Home > Cohesion and Development > Groupthink and the Tragedy of Heaven’s Gate

Groupthink and the Tragedy of Heaven’s Gate

heavensgateHeaven’s Gate was an alternative religious group based in California in the 1990s.  Members lived together in a tightly organized community, and the group supported itself by building websites for businesses.  But in March of 1997 most of the members (21 women and 18 men) committed suicide on three successive days. The majority of the members who took part in this collective act were in their 40s, but the youngest was 26 and the oldest 72.  Several months later, two other members took their own lives as well. Analysis of the group’s records, including their website, suggested that they firmly believed that, by ending their lives, they would leave their physical bodies to travel to a nearby space craft.

Other people influence our thoughts, our emotions, and our behaviors. This assumption, axiomatic in social psychology and group dynamics, is inarguable. But does it explain why 41 people would make so permanent a decision of committing suicide?

A group-level analysis of the Heaven’s Gate incident requires (at least) three parts. First, why was the public, in general, so intrigued by the incident, and why did most people misunderstand it? Second, what group level processes operate in such groups? Are these processes so powerful that they could induce a sane person into taking what appears to be an insane action? Third, why would a group of people make such a horrific decision, with such drastic consequences?

Why Are People Fascinated by “Cults”?

The Heaven’s Gate group was a major news story for many months in 1997. Newspapers around the world showed the special morgue truck needed to carry the multiple suicides. The groups’ web page was flooded with Internet hits. The media flocked to the site. Other news–wars, weather, and the basketball playoffs–took a backseat to suicide.

Why are people intrigued by groups that commit mass suicide? The intrigue stems, in part, from their unusualness. But the intrigue also derives from misunderstanding.

First, we explain away the suicide of an individual by blaming illness, pain, and depression, but these explanations don’t work very well when a group takes its life. We can understand (although perhaps not condone the actions of) people who, suffering incredible pain with a fatal disease, ending their lives. We can also understand that people suffering from psychological problems– such as deep, unrelenting depression–may become so confused, so negative, so distressed over who they are that they escape their own existence. But the Heaven’s Gate group wasn’t fatally ill. The members weren’t depressed and confused. So the assumptions that we usually rely on to explain away a suicide don’t help us explain their actions. If they weren’t suffering, if they weren’t depressed, then why would they commit suicide? We are puzzled.

Second, we think of suicide as the most irrational of behavior. Except in cases of extreme pain when the person is terminally ill, we assume that the person is dazed, confused, not thinking clearly- -and, indeed, people who commit suicide often are dazed, confused, and not thinking clearly. But a group, by its very nature, cannot be as irrational as an individual. Thirty nine people had to discuss how they would die. They had make plans: How would they do it? Who would be in charge of removing the plastic bags and shrouding the bodies? Who would go first, who would go last? How could a group discuss such things? The very idea of group suicide is paradoxical, because we assume that suicide is irrational, and that groups are rational. We understand when groups make bad decisions or work ineffectively, but to commit suicide? Unlikely. We realize that individuals commit suicide regularly–so frequently that only a movie or rockstar’s self-immolation is newsworthy. But a suicidal group is a rarity.

Third, because suicide is such horrible outcome–the ending of a life and any opportunity for further development–we intuitively seek a dramatic explanation. Indeed, in 1978 a representative sample of Americans were asked “Why do you think people become involved in cults?” (Gallup, 1978, p. 275). Most people blamed the personality characteristics and flaws of the cult members. They were seeking a “father figure;” they were “unhappy” or “gullible” or “searching for a deeper meaning to life;” they were “mentally disturbed,” “escapists,” or addicted to drugs.” And now people are aruging that its the Internet that did it: The WEB is to blame for the spread of bizarre ideas about UFOs and Christianity.

These explanations are all simplistic ones– they demean the group members, blaming their personalities or their weaknesses since their actions make no sense to us. When we read about the individuals in Heaven’s Gate we assume they are weak, gullible people who are easily influenced by others. When we read that 39 people committed suicide, we immediately assume that some leader brainwashed them. That they were tortured, forced to watch indoctrination videos, injected with mind-altering drugs, or deprived of sleep for days. Yet they weren’t.

These three factors explain the macabre fascination for the Heaven’s Gate group. First, we can’t explain their behavior with our usual stockpile of beliefs about suicide: they weren’t suffering, they weren’t crazy. Second, group suicide is always a paradox, because we believe that groups are more rational than individuals, and suicide is irrational. Third, we follow the unfolding story searching for clues that some dramatic, bizarre forces–a charismatic leader, drugs, the WEB–caused the behavior. Only by finding a powerful–and incorrect–explanation can we feel comfortable.

Why Do People Let Groups Influence Them?

Picture in your mind a member of Heaven’s Gate. Who do you see? A brainwashed devotee mumbling her prayers mindlessly. A weak- kneed follower who blindly follows Elder Jonathan’s orders? A truthseeker who is so desperate to understand the meaning of life that she will accept an odd version replete with allusions to spaceships and UFOs?

These images of people who take part in nontraditional religious and social groups are unfair exaggerations. Although the word cult summons up thoughts of brainwashed automatons so intimidated by a charismatic leader that they can’t stand up for their rights, this stereotype is naive and incomplete. Everyone’s actions are controlled, in part, by social factors, and the actions of members of so-called cults require no reference to the “magical powers” of a leader or the “twisted” personalities of the followers.

What are these group-level processes? Informational influence occurs when other people provide us with information that we then use to make decisions and form opinions. If we spend years and years in the company of people who explain things in terms of UFOs and out-of-the-body experiences, we will in time begin to explain things in that way as well. Normative influence occurs when we tailor our actions to fit the social norms of the situation. We take such norms as “Do not tell lies” and “Help other people when they are in need” for granted, but some societies and some groups have different norms which are equally powerful and taken-for-granted. Normative influence accounts for the transmission of religious, economic, moral, political, and interpersonal beliefs across generations. Interpersonal influence is used in those rare instances when someone violates the group’s norms. The individual who publicly violates a group’s norm will likely meet with reproach or even be ostracized from the group.

These three factors–informational, normative, and interpersonal influence–explain nearly all social behaviors, including those exhibited by people in atypical religious groups. First, informational influence: Studies of cult members find that they typically rely on the group for answers to personally important questions. One member of a religious group describes his first meeting with a cult as: It was strange, but the intensity of the two days left me much clearer about why I had been so uncertain, and where I might head for the future; it was as if a haze had been lifted. I began to understand things that had made no sense before, why most people rushed around for no reason, without any lasting sense of purpose. I had a sense that I could look for direction to my friends in the One-World Crusade. (quoted in M. Gallanter, 1989, p. 61, Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion, Oxford University Press).

Second, normative influence: Members feel obligated to conform to group norms that encouraged friendliness, cooperation, and total acceptance of the principles of the group. Self- reports of conversions are very similar in that people begin as skeptics, recognizing that the ideas are possibly bizarre and “kooky.” But over time they accept them as the their own. One writes: I “went along in all the activities because they were sincere people doing things for a good cause, even though sometimes it seemed silly.” Eventually, though, he internalized the group’s norms.

Third, interpersonal influence: Cult members won’t take no for an answers. Such groups are often isolated, intensely cohesive, and led by an individual who brooks no disagreement. Nearly everyone recognizes that there is danger in “falling in” with the members of cult, for even though we believe that we are individualists who make up our own minds, we intuitively realize that such a group could change us from who were are now into one of “them.” Studies of radical religious groups describe very similar dynamics across all the groups: intense cohesiveness, public statements of principles, pressure placed on anyone who dissents, ostracism from the group for disagreement, strong rewards for agreement with the group’s ideals.

I am the first to admit that an explanation that stresses normal, everyday sorts of determinants of behavior seems inadequate to explain such abnormal, unusual behavior as mass suicide. Yet the law of parsimony requires nothing more if this basic account is sufficient. Informational, normative, and interpersonal influence processes guide us constantly. In ambiguous situations, other people’s actions provide us with the social proof we need to make our own choices. If it’s OK for them, we assume it must be OK for us. And should we fail to match the expectations of those around us, they will be pleased to guide us back to the right path. We may feel the need to dehumanize the group for its actions by calling them crazy or hypothesizing weird social forces that constrained them, but in the end their actions stem from the same processes that guide the behavior of the accountant crunching numbers for a client, the gang member facing down a rival, the soldier readying for another patrol, or the frat boy drinking to heavily at keg party.

Why Did the Heaven’s Group Make Such an Extreme Choice?

We don’t really understand any group, yet alone the actions of a group that commits suicide. But if we assume that Heaven’s Gate was a group like any other, then we can speculate about the factors that may have led it to make such a dreadful decision.

When people must make important decisions, they turn to groups. Groups can draw on more resources than a lone individual. Groups can also generate more ideas and possible solutions by discussing the problem. Groups can also pressure individual members to accept the solution, even if they have doubts. People generally feel that a group’s decision will be superior to an individual’s decisions.

Groups, however, don’t always make good decisions. Juries sometimes render verdicts that run counter to the evidence presented. Community groups take radical stances on issues before thinking through all the ramifications. Military strategists concoct plans that seem, in retrospect, ill-conceived and short- sighted.

Groups can stumble, but groups that make disastrous decisions require special explanation. One such explanation is groupthink: a distorted style of thinking that renders group members incapable of making a rational decision (Forsyth, 1995, Our Social World, Brooks/Cole). Groupthink, which was coined by Irving Janis in his classic book Victims of Groupthink, is considered a disease that infects healthy groups, rendering them inefficient, unproductive, and irrational.

Did Heaven’s Gate suffer from groupthink? Janis has identified a number of causes of groupthink, and many were likely operating in the Heaven’s Gate group.

Cohesiveness. Groupthink only occurs in cohesive groups. Such groups have many advantages over groups that lack unity. People enjoy their membership much more in cohesive groups, they less likely to abandon the group, and they work harder in pursuit of the group’s goals. But extreme cohesiveness can be dangerous. When cohesiveness intensifies, members become more likely to accept the goals, decisions, and norms of the group without reservation. Conformity pressures also rise as members become reluctant to say or do anything that goes against the grain of the group, and the number of internal disagreements–so necessary for good decision making–decreases.

Isolation. Groupthink groups work in secret. They isolate themselves from outsiders, and refuse to modify their beliefs to bring them into line with society’s beliefs. They avoid leaks by maintaining strict confidentiality and working only with people who are members of their group.

Biased leadership. A biased leader who exerts too much authority over the group members can increase conformity pressures and railroad decisions. In groupthink groups the leader determines the agenda for each meeting, sets limits on discussion, and can even decide who will be heard.

Decisional stress. Groupthink becomes more likely when the group is stressed, particularly by time pressures. The Heaven’s Gate group experienced such stress, as the arrival of the comment Hale-Bopp and the Christian holy days forced them to come to a decision regarding their assumed transportation. When groups are stressed they minimize their discomfort by quickly choosing a plan of action, with little argument or dissension. Then, through collective discussion, the group members can rationalize their choice by exaggerating the positive consequences, minimizing the possibility of negative outcomes, concentrating on minor details, and overlooking larger issues.

The group, then, was ripe for groupthink. Moreover, as details are reported by the media, we can continue to ascertain if the group displayed one or more of the following symptoms of groupthink:

Overestimation of the group. Groups that have fallen into the trap of groupthink are actually planning fiascoes and making all the wrong choices. Yet the members usually assume that everything is working perfectly. They are happy and confident.

Biased perceptions. During groupthink members respond to people who oppose their plan with suspicion. They often adopt ideas that are completely inconsistent with reality, and yet they rationalize their beliefs.

Conformity pressures. In groupthink situations, pressures to conform become overwhelming. Each individual member of the group experiences a personal reluctance to disagree. Through self-censorship, pressuring dissenters, and mindguarding, the group develops an atmosphere of unanimity. Every person may privately disagree with what is occurring in the group, yet publicly everyone expresses total agreement with the group’s policies. The fact that the Heaven’s Gate members dressed similarly and looked so identical that the first officers on the scene assumed that all of the members were men speaks to the magnitude of the pressures to seek uniformity.

Defective decision-making strategies. Groups usually make decisions by sharing information, weighing alternatives, discussing costs and benefits, and seeking new information. When a group experiences groupthink, it locks into a plan of action and does not waiver from it. It experiences tunnel vision, and no longer uses effective decision- making strategies. I have not seen any information about the decisional processes used by the group.

The bottom line of this analysis is that Heaven’s Gate was a tragedy. The members people took their own lives, leaving behind family and friends. Yet, we should not rush to demean the group with simplistic explanations that call them “crazy.” Studies of groupthink have traced such decisions as the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the mission to rescue the hostages held in Tehran, the launching of the space shuttle Challenger, and the defense of Pearl Harbor back too much cohesion, isolation, biased leaders, and too much stress. Rather than dismiss the Heaven’s Gate group as insane, try to consider them to be a group that made a bad decision.

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  1. Donelson Forsyth
    June 26, 2013 at 4:36 pm | #1

    Comments are open on this document, but the WordPress spam checker is very stringent. It has blocked dozens of comments, marking them as spam–and I’m reluctant to un-spam them because I think Askimet knows better than I do what is spam and what is not. Most of the blocked comments seem very generic, not related to the actual content of the post.

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