Chapter 1: Introducing Social Psychology

Mass Suicide of 39 Cult Members Shocks Nation

On March 26, 1997, people were found dead in a house on a hilltop in San Diego, California. The people were members of a cult and were part of a carefully orchestrated suicide that involved sedatives, vodka, and plastic bags. There were 21 women and 18 men, and they had come to California from across the country. Most of the victims were in their 40s, but ages ranged from 26 to 72.

The name of the cult was “Heaven’s Gate,” and it also operated a computer web service called “Higher Source.” The victims evidently believed that they were going to meet a UFO hiding behind the comet Hale-Bopp, and the suicides occurred during the time that the comet was closest to earth.

The suicide probably took place over three days and seemed to have been calm and ritualistic. One group of cult members apparently helped some other members die, cleaned up after them, and then went on to take their own doses of poison, which was mixed with apple sauce or pudding. The last two victims had plastic bags over their heads.

“It seemed to be a group decision,” said Dr. Brian Blackbourne, San Diego County medical examiner.

“There were different stages, suggesting it was planned. They all had IDs. The house was immaculate.”

“We’re not talking about a drug-crazed, party-time situation…The drugs were taken for a very specific purpose and that was to take their own lives.”

The victims all wore black pants and black Nike sports shoes, and their faces and chests were covered in purple shrouds. The victims had carefully packed their bags and placed their few possessions at their sides. Most of the victims had a $5 bill and some quarters in their pockets.

There was no blood found at the scene, and the only weapon in the home was a 9 mm pistol packed in a bag.

Jerry Lipscomb of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department told CNN, “What we’re finding is that each and every one of the members of the organization, prior to their death, gave a brief statement…The essence of those statements was that they were going to a better place.”

“It’s our opinion that it was their intent—they planned to do this.”

Social psychology is the scientific study of how we feel about, think about, and behave toward the people around us and how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are influenced by those people. As this definition suggests, the subject matter of social psychology is very broad and can be found in just about everything that we do every day. Social psychologists study why we are often helpful to other people and why we may at other times be unfriendly or aggressive. Social psychologists study both the benefits of having good relationships with other people and the costs of being lonely. Social psychologists study what factors lead people to purchase one product rather than another, how men and women behave differently in social settings, how juries work together to make important group decisions, and what makes some people more likely to recycle and engage in other environmentally friendly behaviors than others. And social psychologists also study more unusual events, such as how some people can be persuaded that a UFO is hiding behind a comet, leading them to take their own lives as part of a suicide cult.

The goal of this book is to help you learn to think about social behaviors in the same way that social psychologists do. I believe you will find this approach useful because it will allow you to think about human behavior more critically and more objectively and to gain insight into your own relationships with other people. Social psychologists study everyday behavior scientifically, and their research creates a useful body of knowledge about our everyday social interactions.


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