Cults and Terrorism, Part 6 – Leader-Follower Traits

Continued from part five. Leaders of destructive cult-like groups are very likely to have a very strong need for power and control. The adage “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is especially true of leaders of destructive groups. As power increases, so also privilege, reflected in a lavish lifestyle, sexual excess, and eventually mental disorder usually with paranoid features. Such was the case with the leaders in the groups described earlier. Power in such people is psychological poison, often slow acting but always a downward spiral. The life and times of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, to Saddam Hussein and tomorrow’s tyrant are examples of the corrupting effect of absolute power and also that the world cannot prevent it.

Sigmund Freud, Jewish and victim of Nazi persecution that drove him from Vienna, saw firsthand the effect of unrestrained power. He theorized that there are two major forces in everyone’s personality: the positive, life sustaining eros libido, and the destructive thanatos libido. Some call thanatos “the death wish,” to “go out in a blaze of glory,” mental state suggested in the last days of Applewhite in Heaven’s Gate, Jim Jones at Jonestown, and Koresh at Waco The psychologist Abraham Maslow studied well adjusted people he referred to as “self actualized.” He formulated a list of five need stages everyone realizes for normal personality development. We are all born helpless and dependent (survival need) and need to be protected (safety). In childhood we need to be accepted (support), in our teens to belong (self-esteem), and realize our full potential (self actualization). That process develops through Freud’s eros libido. But if thanatos is predominant, then survival and safety depend on the cult and its leader, support and self esteem from group members, and self actualization when you trigger the bomb strapped to you, awaiting heaven — and 72 virgins.

Unlike the selfish (psychopathic?) drive of leaders of destructive groups, followers tend to be what might best be described as “needy.” Leaders satisfy Maslow’s needs and in doing so strengthen their control over the group and members. As time passes survival, safety, and support needs build into a dependent “follow the leader” herd instinct. Total dependence is comforting. Self reliance requires effort, in thought and action. “Follow the leader” is a lot easier. What also happens is what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance. It begins with bias, and we’re all biased. Ask individuals in a group to name their favorite food, color, car, or drink and you will get differing replies. But if bias is not corrected or tempered with facts it grows into cognitive distortion: wrongful thinking, And if, like in a commune away from family and friends, wrong thinking is not corrected it can grow into delusional thinking, gross oversimplification, such as “Satan America” and flying airliners into public buildings.

The brain does not full develop until about age 25, and the last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe. It is that area most involved with critical reasoning ad realizing one’s individuality and unique personality. Those 25 or younger are more likely to loyally follow a cause even to their deaths. “Crotch bomber” Umar Abdulmutallah was the son of a banker. Well educated, but at 23 his brain was not.

Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the last article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism.


MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD

Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD, is a retired clinical psychologist who worked 30 years in mental health clinics and hospitals and in private practice. In addition to BA, MA, and PhD degrees, he earned two post-PhD diplomates and was a certified forensics examiner who testified as expert witness in civil and criminal cases.
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