How to control people and cause mayhem: A Self-Help guide for the criminal mastermind

13 min readMay 14, 2023


Picture by Geralt via Pixabay

I should clarify that the title is meant to be funny. Also true of course, I will go in on the dynamics of the so-called Charismatic Leader, and how things like cults and extremist groups actually operate from a philosophical and psychological point of view.

So don’t worry, I’m not here to teach you how to be a supervillain. Rather, there’s a lot of interesting psychological tricks that can help you become a more successful and happy person. You can learn a lot about the dynamics that motivate not just others, but also yourself, and how to use those dynamics to gain a promotion, earn more money and even live a much healthier life as a popular and well-respected individual.

If you’ve ever asked yourself how ordinary people can end up doing terrible things, whether it is in regards to the Branch Davidians, Helter Skelter or even the Waffen SS, then this is an article for you. I have recently studied the subject of cults extensively, and in the past I’ve also read a lot of books and articles on criminal psychology. I’ve also gotten some education on the matter and I used to sit in on my father’s lectures about criminal profiling. So I know my stuff, so to speak.

So the first thing we should do is to demystify the Charismatic Leader. He does not have a lot of leadership abilities, and he’s not very charismatic. He is, in the semantic sense of the word, a dictator. A leader is more executive. They lead from the front and do hands on things. A dictator is more of a background authority. Like a politician or an administrator.

Now there is a phenomenon in history of charismatic leaders, such as for instance Alexander The Great. He knew how to charm and impress people, including his enemies. He used admiration, culture, rhetoric and immersion to turn conquered societies into loyal subjects. He was extremely charismatic and embraced a lot of the virtues of the classical hero.

But cult leaders are usually not like that. Alexander the Great could sway kings, warlords and generals. But cult leaders often prey on the vulnerable and the insecure. They don’t have the stuff of charismatic leadership. They can’t really play that kind of game without rigging it in their favour.

But one thing the cult leader and the charismatic leader have in common is that they both make good use of the human superego.

The superego is the part of the psyche related to self-consciousness. It is critical, reflective and inquisitive to our actions and motives. A healthy superego produces moral, ethical and principled consciousness and conscience. An unhealthy superego produces self-effacement, guilt, loathing and insecurities.

So the charismatic leader tries to use the bright side of the superego. “Join our team! We’re the good guys! We’re strong, and brave, and courageous and if you join us you can feel proud of yourself for being part of something good!”

And that’s by no means a bad thing. That’s a great thing. Martin Luther King Jr, Vladimir Ilych Lenin and Nelson Mandela are all great examples of how this kind of charismatic driving force can bring about good and important historical change and make life better by bringing people together to work for something greater than themselves.

But the cult leader of course uses the murky side of the superego. The side that creates feelings of guilt and insecurity. “You’re not good enough, you need to redeem yourself, nobody cares about you, you’re nothing, be thankful I’m generous enough to save you from yourself.” etc.

So when armchair historians and armchair psychologists conflate charisma with outright emotional abuse then I think they’re not being very astute. It is true that heroic deeds and evil deeds alike require a great deal of motivation, but that’s a very vague and very cheap parallel to draw.

Another problem is the doctrine of sociopathy. All manipulative people are considered sociopaths. These emotionally unaware robots who just act on some higher level consciousness that’s untainted by human emotion, which turns them all into scary masterminds. That’s also not true, and it’s a stupid myth that turns these creepy individuals into objects of fascination and reverence.

In fact, Charles Manson for instance was actually a very strong empath, so was David Koresh. That’s why they were so good at manipulating people. Empathy is just a talent of emotional perception. To be able to read the cues and emotions of someone else.

You can use it to find people’s strengths and motivate them to be better and more exemplary individuals, but you can also use it to find weaknesses to exploit. A sociopath would be very emotionally tonedeaf, they would not be able to control entire crowds of people in such extreme ways.

But this isn’t to say that they don’t have a couple of screws loose, they absolutely do. There’s a lot of theories about that, many of them grounded in ideas about developmental trauma, and that’s probably true in some ways. But there is also a strong ideological component to it. These people generally have a worldview that’s informed by ideas such as social Darwinism and conflict theory.

Philosophically you could place these people somewhere in the neighbourhood of Ayn Rand. Highly individualistic, highly ambitious towards personal gain, and they also have a very instrumental view of human beings as tools or objects that constantly need to justify their existence.

And in that there is also a kind of perverse egalitarianism. It’s easy to dismiss them as narcissists, but often there’s strong insecurities that drive them to overcompensate. A real narcissist is happy with what they see, they admire themselves, they lack the kind of drive to constantly justify their existence to the point of where they build an entire society dedicated to justifying their existence. Narcissus was happy to just stare at himself in the river, he didn’t need people to worship him. He was perfectly happy to worship himself.

So when these individuals seek affirmation and admiration from outside themselves, then we’re looking at what is in many ways the opposite of a narcissist. Narcissism creates inertia and apathy, they are not antagonistic or predatory. They have no need to be. They’re themselves, what other worlds could they possibly conquer?

The cult leader or the abusive personality is rather a very self-conscious being, and even Manson admitted it on several occasions. He said that he never did anything he felt bad about. He said that he existed beyond good and evil, that there was nothing in the world except truth.

And there is a kind of libidinal self-awareness to that sentiment. It is individualistic, Darwinian, even nihilistic. He sees himself as a predator, and if that is what he is, then why be ashamed? Is the lion ashamed when it gets covered in blood? When it tears into a defenceless gazelle? This is the kind of worldview they have. That we’re all in this zero sum ecosystem where you can either exploit or be exploited.

Which is also why a lot of these characters are so cavalier about being caught and going to prison. You rarely see them get upset or indignant about their punishments, because why would they? They’re no different from the people they victimise, this time it was just their turn to get the short end of the stick.

So it is a very brutal and very naturalistic philosophy behind their ambitions of power. They are pieces in a game of winners and losers, and they’re just doing everything they can to win.

And while that results in death, suffering, unspeakable cruelty and unimaginable trauma to their victims, I don’t think we need to pretend that it’s all that inscrutable or mysterious. It’s pretty straightforward.

So there is a kind of strange irony there. A cult is really comprised of one person without a superego who spends a lot of time inflating the superego of their followers.

So that’s really how I would classify these supposed sociopaths. I don’t think they lack emotions, but I think they lack a working superego. They have insecurities, but they lack that element of moral self-awareness. But to say that a cult leader is without emotion is to call them dispassionate, and I just don’t buy that. I don’t think dispassionate people can inspire others to commit murder. In fact, I would argue they are far too aesthetic if anything. That their dominant motives are generally driven by sensualism and hedonism. That all they really do is feel.

That they lack the capacity to reflect upon feelings and develop the kind of transcendental awareness that we may refer to as a spiritual identity.

And that’s precisely why we see how they are obsessed in particular with music, and sex, and drugs. Why they are drawn to the idea of cults. Because it’s a great vehicle for sensual attainment.

The sociopath theory can never really explain that stuff without becoming self-contradictory. Or they say something like “Oh well it’s a method of control” or “It’s a method of manipulation.”

But how is that? How is taking LSD a method of control? Pretending to take LSD might be, convincing others to take LSD might be as well. But why would they personally do it? Sensual pursuits are completely arbitrary to a sociopath without any capacity for sensual pleasure, but it makes a lot of sense if you’re missing a working superego. Because the superego is like your newspaper reading dad telling you to clean up your act and be a responsible citizen.

And yes, sometimes he’s an inconsiderate asshole, but other times he’s right.

And without that civilising force, we kind of see what cult leaders failed to develop growing up. They have a lot of traits we might see in toddlers. A toddler often thinks they’re the king of the world. They’re the main character of their own story. They’re not evil or predatory of course, but they’re certainly not what we would consider as benevolent either. You wouldn’t want a toddler as a prime minister.

And that’s fine, because they lack the ability to care for others, so it makes sense that they’re a bit self-involved. Then we gradually grow out of that as it’s our turn to look after the toddlers of the world.

So that’s important to understand I think.

But then there is the second part, and this part is the most critical. Right now I will give you the skeleton key of mind control. The thing that every conman, politician, religious fundamentalist, Al Qaeda commander, quacksalver, self-help guru, advertising executive and whatever other variety of professional liar owe their existence to.

Namely, the big promise.

Doesn’t matter if it’s some idiot who is freezing to death in a trench outside of Stalingrad because Hitler promised him that he’s an Aryan superman who would inherit the Earth, or some pitiful pensioner who is emptying their chequing account because the TV evangelist promised them that their family would be given VIP parking in heaven. If you know what people want, then you know their biggest weakness.

Al Qaeda says that if you murder innocent people, you get 71 virgins in heaven. Marine recruiter says that if you murder innocent people, you get free college tuition when you get back from your tour of duty. Doesn’t matter what flag you salute, either way you’re chasing that pie in the sky.

And when you’re looking at the sky, you don’t notice what’s in front of you.

But don’t worry, I’m not here to teach you how to be a supervillain. Rather, there’s a lot of interesting psychological tricks that can help you become a more successful and happy person. You can learn a lot about the dynamics that motivate not just others, but also yourself, and how to use those dynamics to gain a promotion, earn more money and even live a much healthier life as a popular and well-respected individual.

Also remember this part at the beginning? Total bullshit. Hope you learned your lesson. If you want to use amazing psychological tricks to make lots of money, then what you need is to find a chump who is willing to pay you lots of money for your bullshit amazing psychological tricks. But until you find a sucker who is happy to throw money at your treasure map to the end of the rainbow, then you’re not going to get anything out of self-help.

At most you will get a false sense of security that makes it easier for people to take advantage of you. Because that’s another very weird part of the cultlike abuse. Namely, praise.

Believe it or not but you can actually diminish someone by praising them. The trick is to praise them in a sort of abstract way. “You’re very smart” is a good example. You call someone smart in an abstract way over and over again whilst constantly criticising and undermining their specific actions. Everything they do is stupid and wrong and pointless, but hey, they’re very smart.

So in that way you kind of camouflage the antagonistic relationship. You like a person in the world of ideas, but you hate them as a being who lives in reality. What they are is wonderful, who they are is worthless.

That’s why cult followers describe leaders as kind and loving. Because of this duality of identities. Cult leaders say things like “You have a beautiful soul.” Sounds very nice, but in terms of reality, it’s kind of nonsensical. What did you do to make your soul beautiful? You haven’t really achieved anything.

And we see that in many extremist doctrines. You have the one true faith, or you’re part of the Aryan master race, or you live in the greatest country on Earth. All notions of pride is unearned and separated from the individual.

Meanwhile, all notions of shame and guilt are grounded in far more definitive aspects of one’s identity.

So that’s how you can make a person feel worthless through praise. And it also has a kind of numbing effect on top of that. It’s very hard to praise the achievements of someone who’s been abused, they just don’t believe it. It lacks any kind of emotional value. Usually it takes a lot of effort to help them see their accomplishments and the good things they’ve done.

So the identity of a cultist is generally a dualism of being a cherub in heaven, and wretched on Earth. They suffer from being prodigal in spirit. They are given plenty, and yet it is only a means of wastefulness. If you want to truly indoctrinate someone, then don’t tell them they’re worthless.

Tell them they’re special, unique, virtuous and that they have every gift they could possibly possess, and then convince them that they are squandering it, wasting it, and failing themselves.

When they are in this crisis, trapped between the promise of greatness, and the despair of wretchedness, then you can control them. You can convolute any number of miserable things into being a light at the end of a tunnel. But you need that spiritual desperation. You can’t make people feel futility, you need to make them feel like there’s still some kind of lifeline.

That’s why so many cults say that the world will end… for everyone except God’s chosen. Who just so happen to be a dozen or so people who are growing turnips in a compound out in the forest somewhere.

And that’s another kind of contradiction that’s relevant to the idea of the cherub in heaven and the wretched on Earth. Because cultists have a very high status. They’re God’s favourites. They’re the special people who aren’t like those corrupted billions that won’t embrace the one true truth.

They’re ahead of the game, they’ve figured out the secret key to success. They’re only worthless idiots relative to the immediate surroundings they’re in. But compared to everyone outside of the compound they’re all Einsteins and Mozarts.

And that fits in very well with this duality since all of those people, the corrupted masses, only exist as an idea in their head. They’re completely isolated from these unwashed sodomites with their big sharp teeth and their tax records. So they’re a million times better than a bunch of imaginary people, it’s only the real people that they’re inferior to.

And that also creates a big incentive to live in the imaginary world. Their reality is miserable. Their messiah hates their guts, they’re useless and stupid, everyone else looks down on them, but hey, in the imaginary world, in the abstract heaven, in the realm of the cherub, there’s where life is going good. In the idealistic contrast beyond their sensory and ontological life there is an epistemological and ideological realism that is superimposed upon reality, and in this realism they’re kings among men.

And that’s when we begin to see Charles Manson’s truth. His truth is this fantasy world driven by the contrast between reality and realism. Where, the more horrible you are in waking reality, the better you are in the idealistic realm. As your body becomes more wretched, your soul becomes more beautiful.

…and as your body becomes a murderer, your soul becomes a martyr.

The more shitty, monstrous and miserable your living existence is, the more beautiful, prosperous and rewarding your spiritual existence becomes. Because in the doctrine of cults, suffering produces meaning. In this way, the trauma does not disillusion a cultist, rather it reinforces their view. Because they’re even more desperate to escape.

Suppose David Koresh is wrong? Well, then you’re standing in some building in El Paso that’s littered with dead kids, surrounded by trigger happy ATF agents. Following the teachings of a guy who may or may not have raped several of your family members while you just stood there and gave him the thumbs up.

So for each bad thing that would logically speaking disqualify the doctrine, you’re actually seeing yet another reason as to why the doctrine has to be true. Because if it’s not true, then you’re in big trouble. But if it is true, then everything is going to be amazing any minute now.

So there is a kind of sunk cost fallacy at work. Cultists are deeply aleactic in their epistemes, similar to a lot of ancient societies. Things exist as omens, and patterns, and fatalism.

So you also see a lot of romantic ideas about tragedy. How suffering is beauty and happiness is a lie. These are not ideas you find among cold and calculative thinkers like Machiavelli or David Hume. Rather, it’s the kind of stuff you’d expect to find from say, Goethe or even Cervantes.

Because there are two kinds of people who are self-destructive. Those who can’t feel anything, and those who feel too much. It’s easy to mistake one for the other unless you examine the details of things.

And when we look at the people who are often groomed for cults, then it’s usually the latter. It’s people who are meek, and sensitive, and caring and emotionally vulnerable. They’re not jaded and cynical, they’re not callous and closed off. They’re usually regarded as very tragic individuals because of how they’re so trusting and open to others.

That’s why Manson didn’t surround himself with a bunch of grizzled mercenaries with facial scars and eye patches. Instead it was young women who were deeply alienated from the society they lived in.

That’s why Jim Jones reached out to the dispossessed, to political minorities and outcasts.

These kinds of groups have very little use for people who feel accomplished and who have a sense of purpose in life. They go after the same people that marine recruiters at a shopping mall go after. They sniff out the people who are aimlessly drifting through life with a big empty pit in their stomach.

Those are the people you can turn into murderers.