MIND CONTROL - Paranormality - Richard Wiseman

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman (2011)


In which we climb inside the head of the world’s
greatest thought-reader, discover whether hypnotists can
make us act against our will, infiltrate some cults, learn
how to avoid being brainwashed and investigate
the psychology of persuasion.

Think of any number between one and a hundred. Feel free to change your mind a few times before deciding on your number. Do you have a number in mind? OK, focus on it. I am getting the impression that you are thinking of … number 73. Research suggests that around 1 in 50 of you have just dropped the book in amazement. Unfortunately, the same work also shows that the vast majority of you are totally underwhelmed by my thought-reading skills.

However, imagine that I had been able to accurately name the number that you were thinking of. Moreover, imagine that my remarkable telepathic powers were not limited to naming numbers, but also worked with shapes, names, locations, and colours. Finally, imagine that my abilities stretched far beyond rummaging around in the contents of your mind, and that I also had the ability to actually control your behaviour. Over the years a small number of people have claimed to possess these abilities. These rather curious individuals are not interested in staring into a crystal ball, talking with the dead or analysing your astrological chart. Instead, they appear to have an uncanny and remarkable ability to play directly with your mind. How do they appear to achieve the impossible? Do their feats constitute compelling evidence for the paranormal, or is there some subtle and mysterious psychology at work?

To find out, we are going to journey deep into the world of a remarkable telepath, meet a mind-reading horse and spend some time with a terrifying mind control expert. Our journey starts over a hundred years ago, with one of the world’s first thought-readers.

Thought-reading on the Brain

Washington Irving Bishop was, by any measure, a remarkable man.1 Born in 1856 in New York City, Bishop was raised primarily by his mother, Eleanor, who made her living as an actress, opera singer and part-time medium. Eleanor was a colourful character who was frequently at the centre of controversy. In 1867, for example, she attempted to divorce her husband Nathaniel on the grounds that he had tried to murder her. In 1874 Eleanor attended Nathaniel’s funeral and, despite the two of them having been separated for the last seven years, was apparently so moved by the event that she felt the need to throw herself on Nathaniel’s casket as it was lowered into the grave. A few weeks later she claimed that Nathaniel had been deliberately poisoned by a mysterious enemy, and demanded that his body be exhumed. A thorough examination of the body failed to produce any evidence of foul play.

Bishop didn’t excel at college and, perhaps helped by his mother’s connections with Spiritualism, ended up working as the manager for a well-known stage medium of the day named Annie Eva Fay. At the start of her act Fay would place a chair and various musical instruments in a large open-fronted cabinet. Next, she would invite several audience members onto the stage, and ask them to tie her to the chair. A curtain would be drawn across the front of the cabinet and Fay would allegedly summon the spirits. After a few moments the spirits would apparently make their presence known by playing the instruments and then throwing them out of the cabinet. Various rumours circulated about how Fay was producing these seemingly miraculous phenomena, with some going as far as to suggest that she smuggled her young son into the cabinet by secreting him under her dress. The truth was far more straightforward. Fay was a skilled escapologist who was able to free herself from the chair, play the instruments, throw them out of the cabinet, and then wriggle back into her bonds.

After a few months Bishop fell out with Fay over a financial matter, and decided to make his own music hall debut by presenting a public exposure of her entire act. Although all went well initially, audiences soon began to tire of hearing about Fay’s secrets, and Bishop decided to expand his repertoire by exposing the tricks of the trade being employed by other well-known mediums. For reasons that are still not entirely apparent, Bishop thought that the best way of collecting this new material was to attend séances dressed as a woman. Unfortunately, his subsequent accounts of his transvestite exposés failed to capture the public interest, and he was forced to explore alternative ways of attracting an audience. After much trial and error, he eventually developed a skill that would guarantee him international fame and fortune.

He underwent a complete rebranding. Instead of presenting himself as a music hall entertainer, he adopted the far more sombre style of a scientific lecturer. Out went the sensationalist ‘once again I put on a dress and discovered the truth’ stories, and in came a pair of pince-nez glasses and academic mutton chop sideburns. Perhaps most importantly of all, instead of focusing on exposing the claims of others, Bishop declared that he himself had developed the most uncanny of abilities. Promoting himself as the ‘world’s first mind-reader’, Bishop proudly announced that he was able to demonstrate telepathy on demand.

He started his performances by playing the mystery card, clearly stating that although his newfound ability was not due to psychic powers or the work of the spirits, he did not have an explanation for what he was about to demonstrate. He would then attempt a series of mind-reading stunts. In a typical performance he handed a pin to a spectator and explained that in a few moments the spectator was to hide the pin anywhere in the auditorium. Another member of the audience was asked to ensure that Bishop didn’t see where the pin was being concealed. Bishop and his chaperone then walked offstage and the pin was hidden. When he returned, he grasped the first spectator’s wrist and led him manically around the auditorium. Eventually, Bishop narrowed down his search to one small area and finally located the hidden pin.

There were many variants on the procedure. Sometimes, for example, he brought a large directory onstage and asked a spectator to secretly choose a name from it. Bishop then used his alleged telepathic skills to identify the chosen name. In perhaps his most famous stunt, he invited a group of five or six people onstage, explained that he would leave the auditorium, and asked them to mime a murder scene in his absence. One person in the group played the role of the murderer and another the victim. After the audience had witnessed the ‘murder’, Bishop returned and was blindfolded. He then held the wrist of an audience member and asked them to concentrate on the person who had been ‘murdered’. After working his way around the group, he correctly worked out who had been playing the role of the victim. Seconds later Bishop successfully identified the ‘murderer’.

His amazing demonstrations proved highly successful, and his reputation quickly spread across Europe and America. Bishop’s fame encouraged a handful of imitators, with perhaps the best known being one of his former employees, Stuart Cumberland. The level of success enjoyed by the likes of Bishop and Cumberland was reflected in their high society audiences (Cumberland was invited to the House of Commons to read the mind of William Gladstone, later describing the Prime Minister’s ‘remarkable magnetic influence’ in his book People I Have Read), as well as their being satirized in well-known comic songs of the period, such as the ever-popular ‘Thought-reading on the Brain’:

Oh, Mr Cumberland and Irving Bishop too

With the pins you find I’d like to run you through

For you have marr’d my happiness and it is very plain

That all the family now have got thought-reading on the brain

Unfortunately, Bishop’s success was short-lived. In 1889, the world-famous mind-reader found himself performing at the Lambs Club in New York City. After successfully completing his ‘identify the murderer’ and ‘find the name in the directory’ stunts, he fell to the ground exhausted. He regained consciousness a few moments later and was taken to a bed in the club. Ever the professional, Bishop insisted on performing another feat. The club ledger was duly brought into the bedroom and a name chosen at random. Clearly struggling, he eventually managed to locate the correct name. Immediately after performing what was to be his final stunt, he collapsed back into his bed.

Two doctors were summoned and kept a watchful eye over him throughout the night. In the middle of the following day Bishop, aged just 33, was pronounced dead. The news was quickly conveyed to Bishop’s wife in Philadelphia, who promptly made her way to New York City and tracked down her husband’s body in a funeral parlour. She was horrified to discover that at some point in the afternoon, and less than 24 hours after his death, her husband had been subjected to an unauthorized autopsy.

Throughout his life Bishop had been prone to cataleptic fits. During these episodes his entire body would become rigid, his breathing very shallow and his heartbeat so slow as to be imperceptible. Because of this, he always carried a card explaining that he might lapse into a cataleptic state, and that no autopsy should be performed until at least 48 hours after his alleged death. At one point he had told a friend that when he was in a cataleptic state he was fully aware of everything that was happening around him, raising the terrifying notion that he was conscious throughout his autopsy.

Why was the autopsy performed so quickly? Throughout his career Bishop boasted of having an exceptional brain. Many historians now believe that this claim may have contributed to his demise, encouraging physicians to carry out a quick autopsy in order to be the first to examine it. Whatever the truth, the autopsy proved a wasted effort. Bishop’s brain weighed only slightly more than average and didn’t appear at all exceptional.

His mother Eleanor demanded a coroner’s inquest, and the doctors who had conducted the autopsy were arrested. However, a jury found in favour of the doctors and the charges against them were dropped. Eleanor remained unconvinced, and made her feelings known by having her son’s gravestone read, ‘Born May 4th, 1856 - Murdered May 13th, 1889’ and publishing a small book describing ‘the butchery of the late Sir Washington Irving Bishop’. Eleanor’s behaviour became increasingly erratic, and when she passed away in 1918, the famous magician Harry Houdini discovered that she had left him an imaginary estate totalling 30 million dollars.

So how did Bishop achieve his mind reading feats? Did he really possess genuine telepathic powers?

In the early 1880s, Bishop was investigated by a team of well-respected scientists that included the Queen’s personal physician, the editor of the British Medical Journal, and the famous eugenicist Francis Galton. During the first part of the investigation Bishop successfully performed several stunts, including correctly identifying a selected spot on a table and finding an object that had been hidden on a chandelier. As usual, throughout all of the demonstrations he asked to be in physical contact with an individual who knew the correct answer. Bishop would hold the helper’s wrist, or the helper would grasp one end of a walking stick while he held the other. The scientists speculated that Bishop had trained himself to detect the tiny ‘ideomotor’ movements that had originally been uncovered by Michael Faraday during his investigation into table-tipping. When performing his stunts, Bishop would push and pull his helper in various directions, and the scientists believed that he used tiny changes in resistance to figure out the location of a hidden object, or which member of a group had taken on the role of ‘murderer’. The team carried out a second set of trials to discover if they were right. This time, Bishop was asked to try to find a hidden object when his helper was blindfolded and had lost his bearings. He failed. In another trial the walking stick was replaced with a slack watch chain thatprevented any unconscious signals being transferred to Bishop. Once again, he failed. Galton and his fellow scientists concluded that Bishop did possess a remarkable skill, but was not a genuine telepath.

A few years later another amazing mind-reader hit the headlines. However, this time the claim was even more startling because it appeared to provide incontrovertible evidence of animal to human communication.


It is time to get in touch with your inner Bishop. Muscle-reading isn't easy, but there are several simple exercises that will help you develop this remarkable skill.

1. Ask someone to hold out their hand palm up in front of them with their fingers spread apart, and then ask them to concentrate on one of their fingers. Next, lightly push down on each of their fingers with your forefinger. The finger on which they are concentrating will be the one offering the greatest resistance.

2. Arrange four objects in a row on a table, allowing about four inches between each object. Ask someone to stand on your right-hand side and think of one of the objects. Next, take hold of their left wrist with your right hand, placing your fingers on the top of their wrist and your thumb on the bottom of their wrist. Explain that you are going to move their left hand over each of the objects. Ask your guinea pig not to consciously move their left hand but instead to relax their arm and simply 'will' their left hand to move in the correct direction. If you are over the wrong object they should think of the phrase 'move on', whereas if you are over the correct object then they should think of the word 'stop'. Now move their left hand over each of the objects and try to discover the chosen object by feeling when you encounter most resistance to movement.

3. Time for a full test of muscle-reading. Ask your volunteer to go into a room and hide a small object. Next, hold their wrist as instructed above. Take the weight of their right arm and keep them close by your side. Ask them not to focus on the location of the object, but rather on the direction that you have to proceed in order to move towards it. Stand in the centre of the room and take a step forward. If there is a feeling of resistance then go back to the centre of the room and head in another direction. Keep on doing this until you feel the least resistance. When you think that you are near to the object, have your helper imagine a straight line between their hand and the object. When you feel the hand move in that direction, follow along the line and you should be able to find the object.

As muscle reading is tricky to master, some mind-readers perform the following trick to develop their skills without worrying about the risk of failure.

Before performing the demonstration, find a deck of cards, separate the red and black cards, and place the stack of red cards on top of the stack of black ones.

Next, find a willing spectator, fan out the top section of the deck (containing only red cards) face down between your hands, and ask your guinea pig to remove a card. Ask them to look at the card but keep its identity secret. While this is happening, close up the deck, and then spread out the bottom section of the deck face down between your hands. Now the spread contains only black cards, whereas previously the participant was choosing from only red cards.

Ask the spectator to replace their card face down into the spread, and close up the deck. Their card will now be the only red card in the black section. Explain that you will try to guess the identity of their card. As you say this, turn the deck towards you, and quickly spread the pack between your hands. You will easily see your spectator's chosen card because it will be the only red card in the black section.

Now shuffle the deck and spread it face up on the table. Hold onto your spectator's wrist as before and lead them along the cards. See if you can pick up subtle cues from their hand. Slowly home in on the section of the deck with their card in it and then, with a dramatic flourish, announce the name of the card.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

Wilhelm von Osten was the most curious of men.2 Born in 1834, this unassuming German mathematics teacher had a passion for odd ideas. A strong advocate for the then relatively new theory of evolution, von Osten believed that animals were just as bright as humans, and that the world would be a better place if people could communicate with other species and appreciate their amazing intellect. In 1888, von Osten retired from teaching, moved to Berlin and spent the remainder of his life pursuing his dream.

His initial attempts at uncovering the hidden genius of the animal kingdom involved trying to teach the fundamentals of mathematics to a cat, a bear and a horse. Each day, von Osten would draw numbers on a blackboard and encourage his class to count by moving their paws or hooves an appropriate number of times. In what must be one of the most bizarre school reports ever written, he later described how the cat quickly lost interest in the enterprise and the bear was downright hostile. The horse, however, proved an attentive student and quickly learned how to stamp out any number written on the blackboard. Flushed by this initial success, von Osten expelled the cat and bear from his classroom, and focused solely on equine pupils.

Von Osten acquired a Russian trotting horse called Hans, and together the two of them embarked on another four years of daily training in the fundamentals of mathematics.

In 1904, the duo felt ready for their first public demonstration. A small crowd of spectators were invited into von Osten’s courtyard and asked to form a semi-circle around ‘Clever’ Hans. Von Osten, sporting a long white beard, loose-fitting smock, and floppy black hat, stood to the side of the animal while members of the audience called out mathematical problems. Each time, Clever Hans indicated his answer by stamping his hoof against the cobbles. It was an impressive performance, with Hans correctly answering simple addition and subtraction problems, as well as more complex sums with fractions and square roots. Encouraged by this initial success, von Osten worked with Hans to increase his repertoire. Over time he taught the horse to tell the time, choose which musical tones would improve a harmony, and even answer questions by nodding or shaking his head.

In 1904, psychologist Oskar Pfungst decided to investigate Clever Hans, unaware that the work would guarantee him a place in almost every psychology textbook for the next hundred years. During Pfungst’s carefully controlled studies members of the public were then asked to present Hans with pre-planned questions. To ensure a well-motivated participant, Pfungst rewarded Clever Hans with a small piece of bread, carrot or sugar each time he responded (interestingly, this same procedure still works well with most undergraduate students today). It was not all easy going. Both von Osten and Clever Hans were prone to rage, and Pfungst received several bites during the investigation, the majority of which came from the horse. Regardless, the young German researcher methodically worked his way through a series of groundbreaking tests.

In one study, a series of number cards were first oriented in such a way as to ensure that Clever Hans, von Osten and a questioner could all see the front of the cards. A question was then asked, and Clever Hans stamped his hoof to indicate which card contained the answer. Under these circumstances, Clever Hans demonstrated an impressive 98 per cent success rate. However, when Pfungst altered the orientation of the cards to ensure that only Clever Hans could see the faces of the cards his hit rate dropped to an unimpressive 6 per cent. In another test, von Osten whispered two numbers into Hans’s ear and asked him to add them up. Time and again, Hans stamped out the right response. However, when von Osten whispered one number and Pfungst another, with neither man knowing the other’s number, Hans failed to produce the correct answer.

Pfungst obtained the same pattern in test after test. Whenever von Osten or a questioner knew how Clever Hans should respond, the horse did well. When no one knew the correct response, Hans failed. Pfungst concluded that Clever Hans was not thinking for himself but rather responding to involuntary signals in the facial expressions and body language of those around him. For years von Osten had not been talking to the animals, but instead chatting to himself.

Researchers across the world quickly realized that the general principle uncovered by Pfungst, namely that experimenters may be unknowingly persuading participants to act in a desired way, could have major implications for their work.

Scientists went in search of the phenomenon - dubbed the ‘Clever Hans effect’ - and found it in several different settings. In one classic experiment rats were randomly divided into two groups, and then given to students who were told that the groups had been selectively bred for good and poor performance in navigating mazes.3 In fact, there was no special breeding at all. The students then ran the rats through mazes and reported results in line with their expectations, with the allegedly ‘bright’ rats making 51 per cent more correct responses than the allegedly ‘dull’ rats.

Similarly, in research called the ‘Pygmalion experiment’, Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal administered a test to an entire year-group of children, telling their teachers that it represented a new technique for predicting intellectual ‘blooming’.4 Teachers were then led to believe that they had been given the names of the children in their class who had obtained the highest scores. In reality, Rosenthal’s test was an ordinary measure of intelligence, and the names of the alleged ‘bloomers’ were chosen at random. At the end of the school year, the children were given the same intelligence test, and the children randomly identified as intellectual ‘bloomers’ scored an average of 15 points more than the other children.

According to Gary Wells, of Iowa State University, this theory could even lead to police officers unwittingly biasing witnesses to choose certain suspects from line-ups, by using exactly the same type of unconscious nonverbal signal that influenced Clever Hans over a hundred years ago.5

This work made researchers recognize the need to guard against the Clever Hans effect by hiding certain aspects of a study from both the participants and experimenters. ‘Blind’ methods are now the gold standard of good science. And all because of a mathematical horse.

Both Bishop and Clever Hans appeared to be able to read people’s thoughts. In reality, both were simply responding to the involuntary signals given out by those around them. Other mind wizards have focused more on trying to control those thoughts and so persuade people to behave in certain ways. But is it really possible to take over someone’s mind and manipulate them like a puppet? Over the years several novelists and filmmakers have suggested it is, but what is the fact behind the fiction? Can someone be hypnotized to act against their will?

The Svengali Effect

In 1894 George du Maurier published his classic novel Trilby. The plot features a rogue hypnotist named Svengali, who places heroine Trilby O’Ferrall into a deep trance and then exploits her for his own benefit. In addition to being the second-bestselling novel of its day (outperformed only by Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and giving rise to the Trilby hat, du Maurier’s novel encouraged the public to believe that some people have the power to make others act against their will. But is this really the case?

Around the turn of the last century several researchers tackled the issue by placing people in trance states and asking them to carry out various questionable acts, such as committing a mock murder or throwing a glass of ‘acid’ (actually water) in the face of the experimenter.6 Although many of the participants did stab others with rubber daggers and soak researchers, the work was not carried out under well controlled conditions and so generated more questions than answers. In the mid-1960s, University of Pennsylvania psychologists Martin Orne and Fredrick Evans decided to take a more rigorous look at the issue.7

Orne found some highly suggestible students and tested them one at a time. Each was put into a trance and then asked to sit before an open-fronted box. A researcher placed a harmless green tree snake in the box and the participants were told that they had an irresistible urge to pick up the snake. All of them went along with the suggestion and removed the snake. Next, the experimenters put on a pair of long thick gloves and brought forth a genuinely dangerous red-bellied black snake. They explained that this was one of the most venomous snakes in the world and could kill a human with a single bite. The snake was placed into the box and all of the participants were told that they had an irresistible urge to pick it up. Amazingly, all of them tried to carry out the action, and it was only as they placed their hands into the box that they discovered the researchers had secretly slid a glass plate in front of the snake.

On the face of it, Orne and Evans appeared to have persuaded the hypnotized students to act against their best interests. However, a second stage of the study was cleverly designed to discover if that was really true. The experimenters found a group of six highly non-suggestible students, didn’t bother trying to put them into a trance, and instead simply asked them to pretend to be hypnotized. Surprisingly, all of them were also willing to try to pick up both the harmless snake and its highly venomous counterpart. It was clear that the results obtained in the first stage of the study were not due to hypnosis. To discover why the students were willing to risk their lives during the experiment, the researchers then asked their non-suggestible participants what they were thinking when they reached for the poisonous snake. Nearly all of them explained that they knew they were taking part in a study and so were convinced that the experimenter wouldn’t let them come to any harm. These findings suggested that it isn’t possible for researchers to properly evaluate whether people can be made to act against their will when hypnotized. University ethics committees wouldn’t allow participants to be put into a situation that was genuinely risky and, even if they did, participants might carry out a dangerous act simply because they believed that they were safe.

However, when researchers took a careful look back at older investigations into the alleged Svengali effect they discovered one demonstration that overcame this problem. Around the turn of the last century, hypnotist and researcher Jules Liegeois conducted a rather unusual demonstration during a conference held at the Salpêtriére School in Paris. Liegeois placed a young woman into a trance, handed her a rubber knife, said that it was a genuine knife, and asked her to stab someone in the audience. The woman promptly obliged. Unfortunately, Liegeois didn’t think to ask someone who wasn’t hypnotized to carry out the same test, and so incorrectly concluded that the demonstration showed that those in hypnotic trances could be made to behave in a way that was not in their best interests. However, once most of the conference-goers had left the room, a group of mischievous medical students told the still-hypnotized woman that she should remove her clothing. The woman would have realized that whereas stabbing someone with a rubber dagger was all good fun, complying with this suggestion was going to be genuinely embarrassing. She didn’t strip off. In fact, she stood up and ran out of the room. Interestingly, there has been only one attempt to replicate this fascinating, but unethical, study. In the 1960s a University researcher randomly selected a young female volunteer, sat her in front of a group and suggested that she remove her clothes. The professor was horrified to discover his volunteer rapidly starting to unbutton her clothing and quickly called a halt to the demonstration. It was only later that he discovered that he happened to have chosen a professional stripper as his subject.


Ormond McGill was a talented stage hypnotist. Born in 1913, he worked under the stage name of 'Dr Zomb', and pioneered many of the techniques used by modern-day performers. McGill's 1947 book, The Encyclopedia Of Genuine Stage Hypnotism, describes how chickens can be positioned to ensure that they become motionless and appear hypnotized. According to McGill, all you need to do is carefully catch the bird by its neck, place it on its front on a table, and rest its head horizontally. Finally, draw a two-foot-long chalk line on the table, directly out from its beak. The chicken will then lie motionless on the table (see photograph).


While hypnotized, the chicken can be made to eat an onion, wear X-ray glasses, and perform a striptease. Just kidding. Actually, rather than being hypnotized, the lack of movement is due to tonic immobility, wherein the chicken is engaging in a defensive mechanism intended to put off potential predators by feigning death. To appear to awaken the animal from the deep trance, simply push the chicken's head away from the chalk line.

Despite the mass of films and books suggesting otherwise, the scientific evidence suggests that it is not possible to make people act against their will by hypnotizing them. However, work into other forms of mind control has yielded far more positive and worrying results. To find out more we have to explore the dark and murky world of cults.

From Monkey Salesman to Charismatic Preacher

Born in 1931, Jim Jones grew up in a rural Indiana community.8 Later described by some of his neighbours as a ‘really weird kid’, Jones spent much of his childhood exploring religion, torturing animals, and discussing death. He also exhibited an early interest in preaching, with one childhood friend recalling how Jones once draped an old sheet over his shoulders, formed a group of other children into a makeshift congregation, and promptly gave a sermon pretending to be the Devil. In his teens he enrolled as a student pastor in a local Methodist Church, but left when the church leaders banned him from preaching to a racially mixed congregation. In 1955, aged just 24, Jones rounded up a small flock of faithful followers and founded his own church, the Peoples Temple. Rather bizarrely, he funded this ambitious venture by going door-to-door selling pet monkeys. When he wasn’t engaged in monkey business he spent time honing his public speaking skills and soon built a considerable reputation as a highly charismatic preacher.

Jones’ initial message was one of equality and racial integration. Practising what he preached, he encouraged his followers to help provide food and employment for the poor. Word of his good deeds soon spread, resulting in almost a thousand people flocking to his church. Jones continued to use his influence to help enrich the community, opening both a soup kitchen and a nursing home. In 1965 he claimed to have had a vision that the Midwest of America would soon be the target for a nuclear strike, and persuaded about a hundred members of his congregation to follow him to Redwood Valley in California. He still focused on supporting those most in need, helping drug addicts, alcoholics and the poor.

By the early 1970s storm clouds were gathering. He was asking for a greater level of commitment from his followers, urging them to spend holidays with other Temple members rather than their families, and give their money and material possessions to the church. In addition, Jones had developed a serious drug habit and had become increasingly paranoid about the idea of the American government trying to destroy his church. Local journalists eventually started to take an interest in the stories of unhealthy levels of commitment emerging from the Peoples Temple, causing Jones to attempt to escape unwanted scrutiny by shifting his headquarters to San Francisco. Here his preaching again proved highly successful, and within a few years the Temple congregation had doubled in size. However, before long journalists again started to write articles that criticized him, prompting him to decide to leave America and build his own ‘utopian’ community abroad.

He carefully considered several countries before deciding to set up his self-supporting commune in Guyana on the northern coast of South America. From Jones’ perspective it was a wise choice, in part, because Guyanese officials could be easily bribed, allowing him to receive illegal shipments of firearms and drugs. In 1974 he negotiated a lease on almost 4,000 acres of remote jungle in the north-west of the country. Modestly naming the plot ‘Jonestown’, the charismatic preacher and several hundred of his followers packed their bags and moved to Guyana. It was a harsh existence. Jonestown was isolated, suffered from poor quality soil, and the nearest water supply could be reached only after a seven-mile hike along muddy roads. Severe diarrhoea and high fevers were common. In addition to working 11-hour days, Temple members were also expected to attend long evening sermons and classes in socialism. A variety of punishments were administered to those who neglected their duties, including imprisonment in a small coffin-shaped wooden box, and being forced to spend hours at the bottom of a disused well.

On the 17 November 1978, US Congressman Leo Ryan travelled to Guyana to investigate rumours of people being held at Jonestown against their will. When he arrived, Ryan initially heard nothing but praise for the new community. However, towards the end of the first day of his visit a small number of families secretly informed Ryan that they were far from happy and eager to leave. Early the following morning 11 Temple members sensed a growing feeling of danger and desperation in Jonestown, and secretly made their escape by walking 30 miles through the surrounding dense jungle. Later that day Ryan and a small number of defectors headed to a nearby airstrip and attempted to board planes to return to America. Armed members of the Temple’s ‘Red Brigade’ security squad opened fire, killing Ryan and several members of his group. Ryan became the only Congressman in the history of the US to be murdered in the line of duty.

Sensing his world crumbling around him, Jones gathered together the residents of Jonestown, told them that Ryan and his party had been killed, explained that the American government would now seek revenge on the community, and urged everyone to participate in a mass act of ‘revolutionary suicide’. Large drums of grape-flavoured juice laced with cyanide were brought out, and Jones ordered everyone to drink the liquid. Parents were urged to first administer the poison to their children and then drink it themselves. An audiotape made at the time shows that whenever followers were reluctant to participate, Jones urged them to join in, proclaiming ‘I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries, death is a million times preferable to this life. If you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.’ Over 900 people died during the ritual, including around 270 children. Although several armed Temple guards had surrounded the group, it appears that the majority of the followers willingly killed themselves, with one woman writing ‘Jim Jones is the only one’ on her arm during the episode. Up until 11 September 2001 the deaths represented the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster.

For over 30 years psychologists have speculated as to how Jim Jones persuaded so many people to take their own lives, and parents to murder their children. Some have pointed out that the majority of the Temple congregation were psychologically vulnerable individuals desperate to believe Jones’ message of equality and racial harmony. Jones referred to Jonestown as the ‘promised land’ and described it as a place where parents could raise their children away from the racial abuse that had scarred their own lives. His mission was also attractive because it provided people with a strong sense of purpose, a relief from feelings of worthlessness, and made them part of a large family of caring and like-minded individuals. As one survivor memorably put it, ‘Nobody joins a cult … you join a religious organization or a political movement, and you join with people you really like.’ Although these factors clearly played a part in the Jonestown tragedy, they are far from the full picture. People are often attracted to religious and political organizations because they offer a sense of purpose and extended family, but most would be unwilling to lay down their lives for the cause. Instead, psychologists believe that Jones’ influence relied on four key factors.

First, Jones was skilled at getting his foot in the door.

Getting a Foot in the Door

In a now classic study carried out by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser of Stanford University, researchers posed as volunteer workers and went from door-to-door explaining that there was a high level of traffic accidents in the area and asking people if they would mind placing a sign saying ‘DRIVE CAREFULLY’ in their gardens.9 This was a significant request because the sign was very big and so would ruin the appearance of the person’s house and garden. Perhaps not surprisingly, few residents agreed to display it. In the next stage of the experiment, the researchers approached a second set of residents and asked them to place a sign saying ‘BE A SAFE DRIVER’ in their garden. This time the sign was just three inches square, and almost everyone accepted. Two weeks later, the researchers returned and now asked the second set of residents to display the much larger sign. Amazingly, over three-quarters of people agreed to place the big ugly placard. This concept, known as the ‘foot in the door’ technique, involves getting people to agree to a large request by first getting them to agree to a far more modest one.

Jones used the technique to manipulate his congregation. Followers would first be asked to donate a small amount of their income to the Temple, but over time the amount required would rise until they had given all of their property and savings to Jones. The same applied to acts of devotion. When they first joined the church, members were asked to spend just a few hours each week working for the community. As time passed, these few hours expanded little by little until members were attending long services, helping to attract others into the organization and writing letters to politicians and the media. By ratcheting up his requests slowly, Jones was using the ‘foot in the door’ technique to prepare his followers to make the ultimate sacrifice. But this technique is only successful if people do not draw a line in the sand and speak out against the increased demands. The second psychological technique employed by Jones was designed to quell this potential rebellion.

All Together Now

In the 1950s, American psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments into the power of conformity.10 Participants were asked to arrive at Asch’s laboratory one at a time and were introduced to about six other volunteers. Unbeknownst to each participant, all of these other volunteers were actually stooges who were working for Asch. The group, made up of the participant and stooges, were sat around a table and told that they were about to take part in a ‘vision test’. They were then shown two cards. The first card had a single line on it, while the second card contained three lines of very different length, one of which was the same length as the line of the first card. The group were asked to say which of the three lines on the second card matched the line on the first card. They had been seated in such a way as to ensure that the genuine participant answered last. Everyone was asked to voice their answers and each of the ‘volunteers’ always gave the same one. For the first two trials, all of the stooges gave the correct response to comparing the lines, while on the third trial the stooges all gave an incorrect answer. Asch wanted to discover what percentage of participants would conform to peer pressure and give an obviously incorrect answer in order to go along with the group. Amazingly, 75 per cent of people conformed. In a slight variation on the procedure, Asch had just one of the stooges break with the group and give a different answer. This one dissenting voice reduced the amount of conformity to around 20 per cent.

The Peoples Temple was a huge experiment in the psychology of conformity. Jones was aware that any dissent would encourage others to speak out and so tolerated no criticism. To help enforce this regime, Jones had informers befriend those thought to be harbouring doubts about the Temple, with any evidence of dissent resulting in brutal beatings or public humiliation. He also split up any groups that were likely to share their concerns with each other. Families were separated, with children first being seated away from their parents during services and later placed into the full-time care of another church member. Spouses were encouraged to participate in extramarital sexual relationships to loosen marital bonds. Similarly, the dense jungle around Jonestown ensured that the community was completely cut off from the outside world and had no way of hearing any dissenting voices from those not involved. The powerful and terrible effects of this intolerance of dissent emerged during the mass suicide. An audiotape of the tragedy revealed that at one point a woman openly declared that the babies deserved to live. Jones acted quickly to quell the criticism, stating that babies are even more deserving of peace and that ‘the best testimony we can give is to leave this goddamn world’. The crowd applaud Jones, with one man shouting ‘It’s over, sister … We’ve made a beautiful day’, and another adding, ‘If you tell us we have to give our lives now, we’re ready’.

But Jones was not just concerned with getting his foot in the door and quashing any dissent. He also employed a third psychological weapon to help control the minds of his followers - he appeared to have a hotline to God and be able to perform miracles.

Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles

Many people followed Jones because he appeared to be able to perform miracles. During services Jones would ask those suffering from any illnesses to make their way to the front of the church. Reaching into their mouths, he would dramatically pull out a horrid mass of ‘cancerous’ tissue and announce that they were now cured. Sometimes the lame would apparently be instantly healed, with Jones telling them to throw away their walking aids and dance back up the aisle. He also claimed to hear the voice of God, calling out to people in the congregation and accurately revealing information about their lives. On one occasion more people than expected turned up for a service and Jones announced that he would feed the multitude by magically producing more food. A few minutes later, the door swung open and in walked a church member carrying two large trays filled with fried chicken.

It was all a sham. The ‘cancers’ were actually rancid chicken gizzards that Jones concealed in his hand prior to ‘pulling’ them from people’s mouths. The curing of the ‘lame’ was created by a small inner circle of highly devoted followers pretending that they couldn’t walk. The information about the congregation was not God-given, but instead obtained by members of Jones’ ‘inner circle’ sifting through people’s rubbish bins for letters and other useful documentation. These individuals later described how they willingly assisted Jones because he told them that he was conserving his genuine supernatural powers for more important matters. And the miracle of the deep fried chicken? One member of the congregation later described how he saw the bearer of the trays arrive at the church a few moments before the miracle, armed with several buckets of food from Kentucky Fried Chicken. When Jones found out about the comment he put a mild poison in a piece of cake, gave it to the dissenting church member, and announced that God would punish his lies by giving him vomiting and diarrhoea.

So was Jones’ mind control just about getting his foot in the door, creating conformity and performing miracles? In fact, there was also the important issue of self-justification.

On Behaviour and Belief

In 1959 Stanford University psychologist Elliot Aronson conducted a revealing study into the relationship between belief and behaviour.11 Let’s turn back the hands of time and imagine that you are a volunteer in that experiment.

When you arrive at Aronson’s laboratory, a researcher asks you whether you would mind participating in a group discussion about the psychology of sex. Drooling, you say that you are open to the idea. The researcher then explains that some people have become very self-conscious during the discussion and so now all potential volunteers have to pass an ‘embarrassment’ test. You are handed a long list of highly evocative words (including many containing four letters) and two passages containing vivid descriptions of sexual activity. The researcher asks you to read both the list and passages out loud, while he rates the degree to which you are blushing. After much sanctioned cursing, the researcher says that the good news is that you have passed the test and so can now take part in the group discussion. However, the bad news is that the ‘embarrassment’ test has taken longer than anticipated, so the discussion has already started and you will just have to listen to the group this time around. The researcher shows you into a small cubicle, explains that all of the group members sit in separate rooms to ensure anonymity, and asks you to wear some headphones. You don the headphones and are rather disappointed to discover that after all you have been through, the group is having a rather dull discussion about a book called Sexual Behavior in Animals. Finally, the researcher returns and asks you to rate the degree to which you want to join the group.

Like many psychology experiments, Aronson‘s study involved a considerable amount of deception. In reality, the entire experiment was not about the psychology of sex, but the psychology of belief. When participants arrived at the laboratory they were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Half of them went through the procedure described above, and were asked to read out highly evocative word lists and graphic passages. Those in the other group were asked to read out far less emotionally charged words (think ‘prostitute’ and ‘virgin’). Everyone then heard the same recorded group discussion and was asked to rate the degree to which they valued being a member of the group. Most psychologists in Aronson’s day would have predicted that those who underwent the more embarrassing procedure would end up liking the group less because they would associate it with a highly negative experience. However, Aronson’s work into the psychology of self-justification had led him to expect a quite different set of results. Aronson speculated that those who had read out the more evocative sexual material would justify their increased embarrassment by convincing themselves that the group was worth joining, and end up thinking more highly of it. Aronson’s predictions proved correct. Even though everyone had heard the same recording of the group discussion, those who underwent the more extreme embarrassment test rated joining the group as far more desirable than those in the ‘prostitute and virgin’ group.

Aronson’s findings help explain why many groups demand that potential members undergo painful and humiliating initiation rituals. American college fraternities make freshmen eat unpleasant substances or strip naked, the military put new recruits through extreme training, and medical interns are expected to work night and day before becoming fully fledged doctors. Jones used the same tactics to encourage people to feel committed to the Peoples Temple. Members of the congregation had to endure long meetings, write self-incriminating letters, give their property to the Temple, and allow their children to be raised by other families. If Jones suspected someone of behaving in a way that was not in the interests of the Temple, he would ask other members of the congregation to punish them. Common sense would predict that these acts would drive people away from both Jones and the Peoples Temple. In reality, the psychology of self-justification ensured that it actually moved them closer to the cause.

The mind control exhibited by the likes of Jim Jones does not involve any hypnotic trances or prey on the suggestible. Instead, it uses four key principles. The first involves a slow ratcheting up of involvement. Once a cult leader has his foot in the door, they ask for greater levels of involvement until suddenly followers find themselves fully immersed in the movement. Second, any dissenting voices are removed from the group. Sceptics are driven away and the group is increasingly isolated from the outside world. Then there are the miracles. By appearing to perform the impossible, cult leaders often convince their followers that they have direct access to God and therefore should not be questioned. Finally, there is self-justification. You might imagine that asking someone to carry out a bizarre or painful ritual would encourage them to dislike the group. In reality, the opposite is true. By taking part in these rituals followers justify their suffering by adopting more positive attitudes towards the group.

Of course, it would be nice to think that if the group had not been so isolated from society, it might have been possible to undo the effects of these techniques, explain the madness of their ways, and avert a major tragedy. However, our final sojourn into the world of cults suggests that this is a naive view of those that have fallen under the spell of a charismatic leader.


It is easy to avoid having your mind controlled providing that you look out for the following four danger signs.

1. Do you feel as if the 'foot in the door' technique might be at work? Did the organization or person start by asking you to carry out small acts of commitment or devotion, and then slowly increase their requirements? If so, do you really want to go along with their requests or are you being manipulated?

2. Be wary of any organization that attempts to distance you from a dissenting point of view. Are they trying to cut you off from friends and family? Within the organization, is dissent and open discussion squashed? If the answer to either of these questions is 'yes', think carefully about any involvement.

3. Does the leader of the organization claim to be able to achieve paranormal miracles? Perhaps healings or acts of prophecy? However impressive, these are likely to be the result of self-delusion or deception. Don't be swayed by supernatural phenomena until you have investigated them yourself.

4. Does the organization require any painful, difficult or humiliating initiation rituals? Remember that these may well be designed to manufacture an increased sense of group allegiance. Ask yourself whether any suffering is really needed.

The End of the World is Nigh

In the early 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger came across an item in a local newspaper describing how a cult-like group was predicting the end of the world. According to the article, a woman named Marian Keech was indulging in a spot of automatic writing and claimed that the messages were from aliens. Keech had convinced a small group of 11 followers that there would be a great flood on 21 December 1954, but that they shouldn’t worry because a flying saucer would rescue them just before the disaster.

Festinger wondered what would happen to Keech and her followers when the anticipated flood and flying saucers failed to materialize. To find out, he secretly had several undercover observers infiltrate the group and carefully record every psychological twist and turn. Describing his findings in a book entitled When Prophecy Fails (which gives you a clue as to whether the spacecraft actually arrived), Festinger produced a fascinating insight into the psychology of the cult.12

A few days before the group expected the world to end, Mrs Keech and her followers were buoyant, with one member even baking a large cake depicting the mother ship and bearing the iced message ‘Up in the air!’ On the big day the group were nervous and excited. The aliens had sent several messages to Keech explaining that they would knock on her door at midnight and lead the group to their nearby flying saucer (apparently there was no parking directly outside the house). The aliens had also said that it was vital that no one had any metal on them, and so for several hours before the anticipated visit the group members replaced their belts with string, carefully cut any zippers from their clothing, and ripped out the eyelets from their shoes. Keech’s books of automatic scribbling were then placed in a large shopping bag and everyone waited for the aliens.

Just after midnight it became obvious that the extraterrestrial visitors were a no-show. The group sat in stunned silence and spent the next four hours trying to find an explanation for what had happened. When they failed, Keech began to cry. However, a few hours later she said that she had received another message from the aliens, explaining that the predicted cataclysm had been called off because the group had managed to spread light upon the world. Festinger’s study illustrates how people have a remarkable ability to explain away evidence rather than change their cherished beliefs. This ‘I have made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts’ approach helps their beliefs emerge unscathed through even the most devastating attacks. Only two members of Keech’s group, both of whom were lightly committed to begin with, abandoned their belief in the guru’s writings.

Festinger noticed that rather than walk away with their tails between their legs, many members of the group subsequently became especially eager to spread the word. Prior to the failed prediction the group shunned publicity and only gave interviews grudgingly. Immediately afterwards they contacted the media and began an urgent campaign to spread their message. Festinger explained this curious behaviour by speculating that they were trying to convince themselves that their belief was correct by convincing others, feeling that if lots of people believe in something then clearly there must be something in it.

Eventually the group broke up and everyone went their separate ways. Some took to the road, travelling from one flying saucer convention to the next spreading the good word. Others returned to their previous lives. Keech became increasingly concerned about attention from law enforcement agencies and went into hiding. After spending several years in Peru, Keech returned to Arizona and continued to claim to be in contact with aliens until her death in 1992.

It would be comforting to think that the type of mind control discussed in this chapter is limited to the somewhat bizarre and esoteric world of cults. Comforting, but wrong. In fact, you frequently encounter exactly the same principles of persuasion in everyday life. Salespeople use the ‘foot in the door’ technique to secure a sale. Politicians attempt to silence dissenting voices and misdirect you away from information that they don’t want you to see. Marketeers make liberal use of the ‘self-justification’ principle, well aware that the more you pay for a product, the more mental hoops you will jump through to justify the purchase. And advertising agencies know that, in the same way that Marian Keech’s followers boosted their own beliefs by trying to convert others, you recommend products to friends and colleagues in an attempt to convince yourself that you made the right decision. Although the contexts in which the principles operate differ, the psychology is exactly the same. The practitioners of mind control are not restricted to cult leaders and religious sects. Instead, they walk among us on a daily basis.