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How to Spot Cult Leader Personalities
a distinct type
Cult leader personalities can be really dangerous. You should learn to spot them and be cautious of them. This can be difficult, given the alluring nature of these people.
Note what I did not say there. I did not say that cult leader personalities are always evil, or that they should be cast out of society. It’s true that all the cult leader types I have known have caused some damage. However, some have also had positive effects on some people around them. I can think of one or two I’ve met that are perhaps net neutral on balance, or even maybe net positive.
They also, I think, are reformable. It’s not like serial killers, who just can’t mix with society—with serial killers, basically, you’re playing a game of permanent containment. This is not true of cult leader types; with the right checks and balances around them, they can be the good kind of visionary, not the fucked up kind—or maybe they can use their abundant energy away from the spotlight.
Also, cults are a two-way dynamic, not just the creation of one person. Cult leaders, due simply to their qualities, tend to attract people who are looking for absolute direction and purpose. Those people will want to give cult leaders the unchecked power that they crave, which is power that’s difficult not to abuse. Also, to form a cult successfully, leaders need lieutenants—a ring of complicit people around them who take orders well.
So, while cult leaders are obviously necessary for cult formation, there is some shared responsibility among the early membership.
A Lack of Personal Irony and Humility
The vast majority of us have some imposter syndrome. And to an extent, that is a good thing. Questions like “should I really be doing this,” or “will this hurt anyone” are healthy prompts for self-examination, as long as you’re not just using them to paralyze yourself completely.
Also, the vast majority of us self-deprecate, to some extent, and it’s a sign of good psychological health. Sure, excessive self-deprecation is a sign of insecurity. But saying things like “I feel like a dumbass right now” when you’ve made a mistake is a sign that you have some degree of self-skepticism and a realistic sense of your limitations.
However, cult leader personalities don’t do any of this. They will say with a straight face that they are here to save humanity and that they are up to the job. They will tell others “I know what’s wrong with you and how to fix you” with absolute surety and confidence. They will talk about fate and destiny with wild-eyed abandon.
And they will rarely self-deprecate. All statements of personal limitation will be linked to a narrative of relentless growth and eventual triumph. Unless absolutely necessary for tactical reasons, a cult leader won’t just say, “I fucked up, I was wrong, that was bullshit.” Sometimes, they will explain their mistakes as a necessary part of a world-changing agenda, or as a product of their desirable aberrance. This is, for example, the game played by the “crazy wisdom” guru who abuses their followers to “break down their conditioning.”
Sometimes they play at a kind of humility—but the humble statements they make will still contain their trademark grandiosity. Like, “I am but the humble bearer of this message”—this message being how their ideology will save the universe from certain doom.
The most cult leader statement of all, probably, is the claim to singular wisdom, or singular agency: “I am the only one who can save us all,” or “I am the only one to whom the secret has been revealed.”
Cult leaders tend to be wildly compelling. Something about them makes you keep watching—their daring, their nerve, their unusualness. It’s not necessarily the case that they’re good-looking or traditionally charming, although many are. They just manage to hold attention. You’ll find yourself talking about them often.
However, their charm will be polarizing. They will give some people the willies immediately. What sets apart the people whose alarms go off around cult leaders, generally, is what’s called “good boundaries”––a robust sense of personal mental integrity. Such people are capable of detecting that the cult leader is, consciously or subconsciously, trying to disturb their personal orbit, trying to monopolize their thoughts and attention.
Sometimes, the cult leader will be particularly good at charming one specific demographic but will repel people outside that demographic. Like, the cult leader might project the aura of a concerned universal parent, or the aura of a fiery prophet—auras that will be catnip to a few, but creepy to many others. This, too, is polarizing charm, the ratio of the effect is just different.
This polarization is a feature, not a bug. It isolates those who are taken in. To them, those repulsed will seem to “not get it,” to be tragically unable to absorb the wisdom or goodness of the cult leader. The cult leader has to arouse grand passion, because they need intense faith and admiration from followers in order to make demands. And stark tribal lines tend to increase passion. (The cult leader could be characterized, taking morality out of it, as an extremely memetically fit person.)
Good at the Push-Pull
Cult leader types maintain power over others partially by making them feel insecure. They tend to be masters of being alternately warm and cold, alternately pushing and pulling—making you feel loved one moment, then rejected the next. And they are generally capable of doing this very subtly.
On the cold side, they will neg you in ways that are plausibly deniable. Maybe you’ll make a joke, and the whole room will laugh, except the cult leader, who will maintain a steely silence. Or they’ll pretend not to hear you when you talk, or shoot you subtly dismissive looks, or exclude you from a social opportunity and then deny that this was intentional. Perhaps you won’t even notice it—you’ll just feel slightly bad about yourself, and won’t know exactly why.
On the warm side, they will, at times, make you feel that they understand you like nobody else does. They will identify your insecurities and speak to them with sympathy. They will offer you compliments that are nearly inappropriate in their intensity, at the times when you’re willing to receive them. At times, they will single you out for praise in front of others, or make you feel like you’re being let in on a secret that nobody else has access to.
This will all leave you in the troubling position of always feeling like you need to earn or maintain their favor while desiring it deeply. You will never feel like their respect or love is secure; they will always keep you off-balance. In this respect, the cult leader is very similar to a lot of abusive parents or bosses.
They Are Unusually Strategic
We all behave strategically in social situations. We want to be liked and respected, and prestige is tempting for everybody. But there are degrees. Most people aren’t planning and plotting all the time. However, the cult leader type is an expert at instrumentally gaming nearly every situation: dating the person who is most socially advantageous to date, and then dropping them, or carefully befriending people who will be useful allies, and shunning others.
Being weirdly well-connected isn’t necessarily a sign of a cult leader personality—some people are just great networkers. But you’ll notice that cult leaders are adept at alternating between different status plays at high speed. They will play high status in one moment, and then, when they need to get on the good side of someone powerful, they will immediately drop the above-it-all act and get chummy, or even sycophantic.
Once, a cult leader type felt that I had high social esteem in a certain small group of people. He seized on it by praising me in unrealistic, hyperbolic ways in front of them, and then framed his own life journey as similar to mine, in order to cast us in the same light. He did this in a way that made it hard to resist—to refuse his effusive praise would’ve been highly rude. The praise made me feel used rather than celebrated, and I left the gathering feeling disturbed and off-kilter.
Finally, a Brief Note on Susceptibility
I’ve found myself, briefly, taken in by cult leader types before. This is true even though I’m not an ideal follower. But I used to be another kind of mark. What I mean is, I used to find cult leader types intriguing, so I wanted to joust with them, to be in their presence, to see them play the games they play. At times, I was jealous of their social power, and I had the idea that I could mimic their good parts, just a little bit—like, pick up just a tiny bit of the cult leader charm and boldness without the bad stuff.
But this doesn’t work, ultimately. Cult leader charm is different from normal charm. It issues from a different place—from paranoia and lack, rather than a genuine interest in others. You can’t really copy bits of it, and you can’t systematically hypnotize people wholesomely.
Also, playing games with cult leaders still gives them power. You provide another canvas for them to act on socially, you’re another game piece to maneuver. This is like how if you’re going to a casino and playing slots ironically, you’re still giving money to the casino.
The way I got myself out of this fascination was by making a meta-cognitive realization: that cult leaders are actually a somewhat generic type. While witnessing them up close can be fascinating, given how typical their patterns are, they’re actually quite monotonous if you zoom out. The particulars are different, but the game is always the same. And I don’t need to watch the same game multiple times.
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