One of the questions that I am often asked by students of criminology and psychology is how do you know when a cult leader is “evil” or “bad”? These of course are vague descriptors to some extent but I get the question, “When is a cult leader pathological or, better said, a danger to others?” This is a valid question in view of the historical record of suffering and hurt caused by various cult leaders around the world.
I am sure others have addressed this issue before and I realize that it comes with its own minefield as many religions started out as cults - I am simply not going to enter that fray. But the question is valid from the point of view that there are people out there who are cult leaders and who do great harm to others emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, or financially.
From my studies of cults and cult leaders during my time in the FBI, I learned early on that there are some things to look for that, at a minimum, say caution, this individual is dangerous, and in all likelihood will cause harm to others.
Having studied at length the life, teachings, and behaviors of Jim Jones (Jonestown Guyana), David Koresh (Branch Davidians), Stewart Traill (The Church of Bible Understanding), Charles Manson, Shoko Asahara (Aum Shinrikyo), Joseph Di Mambro (The Order of the Solar Temple aka Ordre du Temple Solaire), Marshall Heff Applewhit (Heaven’s Gate), Bhagwan Rajneesh (Rajneesh Movement), and Warren Jeffs (polygamist leader), what stands out about these individuals is that they were or are all pathologically narcissistic. They all have or had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged. And yet, in spite of these less than charming traits, they had no trouble attracting those who were willing to overlook these features.
These personality traits stand out as the first warning to those who would associate with them, but there are many others. Here is a collection of traits that I have collected over the years about cult leaders that give us hints as to their psychopathology. This list is not all-inclusive nor is it the final word on the subject; it is merely my personal collection based on my studies and interviews that I conducted in my previous career.
If you know of a cult leader who has many of these traits there is a high probability that they are hurting those around them emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually, or financially. And of course this does not take into account the hurt that their loved ones will also experience.
Here are the typical traits of the pathological cult leader (from Dangerous Personalities) you should watch for and which shout caution, get away, run, or avoid if possible:
When the question is asked, “When do we know when a cult leader is bad, or evil, or toxic?” this is the list that I use to survey the cult leader for dangerous traits. Of course the only way to know anything for sure is to observe and validate, but these characteristics can go a long way to help with that. And as I have said, there are other things to look for and there may be other lists, but this is the one that I found most useful from studying these groups and talking to former members of cults.
When a cult or organizational leader has a preponderance of these traits then we can anticipate that at some point those who associate with him will likely suffer physically, emotionally, psychologically, or financially. If these traits sound familiar to leaders, groups, sects, or organizations known to you then expect those who associate with them to live in despair and to suffer even if they don’t know it, yet.
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Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Dangerous Personalities. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through www.jnforensics.com or follow on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Joe-Navarro/236255193080893