Understanding Undue Influence

In July 2010, I taught a doctoral course entitled “Undue Influence” at Alliant University in San Francisco to forensic psychology students. I had two learning goals in mind: first to teach these future forensic psychologists the emotional and cognitive vulnerabilities that make people susceptible to thought reform; and two, to teach the students the techniques that persons without conscience use to manipulate and shape the behavior of unsuspecting persons. Nearly a quarter of the class was devoted to the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and I made references to Peoples Temple and Jonestown throughout the course of the class.

I chose Peoples Temple and Jonestown as my primary example because it fit all of the course objectives perfectly. I was also quite familiar with this subject because I had done both my Masters thesis and my doctoral dissertation on cults. Additionally, I had been the psychological assistant and teaching assistant of the late Dr. Margaret Singer, author of Cults In Our Midst, and she and I had started the preliminary work on a book on Jonestown shortly before she died in 2004.

I began by asking the class how many of them had heard the phrase “drink the kool aid.” They all had, of course, although none acknowledged ever having used the term. Even though it is now part of the common American lexicon, I told them that by the conclusion of the class they would realize that the phrase is genuinely obscene. It trivializes a tragedy of immense scope and indicates a pervasive societal ignorance of just what horrible methods of conditioning and thought reform that more than 900 well-meaning, sincere and decent people had been subjected to before they were murdered. I also expressed my hope the students that by the end of the course, the students would have a sound understanding of who Jim Jones was, how Peoples Temple and Jonestown came into being, and what really transpired on November 18th, 1978, beginning with my assurance to them that what had transpired was certainly not mass suicide.

Jim Jones fit the example of a charismatic leader perfectly. He was a highly intelligent, handsome man who knew at a very early age just what he wanted to accomplish as an adult, and who had begun working towards fulfilling that vision while he was still a child. He was also a remarkably keen observer of human behavior with an uncanny ability – rare in most people but not uncommon with psychopaths – of being all things to all people. Jim Jones was also notable because even as a teenager, he grasped the power that a charismatic leader could exert on followers. The fact that Jim Jones came from a dysfunctional family and a socio-economically impoverished background makes his accomplishments all the more striking.

Jones had studied the lives of such leaders as Mao, Hitler and Stalin. It wasn’t their individual ideologies that interested him, his early membership in the Communist Party and his avowed atheism notwithstanding. Rather, it was how these leaders acquired power and the specific techniques they used, both oratory and manipulative, to increase and retain membership in their movements. It is also noteworthy that early on, Jim Jones realized that Christianity was a particularly viable vehicle for him to use to attain power and control over other people. His attention to detail in studying and later incorporating the dynamics of both poor African-American and poor white Evangelical church services was also explained during the Undue Influence class.

The truest mark of the genius of Jim Jones is that he did not operate from one specific undue influence template. Rather, he drew from a myriad of sources and adapted what he learned into Peoples Temple. If one particular technique didn’t work, he quickly discarded it and tried another. In the process, he refined the techniques that had been successful, continually modifying those techniques to make them congruent with the social and political environments in which Peoples Temple moved. Jones did not study university psychology, but he intuitively grasped the manipulative possibilities of heuristics, the context effect, dogmatism, operant conditioning, central and peripheral routes of persuasion, cognitive dissonance and subjective validation. He used this knowledge to mold his parishioners into persons largely devoid of the ability to make rational decisions about their own well being. In that, Jim Jones was undoubtedly brilliant.

During the Undue Influence class, I devoted a considerable amount of time discussing the victims of Jonestown. The event happened before most of the students were born, so what they knew about Jonestown, they knew as distant history. They had neither a personal nor a generational connection to the victims. Additionally, none of the students was African-American, and none had grown up in an Evangelical Christian family. As a result, most of the students in the class knew the residents of Jonestown only as bloated, dead bodies captured on film.

It was important for me to change that perception. I very much wanted the students to see the Jonestown victims as having been part of a vibrant community, a community that they sincerely believed was noble. Despite the hardships of life at Jonestown and despite the machinations of Jim Jones, the faith of the community’s residents was unshakable and inspiring. They clearly cared about the spiritual and material welfare of their fellow congregants. In other words, I wanted the residents of Jonestown to actually come alive for my students, for them to see the victims as genuine, caring people. If the students couldn’t grasp how real and how important these people were then I feared that they would not be able to understand the horror of the mass murders and the unspeakable losses felt by the concerned families.

I was very fortunate in having a wealth of Jonestown materials to draw from. This website was invaluable to me. I used photographs and excerpts from letters and journals as a way to demonstrate to the students that Jonestown was a thriving community of engaged, decent, “normal” people who genuinely believed that they were creating a more peaceful and equitable world, and who were hard at work to make this world a reality for everyone. I was also able to incorporate music from Peoples Temple into my presentation. There is a wealth of Peoples Temple music on the internet – all of it religious – and I included Peoples Temple music clips in my presentation to emphasize that, although Jim Jones’ vision was corrupt, the spiritual faith of most of his followers remained strong.

One of the great enigmas of Peoples Temple and Jonestown to me has been and – still remains – Marceline Jones, Jim’s wife. Adopting an African-American infant in Indianapolis, Indiana in the 1950’s, as she and Jim did, was an incredible act of courage, particularly given the views of Marceline’s father on race, and it is clear from books and journal articles about the Jones family that Marceline cared for her adopted son – as well as their other adopted children – every bit as much as she cared for her biological child. It is also clear that throughout the Temple’s history, she remained deeply concerned about the physical and emotional welfare of all the congregation’s children. In discussing Marceline with the class, I played a recording of her singing the Mahalia Jackson song “Black Baby,” which both the students and I found incredibly moving. Her heartfelt rendition of this song only deepened the irony of the final hour at Jonestown, when 304 children were murdered, most of whom were African-American.

While Marceline Jones still remains mostly a mystery to me, I was honored and delighted when that adopted black son – Mr. Jim Jones, Jr. – agreed to speak to the class. He was gracious, friendly and humble, and the students liked him immediately. In fact, the interest in the subject of Undue Influence to the students was heightened by Mr. Jones’ low key but extremely erudite and informative extemporaneous lecture. At my request, he talked about his mother and the sacrifices she made in her own life to insure his own safety and that of his siblings, and the multiples times she chose the welfare of her children over her own happiness. Far better than I could, Mr. Jones, Jr. painted a vivid verbal picture of the Jonestown community and the intrinsic decency and humanity of the residents. The victims of Jonestown, who up until then had been merely photographs to the students, became real human beings, with the same longings we all have.

This was the first time Alliant University has offered a course on Undue Influence, and the class will likely be repeated every semester. I will continue to include Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the course material and have developed a two-hour Continued Education Unit course on Peoples Temple and Jonestown that I will present to psychologists in the Fall of 2010.

(Patrick O’Reilly can be reached at oreillyphd@hotmail.com. His complete collection of articles for this site appears here.)