jones had stressed that their actions would be acknowledged. The members’ basic trust in him, and his continuing reinforcement of the members’ worth allowed them to become manipulated through suggestion. Freud argued that the group members are always directed through suggestion by the group leader if identification between the two are strong. Equivalently, Jones used their suggestion for personal gain which was manifested through the Temple members’ aspirations to ultimately lead the members to their death.

Another important component of Freud’s approach to intergroup relations is the idea that there are libidinal ties among group members and between the leader and their followers. “’Libido’ refers to the energy of those instincts that have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’. Freud does not separate love that involves sexual union from other kinds of love, such as love for one’s parents or for one’s country.”[4] In the case of Peoples Temple, the libidinal ties shared between group members and Jim Jones was a love of racial integration and a shared community.

Freud described the second libidinal tie as hostility and aggression. According to this theory, when an individual becomes part of a group, feelings of hostility and aggression or directed to an out-group in order to continue to influence the relations between in-group members. “If hostile feelings are allowed to grow within the group, the opportunity for developing group cohesion and productivity will be decreased.”[5] Both cases seemed to have occurred in Jonestown. The harsh conditions that members endured in Jonestown caused them to redirect their aversion to the government; the out-group. Consequently, Jones redirected his hostility to the Congressman Leo Ryan when tensions increased and a number of members wanted to leave Jonestown. “The selection of particular out-groups as targets of displaced hostility also serves to create a ‘common threat,’ and this in turn serves to further strengthen in-group ties.”[6] Jones used the congressman’s death as a “common threat” to exploit all members into thinking that suicide would be the only way to avoid further threats and that their “devotion” (through committing suicide) would inspire society by demonstrating their loyalty to the cause.

The most important part of this theory is that “people in groups differ from isolated individuals in that they are influenced by group leaders, and their freedom is severely restricted by the two-way libidinal ties binding them to the leader and to each other.”[7] Peoples Temple members had their freedom restricted when Jones’ paranoia increased and the libidinal tie that had brought the members together had been forgotten. Jones’ increase in power and paranoia lead the members to tragedy because he could not take sole responsibility for the death of Congressman Leo Ryan. Inevitably, the hostile and aggressive libidinal tie overpowered the Temple members’ love for racial equality and integration.

Nonetheless, this is an illustration of how intergroup relations, while good at the core, can lead to devastating consequences. The rise of Peoples Temple was a result of racial segregation and inequality. Members of racial minority groups found optimism in Jim Jones and in Jonestown. Jones used his power and influence to control his members in ways that further violated their human rights. He overworked his members, used psychological torment to test their loyalty by practicing “White Nights” and ultimately orchestrated their deaths. But, regardless of Jones manipulation and misconduct, it is important to remember that the purpose of Peoples Temple and its members was to create an equal society that stressed integration and community. Their intentions and commitments are admirable and inspiring.

References

History.com Staff, “Jonestown”, History.com, 2010, http://www.history.com/topics/jonestown.

Taylor, D.M. & Moghaddam, F. M. (1994). “The Freudian Legacy of Intergroup Research.” In D. M. Taylor & F. M. Moghaddam. Theories of Intergroup Relations. International Social Psychological Perspectives. (2nd ED). Praeger Press: London, p. 20-26.

Notes

[1] Taylor, D.M. & Moghaddam, F. M. (1994). The Freudian Legacy of Intergroup Research. In D. M. Taylor & F. M. Moghaddam. Theories of Intergroup Relations. International Social Psychological Perspectives. (2nd ED). Praeger Press: London, p. 20.

[2] History.com Staff, “Jonestown”, History.com, 2010, http://www.history.com/topics/jonestown.

[3] Taylor & Moghaddam, p. 20.

[4] Taylor & Moghaddam, p. 20.

[5] Taylor & Moghaddam, p. 23.

[6] Taylor & Moghaddam, p. 23.

[7] Taylor & Moghaddam, p. 26.

Skip to main content