by Nikki Owen

A Freudian viewpoint

According to sociologist Edward Shils, a man who devoted a significant amount of time to the role of intellectuals and their relations to power and public policy, ‘the charismatic leader seems to be connected to the transcendental powers of the universe and is able to re-establish a sense of order in his followers’.

Freud supports this view, with an interesting twist. He believes that in the initial stages of a child’s development, the infant is not able to experience any difference between himself and his external reality. To put it another way, until taught differently, the child believes that they are the entire universe. With time, the child starts to understand that their mother, whom they perceive as a powerful influence, is a separate entity. However, the child maintains a sense of their own power when their mother responds to their demands.

Gradually, the child’s frustrations grow as they experience that their needs are not always immediately satisfied by ‘the universe’ and they discover the cruel truth that they are not omnipotent at all. Yet because of earlier infant perceptions, the desire to return to this feeling of power and connectedness remains, burning strongly within the child and then the adult, throughout their life.

Freud suggests that one very effective way of returning to this phase is to identify oneself with someone who is perceived as powerful – a charismatic leader – and goes on to say that this desire for identification or connectedness will probably be stronger when the person is in a crisis situation.

According to this explanation, the human being has a basic need to search for a symbolic order of the universe – a sense of coherence, continuity and justice. As individuals, we will choose to look outwards in search of a charismatic leader who will bring order to our chaos, or inwards, recognising the charismatic person that is already inside us.

Cult leaders

Leaders of cults demonstrate the power that their charismatic presence holds over their followers. The connection between leader and follower is so strong that followers may reject their family and way of living in favour of their cult leader’s wishes.

This ability to develop strong connections with others has been explored in a scientific experiment known as ‘The love study’ by Elisabeth Targ, a mainstream psychiatrist, and Marilyn Schlitz, vice president for research and education at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. The love study was the first scientific demonstration of exactly how intention physically affects its recipient.

It showed that when individuals had established a visual connection (staring at an individual was classified as a connection), the electrical signalling in the brains of both ‘connected’ people gets synchronised. The frequencies, amplitudes and phases of their brain waves start operating in tandem. In physics, this is referred to as entrainment, which means that two oscillating systems fall into synchrony by absorbing more energy than normal at a particular frequency.