Surfing channels last night, looking for something different and I came across a program about cult leaders. In addition to the history of several examples there was also some content on the psychology behind some famous incidents.
One interesting piece of information was that many people who believe they are having a religious experience and hearing the voice of god are in fact undergoing a temporal epileptic seizure. Inducing such seizures under laboratory conditions will produce the same experiences. This was interesting since there is considerable evidence of links between epilepsy and certain criminal acts. That may be the subject of a future blog, but for the moment I will point out that that statement should not be taken to imply that all epileptics are criminals or dangerous.
Another trait of cult leaders discussed was narcissism. The program described an experiment where subjects were given a questionnaire to determine if they were strongly narcissistic or not. The subjects were then asked to write an essay, and the essay was taken away for marking by an unseen party. In reality the essays were not read but were instead randomly assigned either an “A” grade or marked “F. Worst Essay I Have Ever Read!” The graded essays are then returned to the subjects and the subjects given the opportunity to subject the unseen (and non-existent) grader with a blast of sound. Not surprisingly, many F-graded subjects did not like being criticised. What was significant was the narcissistic students tended to inflict more intense and longer duration punishments on the “grader”.
Quite interesting, I think. Obviously many of the cult leaders in the program were narcissistic and in the majority of examples their violent crimes seem to have been triggered by their perception that they were losing control or things were not going to go their way. An extreme example of this was Jim Jones and the deaths at Jonestown.
In your day to day life you will doubtless have to deal with some narcissistic and potentially more volatile individuals. It is a good policy to avoid humiliating enemies unless it is necessary. In my book I mention using “mental judo” to let aggressors back out of a fight while saving face, or make it appear that such actions are their idea. This has applications in other fields too. Over the years I have influenced many colleagues to adopt practices that I think are better. Many of them are quite convinced that these were originally their good idea and defend them accordingly. Only a few close colleagues know that I was the origin of these ideas or know about the various hints and nudges it took.