From monkey salesman to charismatic preacher

(Richard Wiseman holds a Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, Great Britain. His research covers a range of topics including luck, the psychology of change, deception and persuasion. He is the author of several books, and his psychology-based YouTube-videos have received more than 200 million views. He is also a professional magician. He can be reached through his blog.

(The following analysis is an excerpt from his book Paranormality – Why we believe the impossible, first published by Macmillan in 2011. It is republished here with the author’s permission.)

Born in 1931, Jim Jones grew up in a rural Indiana community. Later described by some of his neighbours as a ‘really weird kid’, Jones spent much of his childhood exploring religion, torturing animals, and discussing death. He also exhibited an early interest in preaching, with one childhood friend recalling how Jones once draped an old sheet over his shoulders, formed a group of other children into a makeshift congregation, and promptly gave a sermon pretending to be the Devil. In his teens he enrolled as a student pastor in a local Methodist Church, but left when the church leaders banned him from preaching to a racially mixed congregation. In 1955, aged just 24, Jones rounded up a small flock of faithful followers and founded his own church, which eventually became known as Peoples Temple. Rather bizarrely, he funded this ambitious venture by going door-to-door selling pet monkeys. When he wasn’t engaged in monkey business, he spent time honing his public speaking skills and soon built a considerable reputation as a highly charismatic preacher.

Jones’ initial message was one of equality and racial integration. Practicing what he preached, he encouraged his followers to help provide food and employment for the poor. Word of his good deeds soon spread, resulting in almost a thousand people flocking to his church. Jones continued to use his influence to help enrich the community, opening both a soup kitchen and a nursing home. In 1965 he claimed to have had a vision that the Midwest of America would soon be the target for a nuclear strike, and persuaded about a hundred members of his congregation to follow him to Redwood Valley in California. He still focused on supporting those most in need, helping drug addicts, alcoholics and the poor.

By the early 1970s storm clouds were gathering. He was asking for a greater level of commitment from his followers, urging them to spend holidays with other Temple members rather than their families, and give their money and material possessions to the church. In addition, Jones had developed a serious drug habit and had become increasingly paranoid about the idea of the American government trying to destroy his church. Local journalists eventually started to take an interest in the stories of unhealthy levels of commitment emerging from Peoples Temple, causing Jones to attempt to escape unwanted scrutiny by shifting his headquarters to San Francisco. Here his preaching again proved highly successful, and within a few years the Temple congregation had doubled in size. However, before long journalists again started to write articles that criticized him, prompting him to decide to leave America and build his own ‘utopian’ community abroad.

He carefully considered several countries before deciding to set up his self-supporting commune in Guyana on the northern coast of South America. From Jones’ perspective it was a wise choice, in part, because Guyanese officials could be easily bribed, allowing him to receive illegal shipments of firearms and drugs. In 1974 he negotiated a lease on almost 4,000 acres of remote jungle in the Northwest of the country. Modestly naming the plot ‘Jonestown’, the charismatic preacher and several hundred of his followers packed their bags and moved to Guyana. It was a harsh existence. Jonestown was isolated, suffered from poor quality soil, and the nearest water supply could only be reached after a seven-mile hike along muddy roads. Severe diarrhoea and high fevers were common. In addition to working 11-hour days, Temple members were expected to attend long evening sermons and classes in socialism. A variety of punishments were administered to those who neglected their duties, including imprisonment in a small coffin-shaped wooden box, and being forced to spend hours at the bottom of a disused well.

On 14 November 1978, American Congressman Leo Ryan travelled to Guyana to investigate rumours of people being held at Jonestown against their will. When he arrived at the jungle community three days later, Ryan initially heard nothing but praise for the new community. However, towards the end of the first day of his visit, a small number of families secretly informed Ryan that they were far from happy and eager to leave. Early the following morning, 11 Temple members sensed a growing feeling of danger and desperation in Jonestown, and secretly made their escape by walking thirty miles through the surrounding dense jungle. Later that day Ryan and a small number of defectors headed to a nearby airstrip and attempted to board planes to return to America. Armed members of the Temple’s ‘Red Brigade’ security squad opened fire, killing Ryan and several members of his group. Ryan became the only Congressman in the history of the America to be murdered in the line of duty.

Sensing his world crumbling around him, Jones gathered together the residents of Jonestown, told them that Ryan and his party had been killed, explained that the American government would now seek revenge on the community, and urged everyone to participate in a mass act of ‘revolutionary suicide’. Large drums of grape-flavoured juice laced with cyanide were brought out, and Jones ordered everyone to drink the liquid. Parents were urged to first administer the poison to their children and then drink it themselves. An audiotape made at the time shows that whenever followers were reluctant to participate, Jones urged them to join in, proclaiming ‘I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries, death is a million times preferable to this life. If you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.’ Over 900 people died during the ritual, including 304 minors under 18. Although several armed Temple guards had surrounded the group, it appears that the majority of the followers willingly killed themselves, with one woman writing ‘Jim Jones is the only one’ on her arm during the episode. Up until 11 September 2001, the deaths represented the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster.

For over 30 years, psychologists have speculated as to how Jim Jones persuaded so many people to take their own lives, and parents to murder their children. Some have pointed out that the majority of the Temple congregation were psychologically vulnerable individuals desperate to believe Jones’ message of equality and racial harmony. Jones referred to Jonestown as the ‘promised land’ and described it as a place where parents could raise their children away from the racial abuse that had scarred their own lives. His mission was also attractive because it provided people with a strong sense of purpose, a relief from feelings of worthlessness, and made them part of a large family of caring and like-minded individuals. As one survivor memorably put it, ‘Nobody joins a cult . . . you join a religious organization or a political movement, and you join with people you really like’. Although these factors clearly played a part in the Jonestown tragedy, they are far from the full picture. People are often attracted to religious and political organizations because they offer a sense of purpose and extended family, but most would be unwilling to lay down their lives for the cause. Instead, psychologists believe that Jones’ influence relied on four key factors.

First, Jones was skilled at getting his foot in the door.


Getting a foot in the door

In a now-classic study carried out by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser of Stanford University, researchers posed as volunteer workers and went from door-to-door explaining that there was a high level of traffic accidents in the area and asking people if they would mind placing a sign saying ‘DRIVE CAREFULLY’ in their gardens. This was a significant request because the sign was very big and so would ruin the appearance of the person’s house and garden. Perhaps not surprisingly, few residents agreed to display it. In the next stage of the experiment, the researchers approached a second set of residents and asked them to place a sign saying ‘BE A SAFE DRIVER’ in their garden. This time the sign was just three inches square, and almost everyone accepted. Two weeks later, the researchers returned and now asked the second set of residents to display the much larger sign. Amazingly, over three quarters of people agreed to place the big ugly placard. This concept, known as the ‘foot in the door’ technique, involves getting people to agree to a large request by first getting them to agree to a far more modest one.

Jones used the technique to manipulate his congregation. Followers would first be asked to donate a small amount of their income to the Temple, but over time the amount required would rise until they had given all of their property and savings to Jones. The same applied to acts of devotion. When they first joined the church, members were asked to spend just a few hours each week working for the community. As time passed, these few hours expanded little by little until members were attending long services, helping to attract others into the organization and writing letters to politicians and the media. By ratcheting up his requests slowly, Jones was using the ‘foot in the door’ technique to prepare his followers to make the ultimate sacrifice. But this technique is only successful if people do not draw a line in the sand and speak out against the increased demands. The second psychological technique employed by Jones was designed to quell this potential rebellion.


All together now

In the 1950s, American psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments into the power of conformity. Participants were asked to arrive at Asch’s laboratory one at a time and were introduced to about six other volunteers. Unbeknownst to each participant, all of these other volunteers were actually stooges who were working for Asch. The group, made up of the participant and stooges, were sat around a table and told that they were about to take part in a ‘vision test’. They were then shown two cards. The first card had a single line on it, while the second card contained three lines of very different length, one of which was the same length as the line of the first card. The group were asked to say which of the three lines on the second card matched the line on the first card. They had been seated in such a way as to ensure that the genuine participant answered last. Everyone was asked to voice their answers and each of the ‘volunteers’ always gave the same one. For the first two trials, all of the stooges gave the correct response to comparing the lines, while on the third trial the stooges all gave an incorrect answer. Asch wanted to discover what percentage of participants would conform to peer pressure and give an obviously incorrect answer in order to go along with the group. Amazingly, 75 per cent of people conformed. In a slight variation on the procedure, Asch had just one of the stooges break with the group and give a different answer. This one dissenting voice reduced the amount of conformity to around 20 per cent.

Peoples Temple was a huge experiment in the psychology of conformity. Jones was aware that any dissent would encourage others to speak out and so tolerated no criticism. To help enforce this regime, Jones had informers befriend those thought to be harbouring doubts about the Temple, with any evidence of dissent resulting in brutal beatings or public humiliation. He also split up any groups that were likely to share their concerns with each other. Families were separated, with children first being seated away from their parents during services and later placed into the full-time care of another church member. Spouses were encouraged to participate in extramarital sexual relationships to loosen marital bonds. Similarly, the dense jungle around Jonestown ensured that the community was completely cut off from the outside world and had no way of hearing any dissenting voices from those not involved. The powerful and terrible effects of this intolerance of dissent emerged during the mass suicide. An audiotape of the tragedy revealed that at one point a woman openly declared that the babies deserved to live. Jones acted to quickly quell the criticism, stating that babies are even more deserving of peace and that ‘the best testimony we can give is to leave this goddamn world’. The crowd applaud Jones, with one man shouting ‘It’s over, sister . . . We’ve made a beautiful day’, and another adding, ‘If you tell us we have to give our lives now, we’re ready.’

But Jones was not just concerned with getting his foot in the door and quashing any dissent. He also employed a third psychological weapon to help control the minds of his followers – he appeared to have a hotline to God and be able to perform miracles.


Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles

Many people followed Jones because he appeared to be able to perform miracles. During services Jones would ask those suffering from any illnesses to make their way to the front of the church. Reaching into their mouths, he would dramatically pull out a horrid mass of ‘cancerous’ tissue and announce that they were now cured. Sometimes the lame would apparently be instantly healed, with Jones telling them to throw away their walking aids and dance back up the aisle. He also claimed to hear the voice of God, calling out to people in the congregation and accurately revealing information about their lives. On one occasion more people than expected turned up for a service and Jones announced that he would feed the multitude by magically producing more food. A few minutes later, the door swung open and in walked a church member carrying two large trays filled with fried chicken.

It was all a sham. The ‘cancers’ were actually rancid chicken gizzards that Jones concealed in his hand prior to ‘pulling’ them from people’s mouths. The curing of the ‘lame’ was created by a small inner circle of highly devoted followers pretending that they couldn’t walk. The information about the congregation was not God-given, but instead obtained by members of Jones’ ‘inner circle’ sifting through people’s rubbish bins for letters and other useful documentation. These individuals later described how they willingly assisted Jones because he told them that he was conserving his genuine supernatural powers for more important matters. And the miracle of the deep fried chicken? One member of the congregation later described how he saw the bearer of the trays arrive at the church a few moments before the miracle, armed with several buckets of food from Kentucky Fried Chicken. When Jones found out about the comment he put a mild poison in a piece of cake, gave it to the dissenting church member, and announced that God would punish his lies by giving him vomiting and diarrhoea.

So was Jones’ mind control just about getting his foot in the door, creating conformity and performing miracles? In fact, there was also the important issue of self-justification.


On behaviour and belief

In 1959 Stanford University psychologist Elliot Aronson conducted a revealing study into the relationship between belief and behaviour. Let’s turn back the hands of time and imagine that you are a volunteer in that experiment.

When you arrive at Aronson’s laboratory, a researcher asks you whether you would mind participating in a group discussion about the psychology of sex. Drooling, you say that you are open to the idea. The researcher then explains that some people have become very self-conscious during the discussion and so now all potential volunteers have to pass an ‘embarrassment’ test. You are handed a long list of highly evocative words (including many containing four letters) and two passages containing vivid descriptions of sexual activity. The researcher asks you to read both the list and passages out loud, while he rates the degree to which you are blushing. After much sanctioned cursing, the researcher says that the good news is that you have passed the test and so can now take part in the group discussion. However, the bad news is that the ‘embarrassment’ test has taken longer than anticipated, so the discussion has already started and you will just have to listen to the group this time around. The researcher shows you into a small cubicle, explains that all of the group members sit in separate rooms to ensure anonymity, and asks you to wear some headphones. You don the headphones and are rather disappointed to discover that after all you have been through, the group is having a rather dull discussion about a book called Sexual Behavior in Animals. Finally, the researcher returns and asks you to rate the degree to which you want to join the group.

Like many psychology experiments, Aronson‘s study involved a considerable amount of deception. In reality, the entire experiment was not about the psychology of sex, but the psychology of belief. When participants arrived at the laboratory they were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Half of them went through the procedure described above, and were asked to read out highly evocative word lists and graphic passages. Those in the other group were asked to read out far less emotionally-charged words (think ‘prostitute’ and ‘virgin’). Everyone then heard the same recorded group discussion and was asked to rate the degree to which they valued being a member of the group. Most psychologists in Aronson’s day would have predicted that those who underwent the more embarrassing procedure would end up liking the group less because they would associate it with a highly negative experience. However, Aronson’s work into the psychology of self-justification had led him to expect a quite different set of results. Aronson speculated that those who had read out the more evocative sexual material would justify their increased embarrassment by convincing themselves that the group was worth joining, and end up thinking more highly of it. Aronson’s predictions proved correct. Even though everyone had heard the same recording of the group discussion, those who underwent the more extreme embarrassment test rated joining the group as far more desirable than those in the ‘prostitute and virgin’ group.

Aronson’s findings help explain why many groups demand that potential members undergo painful and humiliating initiation rituals. American college fraternities make freshmen eat unpleasant substances or strip naked, the military put new recruits through extreme training, and medical interns are expected to work night and day before becoming fully fledged doctors. Jones used the same tactics to encourage people to feel committed to Peoples Temple. Members of the congregation had to endure long meetings, write self-incriminating letters, give their property to the Temple, and allow their children to be raised by other families. If Jones suspected someone of behaving in a way that was not in the interests of the Temple, he would ask other members of the congregation to punish them. Common sense would predict that these acts would drive people away from both Jones and Peoples Temple. In reality, the psychology of self-justification ensured that it actually moved them closer to the cause.

The mind control exhibited by the likes of Jim Jones does not involve any hypnotic trances or prey on the suggestible. Instead, it uses four key principles. The first involves a slow ratcheting up of involvement. Once a cult leader has his foot in the door, they ask for greater levels of involvement until suddenly followers find themselves fully immersed in the movement. Second, any dissenting voices are removed from the group. Sceptics are driven away and the group is increasingly isolated from the outside world. Then there are the miracles. By appearing to perform the impossible, cult leaders often convince their followers that they have direct access to God and therefore should not be questioned. Finally, there is self-justification. You might imagine that asking someone to carry out a bizarre or painful ritual would encourage them to dislike the group. In reality, the opposite is true. By taking part in these rituals followers justify their suffering by adopting more positive attitudes towards the group.

Of course, it would be nice to think that if the group had not been so isolated from society, it might have been possible to undo the effects of these techniques, explain the madness of their ways, and avert a major tragedy. However, our final sojourn into the world of cults suggests that this is a naïve view of those that have fallen under the spell of a charismatic leader.


It is easy to avoid having your mind controlled, providing that you look out for the following four danger signs.

  1. Do you feel as if the ‘foot in the door’ technique might be at work? Did the organization or person start by asking you to carry out small acts of commitment or devotion, and then slowly increase their requirements? If so, do you really want to go along with their requests or are you being manipulated?
  2. Be wary of any organization that attempts to distance you from a dissenting point of view. Are they trying to cut you off from friends and family? Within the organization, is dissent and open discussion squashed? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’, think carefully about any involvement.
  3. Does the leader of the organization claim to be able to achieve paranormal miracles? Perhaps healings or acts of prophesy? However impressive, these are likely to be the result of self-delusion or deception. Don’t be swayed by supernatural phenomena until you have investigated them yourself.
  4. Does the organization require any painful, difficult or humiliating initiation rituals? Remember that these may well be designed to manufacture an increased sense of group allegiance. Ask yourself whether any suffering is really needed.

For further information about Jim Jones, see:

  1. J. Mills (1979). Six Years with God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. A&W Publishers, New York.
  2. D.G. Myers (2010). Social Psychology (10th ed.). McGraw-Hill, New York.
  3. L. Freedman and S.C. Fraser (1966). ‘Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, pages 196-202.
  4. S.E. Asch (1951). ‘Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment.’ In Groups, leadership and men (ed. H. Guetzkow). Carnegie Press, Pittsburgh, PA.
  5. E. Aronson and J. Mills (1959). ‘The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group.’ Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, pages 177-181.