Successful Prophets

September 11, 2020

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I'm starting to suspect that something is missing from our narratives surrounding the influence of cult leaders.


Folie à deux describes a rare and curious phenomenon: when the madness of one becomes shared by another. Delusions of grandeur or paranoia spread and together two people engage in the most bizarre acts.

But folie à deux only occurs in very specific contexts—when lonely people are isolated together, and an intense intimacy forms. It is when these circumstance arise that we see couples, or triads, or families, go out into the world and murder, or kill themselves, or run for days from mysterious followers.

Which begs a question. When loneliness is so endemic in modern life, why do cases of folie happen so rarely? I would suggest that they do not. Rather, the cases of folie that we come across are simply the most outlandish examples of behaviour isolated people engage in. When humans are isolated, and we stumble across a home in someone else, we will go to unimaginable lengths to hold on to that connection.

Emotional contagion, spirituality, and unusual beliefs

The core features of a folie are not simply a common delusion, or the acceptance of that delusion, but intimacy in the context of isolation.

Catching feelings is an extremely common phenomenon in humans. It's called emotional contagion. If someone smiles at you, you smile back. If someone shows they like you, that is possibly the most powerful determinant of your attraction to them. Our ability to catch each other's feelings are so powerful, Facebook tried to study it (possibly illegally) and the mass media model is based around it.

If our capacity for emotional contagion is so powerful, what happens when we couple that with isolation? Our need for social contact is extraordinary. Loneliness is emerging as one of the single greatest threats to both physical and psychological well-being in the modern era. It seems likely that a lonely person would go along with some unusual beliefs to maintain contact. But coupled with emotional contagion, it seems similarly likely that a lonely person might catch those feelings while they're at it. Delusions often come with weighty emotional baggage. From delusions of grandeur inspiring pride and power, to delusions of persecution inspiring terror and rage.

Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist with some considerable academic celebrity, discovered early in the 2000's that damage to the amygdala left people unable to make decisions. They could describe the courses of action available to them in a given task. They could even identify which actions were more favourable. But they couldn't pull the trigger. The amygdala is a region crucially involved in the generation of emotions. The idea, according to Damasio's book Descartes' Error, is that decisions require emotions. Indeed, emotional decision-making may precede subsequent logical justification in many cases.

In the presence of such powerful emotions, our decision-making would likely be compromised. Coupled with isolation and a drive to connect, our decision-making may well derange.

Which brings me, finally, to my thesis. What phenomenon demonstrates all the features of a folie, from the symptoms to the outcomes? Where socially isolated people are likely to adhere to unusual beliefs, typically in the presence of a influential leader? The short answer is cults and the longer, less obvious answer is any ideologically-inclined figure with a basis in fact.

Very few explanations of cults centre on the experiences of the followers as central to the phenomenon. Rather they centre on the charismatic (and often corrupt) nature of the leader. And as religious phenomena, we are also often hesitant to explore the connections to the non-spiritual characteristics of the followers. And yet, it seems possible to me that this facet of being human belongs to the same family as our folies. Not for the madness, but for the emotional connection. We know that spiritual experiences can be a powerful feeling, and while they can be unique in many respects, they are feelings nonetheless.

Perhaps, then, a successful prophet has little to do with the leader at all. Perhaps successful prophets are built off the back of the people.

The (apparent) profile of a cult leader

Joe Navarro is a former FBI counter-intelligence agent and behavioural profiler, best known for his work on body language. In the media concerning the dealings of cult leaders though, his name crops up regularly. This has been particularly true among the overwhelming list of podcasts on the subject. This is perhaps because of his 2014 book Dangerous Personalities. But more likely, it is because his 2012 article on "Dangerous Cult Leaders" ranks on the first page in a search. It's a list of 50 "traits of cult leaders that give us hints as to their psychopathology", to quote Navarro.

This is an excellent starting point to demonstrate the bizarre way we imagine our prophets or charismatic leaders to be special. To credit Navarro, he makes it clear that it's no definitive list but simply his opinion. But I think that it generally details our collective opinion of cult leaders, and demonstrates why our collective opinion is a puzzling one.

Firstly, the number of items should concern us. These are Navarro's "typical traits" of cult leaders. But are we to assume that cult leaders will have all of them? Or only a few will suffice? How are we supposed to score our cult leaders? To compare, the modern version of Robert Hare's psychopathy checklist has only 20 items, and the scoring system is extremely clear. Up to two points per item, and a score of 30 of a maximum 40 to qualify as a psychopath.

The scoring problem isn't a trivial one. All together, these traits describe an extremely problematic person. But any item taken individually, or even in batches, simply describe character flaws any given person is likely to have. For example:

Is frequently boastful of accomplishments.

or

Doesn't seem to listen well to the needs of others; communication is usually one-way...

Some are more extreme, and less common:

When criticized he tends to lash out with not just anger but with rage.

or

Has stated that he is "destined for greatness" or that he will be "martyred".

But still not entirely strange. We've all met people like this, and typically they are not cult leaders.

Some refer solely to individuals with existing power over a group:

Makes members confess their sins or faults, publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation while revealing exploitable weaknesses of the penitent.

or

Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult.

But even these are not uncommon in groups. We each know of many groups that sexually exploit members for example. This might be something high-profile and obscene like the historic and apparently endemic issue of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But consider even the relationships that form between students and professors. These are often characterised by the kind of power imbalance that would constitute 'taking advantage'. Power, like many things, is a vector for abuse. It's not surprising, or unusual. As for the humiliating confession of sins or faults, spend twenty minutes in the pub with some friends and pay any kind of attention to the banter. Is this the behaviour of a cult?

No. There is nothing special about Navarro's 50 traits. There is nothing particularly unusual about people with Navarro's traits.

So what is unusual about our cult leaders?

The narcissism bias

The common claim made of our more famous cult leaders is that they demonstrate traits of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Persons with NPD can demonstrate grandiosity, a lack of concern for others, and a fundamentally selfish orientation. They can also be superficially charming, because they can be very good at manipulating people in the interests of the narcissist. Since many of the cult leaders we stumble across seem selfish and grandiose, it seems like a fitting description. They're somehow damaged, and damaged in a way that makes them unusually good at manipulating people. But let's look a little closer at NPD.

Narcissistic personality disorder is a Cluster B personality disorder. This is a somewhat arbitrary distinction, but Cluster B describes personality traits that are extremely dramatic, erratic, or emotionally involved. There are two reasons NPD lives in this somewhat vague category. Firstly, because at the core NPD is characterised by a lack of self-esteem or self-worth. They might build a grandiose sense of self to protect themselves from the fact they feel awful about themselves. Any time this protection is threatened, they're liable to respond erratically and emotionally. The second reason is because NPD is also super vague. Grandiosity and superficial charm can appear. But both NPD and the less severe forms of narcissistic traits can take an enormous number of forms.

It may very well be that certain cult leaders have feelings of poor self worth, and this drives them to surround themselves with worshippers. Certainly many cult leaders have histories of neglect, suspected to be a key factor in culturing low self-worth. But even if this were the case, we would expect to see much more variation than "charming selfish person".

Cult leaders are often just kind of odd people

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, we do. Take the time to go and watch two videos of two people—both well-known, and both accused to different degrees of being a 'charismatic cult leader'.

First Marshall Applewhite in 1997, leader of the notorious 'Heaven's Gate' cult

According to interviewees and the media, Marshall Applewhite was:

very charismatic...had a lot of charisma

Or according to Sam Harris on his podcast:

his powers of mesmerism is his quality of eye contact

But in the video, I don't see someone charismatic so much as someone somewhat deranged looking. He's not unattractive, but his wide staring eyes and dazed manner are off-putting. His content too, is not particularly appealing. His voice isn't unpleasant, but his words are equal parts platitude and impenetrable new age jargon. If I saw Marshall Applewhite on the street, I would not be inclined to stop and chat.

Second, consider this video from the more recent Mary Teal Bosworth, or "Teal Swan", a currently active 'spiritual guru' who has been repeatedly accused of cult leadership.

Teal Swan has made an overwhelming number of videos like this dating back to 2011. I deliberately chose the most recent video to show that even after a decade of practice, Teal still comes off as your slightly drunk bohemian University student. She, like Marshall, is not unattractive. She also has an eye thing going on. But she's at times awkward and her content similarly either lacks real depth or is unintelligible. It's also a collection of fairly trite comments on the nature of human experience interspersed with standard new age spiritual jargon. And yet, here's the first result in a search calling her charismatic. In the podcast documenting her group, followers are repeatedly quoted as saying she has something special.

Both of these leaders are commonly portrayed as 'charismatic', drawing people in with their almost superhuman ability to connect. But they aren't. Not universally. They're just kind of odd people.

So what gives?

A quick detour to serial killers

In the recent Netflix drama, 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile' the objectively gorgeous Zac Efron plays notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. In the trailer, Bundy comes off like a playboy—winking and smirking at the camera, later undressing seductively (both himself and another women). All interspersed with violence, but the message is clear. This is a charismatic man, who happens to have a penchant for serial murder and necrophilia.

This image isn't a new portrayal. Dan Rather reported on his 'intelligent' and 'articulate' manner on the eve of Bundy's execution. The Netflix doco released alongside the drama, Conversations with a Killer, shows footage repeatedly of those claiming Bundy was handsome, charming, or 'the kind of guy you'd want your sister to marry'.

But Bundy wasn't a charmer. Not to everyone. The same doco, in the course of putting tickets on the man, splices in conversations with people who knew him. His childhood friend says of his 'charm', "it was a lot of blowhard talk. He tried to fool you and lie to you. He wasn’t athletic. He wanted to be number-one in class but he wasn’t." The testimony of his near-miss victim Carol DaRonch described him as creepy, and his one-time girlfriend thought he was an insecure loner who was 'pitifully weak'.

The narrative of the polite young man luring young women to their deaths also collapses upon inspection. For every case like Rhonda Stapley, who described him as 'nice' and 'well-dressed', there are many more involving him sneaking up behind women, or feigning injuries to seek help, or simply breaking into a house and going on a frenzied rampage therein.

Even the narrative of his intelligence only stretches so far. His legal representation of himself was a car crash. Here's 'intelligent', 'polite' Ted losing his mind one day and rambling another. Makes sense, given his history of dropping out of college and working minimum-wage jobs. The man might have been able to joke with the press, but this is hardly the hallmark of a charismatic genius.

No indeed, Ted Bundy was an odd person. Perhaps not odd enough to be portrayed as depraved (though I think we can agree he was). But certainly not the embodiment of the media darling he became.

And Bundy's story is something of a standard. We do our best to make serial killers seem special. In reality they're fairly normal people, but usually quite odd. And unfortunately, their particular oddness led them to kill a bunch of people. Much was made of Jeffrey Dahmer's ability to convince the police to return his latest victim, Konerak Sinthasomphone, to him despite the boy bleeding from a literal hole in his head. But Dahmer was repeatedly reported as an 'oddball' and a 'loner' throughout his life by those who knew him. Much is made of John Wayne Gacy's apparent communitarianism and 'model citizenship' even as the testimony of his trial outlined his 'multiple personalities', his blatant criminality, and his bizarre commentaries during his conversations with others.

Are we beginning to see a pattern here? When something that's difficult to understand happens, we look very hard for the 'specialness' of a person involved. We elevate those aspects, often unreasonably, and lose sight of some fairly important information. Serial killers and cult leaders are not unusually charming. They're usually pretty weird, but even then not unusually so—not in public anyway. Not so weird that they stand out for most people until something weird enough happens that we can't ignore. In hindsight though, and along the lines of something akin to Girardian scapegoating, we make them much bigger than they are. And we like them in particular to be charming. At least that would help us understand why their victims came under their influence.

So how, then, might kind of odd people build cult followings? I suspect that the clue lies in the sidelined narratives of the followers themselves.

The key is in the actions of the followers

It seems prudent at this point to quickly look at some reporting on cults that is fairly typical. These particualar quotes are from the podcast "Cults" by the Parcast Network, on the group Eastern Lightning. It's telling that each episode has a dual name—one half is the group in question, the other half is the apparent leader of the group. It's also telling that, at least at this point in the podcast's history, each group is given two episodes—one on the leader and one on the impact of the leader on the group. Very infrequently does the podcast concentrate on the followers, except as an extension of the leaders' mismanagement.

But to the quotes:

Cult leaders are gifted manipulators. ...[Margaret] Singer... said 'consciously and manipulatively cult leaders and their trainers exert a systematic social influence that can produce great behaviour changes.'

This quote is followed immediately by:

Zhou's [the leader] followers, for the most part, policed themselves... [fearing] the retribution of other followers.

The implication being, I suppose, that the policing of follower by follower is the product of the cult leaders. This is particularly curious because the narrators go on to note:

Yang and Zhou [being the messiah figure within the cult, and the apparent cult leader respectively] made no further public appearances [since moving from the origin of the cult in China to the United States] ... they have since led incredibly private lives, seemingly separating themselves from Eastern Lighting ... This deliberate fear-mongering so controlled the world-view of his followers that Zhou didn't lose an ounce of his influence when he moved a continent away—they followed his orders in absentia to the letter.

In combination, the writers of the podcast appear to be spelling out a cult that has, at a minimum, grown into something that is substantially self-sustaining. Yet, even while the narrators point out that the cult is perfectly capable of managing its own ecosystem, they apparently can't conceive of it. The role of the followers in 'policing themselves' is sidelined in favour of highlighting the more digestible role of the geographically and apparently functionally distant 'leaders'.

Another curious feature about the reporting of this cult is the absence of information about the messiah figure. Most cults apparently prefer their messiah figures to be their leaders. But not Eastern Lightning. Their messiah is Yang Xiangbin and their leader is apparently Zhao Weishan. And yet the influence of a living and ostensibly literal goddess pales in comparison to the reported antics of Zhou. It would be easy enough to forget that Yang, again a living goddess to this group, existed at all. This is similarly true on the Wikipedia page and various other reports on the group—here's CNN as an example, where Yang appears precisely once as an aside.

It's difficult to believe that this kind of reporting is a true reflection of the dynamics of the group. Rather, all things considered, it seems like this inconvenient cult has been press-ganged into the usual narrative.

But these inconveniences seem like they deserve our attention, because these inconveniences hint at a story that's not about the leader so much as the behaviour of the followers.

But I haven't written that part yet.

Research questions for the future:

  • Firstly, we are not here to arbitrate between prophets who are or are not sufficiently divinely inspired, we define success only by those who inspired followers since they all claim divine inspiration. As such, equally as interesting to us should be failed prophets.
  • Cults spring most commonly during times (or among peoples) experiencing hardship. What do these conditions engender and is it related to isolation?
  • Fundamentalism is a release of responsibility.
  • Why are women more susceptible to cults?
  • What is the distinction between minor followings (e.g. Heaven's Gate), to large followings (e.g. The People's Temple), to huge ones (e.g. Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments)?
  • Speaking of, why do they always kill themselves? Is this the same spectacularity bias as folie?
  • What about non-religious cults like Synanon or Kenja? Why do these often veer in pseudo-religious directions (or is that merely biased perception)?
  • Trends in the continuation of cults after the arrest/death/renunciation of the prophet (e.g. most interestingly because he wasn't dead, in the True Russion Orthadox Church)
  • Jesus, among a sea of 'failed messiahs' from Judas the Galilean and Hezekiah, the Samaritan and the Egyptian, Simon of Peraea, and others, stands today alongside a long list of accepted prophets, and not just in Christianity. This is true (even this same list of prophets) for many religions. How might holy books tap into this current? Why do we no longer have accepted prophets on a large scale? Since many sects assume no divine intervention on an individual basis, has anyone explored the idea that we might be missing prophets?

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