Dip your toe in the water of Jonestown

“Psychology is everywhere.” This is a statement you will hear often if you take my psy101 course. My mission each semester is to prove this statement true to my students. There are two men discussed in my course that I know my students will never forget: serial killer Ted Bundy, and Jim Jones.

The first time I mentioned Jim Jones and Jonestown in a psychology class two years ago, it was actually by chance. It was not something I planned or even jotted down in my notes, and I did not even recall all of the details from my Sociology of Religion class in college. But during the discussion of social psychology chapter, I described a phenomenon that happens with group decision-making. In a group, I said, we are all more likely to make riskier decisions and develop common rationalizations – in essence a groupthink – just as the people in Peoples Temple had. Hundreds of people thought it was a “great idea” to commit mass suicide in Jonestown, all under the command of their directive leader, Jim Jones. Out of 30+ students in the class, few knew what I was referring to, but they wanted to know more. I was beyond excited; I suddenly knew Jonestown would make a great sub-topic to flesh out the lecture. I told them everything I could remember, although my knowledge at the time was limited. It was clear the class was shocked by the details I could recall. That meant they were also curious. And that meant were learning!

As if by fate, the thirtieth anniversary of Jonestown was approaching, and CNN aired Escape from Jonestown, the documentary it filmed for the occasion. After seeing it, I knew I had to fit it into my course. Although it is just a snapshot, it is enough to engage my students. They are typically overwhelmed by the documentary. Many initially react that the people of Jonestown were crazy. I welcome this feedback, because it helps me to start a dialog and pick away at this preliminary notion.

Most of my students want to know how people could believe in Jones and why some were so willing to die at his command? This allows me to explain the issues of manipulation, fear, deceit… the many psychological tactics used that would allow such a large group of adults to be deceived for years. Eventually these are points my students start to grasp and begin to move beyond the “crazy” thinking. Psychology in the flesh, practiced by Jim Jones.

Presenting Jonestown to my students challenges everything they know about the power of groups and the decisions they make as a group, deindividuation, religious conviction, suicide, murder and mental health (to name a few). The psychological value Peoples Temple and Jonestown has had in my classroom is enormous. My students are always hungry to learn more information about Peoples Temple and what went on in Jonestown. It is difficult to introduce students to such an emotionally charged topic and then limit them in this quest to comprehend what went on, but the course does not allow us to linger too long on the topic. I tell students we can only dip our toe in the water of Jonestown, so to speak. But it does allow me to remind them, “Psychology is everywhere,” especially within this dark tragedy.

(Kimberly Adkins teaches psychology at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, New Jersey. She can be reached at childpsy23@optonline.net.)