How to identify a psychopathic cult leader

Some religious leader become really dangerous - such as Jim Jones, who was responsible for the mass suicide of 909 followers in Jonestown, Guyana 18th of November 1978..

Some religious leaders become really dangerous – such as Jim Jones, who was responsible for the mass suicide of 909 followers in Jonestown, Guyana, 18th of November 1978.

Leaders prone to psychopathy engage in promoting fanaticism and extremism. Psychopathic behaviour is characterised by the use of emotional manipulation, intimidation, bullying, terror and fear-mongering in order to gain power and control over others. This article deals with psychopathy, originally among religious leaders, who gather devoted followers to form religious cults – sometimes with a tragic outcome but is also relevant in relation to other leaders – political leaders as well as leaders of different movements.

By Elin Brimheim Heinesen

(This article is inspired by a school project I wrote many years ago, dealing with the subject: Psychopathy among leaders in religious communities, how to recognise a psychopathic cult leader and how to avoid being caught in their web. Psychopathy is a phenomenon, which applies to a percentage of all leaders, no matter whether we’re talking about religious leaders, political leaders or leaders of different organisations or movements. It is important to identify psychopathic leaders because some of them are extremely scrupulous and will lure people onto a dangerous self-harming path. This piece is written about the dangers of psychopathy of religious leaders, but there are, obviously, similarities between the leaders in question and other non-religious leaders with the same psychiatric disorder.)

Psychopathic leaders use various methods to gain control over others in an attempt to compensate for and cover up deep-seated insecurity and extremely low self-esteem that they dare not admit to themselves that they are suffering from. Therefore they need to feed their hungry ego constantly. Some brag and use grand gestures to impress. Others gain their power in a more subtle indiscernible way. Most of them have a charismatic persona with an extraordinary ability to persuade others, sometimes with charm, sometimes with intimidation – always making a deep emotional impact.

But you can recognise a psychopathic leader’s agenda by the fact, that he is not focusing on getting his followers to do good deeds by, for instance, showing love and understanding. No, he focuses on “enemies” and the “evil” he claims humanity needs to be saved from. And he focuses on getting his followers to “fight” on his side against this “evil”. Fighting enemies is a goal in itself.

Presents him/herself as a solution.
A common method a psychopathic leader uses to win followers for his church or religious community is to paint a very grim picture of the horrible evils threatening this world, which the followers need to fight against. Some of this alleged “evil” is perhaps real enough, because many people are obviously struggling with great challenges. It makes it easy to convince people that it’s all due to an “enemy” that makes life difficult for them. However, much of this “evil” is not real, not even realistic, but more or less invented by himself to exaggerate the threat and thereby shake people to their core even more. If they’re scared they will become more susceptible to his influence, when he takes the next step: namely, giving people the “solution” to the problem.

He tells them that he has the key to the “only way to be saved” from all their problems and all the evils in this world and that he knows exactly how to fight it because God himself has set him to undertake this task. By making people believe that he – in person – represents God and the only religion that can save everyone, they come to regard him as the saviour and the only true leader.

Gaining control over others.
What happens, in reality, is that he only uses religion as a tool for his own benefit. His true agenda is to win adherents for himself personally. Religion is an effective tool he can use to fulfil this agenda. A psychopathic leader’s missionary work is not about saving anyone or anything. It is solely about getting admiring followers, over whom he can gain control. Being powerful is the only thing he cares about. And the most effective way to gain power and control over the followers is by manipulating them and convincing them that they are victims of a terrible evil that only he – with their help – can save them from.

When he claims that he genuinely cares about fighting against evil – often bragging about how successful he is at it – it is only a way to lure people into believing that they really need to support the cause and enrol into his church or religious community. In reality, the church or the religious community is an extremist cult under his total control.

However, leaders of religious extremist cults may very well believe that they really are fighting the good cause and that they have been inserted by God to do this job, never realising that they, in fact, are psychopathic megalomaniacs, driven by an insatiable lust and need for admiration and power over others.

Taking advantage of fears.
But how come that followers don’t see through that? Well, as a psychopath this leader is a master at manipulation. He obtains his power by always hitting people emotionally where they are most fragile. The world is a very scary place sometimes, and life can be quite complicated. Many people feel overwhelmed and challenged, more so than they can bear. Consequently, many are on the brink to give up hope, hoping to be saved from their hopelessness and shown a way forward.

This is something power-hungry psychopaths can take advantage of. And that is why they like to target emotionally vulnerable, confused and insecure people, many of them, perhaps with a weak sense of identity, who have lost their footing somehow and are desperately in need for something to believe in. The more rootless and hopeless they feel, the stronger is their wish to be part of something “good” to feel better and more worthy, which makes them easy prey for an extremist cult leader.

Seduced into a web of illusions.
The psychopathic leader offers them a simpler and more manageable worldview, where everything is divided into black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, “us” and “them”. As a psychopath, he is often extremely well-articulated and persuasive in his way of instigating proselytes, convincing them into believing that he really “knows” – with absolute certainty – what is right and what is wrong.

Then he gives the confused a “chance” to choose the “right side” and offers them to be part of a movement, where they can feel good about themselves in a community of like-minded people. This has a very seducing effect on some people, who never realise how they are being deceived into a web of illusions. They don’t see how they are being manipulated and tricked, because the leader makes sure that they constantly will be reminded of all the evils that they have to fight against, helped by everyone in the community applauding them every time they act in favour of the movement and encouraging them to oppose anything that draws them away from the movement.

Turning frustration outwards.
This mutual backslapping, which keeps the flock together, becomes addictive. If someone dares to express the slightest doubts, he will immediately put them into place by playing on their guilty conscience, appealing to them to choose to “do the right thing” and not fall into sin and temptation. If they choose “the evil side”, he promises, doom is certain.

This attempt at dividing people into “us” and “them” is an effective strategy the leader uses to make his followers project all their frustrations outwards against an external enemy. The followers become so devoted to their leader and to the fight he’s instigating them to act out, that they are not aware of how he’s always avoiding any criticism, pointing it away from himself by furiously attacking all opponents of his religion. By always acting confident in his ‘belief’ that he is the leader of the “good people” fighting against “the bad people”, he makes sure that all he says and does, seems believable and trustworthy in the eyes of his followers.

Fuelling fear of condemnation and exclusion.
Anyone who gets in his way by not following suit is, of course, a dangerous threat to the leader’s position of power. If people are resisting and questioning the leader’s views – or interpreting the world in a different or more nuanced way, they will be deemed as the enemy, who represents “evil”, and they must therefore be fought vigorously.

Anyone questioning the cult’s beliefs will be demonised and dismissed as wayward “infidels”, unable to see the light, and sentenced to be outcasts forever, surely ending up in hell. There is no compromise. You’re either inside or outside. You’re either with the movement or against the movement. You’re either good or evil, either saved or doomed. There is no middle way. Fuelling people’s fear of condemnation and exclusion from the community is an effective way of holding the flock in place, reducing the numbers of renegades.

The making of a make-belief world.
This also, very effectively, removes his followers’ focus away from any temptation to find out for themselves what is real and what is not. If they are presented to other, perhaps more factual world views, they will not see it, because they are so devoted to their leader that they will only listen to him and mistrust anything that goes against their leader’s version of “reality”.

It is very important for a psychopathic cult leader to make sure that his followers are not tempted to do any fact-checking because if his followers would do that, they might realise that their leader never had any intention of being truthful. On the contrary! To achieve as much power and admiration as he can, such a leader won’t hesitate to tell lies that serve his agenda, completely unscrupulously and ruthlessly.

If anyone exposes his lies, he will just aggressively accuse them of being liars themselves, and he will say that they – as the “evil human beings” they are – are only interested in “sabotaging the good cause”. Which is why they shall be regarded as the “enemy”. He knows that nothing can make people more loyal to each other than having a common enemy, so it’s very important to make sure that his cult has enemies. In fact, he welcomes enemies, because they help him inflate his movement.

A psychopathic cult leader is a true expert at persuading people into believing in a make-belief world of good and evil, in which he and his followers are the true heroes – concurring the evils in this world. The leader creates this illusion that if the whole world just followed his “just” rules and the ethics of his religion, the world could reach a utopian state. He convinces the followers to believe, that “if everyone would be just like us, the world would be a much better place!”. Anyone opposing to this is an obstacle, the righteous need to overcome. This is a world-view, which seems appealing to many because they so wish it to be true.

All for a fix of admiration.
However, a psychopathic cult leader’s actions often reveal that he – like other psychopaths – is basically indifferent to others. In reality, he acts selfishly, only in his own interest. It’s, for instance, characteristic for psychopathic cult leaders that they don’t care much about acting as good examples to others, thus, often allowing themselves to break the very rules they preach. If caught in the act, they always have some good “excuse”, claiming some kind of “right” to do as they please just because they are the leader. This reveals how much they feel superior to others and that their true motifs are selfish.

A psychopathic cult leader does not consider it as his duty to express compassion, sympathy, empathy or love for others. Human interaction does not appeal to him. In fact, such leaders often disassociate and physically separate themselves from their followers as much as possible to live in isolation most of the time – allegedly to meditate and work, thinking of new strategies for the cause. A psychopathic cult leader graces his followers with his appearance, only when he needs to preach his gospel and restore the follower’s faith – in other words: when he wants his fix of admiration.

The goal is total mind-control.
A psychopathic cult leader may claim that he is selfless and that he does what he does for a good cause. But proselytizing for a particular faith is not a selfless act. Selfless acts are not about getting followers and only accept people, who share a particular faith or a particular identity, which may grant them inclusion in a particular defined group interaction, deeming everyone else as evil infidels.

Selflessness is about being humble, inclusive and good to everyone – without fear or favour. It is about meeting others on eye-level, like the fellow human beings they are, and love them unconditionally, regardless of their standpoints. It’s about being a good example to others and at the same time to understand and accommodate others, no matter the differences, recognising that every individual has their own reality and perception of right and wrong and a right to decide for themselves, what to do and what to believe in. It’s about trusting that if human beings are given a fair chance, they will make good choices to the benefit of all.

However, a psychopathic cult leader does not care much about any of that. His “love” and “acceptance” does not include people, who don’t follow his every whim. That is what reveals him as the psychopath he is deep down, with only one egotistic purpose: to seduce and deceive well-meaning people into admiring him so much, that they will see him as their ultimate hero and saviour, whom they gladly will follow at the beck, without any form of criticism or questioning. Just like other psychopaths, he loves to have unlimited power and admiration, and he won’t stop before he’s gained total mind-control over his followers.

The dangers of being controlled by a psychopath.
This kind of leaders are master manipulators. They often have an extraordinary ability to gain ultimate control over their followers, who never realise how much they are taken advantage of – or how much they are under control. They don’t realise the fact that their leader has the power to make them do things, which totally go against their originally good-natured behaviour.

That is why such a leader is extremely dangerous because he can use his power to, for instance, make his followers hate anyone who “threatens” the movement and its “good cause” with utter intensity. If he wants to, he can make his followers fight these “evil” opponents vigorously, also violently or even murderously, under the excuse that they only do it for the “good cause”.

And last but not least, these leaders can also even make their followers inflict harm on themselves in various ways – even commit suicide! Just think about religious extremist suicide bombers. Also, a very well known horror example of that, is what happened in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, where nearly 1,000 people in blind faith committed mass suicide together on the orders of their religious leader, Jim Jones.

Followers won’t admit they are being deceived.
Even though the proselytes perhaps are being told many times by people outside the movement, that they are being deceived by their leader, this seems only to infuriate them, making them defend their leader even more and dissociate and isolate themselves even more from anyone, who questions their belief in their leader. This is also known as the Stockholm syndrome when people blindly defend someone, who’s actually holding them hostage – whether we’re talking about minds that are being held hostage, or about people actually being held hostages physically.

They still don’t realise, what is actually going on, because their emotional attachment to their leader, to their faith and the movement, they’re part of is so strong. Their need for believing in their cause is so much greater than their ability to think for themselves. The longer they’ve been under their leader’s spell, the more they will lose this ability. Slowly, but surely they are robbed from their independence, dignity and humanity, behaving more and more as human robots. When people lose their ability to think for themselves and just follow the crowd they’re in, nothing else matters to them any longer – the only thing that still resonates in their mind and souls is their leader’s spellbinding and hypnotic orders. They don’t seem to have room for anything else any more.

How can these adherents admit to themselves, that they are “dumb” enough to let themselves be deceived to such a great extent and that they have followed a dangerous path all along? Of course, they will do anything to keep their eyes shut and cling to the simple make-belief world their ‘wise leader’ has opened up and shown them because they really believe that holding on to their faith is the only way to survive – or to make themselves worthy enough to be allowed to go to heaven after they die. Without it they think they would be totally lost and destroyed. They would just die and go straight to hell. These thoughts are so scary that they will do anything to hold on to their belief.

This is an integral part of the deception into an extremely self-destructive belief, the psychopathic cult leader has effectively managed to lure them into, which has given him the ultimate power, without him ever truly caring for any human being other than himself.”

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