Peoples Temple and the Stockholm Syndrome


The basic human need is to give love and be loved. We all need the feeling that we belong to somebody, that there is someone whom we can always count on. Although every person has a unique plan on to how to implement his own life story, we feel safer if we can look to someone who has the same life expectations as we do – a peer, a partner, or a leader – to give us direction and help us feel more secure in the everyday decisions we make.

People are also social beings. That’s why we join different communities which have the same interests we do. This is what attracted people to join Peoples Temple, and this is what led them to want to go to Jonestown. In that community were people who had fragile social backgrounds and who needed someone to help them define and draw them clear boundaries in their lives. But as we know, there is a thin line between keeping your own identity and to devoting your life completely to someone else. A charismatic leader can convince the fragile and desperate among us that his ideas about life are what they are missing and – more importantly – what he can provide. In my view, the members of Peoples Temple had aspirations and goals that may have been too ambitious for the world to offer them. Jim Jones shared their goals, but he saw only one plan – his plan – to perfect the world. As the pressures and the isolation and the paranoia mounted in Jonestown, it wasn’t only the people held hostage, it was their hopes and dreams and shared aspirations. Unfortunately, when his plan failed, his followers paid with their lives.

There is a phenomenon in psychology which we describe as the Stockholm Syndrome, pattern of behaviour shared by some persons who find themselves in a captive or hostage situation. Also known as Survival Identification Syndrome, the term itself is named after a robbery in Stockholm, Sweden that took place in August 1973. The robber took four employees of the bank and kept them in hostage for 131 hours. After they were released, they appeared to have a paradoxical emotional bond with their captor: they had come to view the police as their enemies and their captor as a sympathetic figure, and not the other way around as most of us would expect.

This syndrome is considered as a complex reaction to a frightening situation but is hard to quantify or diagnose because not all people are susceptible to develop it. It is also hard to study it as we might research other psychological conditions, because it would be unethical to test this theory by experimenting on human being. Many researchers, though, believe that the Stockholm Syndrome helps to explain certain behaviours of World War II concentration camp survivors, members of religious cults or groups like Peoples Temple, survivors of incest, physically and emotionally abused children, and – as with the original 1973 bank robbery – persons taken hostages by criminals and terrorists.

People who seem to be more susceptible to develop the Stockholm Syndrome often feel helpless in their life situations or are willing to do anything in order to survive. In addition, three factors are necessary for the syndrome to develop: The crisis situation lasts for several days or longer, the hostage takers remain in contact with the hostages, and the hostage takers show some kindness toward the hostage. All three of these factors – and the people considered most likely to be susceptible – were present in Jonestown.

The syndrome itself is characterized by three behaviours, and again, all three were mirrored in Jonestown: the hostages have negative feeling about police or other authorities (in the case of Jonestown, residents had negative feelings about the outside world, and saw every outsider as a potential threat); the hostages have positive feelings toward their captors (members of Peoples Temple loved Jim Jones and saw him as a God); and captors develop positive feelings toward their hostages (in the case of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones always had certain positive feelings toward the members, even as he led them to their deaths).

Stockholm Syndrome can be treated with a combination of medications for short-time effects, such as sleep disturbances, and psychotherapy for a longer-term symptoms. The prognosis for recovery in relatively good, but the length of treatment needed depends on several variables (length of time the crisis lasted, individual capability to cope with his situation and previous experience of trauma).

There are some indications, then, that members of Peoples Temple may have been dealing with Stockholm Syndrome. The conditions in Jonestown were not identical to the ones in the bank robbery, of course, the most significant being that members of Peoples Temple decided freely to enter the community, while the robbery victims did not choose to be in a bank with their captor. Still, there are parallels that can be drawn. And the sense of loyalty that so many survivors feel, not only to each other, but initially to Jones, and the cohesion which they have maintained over the years in the aftermath of the tragedy, speak to the powerful possibility that the Stockholm Syndrome has been at work.

More information about the Stockholm syndrome is here.

(Manca Konjedic lives in Kranj, Slovenia and was awarded her Master of Sociology degree in 2011. Her previous article for the jonestown report was New Religious Movements From A Slovenian Perspective.)