Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Tools Of A Deadly Reverend

In 1978, 909 followers of the religious movement called 'Peoples Temple' committed suicide on the orders of their leader, James Warren 'Jim' Jones. From an evolutionary perspective, the events that took place in 'Jonestown' are seemingly void of any sense or explanation. Why would so many people kill themselves, abandoning their natural will to exist in favor of the mad utterances of a 'god complex'-ridden reverend? One might assume that the location of Jonestown itself, namely in the heart of the Guyanese jungle, played a crucial role in regard to what happened. The adverse circumstances linked to the cult's village life resemble to what Goffman (1961) defined as a 'total institution', a secluded area in which its inhabitants follow a strict routine, suppressing any form of behavior that deviates from the group's norm. But how were these people inoculated with the seed of blind followership? When one analyses Jim Jones' speeches, it becomes clear that despite his delusional demeanor (or because of it), his arsenal of persuasive weaponry showed incredible finesse. In order to illuminate this claim, I will put forth some of the techniques the reverend used in one of his early sermons, which was held in San Francisco in 1973. The tape was made freely accessible by the Jonestown institution's 'FBI Audiotape Project' (

I want you to be like me!


This spine chilling excerpt demonstrates the charisma with which Jones was operating as an indoctrinator. He shows a great understanding and capacity to read the crowd's needs and to give them what they want. More importantly, he makes a clear point: his own personal wish for similarity with those who are listening to him. More than just alluding to platonic companionship or metaphorical closeness, his call 'I want you to be like me' entails strong psychological ramifications, as it creates an ingroup. The creation of an ingroup is usually the first step to cult leadership and is further fortified by clearly defining the outgroup, which serves as a common enemy. In this particular speech Jones refers to Billy Graham, who was a rather popular evangelical preacher at the time, as the incarnation of ignorance hence establishing him as the prototype of the outgroup.
The momentum a similarity effect can gain is further exemplified by research on attraction. More precisely, we have the tendency to like those which we perceive to be similar to us (Berscheid & Walster, 1969; Byrne, 1971). Moreover, similarity not only greatly increases compliance in general (Cialdini, 2007), but the empathy resulting from identifying with someone causes an increase in altruistic or even self-sacrificial behavior towards that person (Batson et al., 1981). In Batson et al.'s (1981) design participants watched individuals (who were confederates) being subjected to electro-shocks (which were not real) and were then asked whether they were willing to switch places with that person. Surprisingly people who thought the person was similar to them even agreed to switching roles when presented with the opportunity to simply leave. Of course the decision to endure electro-shocks is less 'final' than deliberately drinking kool-aid that has been laced with cyanide. Still, one can consider the described mechanism as a core foundation which, in combination with many other contributing factors, has lead to the mass suicide. 

Free healing. Right?


Reciprocation has deep evolutionary roots as it helps us to function as a collective and we generally dislike those who 'don't give back'. However this mechanism is often subject to various forms of manipulations, given that gifts and favors possess a powerfully 'indebting force' (Cialdini, 2007). Jones performed many so-called 'faith healings' in which he allegedly cured a large variety of diseases through a mere gesture with his hand. More importantly though, he regularly reminded his audience of his exploits as a healer conjuring a 'gratitude imperative' (Schwartz, 1967), as exemplified by this passage:

'And you’ve never seen anybody can take a cancer out of a person like that [...] brother was jumping up and down, it was swollen up in great big knots like apples, and I took it away with one stroke.'

Furthermore, past research has shown that the feeling of owing someone manifests itself regardless of whether we actually like the person in question or not (Regan, 1971). Regan (1971) also found that people falling prey to the power of the reciprocity principle often find themselves repaying more than they received in the first place. In Jones' case this kind of gratitude proved itself fatal.

A human prophet.


At a point during his speech, when handling an old watch (which served as a symbolic token linked to his preaching), he drops the microphone and the crowd bursts with laughter and cheers. Mere clumsiness or a calculated move? What happened here has been coined the 'pratfall effect' by Aronson in 1966. This effect manifests itself in the form of an increase in sympathy towards a person, that is seen as competent and superior, subsequent to a minor mistake committed by that person. In other words, if someone thinks highly of you and you 'goof', it will cause them to like you even more. This is due to the idea that overly competent people may seem out of reach and almost 'non-human', and hence the pratfall has the capacity to remind one that even the most brilliant individual is still a fallible human being, just like yourself. Aronson et al. (1966) tested this assumption by letting participants listen to either of four interview tapes in which: (1) the person interviewed exhibits high levels of skill, (2) a person that is of average ability is interviewed, (3) and (4) being identical to (1) and (2) respectively, except for a blunder that has been added (the person spilled coffee over themselves). Having listened to the tapes, the subjects were then asked to give an account of how attractive they perceived the person from the interview to be. The table below has been extracted from Aronson et al. (1966). 

As hypothesized, an individual presenting himself with a high intellect was seen as more likeable when having spilled the coffee. Was Jones' clumsiness 'premeditated'? On one hand it might seem unlikely given his overall narcissistic behavior, on the other hand 'abusing' the pratfall effect would fit into his manipulatory repertoire. Voluntary or not, the effect remains the same as the audience's laughter gains an almost hysterically relieved tone, conveying the lines: 'He is not only the prophet we have been waiting for but, more importantly, he is also human.'


Aronson, E., Willerman, B., & Floyd, J. (1966). The effect of a pratfall on increasing interpersonal attractiveness. Psychonomic Science, 4, 227-228.

Batson, C. D., Duncan, B. D., Ackerman, P., Buckley, T., & Birch, K. (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 290-302. 

Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1969). Interpersonal attraction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Byrne, D. (1971) The Attraction Paradigm. New York: Academic Press.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: HarperCollins.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Anchor Books.

Regan, D. T. (1971). Effect of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627-639.

Schwartz, B. (1967). The Social Psychology of the Gift. American Journal of Sociology, 73, 1-11.

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