Charles Manson is escorted come court because that a preliminary hear on Dec. 3, 1969, in Los Angeles, California.(Image credit: man Malmin/Los Angeles times via Getty Images)
Charles Manson to be living in squalor in ~ an old west movie lot anticipating a gyeongju war. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru featured in the documentary "Wild Wild Country," to be indulging a penchant because that Rolls-Royces when preaching spirituality enlightenment. Despite large differences in goals, ideologies and lifestyles, cult leaders have actually some vital traits in common. From examining the writings and also biographies and also witness account of cult leaders, researchers have actually pieced together specific characteristics that unite this rare group.

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"I"d say very first and foremost, most likely every cult leader is a narcissist, and also the extent to which his or her narcissism is an adverse — as one scholar called it, "traumatic narcissism" — that"s walk to have an effect on exactly how the team is shaped," stated Janja Lalich, a cult researcher and also professor emerita the sociology in ~ California State University, Chico.

Traumatic narcissism isn"t the narcissism that a movie star, for example, that is complete of himself and inspires the admiration that others, Lalich said. Traumatic narcissism has actually a "deleterious effect" on others.

For a great example of traumatic narcissism in ~ work, Lalich claimed you might look at the alleged sex-cult NXIVM (pronounced "nexium") that offered itself as a self-help group to authorize women. NXIVM founder Keith Raniere will certainly go on trial in brand-new York later this month ~ above sex trafficking and also and required labor charges. An exposé in The new York time in 2017 comprehensive how women in NXIVM to be branded v a prize that contained Raniere"s initials and also forced to follow "near-starvation diets" to be physically appeal to him. Previous members have likewise alleged the they were coerced into sex v Raniere.


How carry out cult leaders persuade others right into these abusive situations? most cult leader are very charismatic. But, as Lalich said, charisma is in the eye that the beholder; not everyone responds in the same way. (That"s why, once you see footage the Charles Manson, you could be deep confused about how he was able to tempt dozens of followers.) Cult leaders" charisma also helps them collection up a strength imbalance between them and their followers.


" has been provided this special condition by the world who space in awe the him," Lalich told Live Science. "Charismatic leaders often tend to it is in intuitive. They"re able to review people. They flourish on chaos. They"ll develop crisis situations. Once they go in the room, friend never understand if they"re going to be an excellent and kind-hearted or be mean and also call someone the end or produce some kind of danger situation."

Their unpredictable nature and also charisma enables cult leaders to be in control — i m sorry is by design, together these world are often power-hungry and authoritarian. "In most instances there is walk to it is in some type of indoctrination the teaches the followers the they have to have complete regard because that the leader," Lalich said. "They may be compelled to dress a particular way, they might be required to speak a specific way, and they may be diverted from former friends and family due to the fact that the leader is going to say they"re walk to get in your method on your path to salvation."

If their team gets big enough, cult leaders will often collection up a power structure with underlings to carry out the needs of the leader using "charisma by proxy." (NXIVM recruiters to be apparently referred to as "masters" and also they sought come indoctrinate "slaves.")


Cult leaders regularly have personal proclivities that form their group. A cult leader"s sex-related fantasies, because that example, could translate into sexual abuse or sex-related exploitation in your cult, follow to Lalich. Or, a leader could be an ext interested in wealth and also ostentatious displays, together was the instance with Rajneesh, that owned 93 Rolls-Royces, and whose followers, every dressed in red, would throw flower at him together he drove under the road of their commune.

Cult leaders commonly make tantalizing guarantees — "either to readjust the world, readjust you, do you rich, make you beautiful," Lalich said. However she stresses that "it"s really important for people to be savvy consumers and to really examine someone out before you provide yourself over."

Originally released on Live Science.

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Megan has actually been composing for Live Science and also Space.com because 2012. Her interests variety from archaeology to an are exploration, and also she has a bachelor"s level in English and art background from brand-new York University. Megan invested two years as a reporter on the national workdesk at NewsCore. She has actually watched dinosaur auctions, experienced rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow she onTwitter and also Google+.