The Dangerous Contagiousness of the Toxic Charismatic Leader

Sharon Alexander
24 min readOct 26, 2020

By Sharon Alexander

“[We are organized with the ability to merge with other systems or identities.] It is important to note, however, that the expansive or contractive change in the sense of identity subsystem that allows identification with something greater than / or outside oneself can have negative consequences and can be used to manipulate others….Whether the cause is that of the Nazi party or of Christian salvation, the method is manipulation, playing on a subject’s ignorance to disrupt his normal state of consciousness and then reprogramming him.”

–Charles Tart, States of Consciousness, 1975 (pp. 134–135)

Why do good people follow a bad leader? What makes crowds suggestible? What is charisma and why is it dangerous? In this article I want to explain how “toxic social contagion” works and why we are all susceptible to the phenomenon of “mob mind.”

To understand the dynamics in play, let me first take the reader through a brief introduction to the biophysics of consciousness.

The rules of oscillatory systems

In order to understand the power of the technology used by the charismatic leader, I need to turn to the language and concepts of physics; particularly the concepts of oscillatory systems, resonance, amplification, synchronization and entrainment.

Anything that vibrates with a regular frequency is said to have a resonant frequency. We know that inanimate rhythmic oscillators (i.e., things that vibrate), such as pendulum clocks, have the tendency to synchronize with other oscillators that are vibrating at similar frequencies; that is, in physics parlance, to mutually “phase-lock.” Actually all oscillators have this tendency, including, as we will see, animate oscillators.

And when two oscillators are vibrating at similar frequencies and one oscillator is stronger, it can “entrain” another oscillator into its dominant frequency. That means the weaker oscillator or vibratory source will be “pulled” into synchrony with the rhythm of the stronger or larger vibratory source. Such synchronization is known to break out abruptly, in the form of a “phase transition.” When two or more oscillators function in synchrony like that, it allows such groups of oscillators to function as single units or single systems.

Physicist Christiaan Huygens first came up with the Law of Entrainment when he saw how a larger pendulum will cause a smaller one to alter its rhythm to match it. No one yet knows why this is true. One theory is that it takes less energy to pulse together than in opposition, and the universe is efficient. We don’t really know. Perhaps oscillating bodies simply have the “desire” to oscillate together. This is how harmonics researcher Jonathan Goldman (1991/2006) describes it:

The oscillators of television sets, radio receivers and other similar equipment lock on to each other and entrain. With television sets, when you turn the knobs you are adjusting the frequency of your set’s oscillators to match the frequency of the station’s oscillators. When the frequencies come close to one another, they suddenly lock, as if they ‘want’ to pulse together. Usually, the fastest oscillator will force the slower ones to operate at its pace (p. 219).

Humans are Synchronizable and Entrainable Too

We humans are full of oscillators too. As researchers are discovering, the body-mind is full of rhythmic processors, each subject to synchronization and entrainment. Brain waves and breathing cycles are synchronizable. The muscle actions of bodies can synchronize (as in group dance), brainwaves and heart rate variabilities between people can synchronize, and people even tend to synchronize gestures when conversing. Newborns demonstrate interactional synchronization with caregivers within the first half hour of life. We entrain to one another when we listen to or play music. But we also are able to entrain under other circumstances.

When oscillators synchronize, this allows the oscillators to function as a single unit or system. We can call this “structural coupling.” We humans are indeed excitable, synchronizable, and ultimately entrainable. In a high arousal musical event, where rhythmic entrainment is at work, all involved become subject to this structural coupling, becoming, as ethnomusicologist Judith Becker (2004) put it, “one in a rhythmically coordinated domain.” We invariably find this synchronization joyful. The result of this merging into a combined system is a temporary identification with that combined consciousness. In such a combined system, energy is shared throughout the system. That means that energy is actually freed up in the combined system, available to be used by the system.

It turns out that not only the body but consciousness itself seems to be oscillatory in nature and thus subject to all the traits of any oscillating entity, including synchronization and entrainment. Rhythmic entrainment in speech rhythms and body rhythms can and has been widely used in religious practices to induce groups of participants into trance. But I further suggest that we also witness the process of entrainment in such under-researched phenomena as the “bonding” that occurs between parent and child, and the relational “rapport” that may occur between client and therapist.

Social Contagion

Our spiritual vibrations, our mental vibrations, and our cellular vibrations are apparently all subject to resonant entrainment. The tendency to physically synchronize enables our bodies to learn directly through resonant entrainment. We can call this “inter-personal entrainment”. We imitate by a process of resonant motoric attunement; by “embodied simulation.” In essence, we produce a shared body state. The tendency to mimic motorically is almost instinctual. As social historian Barbara Ehrenreich (2006) writes: “humans experience strong desires to synchronize their own bodies’ motions with those of others.”

Thus, dance steps, vocal techniques, sports, and altered states, are all best learned by being in the physical presence of an example. It has long been known that the spiritual student learns best by learning to resonate with the particular field or vibratory “habit of experience” of the teacher. As brain researcher, Karl Pribram points out: “[T]he tennis student, for example, learns how to make a new stroke only when the electrical wave fronts in the motor regions of his brain literally resonate with, or are in synchrony with, the wave patterns of the motor areas of the teacher’s brain.” Indeed, information, reactions, emotions, and many physical skills are learned best through entrainment.

Another way to understand entrainment is to call it contagion. Just as yawning is “infectious,” many researchers have concluded that many of our oscillatory phenomena are “socially contagious.” Yes, dancing is indeed contagious. Smiling is another contagious phenomenon. Manias are known to be contagious. Moods are contagious. In Pentecostal churches, Baptism of the Holy Spirit is catching. The hypnotic state seems to be catchy as well. Emotional reactions, especially laughter and tears, are particularly catching; that is, they are “infectious,” through “automatic affective resonance,” according to sociologists Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson (1994, p. 182). A newborn infant’s reactive cry to the distress of another, for instance, is probably an example of emotional contagion.

How do we “catch” things socially? By becoming susceptible to them. That is, we become susceptible to being resonantly entrained to another system. Our bodies have the built-in ability to catch the emotions of those around us; in pairs and in groups; in choirs and in mobs. The process at work could be called “somatic mimicking.” This is much more than the process of watching someone else and doing what one sees them do. Even blind people are subject to empathic “emotional contagion.”

Therapists can use this energetic phenomenon as a tool; by becoming sensitive to the rhythms of others and by matching rhythms, harmonizing with them, if you will. The more a person aligns with the rhythms of another, the better “rapport” he or she will establish with that person. Rapport actually coordinates brain patterns between individuals.

Collective Consciousness

It is this social contagion that is responsible for “collective consciousness.” We know many examples of groups of organisms functioning as a single unit. One may recall how bees or ants function as individuals, yet also as one organism. Other terms for this phenomenon are “group mind,” “crowd mind,”“groupthink,” or “mass mind.” This group consciousness phenomenon has been addressed in the literature of many disciplines: from sociology and anthropology to biology to musicology to theology. We have long been familiar with “crowd psychology,” whereby we experience ourselves as part of a mob — or even a choir!

A group mind can be recognized as a unit of tuned oscillators, organized resonantly. The group mind can also create enduring field patterns. The experience of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel Church may be an example of such an emotionally evoked field pattern. If individuals join with a large group and begin to resonate together, a sometimes-palpable sense of union develops among the group. This is a field phenomenon. One could even say that humans are built to be able to submerge individual identity into group identity.

Actors and musicians are particularly aware of the presence of this “group consciousness,” or “consciousness field” and utilize it in the process of improvisation. Social psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, in his book Group Creativity (2003) explored a particular “zone [of] flow” that may come upon a group of actors during the course of group improvisation; described by actors as “another realm, another consciousness [in which actors are] so connected [in a] very intimate…emotional empathy [that they can just] sense where everybody is on the stage.” Actors speak of the experience of “cohesiveness,” even “ecstasy,” a situation in which, according to ethnomusicologist Paul F. Berliner (1994): “Everybody can feel what each other is thinking and everything. You breathe together, you swell together, you just do everything together, and a different aura comes over the room.”

One actor interviewed by Sawyer referred to this state as a kind of “possession.” As performer Carmen Lundy remarks: “Sometimes, I really feel that I am just the vehicle, the body, and that something is really singing through me, like I am not controlling everything that I am singing” (Berliner, 1994). This is actually a trance state. I suggest that gospel churches effectively produce a similar group trance mind.

How to Create Group Consciousness

Rhythmic entrainment can and has widely been used in religious practices to induce groups of participants into trance. But actually, anything that energetically disrupts the normal pattern of cortical processing can disrupt consciousness and result in trance. As physician and celebrity holistic health author Andrew Weil reported, many indigenous cultures use drugs or other means (meditation trance, oracles) to “experience the collective unconscious as an immediate reality” (1972/2004). In fact, it is via this communication route that such societies have survived, finding water and game, and protecting themselves from natural disaster, illness, and injury. Access to this realm always involves detaching from “ego” and “intellect.”

Consciousness research psychologist Charles Tart (1975) notes the role of destabilization in preparing for inducing an altered state. Clothing, name, social roles — anything that reflects the ego identity — are all props in the re-education into a new identity. It is such a destabilization of the ego identity that explains the profound psychological upset known as “culture shock.”

Understanding Crowd Psychology

His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off: never admit a fault or wrong: never concede that there may be some good in your enemy: never leave room for alternatives: never accept blame: concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong: people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one: and if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.

— Hitler’s psychological profile from the US Office of Strategic Services

Social psychologist Gustave Le Bon extensively analyzed crowd psychology. His work, The Crowd, though originally published in 1895, is still considered the seminal examination of crowd behavior, which he referred to as a form of “mental unity.” According to Le Bon, a crowd is an assembly that possesses “characteristics very different from those possessed by the individuals composing it.” When an individual becomes part of a crowd, he undergoes a profound psychological transformation. That is, he ceases to operate as an individual, or to be guided by his will or even his own conscious personality. Instead, he becomes subject to a collective mind and collective will, which has its own characteristics; including nervous instability, impulsivity, suggestibility, and susceptibility to hypnosis.

According to Le Bon, crowd minds are “in a state of expectant attention,” in a similar “state of fascination” as a hypnotized subject, which makes them impressible, suggestible, susceptible to collective hallucination, and receptive to a leader with strong convictions and an intensity of faith. “In a crowd every sentiment, [suggestion,] and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.”

The role of emotion

Emotional arousal can create a groupthink that is commonly referred to as “mob mind,” according to LeBon. Thus, emotionally-charged focused intention, rather than mental will, proves to be more effective in developing such a group field. In other words, emotional energy is the source of mob mind. (It is also, by the way, apparently, the basis for telepathy and telekinesis.) Le Bon understood that mental unity must be “aroused,” “excited,” “incited;” that the crowd mind is guided by emotional excitation; and that an emotional “current” is created that is difficult to struggle against. In this current, the individual surrenders individual will, habit, and even identity. Thus, crowds can be “induced,” “swayed,” “moved,” “carried;” “persuaded,” “seduced,” or “influenced,” but they cannot be “convinced.” Crowds are very reactive to emotions. Feelings can be planted in the mind visually, auditorily, emotionally, or mentally. As psychologist Frederick Morgan Davenport (1905) summarizes Le Bon: “Reason is in abeyance. The cool, rational speaker has little chance beside the skillful, emotional orator.”

According to Le Bon, crowds “think in images,” not logic, and speech must take this form to be accessible to it. Skillful emotional oration will be much more effective than reasoned argument. “Crowds being only capable of thinking in images are only to be impressed by images. It is only images that terrify or attract them and become motives for action….Images of extreme intensity” are most effective. Crowds are particularly impressed by the “marvelous.” These images need not be logically connected. The reasoning power of crowds is based upon association of images, not logical argument. Crowds are best influenced by ideas that have a “simple shape.” Spectacle, such as “circuses,” or theatrical representations, in which the image is shown most visibly, always have an enormous influence on crowds. Crowds love “illusions.”

As Le Bon argues: “Crowds are only cognisant of simple and extreme sentiments,” such as honour, self-sacrifice, religious faith, patriotism, and the love of glory. Crowds are moved by example and will obey the order of authority, right into wars. Fired with enthusiasm, the crowd feels heroic, and may thus be induced to ferocious violence. Crowds will display the “ferocity” of the hunting party. Think sports fans and lynch mobs. When the individual surrenders his will and submits to the service of a cause or individual, crowd mind can be considered a form of “religious sentiment.” One might even speak in terms of the “soul of the masses.”

“Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs” may all be caught contagiously and imitated. Emotions are especially and very rapidly contagious; for example panics, madness, hysteria. Finally, as Le Bon asserts, the action of such contagion can be felt simultaneously from a distance, meaning in two different locations; that is, not limited by space; thus confirming more recent theoretical assertions by consciousness researchers Jahn and Dunne (2009) and others that group mind is subject to rules of entanglement and quantum coherence. Revival preacher La Roy Sunderland (1868) used the term “sympathetic imitation” to explain the contagious spread of a mental state through a crowd;” “the sight of one person entranced, ‘impresses,’ ‘influences,’ another; and thus ‘men go mad in crowds’ later awakening from the “delusion into which the excitement had carried them.” It is clear that a relationship exists between social contagion and suggestibility.

Suggestibility and the Permeable Ego

Suggestibility is understood as the inclination to uncritically accept and act upon the suggestions of someone else. I propose that we may speak of suggestibility as the ability to become socially synchronized or entrained to another’s mind. Westerners tend to relate to the self as stable, bounded, and independently developed. But our sense of self is actually an experience, a habitual pattern of information processing, a process that must be constantly maintained. It can also, under some circumstances, be surrendered.

Psychologists speak of the ego as having a “boundary.” Under hypnotic trance, the boundary between the individual self and the hypnotist is weakened, destabilized, and made more “permeable.” The weaker the boundary, the more susceptible the ego is to destabilization, and the more available and responsive to suggestion. Children have such a weak boundary. This same weakening of individual boundaries occurs in groups. Becoming part of a group reduces individual boundaries and entrainable individuals into a group mind; a merged identity. Thus, being part of a congregation, rally, or mob increases suggestibility.

Entrainability, suggestibility, and susceptibility to contagion, I suggest, may thus be recognized as synonymous terms.

Adding stimuli to the nervous system also increases susceptibility to trance induction and to suggestion. According to hypnosis expert Dick Sutphen (2013), emotional arousal is a particularly powerful tool in increasing both entrainment and suggestibility. When the public is aroused, suggestions can be easily implanted.

The Critical Role of Charisma

Humans are so built so as to be able to experience the connection to another person as well as a connection to something greater than the individual self. We use this ability to fall in love. We also use it to find connection to God. The experience of such merging is seductive and addictive. Once you have experienced such elation or even ecstasy, you want to go back to it regularly.

Very often people seek dynamic, charismatic, inspiring spiritual leaders in order to help them achieve this state. Charisma is one’s field of attraction. Some people are either born with or have learned to develop and use their field of attraction to pull others into it. As we have noted previously, emotions are contagious. Charismatic people are more “emotionally infectious” to other people than a non-charismatic person would be.

To move or rile a crowd, the leader must be charismatic. As popular writer Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point (2000), charismatic leaders are typically described as “mesmerizing,” “persuasive,” “charming,” “energetic,” “enthusiastic,” “likeable.” They are able to convince or sell anything. We want to bond with them, as Gladwell notes. A persuasive personality ‘seductively’ “draw[s] others into [his or her] own rhythms and [enables the dominant personality to] dictate the terms of the interaction.”

Persuasion may be recognized here as a form of forced entrainment via frequency pulling. It drives the crowd into rapport with the leader and at the same time creates a group mind field. Skilled musicians and speakers (including preachers) know this, at lea st subconsciously. They have the potential to suck their audiences into “rapport” with them.

The danger is that the power of such a strong “magnetic” field can allow one person‘s personality to overflow another person’s personal (protective) ego boundaries. Thus, the same power that attracts othersto a charismatic leader creates the risk of boundary abuse. Followers should understand the dangers of such attraction, and charismatic teachers should be taught how to maintain good boundaries so as to avoid harming others.

Five Tools of Arousal to Watch Out For

To move a crowd, the leader must use certain tools of arousal (or “amplification”), according to Le Bon (1895):

• Exaggeration: The leader should not be afraid to exaggerate outrageously, according to Le Bon. He will not be held to account later. “No one has done more for the country than I have.” “We’ve built the greatest economy in the history of the world.” “Without the wall, the US would have been completely overrun in a matter of days!” “The highest rating in the history of television.”“We’re going to have the best health plan ever!” “You’re gonna have a red wave like you’ve never seen before!” “We’ve done a great job!”

• Affirmation: Le Bon refers to “violent affirmations” that rile a crowd to action. Affirmations, by definition, are positive statements designed to elicit in the hearer the experience of a situation as if the desired outcome has already taken place. Affirmations are designed to elicit a positive emotional response. Effective preachers also use affirmations. The simpler the affirmation, the more weight it carries; the heart, like a child, understands only simple commands of short action verbs. And the more emotion elicited, the more powerful. “We are making our border strongerthan it’s ever been!” “We hit so hard; so strong!” “We’re going to drain the swamp and make America great again!” “Mexico is paying for the wall!”

• Repetition: As Le Bon asserts, affirmation has no real influence unless it is constantly repeated, ideally using the exact same terms! Repetition of affirmations increases group participation, enhances contagion, and builds community. Affirmation repeated incessantly embeds an idea in the unconscious and creates a “current of opinion,” according to Le Bon, encouraging and allowing the “powerful mechanism of contagion” to intervene, (as the monied sources of advertisement well know). Repetition of an idea internalizes it into “habit.” “Lock her up!” “Four more years!” “The China virus!” “USA!!! USA!!!”

• Participatory verbal interaction: Gladwell adds this fourth tool to the list, which I would more specifically call “dialogic participation.” Gospel choir’s use of call-and-response is an excellent example of such dialogical participation; where the soloist initiates and the choir responds. Such group participation builds the excitement of the crowd. “What are we going to do!?…BUILD...THE… WALL!!”

• Use of non-verbal persuasion: Create a “yes bias” in another person by getting them nodding along with the leader. “The Russia investigation is a hoax.” “The media is fake news.”

All of these techniques are extremely “contagious.” And, as we have seen, a leader can add considerably to the power of these tools of arousal by simply “seeding” a crowd with paid attendees who will respond affirmatively.

The Dangers of Toxic Social Contagion

There are dangers to this capability of entrainment and identity system fusing. Consciousness researcher Charles Tart (1975) warns that the ability to merge with a larger system than oneself: “can have negative consequences and can be used to manipulate others” without their conscious awareness. Individual consciousness, he suggests, can be “disrupted” and “reprogrammed” by anyone who understands the techniques for tampering with consciousness, whether it be a minister preaching Christian salvation, a drill sergeant in the army, or a gifted political demagogue. They are all forms of manipulation of consciousness, otherwise known as brainwashing.

“Social epidemics” may be recognized as “contagious epidemic[s] of self-destruction,” according to Gladwell. He provides the following example of smoking among young people. Young people, especially males between ages fifteen and twenty-four, perhaps because they are drawn to experimentation, imitation, suggestibility, and rebellion, and because, as psychology researcher Judith Harris (1998/2009) suggests, they are still cementing their identities based upon “peer and community influence,” become “fascinated” by “charismatic” or “prestigious” or “cool” “role models,” and “mimic” their behavior. This is the reason fads happen. Here we see the influence of suggestion and imitation, of mirroring and mimicking, in the formation of an addictive habit. Young people use smoking and other shared rituals as tools toward peer bonding.

But toxic social contagion may result in even deadlier consequences than smoking; for example, the triggering of “suicide contagion” as reported by epidemiologist Madelyn S. Gould ([DartCenter,] 2012). Recently, there has actually been evidence of a contagious wave of teenage suicides promoted and exacerbated by social media, such as Momo or Blue Wave Challenges, which use fear or bullying or suggestion via social media or the internet to encourage viewers to complete a set of challenges or tasks that become more and more self-destructive, culminating in the directive to suicide. There are some researchers who suggest that mass shootings are a form of such suicide contagion.

And, of course, mass street rioting and violent vigilante actions can also be recognized as results of toxic social contagion; particularly when the charismatic leader is using projections and negative affirmationsto stir up a sort of religious fervor, gaining power by giving adherents scapegoats to hate and enemies to fear. And by using combative inciting speech. “These immigrants are very bad people!” “America is under attack!” “The entire Russia thing is a phony witch hunt!” “The lunatic left wing fringe!” “Hit ’em right in the mouth!” “Protect our elections!”

What to Do with Those who have Fallen Prey to the High of a Toxic Cult?

Unfortunately, rational persuasion is not very effective in “deprogramming” someone who has become addicted to the high of a toxic charismatic cult. Just ask those family members who have tried to talk their relatives away from the QAnon movement. Apparently, the best hope is that they find a new passion, a new community in which they can direct their energies more positively.

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