By George A. Boyd © 2021
Q: How do political and religious leaders move their followers into an alternate reality, so they believe lies and conspiracy theories?
A: This hypnotic co-option of the follower’s reality testing and judgment appears to come from both the behavior of the leader and the response from his or her followers.
When you look at the behavior of the leader, you see:
- The leader will modify and distort perception by magnifying certain elements and minimizing others
- The leader will change beliefs about events and other people, so that people will only get information about the world the way the leader sees it
- The leader will declare the world your senses perceive is unreal
- The leader will lie to people incessantly, so followers begin to doubt their own beliefs and perceptions
When you observe the behavior of the leader’s believers, you commonly see
- They proclaim the leader is the only source of truth, and tell other people to only listen to their leader
- They cast the leader as a savior, someone who can alone solve the problems of the people and the nation
- They make the leader appear as larger than life, as super-human
- They believe the leader has charisma, or God has chosen him or her
- They pledge fealty or allegiance to the leader, and obey his or her commands as infallible
- They dedicate their life to the leader, and are willing to fight and die for him or her
- They listen to the leader’s advice, abandoning their own judgment
- They do anything the leader wishes, leaving aside their life’s goals
- They live in fear that the leader will withdraw his or her approval and support, and they believe terrible consequences will ensue if the leader does not support them—in religious groups, this may be framed as going into eternal damnation or losing their chance for salvation
- They create a larger-than-life myth about the leader, inflating his or her deeds, so they appear heroic or superhuman
- They want to see and be in the presence of the leader, so they will receive his or her supernatural force (mana)
- They believe the leader, no matter what, even when he or she blatantly lies to them
- They are loyal to the leader, even if he or she uses them and betrays them
While not an exhaustive list, these are several of the features you see in political and religious cults that authoritarian leaders control. A common theme in these groups is that followers are swept up into an alternate perception of reality. In this state of heightened suggestibility, it is very easy for them to believe in the most absurd conspiracy theories their leader promulgates. We certainly see this occurring in nations where authoritarian leaders have seduced a large portion of the populace in believing his or her lies.
Co-opt reason, and you create an alternate world where anything can be true. Suppress judgment and you can believe the most absurd conspiracies. Control others through fear and guilt, and you create a group of obsequious myrmidons.
Those who have been drawn into this vortex of delusion no longer realize they have become unmoored from reality; they become hypnotized to believe the alternate reality the leader disseminates, in which he or she controls them.