Mind Control and Jonestown

When most people hear of mind control and brainwashing, they often think about the tragedy wrought by Jim Jones. Hundreds of newspapers around the nation printed articles on November 20, 1978 describing former members who claimed they’d been brainwashed while under the undue influence of Peoples Temple[1] or attributing brainwashing to the tragedy that occurred at Jonestown. Articles described the obstacles faced by California state officials as they examined the allegations of brainwashing to investigative reporters, and the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed their difficulties. At that time, according to Benjamin Civiletti, former chief of Justice’s Criminal Division, he had had his doubts that brainwashing or similar thought-control assertions would “support a prosecution under the federal kidnapping statute.”[2]

In reality, brainwashing is only one specific form of mind control, and there were many different forms used to convince the people of Jonestown to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and murder 304 children. Mind control is any totalistic system of influence that disrupts an individual’s authentic identity and replaces it with a false, new one. The decisions made by people with this new identity are not always their own, often lacking critical thought process.

As new members were introduced to Peoples Temple, they were love bombed and not given full informed consent to commit their lives to Jim Jones. They were mostly idealists who believed in love, God, and the possibility of making the world a better place. At the time of making their commitment to Peoples Temple, they would have not agreed they would go to an isolated jungle compound and kill themselves. Yet in the days leading up to the Jonestown Massacre, all who lined up to drink had been programmed to be obedient and loyal. Many of these statements are available on the recordings and transcripts of the “death tape.”[3] They truly believed through their indoctrination that their choice was made by their own free will.

In the past decades, the destructive cult phenomenon has mushroomed into a problem of tremendous social and political importance. It is estimated that there are now over three thousand destructive cults in the United States, directly affecting more than three million people.[4] Each one of them shares the common belief that their ends justify any means, many of them aware that those means are harmful. Convinced that what they are doing is right, they are also convinced that they are above the law. And since cases involving mind control techniques are difficult to prosecute, many of these groups practice unethical strategies to achieve persuasion without fear of intervention by the authorities.

The general public is for the most part still uneducated in this area. Many falsely believe that mind control is a subject matter for fiction TV series and movies and novels. Most people are not educated consumers and are therefore more vulnerable to undue influence. People presently in a cult do not believe they are in a cult. “What is a cult, anyway?” they ask. “Is not any group of people adhering to a common set of beliefs considered to be a cult?” Then they begin to describe the number of similarities between their destructive group and one that is healthy and supportive. But without realizing it, they avoid any differences that violate their rights or causes damage through the abusive techniques of unethical mind control. In doing so, they are demonstrating the effects of mind control over their actions, and further proving the power of control the group has over their identities.

Cult groups having members displaying this level of control are most likely destructive. Destructive cults distinguish themselves from normal, healthy groups by subjecting their members to systematic behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions (BITE) to keep them dependent and obedient. Some of these groups may have existed for centuries, while others are relatively new. As groups of people begin to form around charismatic leaders, new cults begin. But as those groups begin to change the identities of their people through control of behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions, they turn destructive. In recent decades, this process has been enhanced through use of modern psychological techniques that prevent victims from critical thought – allowing others to control their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Often, the transformation of a new group into a destructive cult is a gradual process, and is not detected by its members.

Influence Continuum
Fig 1. Taken from Combating Cult Mind Control, (2015) Freedom of Mind Press.

In contrast, some groups form that provide helpful or constructive influence. Members of those groups are well-informed, and are asked their consent before decisions are made that could impact their lives. Healthy groups have systems of checks and balances in place to prevent a single person or sub-group of people to seize control, and are transparent in their process. They are considered healthy because they encourage the growth, health, and sanity of their members.

In the case of the tragic event at Jonestown, investigative reports focused on the events leading up to the massacre rather than the internal makeup of the cult itself. It was obvious that a group of people were convinced to willingly commit suicide under the direction of a very charismatic leader, but the process in altering their personalities to make such a decision has been largely overlooked.

Jim Jones, the central figure of the cult group, emerged from the Post World War II Healing Revival during a time when the Red Scare and fears of atomic destruction gripped the hearts of the nation. Revivalists of the era – including some who added claims of prophetic insight – upon this fear to persuade listeners that their days to accept the revivalist’s particular flavor of faith were numbered. William Branham, who is credited as the catalyst that ignited Jim Jones’ ministry[5], had several “doomsday” predictions.[6] Only two months prior to a series of “healing” meetings held with Jones at the Cadle Tabernacle in Indianapolis,[7] Branham predicted 1956 as the final year for America to accept his version of the “Gospel.”[8] In Branham’s description of Armageddon, Communist Russia would bomb his and Jones’ region of northern Kentucky and southern Indiana. Jones later used the same strategy by building upon that same fear by claiming to have had a prophetic vision of Indianapolis being consumed in a holocaust from a nuclear explosion.[9] This strategy of using fear tactics to control his following would continue until the massacre, and is just one of many techniques used by Peoples Temple to control the minds of its victims.

Using claims of divine gifts of “prophecy” and “faith healing,” Jones gradually convinced his fear-gripped members that he was different from the common rank-and-file member. Though his followers considered him to be a fellow human being, they were slowly convinced that he had “paranormal” abilities given him by a divine being. He began asking his followers to call him “Father” as a further separation, and used a variety of techniques to convince them of his divinity. During his fraudulent faith-healing services – using rotting animal organs as phony cancerous tumors – Jones successfully persuaded his people to believe that he was empowered by God. He also delegated his loyal followers to search through members’ garbage to gain information used in fake psychic readings, and to “die” – only to be revived – during Temple services members to convince others that he had the power to raise the dead. Eventually, he was seen as a messianic figure to many of his followers. Some of them had knowledge of his actions, but this information was withheld from the general membership. As with any destructive cult, control of information was critical to the success of Peoples Temple, and is another technique used to achieve mind control.

Empowered with the undeserved level of respect he received from his followers, Jones began to employ systematic behavior-altering techniques to ensure the conformity of obedience of the group. In the days leading up to the Jonestown Massacre, members were required to spy on each other, and were publicly humiliated over their worst fears or mistakes. Repetitive suicide drills, starvation, and long working hours under harsh environmental conditions were used to alter the emotional state of his victims, and their perception of reality was blurred by requiring them to daily give thanks for their good food and work.[10] As their behaviors were being altered, Jones was ensuring their obedience and conformity to the group mindset. Behavioral control and conformity to the group mindset are fundamental to the survival of a destructive mind control cult.

Though in their worst form in the days leading to the mass suicide, many of these techniques were in place for most of the history of Peoples Temple. In the fundamentalist Pentecostal groups Rev. Jim Jones associated and fellowshipped with, public shaming was and remains common. Former members of similar groups describe their secret sins becoming the subject matter for Sunday sermons, and this information is often transmitted to the pastors of the group through other members. Often, confessions to the pastor given in confidence are used in sermons as examples. Parishioners are sometimes asked to verbally claim emotions or feelings that defy their own bodies, and obedience to the rules and conformity to the doctrine is essential. Uneducated in the dangers of these techniques, the victims of Peoples Temple were not aware of their imminent danger and did not realize they were making very fatal decisions.

Though almost thirty-eight years has passed since the Jonestown Massacre, very little has changed to prevent such catastrophes. Lawmakers still struggle to pass legislation preventing charismatic leaders from seizing control of the minds of their peers using mind control techniques, and the majority of schools in our education system do not include this study in any of their required courses. The news media have helped with the awareness of such events, publicizing disasters in destructive cults such as the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and Peoples Temple. Unfortunately, it is only the climactic event that publishers find newsworthy. Even after the examples these groups made that have left behind scars on our nation, we find no articles to inform citizens of the hidden dangers lurking within new groups that appear destructive or existing groups that have historically demonstrated these techniques. Media giants are aware of the legal ramifications should such articles be printed. Unless we continue educating others in the area of mind control techniques, history will repeat itself again and again.

I. Behavior Control

  1. Regulate individual’s physical reality
  2. Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
  3. When, how and with whom the member has sex
  4. Control types of clothing and hairstyles
  5. Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
  6. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
  7. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
  8. Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
  9. Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet
  10. Permission required for major decisions
  11. Thoughts, feelings, and activities (of self and others) reported to superiors
  12. Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
  13. Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
  14. Impose rigid rules and regulations
  15. Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning, cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding
  16. Threaten harm to family and friends
  17. Force individual to rape or be raped
  18. Instill dependency and obedience
II. Information Control

  1. Deception:
    a. Deliberately withhold information
    b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
    c. Systematically lie to the cult member
  2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
    a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
    b. Critical information
    c. Former members
    d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
    e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
  3. Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
    a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
    b. Control information at different levels and missions within group
    c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
  4. Encourage spying on other members
    a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
    b. Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
    c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
  5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
    a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
    b. Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
  6. Unethical use of confession
    a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
    b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
    c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories.
III. Thought Control

  1. Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
    a. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
    b. Instill black and white thinking
    c. Decide between good vs. evil
    d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
  2. Change person’s name and identity
  3. Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
  4. Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
  5. Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
  6. Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
  7. Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
    a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
    b. Chanting
    c. Meditating
    d. Praying
    e. Speaking in tongues
    f. Singing or humming
  8. Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
  9. Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
  10. Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful
  11. Instill new “map of reality”
IV. Emotional Control

  1. Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
  2. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
  3. Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
  4. Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as
    a. Identity guilt
    b. You are not living up to your potential
    c. Your family is deficient
    d. Your past is suspect
    e. Your affiliations are unwise
    f. Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
    g. Social guilt
    h. Historical guilt
  5. Instill fear, such as fear of:
    a. Thinking independently
    b. The outside world
    c. Enemies
    d. Losing one’s salvation
    e. Leaving or being shunned by the group
    f. Other’s disapproval
  6. Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
  7. Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
  8. Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority
    a. No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
    b. Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
    c. Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends, peers, and family
    d. Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
    e. Threats of harm to ex-member and family

(John Collins’ other article for this edition of the jonestown report is Colonia Dignidad and Jonestown. His previous articles for this website are The Intersection of William Branham and Jim Jones and The Message Connection of Jim Jones and William Branham. More information about Rev. Branham prepared by John Collins may be found at the informational website,  https://william-branham.org, and in the book Stone Mountain to Dallas available on Amazon.com.

(Steven Hassan writes frequently on the subject of cults. More information – including videos on helping people who are in cults – is available at his Freedom of Mind website.)



[1] E.g.: “People’s Temple boss uses intrigue and strict discipline. “ 1978, November 20. Arizona Republic.

[2] “Jonestown Residents Were Beyond Uncle Sam’s Reach.” 1978, November 26. Santa Cruz Sentinel.

[3] Q042 Transcript, by Fielding M. McGehee III. 2014, December 25th. Accessed from http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29079

[4] Hassan, Steven. 2015. Combating Cult Mind Control. Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults Freedom of Mind Press.

Hassan, Steven 2013 Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs. Freedom of Mind Press.

[5] Reiterman, Tom; Jacobs, John (1982), Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People, Dutton, ISBN 0-525-24136-1

[6] E.g.: Branham, William. 1954, May 13. “The Mark of the Beast.”

[7] Collins, John. 2016. Stone Mountain to Dallas: The Untold Story of Roy E. Davis. Dark Mystery Publications.

[8] Branham, William. 1956, February 12. “Fellowship.”

[9] Chidester, David. 2003. Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. University of Indiana Press.

[10] Dittmann, Melissa. 2003, November. “Lessons from Jonestown.” American Psychological Association, Vol 34, No. 10, p. 36.