We, as a true-crime-consuming, armchair-psychologizing public, can't help but be fascinated by the minds of the strangest and most mysterious among us. If you aren't thinking of serial killers right now, you're probably thinking of cult leaders instead. And, in the same way that serial killers share certain tendencies and personality traits, so, too, do cult leaders.
To learn more about what makes cult leaders tick, we spoke with cult researcher and author Janja Lalich, PhD, professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico.
Regardless of the goals or nature of their cult, most cult leaders behave the way they do in order to cultivate and maintain a power imbalance, Dr. Lalich says. If their followers never know how they are going to react to something, they're in control. If their followers don't know when they'll make their next appearance, they're in control. If their followers can't guess what their next demand will be, yes, they're still in control.
As large as they loom in the public imagination, there's only so much we can know about these enigmatic, notorious figures. Here, Dr. Lalich walks us through four key traits that we can identify in most cult leaders — and why they fuel their rise to notoriety.
This is probably pretty obvious, since we're talking about people who literally establish cults around themselves and their own personalities, but it bears mentioning that cult leaders tend to be highly self-absorbed.
They may have simply grown up thinking that they're superior or, Dr. Lalich explains, some cult leaders gain their sense of self-aggrandizement after having what they believe to be an encounter with a god or deity — and it's that visit that inspires them to start their cult.
Either way, narcissism is the root of several other behaviors commonly associated with cult leaders. "They demand extreme loyalty," Dr. Lalich says. They don't allow criticism and seek to control everything that goes on within their following. Because they're driven by their ego, they believe that they deserve to make these demands.
If there's one thing that pop culture has taught us about cult leaders, it's that they are charismatic. As common as that descriptor is, it's actually a rather complicated (and pretty subjective) term. It could describe to the leader's way of speaking, dressing, or treating their followers. Whatever it is, there's a magnetism to it that's hard to resist. "They have that aura of being special — or people attribute that to them," Dr. Lalich says. She's quick to add that what appears to be special to one person might not be all that alluring to someone else.
It comes down to the cult leader finding people who respond well to how they present themselves and then bringing that group, no matter how small, under their wing. This sets up something Dr. Lalich calls "charisma by proxy," which refers to the cult leader's inner circle taking up their cause and spreading it to a wider range of people than the cult leader themselves would be able to appeal to effectively.
Along with their magnetic personality and overall confidence, a cult leader's erratic behavior allows them to maintain that aforementioned power imbalance.
First off, Dr. Lalich explains, the leader will limit how often they actually appear before their following — then, when they do show up, they'll act with total duplicity. "You don’t know if he’s going to come in as a raging bull or as a sweet seducer," Dr. Lalich says, adding that this tactic is a surefire way to keep followers "on edge" with a desire to please the leader.
Once they've established their movement and gotten a taste of power, most cult leaders develop a clear motivating force behind their actions, be it status, money, sex, or all three, Dr. Lalich says. Even if they claim to be working or speaking for a higher power, it's far more likely that they're acting to serve their ego. And the lengths they'll go to satisfy their desires are usually far beyond the average person's limits. "They don't have any shame," Dr. Lalich says. "[They] demand things that a decent human being wouldn't."
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