Friday, November 15, 2013

Follow the Leader: Con Artists and Cultic Leaders Have No “Off Switch”

If you want to understand the psychology of someone who runs a very elitist religious group, you'll find a good deal of information on this website about it! A big chunk of understanding an aberrant or destructive religious group, you have to understand the leader.

When people learn about a high demand group and want to understand how it can dominate members, they usually look at their beliefs (their system of ideology), particularly if Christians seek to understand an aberrant Christian group. Most of the content on this website focuses on the additional factors of manipulation and control that govern the psychosocial and social psychology of a high demand religious group. I like to use the concept of “Bounded Choice” to understand the process of how such a group comes together and stays together in the first place. But this is not the only factor.


Janja Lalich describes the comprehensive factors that bind an individual within a totalistic group, identifying four “interlocking and interactional dimensions of the social structure” that create a “bounded reality and contribute to a state of personal closure for the individual participant” (pg 261, Bounded Choice). She includes for factors in her bounded choice concept (which serve as necessary conditions that create a cultic system), a term that first emerged when discussing destructive political movements in the 20th Century. Her Bounded Choice concept includes four factors:

  1. Idealistic Belief System
  2. Charismatic Leadership
  3. Systems of Control
  4. Systems of Manipulation


Follow the Leader

If you look at the whole system of bounded choice, think of the ideology as the group's endpoint – that carrot before the horse that keeps everyone forging ahead to get the benefits that come along with achieving that goal. For each person, there are general and personal reasons why they stay engaged, even though there is “only a little carrot, but a lot of stick” (something Lalich quotes from her own [former] cult leader in her books). Systems of manipulation and control can be seen in the dynamics of thought reform. But, there's one thing missing. Cultic groups always have a charismatic leader.

There are many ways of looking at a charismatic leader. It isn't the charisma that's a problem, however. It's a matter of how they use their leadership and how they deceive people into doing what they want.

Personality Disorders. In July of 2012, I had the privilege of attending a class for mental health professionals lead by Roseanne Henry, and I love how animated she becomes when talking about cult leaders and how they behave. She says that, sometimes, she recommends for her clients in recovery from cults to take a copy of the diagnostic criteria for certain personality disorders to use them as a way of understanding at their own cult leader. In fact, she said that if a person understands Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and how those affected with it manipulate the people in their lives, that they can really understand the psychology of a cult leader and what happens to their followers. (The list of disorders is not limited to BPD, however)

It can be very enlightening to see how well one's former leader fits these criteria, because most all cult leaders fall into a certain category of them. Though I'll review a few of these here online, Wendy Duncan's I Can't Hear God Anymore is an excellent source for further reading on this subject. She was a social worker and was well-versed in these disorders, but even she did not see the insidious nature of the problem because she wanted to think the best of her leader. We members LOVE our leaders because in the beginning of our relationships with them, they really do show us great love and care. That's all part of the charisma. We don't see their pathology until later on in the process. Confirmation bias keeps us from seeing the truth about them, along with the fact that the leaders are very good at what they do in this respect.

The primary personality disorders that cult leaders tend to manifest are categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (a clinical criteria guide for the diagnosis of mental health problems) fall in a “cluster” of related disorders (Cluster B). Personality disorders must manifest through disordered or deviant norms in a pervasive way, affecting their thought processes, their emotional state, their relationships, and through impulsive behavior. (This pervasiveness separates out the people who are just “jerks” from a state of clinical pathology.)


Though a particular leader may fit a specific personality disorder quite well, all of the Cluster B disorders are strongly characterized by lack of empathy, entitlement, and self-centeredness. For that reason, to simplify matters, if one understands the elements of narcissism, one has a good basis for understanding the general psychology of the cult leader (though your leader may fit a particular disorder perfectly in your estimation). In addition to this, most leaders have a very high need for stimulation and like novelty which keeps them entertained, but it also helps keep members of their group off balance. They're always faced with learning something new.

So as a prototype, lets look at the criteria that a therapist must identify, empirically assess, and document to arrive at a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1)  has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2)  is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3)  believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

(4)  requires excessive admiration

(5)  has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6)  is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7)  lacks empathy:  is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8)  is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9)  shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes


Why People Get Hooked into Enduring Devotion to Charismatic Leaders

Looking at this diagnostic criteria list, one might wonder why and how anyone might find interaction with such a person to be beneficial in the first place. I like how Lalich lays this out in Bounded Choice.

As stated, cult leaders present themselves as quite likable, and in the early stages, they are very kind and engaging. In the beginning, when they are being seductive in the first phase of the cycle of abuse, they are seductive and offer us something that we don't seem to be able to find with anyone else. We find these people quite easy to love. The other big thing that usually hooks us by the leader comes through the personal power that they offer us when they recognize us and give us special attention. These individuals have a special ability to make people feel valued, special, and wonderful – and this melds well with the ideological nature of the group itself. People want to be significant and to make the world a better place, and along comes a leader who sees our potential like no one else can. We're special and we have a special, valuable place in the most important mission in the world. We get hooked.

That was the “bait,: and after our significance-hungry jaws have been firmly impaled by the ideological hook, along comes the “switch.” You have no idea about the nature of what you've just swallowed. While held by very positive reasons that make the heart swell with warm sentiment, the punishment and negative reinforcement begin. We are held by positive and negative forces that filter down to us from the leader. We're held there by fear. We fear the power of the leader, imaging that they have a reach of influence that is usually greater than we can imagine. We become acutely aware and fearful that our leader can order for our peers to shun us, so directed social pressure becomes a part of the control of the leader over us. We fear the loss of support that we get from the group, and we fear that we could very well lose this benefit if the leader decides to have our group shun us. Cialdini talks about the “weapon of influence” of Liking, and this becomes the seed of our fear of our leader's disapproval. All of these threats feed into our general sense of paranoia that tend to develop.


No Narcissism “Off Button”

No one ever wants to abandon a good thing, and power becomes a powerful influence that a narcissistic personality must have to function. Under the surface of things, the narcissist is really just an intensely fearful person who learns to medicate their own emotions by using other people to hold up their fantasy of power. They have very little reason to give up their way of thinking about themselves, if it's even possible at all.

Think about it. If you're accustomed to having someone else to attend to your needs and your every whim, the idea of this stopping becomes a painful prospect. Not only must you face your intense fears and discomfort which you work hard to avoid, you also have to become a regular person. If you perceive that you're the most important person in the universe, or at least the universe you've created for yourself through manipulation, you have very low impetus to actually change. It's far easier to go on being a perceived hero and amazing master. Narcissists generally don't wish to reform, because it's far easier to lean in on their tried, tested, and true ways of coping through denial and grandiosity. The problems are everyone else's fault, and when faced with conflict, it's easier to scapegoat someone or turn them into the consummate villain.

Consider what narcissists do to other people. Their personal denial about their own nature and power manifests in their dishonesty – probably their most basic personality trait. Their lack of empathy and sense of entitlement make this very easy for them to do. They are phonies who cope by denial, and they do what they need to do to feel good. They redefine and frame events to suit their own needs, and they let the dirt roll downhill. They're intolerant of others, and all events are generally things that are all about them. People in the world exist to serve their needs, and if people offer themselves up and open themselves up to vulnerability, the narcissist feels like it's their right to take advantage of the opportunity, even if it is at someone else's expense. Manipulation and punishment become tools that teach other people to be smarter, and in that sense, the narcissist is really "doing these people a favor."  And because of their entitlement, those who do not comply with their plans meet with punishment.  They take vengeance against others, and they throw tantrums. And they don't care. They may even see this as their duty in the world.

I really liked this commentary about whether narcissists ever change. Narcissim Support Resources answers this question about the “off button” in this way:

However - if they go into therapy, they usually go because they equate getting better with feeling good (ie., powerful or perfect.) . . . So typically, they want to return to the good ol' days when they dished it out and you took it . . . that felt good to them, therefore, "healthy." . . . 
[T]hey don't just wake up one day and start acting normal. It's a very long road, and it's a lot easier just to stay sick. 
Beware of those who have been "professional help seekers", been in therapy, 12-step groups, etc., but never seem to change - they are in my opinion, the sickest. They are lying to themselves and everyone else. And when they shed the False Self, and you see the True Self, that true self is so crippled and dilapidated, you understand the maladaptive process of narcissism...

Beware the Empty Apology of a Narcissist

A few years ago, I had an interesting encounter with a narcissistic style pastor, and I wrote a number of posts about empty apologies thereafter. You can also find additional content in the Under Much Grace series about forgiveness, taking special note of the posts about how to forgive someone who will not apologize for hurting or violating another person. The posts specifically about repentance can be especially helpful.

In the spirit of review and brevity, I love how Light's House, a blog about narcissism, advises people regarding the evaluation of the false apology of a narcissist. To a narcissist, always remember that, to them, talk is cheap!
False apologies:
  • invalidate the listener’s experience or feelings
  • make excuses for the apologizer
  • shift the focus and responsibility off the apologizer and place them onto the listener
  • imply that the listener is being unreasonable or oversensitive
  • blame the listener for the matter
  • often include the word “but”
  • send the message that the apologizer isn’t really willing to consider the way their actions made the listener feel
.Real apologies:
  • acknowledge the listener’s experience and feelings
  • take responsibility without excuses
  • allow both parties the opportunity to focus on the apologizer’s actions without shifting blame
  • validate the experience of the listener without diminishing its importance
  • do not include the word “but”
  • let the listener know they have been heard and considered, and that the apologizer will try not to repeat the mistake

When a Cult Leader Repents: Watch for the Countermeasures

Having reviewed the general nature of a narcissist as a means of understanding a leader of a high demand religious group, remember that if their whole world exists to build themselves up in the eyes of others to deny to themselves that they are pretty much just like everyone else, apologies are very unlikely. Repentance is usually seen as something that is almost a mere public relations measure that one goes through to avoid problems -- not something that is heartfelt.

An old post here talks about “damage control,” measures that high demand religious systems take to keep control and to extend their control over their followers. Charismatic leaders are EXCELLENT at this.

I love The Hunt for Red October film as an example of a high demand system's response of paranoia and fear during the Cold War to demonstrate what cults and leaders tend to do when they feel threatened. If you've seen the film, when a submarine has been targeted by a missile, they will release “countermeasures,” little devices that will hopefully draw the fire away from the sub to avoid impact (and death). After hit, when the water starts pouring into a vessel, damage control helps ensure survival of the people onboard a closed of system that is removed from the rest of the world and very vulnerable.

Most often, when you see a narcissistic leader “take a hit," in anticipation if they know that the attack is coming, they'll throw out a counter measure to hopefully draw fire away from them. Watch for the countermeasures. If they can create a scandal that is smaller and less salacious than something greater that they anticipate will come along, they will repent of a lesser charge. 

We saw this in the recent Williams Trial when both Carrie and Larry Williams threw out countermeasures, hoping that their claims would divert the missiles of justice away from them and on to the other party. In informal logic, this is a red herring of subterfuge that takes attention away from the real issues at hand. If a bloodhound has caught the scent of their target, if you can throw a stinky herring down in front of them, their nose will become saturated with the odor and will stop following whatever it is they've been tracking. Charismatic leaders and cults survive and thrive because of red herrings.

And I will leave you with one of my favorite lines from the Red October film. The protagonist, Jack Ryan, has learned of a new type of submarine that the USSR has constructed, but he has the sense that one of the Russian captains that he's studied may be trying to avoid a hot conflict in the cold war. Fred Thompson's character offers Alec Baldwin's Ryan character some sage advice which I think of often when anticipating what a particular cult leader might be doing.

Russians don't take a dump, son,
without a plan.”



So consider this when you hear a narcissistic cult leader make an apology. The bigger the drama, the more questionable their sincerity. If they're willingly offering up some countermeasures, ask yourself about what they're trying to preserve. Because cult leaders don't to anything without a plan. They're planning to take care of themselves, and in time, they generally come out smelling like a rose, even if they're spreading around manure. They can't turn it off. It's what they do to survive, and they can't begin to consider that they're subject to the same rules of living that everyone else follows. They have no “off switch.” Acquiring attention, devotion, perfection, and superiority defines them. They only know how to feign empathy, though they understand it and imitate it well. They just don't ever feel it.  Remember that in spiritual abuse, it's all about image consciousness and what people perceive. It's not about real integrity itself.

Believe me, they're already scheming and planning their comeback. That con artist has set their vision set on their next incarnation...


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