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ETpro's avatar

What goes into making someone become a cult leader?

Asked by ETpro (34480points) January 22nd, 2010

Cult leaders are notoriously people suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Clearly, not all people with NPD are cult leaders, but all damaging cult leaders are NPDs. How do they get that way? Is it nature or nurture.

What goes wrong that creates a Jim Jones or David Koresh out of someone who outwardly is so glib and charismatic? What are the other traits that combine with Narcissism to turn an otherwise extremely bright, attractive person into someone who wreaks so much havoc in the lives of those who follow them?

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28 Answers

poisonedantidote's avatar

well i dont think i have NPD, but then again i would think that if i did hehe. i once thought about starting a cult, when i was still in my late teens. and i mean really thought about it, not just a joke or something.

i never went through with it, but if i had, my personal motivation would have been totally financial.

DrMC's avatar

Ahh, comrades, I thought you’d never ask ; )

efritz's avatar

Maybe the need to control others?

filmfann's avatar

Maybe just the thrill of seeing how easily they can manipulate people.

DrMC's avatar

Hitler believed he had been divinely chosen, for a divine purpose.

filmfann's avatar

So did Bush.

Ruallreb8ters's avatar

so did i… its not about controling them, it about allowing them to help themselves by helping you.

DrMC's avatar

Hail Bush!

Silly americans.

DrMC's avatar

Damn – I am having too much fun with this

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

A good pitch, well defined product/idea and knowing the desires and motivations of a target audience.

mammal's avatar

i couldn’t think of anything worse, sycophancy makes me physically sick. Being a cult leader is kind of like a Heroin Habit, full of ups and downs, all in all, a pretty queasy experience.

jeffgoldblumsprivatefacilities's avatar

A good supply of Koolaid.

ETpro's avatar

@poisonedantidote That’s truly fascinating. Did the thought that most cult leaders end up killing not only their followers but themselves too constrain you? I’d love to hear more about the thought process you went through. It’s crossed my mind as well that’s it’s an extremely lucrative gig. What made you decide not to give it a go?

@DrMC & @filmfann Great points. Divine appointment makes ones every move justified, does it not? And Doc, I’m enjoining all the answers as well. :-)

@hungryhungryhortence Those are certainly tools that the cult leader uses to build a flock, but I am currently more interested in what launches them into wanting a flock of sheeple to begin with. What switch/es get set in the wrong position? Does Mother Nature do it, parents, society?

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

@ETpro: maybe personality disorders coupled with the gift of salesmanship, leadership and innovation distills into a black art? Alexander The Great, Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar are viewed as hero shapers of civilization while Hitler is an aberration of nature and Jesus Christ a benign martyr. They all had Kool Aid packets though.

ETpro's avatar

@hungryhungryhortence So true. Thanks. What a diverse lot. No wonder it’s not an easy question to answer.

augustlan's avatar

Very interesting question, @ETpro. I’m sorry it seems so difficult to answer. If I had to hazard a guess (and that’s all I can really do), I’d say it’s a combination of several factors. I think people are born with NPD (they can learn how to overcome it – with a lot of hard work – but most probably don’t. Personality disorders are some of the hardest things to treat successfully). So, they may be hard-wired to think there is a grandiose plan for their lives. If they are also charming and have a flair for sales, they convince several other people of the same. These people become informal ‘followers’, and their adoration feeds the narcissism. Eventually, a doctrine of sorts develops… a natural outcome of the way the ‘leader’ lives his life, and more people are attracted to the group. Adoration feeds narcissism, and both grow exponentially. Now you’ve got yourself a cult.

Up to that point, I think this is all sort of likely, given the right set of people and circumstances. What is really fascinating to me, is how they make the leap from here to mass murder/suicide. Perhaps it’s further grandiosity, “I/we are too good for this world.” Or, could it be that a glimpse of reality has shone through the insanity? If one were to – even briefly – realize that one was wrong, that there was nothing special about themselves, might one reject that reality as strongly as possible? To the point of “death before dishonor”?

Anyway, great question to ponder.

Ron_C's avatar

The most important ability of an aspiring cult leader is the ability to spot the gullible. You can’t be a leader without them. So besides having extreme ego the potential leader probably enjoys power much more than he cares about his followers. I notice that cult leaders find it impossible to let go of that power when it finally begins to dwindle. Look at Charles Manson, he is still trying to maintain his hold on his followers and is even a bit successful even though is is locked up in a maximum security prison.

Look at Pat Roberson, he once was so powerful that he ran for president. Fortunately he was soundly rejected but still says outrageous things to regain that power. He even hires former models to sit there and murmur approval for his vicious tirades.

The point of it is that the typical cult leader is a sociopath with extreme ego and a control complex. Nothing, to them, is more important than complete control of the audience and like child molesters, they never stop trying. There also seems to be an unlimited supply of the gullible.

ETpro's avatar

@augustlan That helps me begin to unlock the process whereby one develops into a cult leader. THank you for the thoughts. How confident is science that personality disorfders are hard wired into us?

@Ron_C Great point. All the other attributes won’t lead to a cult unless the erstwhile leader is able to rapidly spot and convert people who are gullible. They also seem to posses a gift at discerning what inner drives are unsatisfied in many people, and promising that they alone can fill those needs.

DrMC's avatar

@ETpro glad you are enjoying. You will be saved from the first cultural revolution. We will need several like you to control the locals

You will however need to be good at making cool aid.

DrMC's avatar


ETpro's avatar

@DrMC I get a laugh out of each such answer, but they will wear thin. As I think of the tens of millions Chairman Mao killed pushing his cultural revolution, I must consider whether I should make the first power grab and then decide who needs reeducation.

Muahahahaha!!! :-)

DrMC's avatar

Don’t worry, there will be space for you in the party

DrMC's avatar

I will eventually have to move on to a new avatar, but it’s been worth 100 giggles so far.

mattbrowne's avatar

It’s not just about narcissism. Other traits are required as well which fit into the overall system of a cult. According to Michael Shermer, who is a historian of science and author, a (dangerous) cult is characterized by

1) Veneration, glorification and inerrancy of the former or current leader to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity
2) Acceptance of beliefs and pronouncements on all subjects without applying critical thinking
3) Persuasive techniques from benign to coercive are used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs
4) Hidden agendas exist and the true nature of the group’s beliefs and plans is obscured from or not fully disclosed to potential recruits and the general public
5) There is deceit, therefore recruits and followers are not told everything they should know about the group’s inner circle, and particularly disconcerting flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances are covered up
6) Sometimes there is financial exploitation and recruits and followers are persuaded to invest money and other assets (in very rare cases there’s also sexual exploitation)
7) There is absolute truth which also means that the group has discovered final knowledge on any relevant number of subjects
8) Absolute morality is also being claimed, which means the group’s system of right and wrong thoughts and actions are are applicable to members and non-members alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code become and remain members and those who do not are dismissed or punished

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne Real good info. Some of it applies more to how the group dynamics work than to what make a person become a cult leader, but all very useful info. Thanks.

I will look up Michael Shermer’s work.

DrMC's avatar

Don’t forget that you must vilify outsiders, particularly people who leave the enclave

ETpro's avatar

@DrMC Ah, good point, Doc.,

DrMC's avatar

And you must be good with cool aid, I like cherry

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