UO4: The Psychology of Cult Leaders

David Koresh was the leader of the destructive Branch Davidians cult. On 19 April 1993, he and seventy-nine of his followers, including kids, died after a fiftyone-day siege with the FBI near the town of Waco, Texas.This event, also known as the “Waco Siege” is a reminder of how a dangerous leader can gather followers and convert them into an extreme ideology (Surugue, 2017).

The psychology of cult leaders has fascinated sociologists and psychologists for decades because it is very difficult to analyze. Individuals like David Koresh are unwilling to undergo in-depth psychotherapy, making it extremely difficult to create a psychological profile. To have a better understanding, it is necessary to study the cult’s victims and the cult leader’s writings (Surugue, 2017).

The first characteristic of a cult leader is the rejection of scrutiny. They don’t like to be examined and they believe that they are always right while everything else is wrong. Based on the work of psychologist, cult leaders possess a common personality trait found in narcissistic personality disorder. These individuals see themselves as grandiose and unique human beings and therefore think they deserve special treatment (Surugue, 2017).

Charisma is the combination of dominance, desire to influence, self-confidence, and strong moral values (PSY533, 2017). Most experts coincide that cult leaders are charismatic, authoritarian, and lack empathy. The charisma is used to draw people in, using their interpersonal intelligence to understand the victim’s state of mind using it to control them. Pseudo-charisma is the result of a combination of personality traits that can mimic true charismaAnd in fact, there is a sizeable population of leaders with pseudo-charisma.  Extraversion is the trait that is most associated with leaders. Because a subset of extroverts are likely to be narcissistic, some people who rise to the top of an organization appear to be friendly and concerned for others, even though they actually are self-serving (PSY533, 2017).


Surugue, L. (2017, January 23). Cult leaders: What makes people like David Koresh so successful at getting people to follow them? Retrieved March 23, 2017, from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/cult-leaders-what-makes-people-like-david-koresh-so-successful-getting-people-follow-them-1555073

PSY 533. (2017). L09 Five-Factor Model of Personality. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/I09-five-factor-model-of-personality?module_item_id=21902247

One Comment

  1. Hope Anne Dellastua March 26, 2017 at 11:01 AM #

    U4 Blog Response.
    Your blog prompted me to do some research on notorious cult leaders such as David Koresh, Charles Manson, and Warren Jeffs. There is no doubt these leaders are pathological, or better said a danger to others. Not only do they exemplify the dark side of charisma, they caused great harm to others emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, and financially. These cult leaders are narcissistic: they all had over abundant beliefs that they were special; that they alone had the answers to all problems; and that they should be admired. Further, these cult leaders demanded from their followers loyalty at all costs, praise, and dutifulness. These cult leaders were intolerant of criticism and did not like being questioned or challenged by anyone. Yet, in spite of all of these less than charming traits, they were able to attract several followers who overlooked these features. Why?

    Thoughts on Followers. Is it the intelligence of the followers? Intelligence is defined as a person’s all around effectiveness in activities directed by thought (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2015). G factor intelligence is primarily determined by genetics; the potential of this intelligence can be fulfilled or harmed through life experiences such as a good education and valuable learning experiences. Do lower intelligent people have a greater likelihood to fall victim to cults? Numerous analysis of the make-up of individuals in cult groups shows surprising large diversity in biological markers such as age, gender and race; they also show large diversity in career, education, ideology and talents. Cult leaders can attract the post-graduate and the illiterate; the teenager and the “senior citizen”; the solidly middle class and those on the fringes of society. It is not so much their demography that is important as their psychological needs (Furnham, 2014).
    How much impact do the personal histories of the followers have on making them susceptible to cult leaders? Many followers of cults who have been studied and examined are described to have low self esteem and personal histories of mental and physical abuse; they are often individuals who have struggled with addictions (Navarro, 2012).
    It would appear followers of cults would have a high level of agreeableness. Agreeableness is the tendency for someone to be accepting of others, conforming to social norms and trusting of others (Northouse, 2015). A common adjective of agreeableness is noncritical; this would mesh well with narcissistic cult leaders who do not want to be criticized or questioned. Those who are agreeable quickly trust others, have a conforming nature and will easily follow leaders into unethical situations; these are exactly the type of people cult leaders seek and attract.

    Thoughts on Cult Leaders. We know genuine charisma has elements of morality in it. Pseudo-charisma is the combination of personality traits that mimic true charisma and therefore can be very dangerous for a leader to possess (PSY, 533). Cult leaders have very typical traits: a grandiose idea of who they are and what they can achieve; demand blind unquestioned obedience; require excessive admiration; have a sense of entitlement; are exploitive of others and put others at risk frequently – financially, physically, and mentally; are arrogant and haughty in behavior and attitude; have exaggerated sense of power that frequently results in breaking laws; they take sexual advantage of cult members; they humiliate and devalue members to deliberately make them feel inferior, incapable and not worthy; they ignore the needs of others, including biological, physical, and emotional; and they treat people as though they are objects to be used, manipulated or exploited for personal gain (Navarro, 2012). These traits are very observable and yet their followers overlook them all and tolerate them. The APA ethics code provides clear guidelines around the treatment of others, to protect them, cause no harm, and not to exploit others. The APA’s Principles A, B, C, D, an E provide details of treatment of others. Principle A, Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, guides to safeguard the welfare of others; Principle B, Fidelity and Responsibility, guides to establish trusting relationships with people and communities and overall to provide value to both; Principle C, Integrity, guides on the behaviors of honesty, truthfulness, to not steal, cheat or engage in fraudulent activities, and to minimize harm; Principle E, Rights of People and Dignity, guides on protecting the rights and dignity of people and communities, particularly of the vulnerable. Even without the lens of the APA ethics code cult leaders can be deemed unethical and worse. However, through the lens of the APA ethics code it is clear that cult leaders violate all aspects of people, their rights, safety, worth, dignity and more.
    When a cult leader, or organizational leader, possess evidence of these traits then we should anticipate that at some point those who associate with him will likely suffer physically, emotionally, psychologically, or financially. If these traits sound familiar of leaders and/or organizations you know of then it is reasonable to expect those who associate with them to suffer even if they don’t know it, yet.


    American Psychological Association. (2010, June 1). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct: Including 2010 amendments. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code

    Furnham, Adrian (2014). Why do people join cults? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201402/why-do-people-join-cults

    Hughes, R.L., GInnette, R.C., & Curphy, G.J. (2015). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Navarro, Joe (2012). Dangerous Personalities. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spycatcher/201208/dangerous-cult-leaders

    Northouse, P.G. (2015). Leadership ethics. In Leadership: Theory and practice. Washington, DC: SAGE.

    PSY533. (2017). L08 Personality. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l08-personality?module_item_id=21902234

    PSY 533. (2017). L09: Charisma. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l09-charisma?module_item_id=21902248

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