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What does It Mean to "Drink the Kool-Aid"?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “drink the Kool-Aid” is used to describe blind acceptance of something, whether it be a high stress work environment, an order from a superior, or membership in a particular group. This term is commonly used in American politics and corporate culture, typically by outside commentators, who might say that someone is “drinking the Kool-Aid.” People will also tell each other not to drink the Kool-Aid, in the hopes of encouraging people to open their eyes to a situation before it is too late.

There are two different explanations for the origin of this phrase. Some people argue that it is a reference to the Kool-Aid Acid Tests administered by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s. These tests were framed as challenges to the followers of the Merry Pranksters, and they involved drinking Kool-Aid that had been laced with LSD, informally known as acid.

It has also been suggested that the phrase may have its origins in the infamous Jonestown murder-suicide which occurred in 1978. During this horrific event, hundreds of people in a cult called the People's Temple died by drinking poison-laced drinks or being forced to consume poison. According to popular mythology, the poison was mixed with Kool-Aid. In fact, as ample evidence from the period indicates, the Jonestown suicides actually drank Flavor Aid, a slightly different drink.

Both explanations for the origins of "drink the Kool-Aid" involve a certain amount of faith and trust in a leader, and they also suggest a certain amount of recklessness. In the case of the Merry Pranksters, people who drank the Kool-Aid did so in the knowledge that it was laced with a psychedelic substance, while the Jonestown victims willingly drank poison, well aware that it would be deadly. Because of the association with the terrible events of Jonestown, some people find the term to be in poor taste.

Whether or not people find the term offensive, many people do agree that blind acceptance of something is generally not advised. When someone is told not to drink the Kool-Aid, the speaker is usually suggesting that the person engage in some critical thinking, and perhaps reconsider a course of action. This is especially important in the field of politics, where it can be easy to be blinded to reality by rhetoric, and it may be tempting to fall in line with a candidate or way of thinking on the basis of surface information.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By anon983863 — On Jan 03, 2015

I think the reason this term is so widely used is people often find themselves in situations where they feel powerless against the power structures in there lives, whether it be work, socially, friends, family, or popular opinion. So they go along, although skeptical or even opposed because they know resistance is futile.

Yet the mere statement of drink the kool aid voices there opposition and dissent from the crowd. It is a cry to see beyond popular opinion and take off the blindfolds of the moment.

It is a toast in remembrance of those who actually drank the poison and died from it, because they like us, were like sheep headed for the slaughter.

By anon981931 — On Dec 15, 2014

I also believe the expression started with the tragedy at Jonestown, since there were many other methods besides laced Kool-Aid to deliver LSD. Nobody says "looks like they all ate the sugar cube" or "looks like they all licked the stamp". Drinking the Kool-Aid implies more of a blind allegiance to a movement, to the point where talking points replace original thoughts.

By anon340869 — On Jul 06, 2013

@irontoenail: I suggest you think more seriously about this practice. Sure, we all want our words to have impact, but we have to think about the true meaning. What do you really mean when you say that someone is 'drinking the kool-aid'? Remember, 900-plus people died that day, 243 children, some so young they had to be injected. Mothers watched their children die in agony (cyanide is not pleasant). This is what enters my mind when you use that phrase for effect. Is that really the effect you want on your words?

What's worse is that in nearly all situations where this is used, those using it are simply trying to invalidate another opinion, which is an abhorrent way to use such a reference. In other words, people use it without thinking about what it really means or knowing what the reference is, many people will use this to garner an effect that they did not intend.

I see it used all the time in politics to try to discredit valid arguments without having to address the logic of the argument.

By anon340860 — On Jul 06, 2013

It's Jonestown. To attribute this to Wolfe is laughable. Not only are you talking about a 10 year difference, but the meaning reveals this as well. The only reason one may entertain the idea of EKAAT as the reference is because they have been conditioned to think of illegal drugs as bad, so they compare negative connotations instead of meaning. There is only one source for this phrase, Jonestown.

By indigomoth — On Jun 05, 2011

I had never understood that phrase before, although I've seen it on TV and so forth. We don't have Kool-Aid here so I didn't even know what it was.

I have to say that it seems like I've always seen this phrase said in a very negative way, and I know a lot of people who wouldn't think of experiments with LSD as being all that negative. Maybe taking the drug isn't the best thing you can do, but surely the people who knew the drink was laced with LSD knew what they were in for.

But I suppose "don't drink the kool aid" might have had its meaning slowly change over time as well.

By irontoenail — On Jun 03, 2011

I always thought that the phrase "drink the kool-aid" was referring to the Jonestown tragedy.

I suppose it is a phrase that could be used in bad taste, but when I use it it's generally to add a lot of emphasis to a description of a very bad situation.

They might not be stupid people, but they are doing something very foolish indeed.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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