Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Things A Group Would Do To You

As part of our Psychology class about group dynamics today, our lecturer showed us a documentary named Paradise Lost - Jonestown. The documentary details the story of Jim Jones, a charismatic leader of a cult group called the People's Temple, who in his delusional and paranoid beliefs, caused the deaths of 900+ of his followers through mass suicide. Prior to that, he had them move to Gunaya, a south American country all the way from America claiming that he would form paradise there.

Unable to take the pressure that is mounting on him, coupled with his increased paranoia that people are "out to get him", he eventually ordered all of his followers to commit suicide with him rather than be "taken" by the so called enemies. So on November 1978, 900+ People's Temple members committed suicide. Almost 300 were children. It constituted the "greatest single losses of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the incidents of September 11, 2001" (you can know more about the incident by watching the documentary HERE or read about it HERE).

Victims of the mass suicide in Jonestown

A closer view

The first few things that comes into the mind of most people when they read or hear story like this include statements like "Why are they so stupid?", "It's all the fault of Jim Jones" or "This is what religion does to you". Most of the time, we put the blame on either the "stupid-ness" of the people who killed themselves, the leader of the cult or their beliefs, which in this case, happens to be Christianity and Socialism. Rarely do we think that we might be victims ourselves too should the same fate befalls us. I remember shrugging stories like this off thinking I'm rational enough to not do such stupid things.

After three years of studying Psychology, I now know it is not that easy.

You see, as humans, most of the time we want to belong, we want to be associated with a group. And when we're in a group that we like, we would do many things for the sake of the group. Sometimes, we would even violate our own norms and beliefs in order to conform. I'm sure all of us have some sort of experience before where we chose to forsake our own desires and chose to go with the majority in order to please the people in your group. Be it friends, colleagues or the Prefectorial Board. This is the power a group has over you.

Of course, group dynamics is not the only process affecting the people who chose to commit suicide. Cognitive dissonance, for example, is another psychological process that I believed affected almost all of them there. Imagine having to leave home, forsake all your possessions and go live in a totally foreign land with only promises that it will be paradise. Of course, you might think that it is not logical at first but over time, you will form more and more reasons to validate your choice, though it may sound absurd, and in the end, you will hold on tho those reasoning like it's gold. Smoking, for one, is a classic example of classic cognitive dissonance. Though the smokers know it's bad for health, they have form reasons like it helps to destress to validate their behavior. Though we may see it as absurd, the smokes sincerely believes it. Same goes with the temple members.

Also, the lack of other choices that they have at the point is also another factor why they took their lives. Imagine standing there, with the poison in your hand, watching as your friends, your family and everyone you knew in the past few years is now drinking it. And there's nothing left for you back at home. You've left your job, your family disowned you and there's practically nothing left returning to. What would you do?

In a sense, it could be said that no one is to be blamed fully. It's just how the group dynamics worked out that created this tragedy. Of course, you can argue that it was mostly Jim Jones fault but the lack of resistance showed by his followers in a way confirmed his power. One can draw parallels of from here to what is happening in North Korea right now.

The problem is not with the people being stupid, the problem lies with our inherent need to belong and our need for relationships. Taken to the extreme, one can equate undying loyalty of the People's Temple members to a loyalty a father would have for his son. Just as a father would die to save his son, so would a member for a group in which he truly believes in. Dying for your country, for your religion, for your family, all of them are the same thing. All of them stem for your desire to protect the interests of your group and to further its goal. The groups may be different, but the processes involved are the same.

Which is quite scary when you think of it. Where do you draw the line? When do you decide whether a cause is worth dying for? Where do you lose your individuality for the sake of the majority? Does this means that it's better to be alone forever?
 
Honestly speaking, I have no answers to these questions too. But in a way, I hope that by reading the post, the next time a group make you do something that you don't feel right, you could at least be aware of the harmful processes that goes behind. Would be glad to hear your thoughts on this.

P/s: You know, sometimes I'm glad to be studying Psychology. Else I wouldn't have been able to study about this group processes and be aware of it. In a way, I could say that education in a way helps. When you're familiar with how a group works, you would be more aware of the potential pitfalls and dangers. Lets just hope my knowledge would never be put to the test.

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