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ETpro's avatar

How can I learn what forces form a person into a cult leader?

Asked by ETpro (34216 points ) September 6th, 2012

I’d like to understand what combination of inborn wiring and psychological forces in their youth turn a bright youngster into a Jim Jones, a Charles Manson, a David Koresh, or other cult leader. What goes wrong? Is it nature, nurture, or both?

Can anyone recommend books I might read to help me understand the cult leader’s mentality?

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40 Answers

wundayatta's avatar

Try google scholar: formation cult leader to see if anything there strikes your eye.

Crashsequence2012's avatar

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Coloma's avatar

I think it is both and this is because sociopathology has it’s roots in nature, but is also be influenced by nurture. Studies have shown that the brains of sociopaths have abnormal regions that influence emotion.
Mostly I think that these types are highly narcissistic, which involves grandiosity, lack of empathy, and an extreme need to be admired if not idolized.
Those that get caught up in cults have their own psychological issues, a need to belong and a need to have an authority figure to tell them what to think, feel, do, as they are lacking in self direction and seeking some sort of rescuing.

It takes two to tango and dance this kind of dance and there are no victims, only volunteers that cater to these lunatics.
Sad for all involved.

Jeruba's avatar

There are several biographies of Jim Jones available; I read one called Raven that seemed very comprehensive and insightful at the time (not too long after the Jonestown tragedy); I don’t know how much may have come to light since. The depiction of Jones as a child and young man shows us, at the very least, what some of the warping influences were and how they played right into his personality and potential.

There’s also one called White Night, but I don’t think I read it.

Deborah Layton’s book Seductive Poison gives a closeup look at Jones once he’d become a local leader and activist and reveals the inner workings of the organization. I read it two or three years ago and found it very compelling.

Releasing the Bonds, by ex-Moonie Steven Hassan, explains what people are up against when they try to escape or help someone else escape from the grip of a cult, and it is also therefore a way of looking at what leaders of destructive cults do to ensnare and hold their followers.

Two other books on my shelf but not read cover to cover are The New Believers, by David Barrett, and Cults, by David R. Lewis.

I’m sure you know that once you find a book that touches on your subject of interest, the book’s bibliography will point you to other sources.

I think it takes reading more than one study or account to gain some sense of the workings of that kind of mind, but I don’t honestly believe that a person who thinks normally is really going to get it.

Jeruba's avatar

Oh, and for a Hollywood treatment of the Jonestown story, there’s Guyana Tragedy, a 1980 TV movie starring Powers Boothe as a rather chilling Jones lookalike.

In 1978 I was fairly new to California. I watched the events leading up to the Jonestown massacre unfold in the local newspaper, starting with Jones’s rise to prominence as a community activist in San Francisco. He seemed like a good guy at the time. Local leaders thought he was wonderful, and he sure could marshal public support for political purposes.

Then came the series of disappearances of his People’s Temple members from the Bay Area as they were silently spirited away to Guyana overnight. The newspaper reported them first as mysteries and then began to look for more sinister connections.

Rep. Leo Ryan’s investigative mission to the Jonestown settlement on behalf of concerned family members was reported in local media. It wasn’t until the attack on his departing party at the Port Kaituma airstrip that the story became major national news. As the horrifying stories began to come out, concluding with the almost unimaginable mass suicide of more than 900 Temple members, it was deeply shocking to realize how easily so many had been deceived and betrayed—not only in his community of followers but in the government and the public at large.

YARNLADY's avatar

I don’t see the personality type as being any different from a successful car salesman or actor. It is just something that can go either way, religious or other.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

The short answer is “no”. I read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi years ago, but I don’t recall how much detail the book went into about Charles Manson’s psychological results.

What I can tell you is that just about all of the mass or serial killer true crime stories I’ve read delve into the psyche of the person found guilty. It often comes down to whether the killer has been identified as a psychopath or sociopath. Here is one link that explains the difference in layman’s terms.

While the difference, including cause, is still not agreed upon in the psychological field, if there is any truth in this, then it would point to these cult leaders having a sociopathic personality. Their upbringings seem riddled with traumatic situations, thus potentially impacting their personality. They learn to become charismatic and manipulative at a young age as a survival tactic. They hone these skills as they grow.

Ron_C's avatar

@ETpro are you looking to start your own cult? I think it may be fun, can I join?

Coloma's avatar

@Ron_C Yeah, I think he’s calling it the “Spoonies”. lololol

Dutchess_III's avatar

Interesting. Some people are just “born” leaders. They’ll lead no matter what. If I remember what I read about Manson correctly, he was pretty severely abused as a kid. I don’t remember it all…well, maybe all I’ve read was in Wikipedia and by following the links there.

Excerpt: “Manson’s mother was allegedly a heavy drinker.[2]:136–7 According to a family member, she once sold her son for a pitcher of beer to a childless waitress, from whom his uncle retrieved him some days later.”

Pandora's avatar

Narcissistic personality disorder with a few splashes of crazy.

Coloma's avatar

^ Yeah, double crazy, oh boy! haha

Nullo's avatar

As I recall, L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology on a bet.

ETpro's avatar

@wundayatta Thanks, but what that tells me is that this is a ripe field for some psychologist to explore. The racks are replete with books on the havoc they wreak once they have decided to form a cult, or slipped into it because it simply fit their character. But there is little out there on what turns them into the type to begin with.

@Crashsequence2012 Ha! Too funny. But before I invest in your materials, I’m going to need to see the Dacha your earnings have built. It better compare favorably with the $1 billion one that the Ruskie Machismo Cult has allowed Vladimir Putin to build for himself. Otherwise, no sale. :-)

@Coloma You might want to listen to Diane Benscoter’s TED talk and consider what she points to in memetics before settling on that conclusion.

@Jeruba Thanks for all those excellent references. I will explore each. I may or may not read them through. But even ones that don’t cover the area I am researching may lead me to references that help.

@YARNLADY Interesting comment. Jim Jones was a car salesman before becoming a false messiah.

@Pied_Pfeffer Thank you. That is extremely helpful.

@Ron_C No, I am looking to write about someone who does. It’s a promise I made my daughter shortly before she died. I can’t say more than that about it now, but will do so in the foreword to the book.

@Coloma Ha! My wife thinks I worship my beloved Spoony THE Cat.

@Dutchess_III Hum. I wonder if abuse as a child is a common thread.

@Pandora Great point. Researching what leads to narcissistic personality disorder might take me right where I want to study. Personally, as rotten as all we human beings are, I think anyone extremely narcissistic is way more than a wee bit crazy.

@Nullo Is that right? Any way I can document that?

Coloma's avatar

@ETpro Interesting, just read a little about the brain rewiring, gotta hit the hay, but intriguing for sure. Moonies and Spoonies. haha

ragingloli's avatar

Charm, oratory skills, expertise in propaganda techniques, brainwashing abilities.
Like Hitler or Jesus.

Dutchess_III's avatar

In order to be a good leader you HAVE to be narcissistic I think. I mean, do any of us here feel we could actually BE the president of the U.S.? You have to be a little crazy and full of yourself to think you could actually pull it off! IMO.

Jeruba's avatar

@ETpro, as I recall, Jim Jones also sold monkeys door to door. And when he was a kid, he would line up the neighborhood dogs and cats (mostly dogs, I suspect) like a little congregation and preach to them.

Dutchess_III's avatar

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Being bat shit insane as a lot to do with it!!!!

Nullo's avatar

@ETpro Wikipedia says,
“It is widely believed that the creation of Scientology was the result of a bar bet between L. Ron Hubbard and Robert A. Heinlein. The story says L. Ron Hubbard dared that he could create a religion all by himself. According to Scientology critic Lindsay[4] this is “definitely not true”, no such bet was ever made, it would have been “uncharacteristic of Heinlein” to make such a bet, and “there’s no supporting evidence”. However, several of Heinlein’s autobiographical pieces, as well as biographical pieces written by his wife, claim repeatedly that the bet did indeed occur.”
I’d be more inclined to believe Heinlein, myself.
Harlan Ellison allegedly recounts a more pecuniary angle on a different occasion.
The Wiki page on Scientology controversies offers this.

ragingloli's avatar

@Nullo
All religions will deny or suppress information about their origins that would compromise their credibility.

Coloma's avatar

Haha, that’s a pretty desperate narcissist trying to preach to the neighborhood pets. I bet the cats really pissed him off with their unwillingness to sit at rapt attention. lol

ragingloli's avatar

@Coloma
And they became quite impatient waiting for him to multiply the fish already.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I’m working on a psych unit at this moment. Lots of personality disorders and schizoaffectives and bipolar substance abusers. I’ve run into only one cult leader, albeit small-time, a very charismatic alchoholic who was losing his grip and who was so manipulative and full of himself that he was not ready for help.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder comes to mind. Add megalomania with an unhealthy dash of psychosis and charisma and you’ve got your Frankenstein monster.

Here’s an excerpt from Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, by Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich that you might find helpful, my friend.

I had an interesting involvement with a cult once back during summer break from my first year of college at Sonoma State in Cotati, California back in ‘71. They were an urban cult that owned a row of houses in Oakland and had expansion plans for Cotati. I started to write about it here, but seriously, it read like cheap porn. I couldn’t post it with a straight face. But their hook was whatever worked, taylored to the individual mark. In my case, as an eighteen-year-old, it was sex. The first thing I noticed was that they had their own special language. That insinuated a secret knowledge and with that a belonging into an exclusive, superior society. In the end, it was all about money. I’ve never been much of a joiner. They kicked me out after two months after I had pissed off one of their leaders by screwing his girlfriend one too many times (they espoused Free Love—how the hell did I know they weren’t serious), wrecked one of their cars (only then did they find out I had no drivers license), and never brought in one stinking penny. Hey, they bought the building I was living in. They came to me. It was a great experience and I had a helluva time.

Jeruba's avatar

Very interesting excerpt, @Espiritus_Corvus. Interesting story of your own experience, too.

I just have to note, on the down side, that this book excerpt is apparently the product of an OCR scan and as such has the weird kind of typos that occur when you scan to text: “unotional” instead of “emotional,” “Tonestown” in place of “Jonestown,” “cheddist” instead of “checklist,” embedded hyphens, etc. So it can be hard to read in places. Someone really interested in the subject might want to look for a copy of the actual book.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@Jeruba Yeah, I noticed that, too. Not very professional copy, but it hit all the marks of the personality I believe ETpro is looking for. Best would be to interview a former cult leader, but that is one rare animal. You have a dangerously critical eye, m’dam.

ETpro's avatar

@Nullo Thanks. I tend to believe it. I knew L. Ron Hubbard. He was at times everything the psychopath type that becomes a cult leader acts like. But he was also a loving husband and devoted father, something utterly inconsistent with the psychopathic personality disorder. I think he was probably putting it on for show, but he met many of the criteria for the psychopath drifting into megalomania. Was it real or show. We may never know.

@Espiritus_Corvus Small world. I’d already stumbled onto the Madeleine Landau,
Tobias and Janja Lalich piece. Great stuff.,

My understanding is most cult leaders are psychopaths, narcissists, and pathological liars who will lie even when the truth would serve them better. They are also often megalomaniacs. Not a great subject for an interview that is likely to shed light on their early upbringing and “what’s wrong with them”. While they appear to be painfully aware of their shortcomings at some level, they have an overwhelming need to be admired and worshiped. They do not connect to failings, and often fly into rages if challenged to do so. All their failings are because they are so loving of their followers that they take on there negative karma.

Shippy's avatar

sociopath personality’s

ETpro's avatar

@Shippy Thanks. That’s what I am beginning to study. Picking out the various psychological profiles that many cult leaders match, and looking into what we know of what causes them. So psychopath/sociopath, narcissistic personality disorder, megalomaniac. Not a savory brew of psychology. These are some deeply disturbed people.

ETpro's avatar

@Pazza Very interesting. He speaks the truth. Thanks for the link.

Jeruba's avatar

Hmm. In the son’s interview (second link above), he seems to skitter away from actually asserting just about anything. The interviewer keeps trying to get him to make some sort of unqualified statement, and he doesn’t. He won’t even say if he thinks the letter allegedly from his father really is from his father.

You won’t see me trying to defend Hubbard or any other cultist or proselytizer. Still, I don’t find either the son or the (presumed) great-grandson convincing. The performance of the first is theater; of the second, evasive double-talk; or so it seems to me.

Pazza's avatar

@Jeruba – Agreed, I just personally thought that if you wanted to know what a person was really like, that you should look to the people who knew him personally, or interacted with him personally. Also, it was a quick google/youtube search for the video’s I’d previously stumbled upon myself, so I posted them as ‘tasters’, following these links always leads to more interesting links etc.

The ‘I am fishead’ documentary is a real eye-opener and once you understand the mentality of the sociopath (which come in many flavours), you see how these people can become elevated to such degrees, and how they can influence certain individuals with susceptible personality traits.

I used to live with one….. (I can usually spot them a mile off now). Although I knew after a few years what she was capable of, it took me years to find out what she was lacking and what the difference between her and myself was. As explained in the video, the vast majority of people live with the assumption that everybody generally thinks and feels the same way, and are then highly perplexed as to how say, a pedaphile is capable of committing sexual offenses on young child.

If anybody decides to watch the video, you’l never look at politics, banking, CEO’s etc. the same way ever again (or even down the local pub). You’l probably sit there and go ‘HOLY SHIT’ I’m pretty sure I know several myself.

(I keep trying to get the wife to watch it, but as yet, she is having non of it :0(.......)

ETpro's avatar

@Jeruba & @Pazza I was in the Sea Org when Hubbard’s son was a little tyke and Mary Sue Hubbard was still around. He is NOT exaggerating. My experience there, and escape from there, is what has me interested in the subject even today. I can thoroughly understand why Hubbard’s relatives would be reticent and speak in guarded terms. They are absolutely right about the fair-game policy and the Sea Org including enforcers. It’s risky for me to even wrte this.

Crashsequence2012's avatar

Buy my DIY Cult Leader kit mentioned above already @ragingloli

ragingloli's avatar

@Crashsequence2012
Do not need that. I already have a massive space battle fleet of space destroyers at billions of loyal space soldiers at my disposal, ready and willing to do my space bidding, ever since I deposed the evil space overlord Xenu. In space.

ETpro's avatar

@Crashsequence2012 Thanks. I will definitely see that’s it’s part of the research for the work.

Crashsequence2012's avatar

In the case of Scientology the force is unintentional and sudden accumulation of wealth.

Why should one reject the windfall just because it comes accidentally and suddenly?

For example:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ballad_of_Jed_Clampett

ETpro's avatar

@Crashsequence2012 Excellent observation. I’ve not had the good fortune of a Jeb Clampett, but I have a suspicion I’d welcome a sudden influx of millions in cash or crude.

Crashsequence2012's avatar

Hills that is.

Swimming pools, amateur liberal blowhards.

Just accept your Academy Award and STFU.

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