Sun | Sep 27, 2020

Kristen Gyles | When thinking becomes forbidden

Published:Sunday | February 16, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Group polarization is real.

In 1997, thirty-nine dead bodies were pulled from a mansion in San Diego, California. They were all found wearing identical Nike sneakers and dark uniforms and they each wore an arm patch labelled ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’.

It didn’t take much investigation for the police to find out how and why they died, given the website and farewell videos they left behind, which are still accessible online today. They had all ingested a deadly combination of barbiturates and applesauce, which they washed down with vodka before lying down in preparation for their ‘exit from earth’.

This they did in hopes of entering a spacecraft they believed was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet which was expected to come closest to the Earth at around the end of March, when the suicides were committed. Apparently, the group consisted of avid Star Wars fans. But that will be the subject of another discussion.

In the 1970s, Marshall Applewhite joined with Bonnie Nettles and formed the Heaven’s Gate cult, at some point coming to the interpretation that they were the two witnesses spoken of in Revelation 11. They called themselves ‘Ti’ and ‘Do’ and at other times ‘Bo’ and ‘Peep’, which should give a good idea of how devoted they were to their union. Sadly, Nettles died of cancer in the ’80s leaving ‘Do’ to carry on with the mission, which eventually ended in the mass suicide.

Some saw this chilling story as a sick, twisted joke but for me, the entire affair is very saddening. Maybe the sanity of ‘Do’ could have been called into question. But how on earth could he have convinced 38 other sane-headed people to do something so wild? Or have I assumed something?

I’m not prepared to believe that these 38 persons were all crazy. It seems quite improbable. In fact, I’m inclined to say they really aren’t very different from you and me.

Group polarisation is real. And unfortunately, so many of us are so deeply wound up in our own tribalistic sects that we are unwilling to ever take a step back to re-evaluate our beliefs and ­ideologies. We have found ourselves entrapped within webs of other people’s expectations as well as our own pride.

What struck me is that in one of the farewell videos left behind, ‘Do’ talked about the number of members who had apparently lost their way and had ‘left the class’ for a while but were eventually ‘rescued’. What happened? Did their relatives start jeering them about how silly it was for them to have got involved in something so outrageous? Did that have anything to do with why they found themselves back with the second family? At this point, no one really knows, but this is something we can all relate to – the ‘prove them wrong’ mentality.


Many look on at groups such as the ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’ as brainwashed and indoctrinated. But we assume that this group of free-willed adults were tricked.

In many cases, no one but our egos are responsible for our brainwashing. The unwillingness to admit that maybe, we were (very) wrong, and the unwillingness to start over in our quests for ‘the truth’ can lead us down a dangerous path. To be stuck in this state is to be in a very vulnerable position, especially if one is ­surrounded by like-minded ­people. Suddenly, the web ­thickens with more chains ­developing as more and more persons become ‘convinced’.

Eventually, the big group becomes not only a buttress warding off the so-called negativity of outsiders who just don’t know ‘the truth’ but also a reassurance and confirmation tool for the weakest members of the group.

This disturbing story carries a striking resemblance to the development in Jonestown, Guyana, led by Jim Jones, which led to a much larger mass ­suicide of a little fewer than 1,000 people who were living in their own secluded and independent community. Only in this case, they had no assurance of getting to board an exciting alien spacecraft, or getting their own 72 choice virgins or anything nearly as pleasurable. They simply made a decision to die. Why? Everyone else did.

The problem was this: ‘everyone’ for them consisted only of those who had bought into the same extremist ideologies. They had allowed themselves to become shut away from everyone else and now the parameters of their world had shifted. Everyone had decided to die.

Both mass suicides consisted of men, women and children of varied ages, backgrounds and ethnicities. So clearly, this isn’t and wasn’t a matter of race or gender. These were normal and average people who clutched on a little too tightly to ideologies that they had made commitments to.

This is something that obviously affects us all, and perhaps most distinctly, those who will deny it most vehemently. Just take a look at Jamaican political parties. It is always amazing how some politicians analyse certain situations.

The CMU scandal came as the result of a conspiracy to defraud. The Trafigura scandal, however, was a big misunderstanding. The light-bulb scandal was an indictment on the entirely corrupt PNP but the scandal at Petrojam was a slip-up resulting from oversight.

Many politically affiliated people can become very partial and unreasonable. And what is profound is that this is really never an act. They genuinely believe in the distinction of their political groups. But why? They have been socialised to. This is why there are so many devoted Comrades and Labourites who get asked the question “Why your political party?” and suddenly realise the cat has got their tongue.

When an individual is raised by a community which pledges their allegiance to a particular political party, and simply follows suit without reason or thought, how different are they from the polarised persons who become victims of cult ideology?


We have to become willing to think for ourselves. Even if it means upsetting our families and friends, churches or political parties.

One of the major contributors to the group polarisation problem is our dependence on social proof. That is, the dependence on the crowd to tell us what kinds of behaviour are acceptable.

Researcher Robert Cialdini’s social experiment at the Arizona Petrified Forest National Park is very telling. With a recurring problem of visitors to the park stealing wood, his team mounted signs which read ‘Please don’t remove the petrified wood chips’. Two per cent of wood chips were stolen.

When different signs which read ‘Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest’ were mounted, eight per cent of wood chips were stolen. Persons somehow took comfort in the fact that others were stealing wood and began seeing wood theft as socially acceptable behaviour.

Social proof is something we all are affected by. From deciding whether to park facing in like everyone else in the car park did, or facing out like the instructions on the entrance sign says, to deciding what to do with the empty cups during the communion service at church, people are constantly looking to each other for instructions on what to do. There’s something inherently wrong with this.

The slave trade could have continued in full swing for as long as it did partly because everyone was doing it. Thankfully for us as African descendants, someone eventually put their brain in gear and decided not to take their cue from ‘everyone’.


Kristen Gyles is a mathematics educator and an actuarial science graduate. Email feedback to and