I first heard of it when I was eight, sitting with my father in an old-school barbershop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on a Sunday afternoon. I listened as the men told jokes that I didn’t understand but tried to laugh at as if I did. Because they were reading the newspaper I did so as well, and there it was. Hundreds of people had killed themselves—drank the Kool-Aid—because someone told them to. I couldn’t understand this and asked my father why they did it. I still remember him saying, “Son, people are crazy. You have to understand that.” I have tried my entire life to do so.
Monday November 18th is the 41st anniversary of Jonestown. Anniversaries are important because they remind us to consider things, but also because our perceptions of those things change over the years as we reconsider. At the bottom of my email signature is the marker “Year 233,” noting that we are in the 233rd year of the constitutional order since 17 September 1787. We are now entering the 42nd year that Jonestown has been in my mind. It coincides with a time of dueling fact perceptions (the focus of this blog) and the two seem connected in important ways.
Jonestown was an extreme example of human behavior, but extremes may simply be the exaggerations of ordinary patterns. For this reason, studying extremes may be a way to illuminate the commonplace. One could argue that Jonestown may be so extreme as to tell us nothing about more usual psychological mechanisms, but I suspect it was more a difference in degree than kind.
Events at Jonestown were driven by perceptions and misperceptions. Many forget that the doctrines of the People’s Temple in San Francisco were driven by perceptions of racial discrimination as well as by more troubling beliefs. Even as it grew more cultish, the Temple’s progressive and respectable doctrines about integration created public perceptions that connected Jones to powerful politicians and shielded him from criticism. In the Jonestown phase in Guyana, the Temple’s beliefs were driven by growing perceptions that their movement had enemies who were massing to destroy them. This misperception led directly to the argument for suicide. But there was no army coming to destroy their project and enslave their children, as Jones claimed.
The popular phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a macabre reference to how the members of the group killed themselves, drinking from a communal vat laced with cyanide. The photo at the top of this post is of the actual vat. One of the cups they used lies on the ground, next to one of the victims. The phrase now means believing obviously false or ideological claims.
In the only existing audiotape of Jones on the day of the massacre, he says to the members
“I’m going to be just as plain as I know how to tell you. I’ve never lied to you. I never have lied to you… So my opinion is that you be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide; it’s a revolutionary act.”
He was of course blatantly lying about what he knew had already happened that day—the murders of the visiting congressman and his entourage as they attempted to leave. His descriptions of death as kindness and suicide as revolution are harder to characterize.
One of the difficult but unavoidable psychological tasks is distinguishing between lies and truths, all the more so in our current politics. In One Nation, Two Realities we discuss the social aspect of perception and misperception. Another important recent book—The Misinformation Age, by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall—focuses directly on the social sources of the current perceptual divides.
Social proof is the term for the psychological tendency to derive our perceptions from those around us. This tendency is ratcheted up when the costs of non-conformity are high and the immediate costs of holding questionable perceptions are low.
It is worth remembering that some of the famous early social psychology experiments on conformity focused on perceptions, especially the Asch experiments of the 1950s. When presented with questions about visual perception for which there were obvious answers—but prior to answering, other people had publicly given the clearly incorrect answer—participants in the studies were shockingly likely to also give the incorrect answer even though it conflicted with their own observations.
But social conformity may not be irrational. Relying on the perceptions of others is grounded in humility: if our perceptions and those of several seemingly trustworthy people are different, is it more likely that we are wrong or that that they are wrong? Ordinary (non-hubristic) citizens do not typically assume that they are never the ones in error, and therefore they often bet on the group’s perceptions over their own. So it matters a great deal which group we trust and therefore whom we employ as our arbiters of reality.
In Jonestown the boundaries of social proof and epistemic conformity became limited to a small group and perhaps to one person alone. When that person degenerated from a combination of drug addiction, mental illness, and ideology, perceptions became more and more detached from reality.
We don’t live in Jonestown. And we don’t listen only to one leader and a small detached group of co-believers. And we don’t dismiss all of those outside our group as enemies. But the extreme example does illustrate those trends on a smaller scale in contemporary politics.
It is easy to believe that this applies to the other side, but not to ours. They are listening to a madman in authority; we are listening to our reasonable leader. They live in a bubble; we listen to all voices. But our research shows that both ideological sides in the current day live in bubbles; both sides demonize the opposition while projecting their preferred values onto their perceived facts. Actively listening to those outside our group is the exception rather than the rule, and we may be heading each anniversary further toward an extreme.