As a person with Asperger’s (a form of autism), I have always been a lone wolf. I could never find peace inside my body. At one point I decided I wanted to learn more about how groups react, because understanding group dynamics does not come naturally to me. I wanted to see if there was some sort of mechanism that could explain how groups function. I did different searches in Google and the concept of group thinking appeared. Finally! A kind of structure that could explain why people go in a certain direction together, no matter whether it is a good thing to do or not. The reason is the herd instinct which has been essential for humans to survive as hunters in small communities for thousands of years.
Among the many YouTube videos on group thinking was one that stood out from the rest: the story of the Jonestown massacre. A small community in South America had committed collective suicide, according to media reports, but in reality the charismatic leader Jim Jones ordered his people to drink poisoned Kool-Aid and commit suicide, and parents had their young children taken from them and given the lethal liquid. The video is one of the most psychologically shocking I have ever seen, so shocking, in fact, that my advisor recommended that I did not include it in the speeches I give about suffering from Asperger’s.
Taking into account what I have learned about group thinking, I would say that everything hinges on Jim Jones’ charisma and his ability to connect with people. My view is that Jim Jones was a very charismatic person who could open all hearts, and a strategic genius who gradually put everyone under his spell. Below is my illustration of the process.
The orange color symbolizes Jim Jones, the blue symbolizes his people. In the beginning, people are connecting to him. He certainly seems interesting to talk to; vivid and charismatic. Some people may be slightly dissatisfied with him, but he nevertheless influences them slowly and subconsciously.
Then he gradually begins to flank his people and enclose them. This is shown by the orange color coming down the sides of the blue color, which illustrates his people. This happens imperceptibly.
The process intensifies. The orange color has now all but encircled the blue. Jim Jones gains more and more influence over his people, and they slowly lose control over their own lives.
The process is disrupted when Congressman Leo Ryan visits Jonestown and some members of Peoples Temple leave with him. Enraged by the betrayal of the defections, Jones sends out members of his security force to kill the congressman, then kills himself along with his people.
What I struggled to understand was why people did not turn against him. My view is that in nature, it is always the strongest will that prevails and is followed. Jim Jones was the reason Peoples Temple came to be in the first place. People had placed their trust in him. Everybody liked him and if your entire network was in Peoples Temple, how could you leave?
Jonestown was also located in a jungle far away from any roads and telephones. The deprivations there – the lack of adequate food, the endless hours of labor, the constant harangue of Jones’ voice over the community loudspeakers – had shattered the hopes of the community. This is how he could commit this odious act of killing children and adults without anyone really daring to stand up to him.
In the beginning, everyone wanted to follow Jones because they thought he was “good”. But in the end, I don’t think the people loved him anymore. It was just that he still had power over them.
(Esben Lykke Gadgaard, Elg, suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and aspires to study marketing management. He lives in Denmark. He can be reached through this website.)