The Kool-Aid Free Diet

The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is popular, these days. It refers to the actions of people controlled by groupthink, usually to their own long-term detriment. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” means following a leader blindly, accepting leadership’s determinations, and promoting them as the will of the whole group.

“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is agreeing with the group, rather than subjecting decision-making to outside influences. Just imagine that you are in a meeting, and everyone decides that the best plan is to go jump off a bridge. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” means agreeing that this is an awesome plan, thus aligning yourself socially with the group. You might even volunteer for a leadership role and tweet about your promotion! Everyone seems to come to agreement, often by suppressing minority opinions to create the feeling that there is harmony within the group.

At a deeper level, “drinking the Kool-Aid” means agreeing with micro-social mores, rather than staying true to a larger sense of identity. It is an act of faith in the group and in its leaders to make good decisions. It is especially employed in situations where leadership wants to offer the image that all is well, that everyone is “on the same page,” and that the ideas being proposed are being backed by the whole group, and not simply mandated from the top.

In a competitive business environment, “drinking the Kool-Aid” becomes a survival tactic. Where getting along with the boss(es) can be more critical than making good decisions, drinking the Kool-Aid may be the only choice in the short term.

A Brief History of Jonestown

The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a reference to the mass suicide in Jonestown (Peoples Temple Agricultural Project) in Guyana on November 18, 1978. Over nine hundred people died, many of them intentionally drinking poison-laced Flavor Aid (not Kool-Aid, as the legend goes).

At the order of the leader of the Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, his followers committed suicide. They believed him, and believed in him, accepting that their actions had a larger meaning. They followed their leader into death, likely certain that they were saving themselves from a more terrible fate. A few survived by fleeing, but most chose death.

If Everyone Else Jumped off a Bridge…

Sure, there is a little bit of “laughing in the face of death” when we speak of drinking the Kool-Aid. At the same time, we might use the phrase in mockery of those who get the promotion we did not, because they seem willing to believe things that we believe are not true in order to fit in. Fantasies of rebellion and self-reliance aside, drinking the Kool-Aid is often necessary.

The old saw, “If everyone else were jumping off a bridge, would you?” ignores the fact that in many cases, with most people, the answer is “yes.” Humans are social animals, and we do not make every decision rationally, weighing the pros and cons of the matter.

We might create such lists to organize our thoughts, but our final answers are driven by more “squishy” aspects of ourselves such as our personal values, a desire for social acceptance, and even a certain mob mentality. The idea that we make choices rationally is a cultural fiction. We make some decisions that way, some of the time. But any time that the “coolness” of an idea takes part in our decision-making process, we have stepped away from pure, objective rationality and into something much more influenced by culture, ideas of success and acceptance, and in fact a whole social realm that is not objective, but is very, very real.

So, Why a Kool-Aid Free Diet?

In the course of life, we will need to do things we do not like and accept things that we do not truly believe in, at least on the surface (and often much more deeply). So why discuss it at all? It is one thing to ape social customs, another to believe them unquestioningly, and yet a third to understand their context, and sometimes meaning(s).

If you have ever traveled in a foreign country and spent time with the people who live there, you likely picked up at least a smattering of local customs and words. You might have been able to say hello, order basic foods, and just generally “get along.” The pure aping of social rules, with little or no understanding, is a far cry from being an expert in a culture. At the same time, it is also how we learn the social rules in our first culture.

Our own culture is learned in a process that anthropologists call “enculturation.” If acculturation is the learning of a second culture (like during a year abroad in France), then enculturation is the way we learn our first culture. We learn our first culture in a way that we never really learning anything again, by doing it until it makes sense, and not generally by learning sets of abstract rules. In a sense, that first culture, like the first language, becomes the baseline for all learning throughout our lives.

That does not mean that we will forever accept that culture as “true,” but it becomes our semantic home, our point of departure. The Kool-Aid Free Diet is about understanding that mental home, by taking a glimpse into our own culture, for a brief moment, as if from the outside.


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