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Four Characteristics of Cult Leaders

Has anyone else been fascinated with the lure for people to cult leaders?

I wasn’t old enough to witness how men like Charles Manson or Jim Jones became persuasive. But I definitely remember the saga of Waco and David Koresh. And I remember hearing about Sun Myung Moon. And of course, there was the nut-job named Marshall Applewhite who organized a mass suicide in 1997. He was the leader of the so-called “Heaven’s Gate” group.

As I have grown older, I have become even more fascinated in why people join cults and/or why cult leaders can be so persuasive. Psychologists have certainly studied men like Charles Manson and Jim Jones. They all have traits in common.

Four common characteristics:

  • They are narcissistic. They are highly self-absorbed. Their narcissism is a root for other behaviors too. For example, they always demand loyalty and they don’t allow criticism. Cult leaders also try to control everything that goes on. They are driven by their ego.
  • They are charismatic. While that can sometimes be difficult to define, followers are usually enamored with the cult leader’s way of speaking, dressing or in the way he treats people (I say “he” because nearly all cult leaders are male). They have an aura of being special, or at least special to the followers. Cult leaders have to find people who respond to their sort of allure. Their charm is “in the eye of the beholder” as not everyone responds to it. But once he has a small group, it becomes easier to attract others and grow a following.
  • They are unpredictable. By employing erratic behavior, it allows the cult leader to maintain a power imbalance. It strengthens the leader’s control over people. From one moment to the next, followers don’t know if the leader will be angry or sweet; forceful or gentle. It keeps people on edge, which also increases the desire for others to please the leader.
  • They have a “turn on”. Most cult leaders are very motivated by status, money, sex, or all three. Even if they claim to be working for a higher power or for the good of others, they are acting to serve their own ego and self interests. They have no shame, and they will demand things that a decent human being would not.

My disclaimer: I’m not an expert in this area. But with my college degree in religion, I’m just fascinated but also deeply saddened that people become duped by men like this.


1 Comment

  1. Sylvia

    Thanks for this blog post. Just started reading “The Cult of Trump” by Steven Hassan. Hope it will help me understand how to deal with family members and friends that are Trump followers! Mr Hassan was a follower of Sun Myung Moon for several years before his family intervened. Shoul be an interesting read.

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