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Review ArticleDOI Number : 10.36811/ijpmh.2020.110008Article Views : 14Article Downloads : 10

Narcissism: Groundwork for Sectarian Misdemeanors

Saeed Shoja Shafti

Full Professor of Psychiatry University of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation Sciences, (USWR), Iran

*Corresponding Author: Saeed Shoja Shafti MD, Full Professor of Psychiatry, University of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation Sciences (USWR), Razi Psychiatric Hospital, Tehran-Iran, Postal code: 18669-58891, P. O. Box: 18735-569, Tel: 0098-21-33401220; Fax: 0098-21-33401604; Email: ssshafti@gmail.com 

Article Information

Aritcle Type: Review Article

Citation: Saeed Shoja Shafti. 2020. Narcissism: Groundwork for Sectarian Misdemeanors. Int J Psychiatr Ment Health. 2: 08-16.

Copyright: This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Copyright © 2020; Saeed Shoja Shafti

Publication history:

Received date: 08 June, 2020
Accepted date: 30 June, 2020
Published date: 01 July, 2020


In DSM-5, the sector of ‘Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention’, has discussed about cults. The said section covers all conditions and problems that are a focus of clinical attention or that may otherwise affect the diagnosis, course, prognosis, or treatment of a patient's mental disorder. While cults are usually led by charismatic leaders, who offer acceptance and guidance to troubled followers, cult followers are strongly controlled and forced to dissolve commitment to family and others to serve the cult leader's directives and personal needs. On the other hand, there were many cult leaders, who have been convicted of violent or non-violent crimes, as a commander or committer, before, during or after their period as a cult leader. While many bio-psycho-social factors involve in the grouping and formation of sects or cults, numerous dynamics, too, may prepare the group’s state of mind for perpetrating crime. Among a number of conceivable historical, cultural, or radical causes, while psychopathy, at all times, have had a firm position in forensic psychiatry, narcissism, whether as a primary trait or as a misleadingly stirred quality, have been generally over looked. Interrelationship between narcissism and psychopathy, from one hand, and the scarce set of circumstances, on the other hand, may create a situation, full of mix-ups, which can be continued melancholically and hazardously. In the present article, the likely role of narcissism, among numerous mechanisms that may involve in establishment of sectarian misbehavior, will be discussed in more detail. 

Keywords: Cult; Sect; Narcissism; Psychopathy; Crime


In DSM-5, the sector of ‘Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention’, has discussed about cults. The said section covers all conditions and problems that are a focus of clinical attention or that may otherwise affect the diagnosis, course, prognosis, or treatment of a patient's mental disorder [1]. These conditions are presented with their corresponding codes from ICD-9-CM (usually V codes) and ICD-IO-CM (usually Z codes). A condition or problem in this subdivision may be coded if it is a reason for the current visit or helps to explain the need for a test, procedure, or treatment [2]. Acculturation Difficulty, Unspecified Problem Related to Social Environment, Religious or Spiritual Problem, Other Problem Related to Psychosocial Circumstances, and Unspecified Problem Related to Unspecified Psychosocial Circumstances are among the subdivisions of the aforesaid section. While the conditions and problems listed in this chapter are not mental disorders, their inclusion in DSM-5 is meant to draw attention to the scope of additional issues that may been countered in routine clinical practice and to provide a systematic listing that may be useful to clinicians in documenting these issues [2]. Recently, cults have appeared to be less popular and less attractive to naive late adolescents and young adults, who seek assistance in discovering that who they are. Cults are usually led by charismatic leaders, who offer acceptance and guidance to troubled followers. Cult members are strongly controlled and forced to dissolve commitment to family and others to serve the cult leader's directives and personal needs. These young participants often come from educated families who then seek professional help in persuading their children to leave the cult and renovate their former mental strength and individuality [1]. As is known, there were many sectarian leaders who have been convicted of violent crimes before, during or after their period as a cult frontrunner, like: Shoko Asahara, founder of ‘Aum Shinrikyo’, who had been sentenced to death for involvement in the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway [3]. Wayne Bent, founder of ‘Lord Our Righteousness Church’, who was convicted of one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was sentenced to 18years prison [4]; Matthew F. Hale, Former leader of ‘Creativity Movement’ sentenced to 40years prison for soliciting an undercover police informant to kill a federal judge [5]; ErvilLe Baron, leader of a small sect of polygamous Mormon fundamentalists, who was convicted of involvement in the murder of two people [6]; Jeffrey Lundgren, headed splinter group from ‘Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’, executed for multiple murders [7];Charles Manson, Leader of the ‘Manson Family’ who served life in prison for first degree murder [8]; Shukri Mustafa, Egyptian leader of ‘Takfirwal-Hijra’ who was captured and executed for the kidnap and murder of an Egyptian ex-government minister [9]; Swami Premananda of Tiruchirapalli, indian religious leader convicted and sentenced to two life sentences for the rape of 13 girls and murder (10); Yahweh Ben Yahweh, head of ‘Nation of Yahweh’, convicted for federal racketeering charges and conspiracy involving 14 murders [11]; Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of the social group ‘Dera Sacha Sauda’, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for rape, murder and alleged to have committed sexual assaults on many of his followers [12]. There were more cult leaders, se well, who have been convicted of non-violent crimes [3]. Since there are a number of studies which have highlighted the resemblances between psychopathy and narcissism [13-18], may narcissism play an imperative role in misconducts of destructive cults or sects, too? The aim of the present article is not judging cults or sects and their values, and dividing them between good or bad, but analysis of factors which permit or enable crime or misdemeanors via their leaders or devotees. Ordinarily, no sect or cult inaugurates its presumed mission by delinquency or takes criminality as the mainstay of its intentions. If history is the outcome of human activity, human activity, as well, is the aftermath of a variety of bio-psycho-social processes.


Cults and sects: Some scholars describe the official definition of a cult as such: “It instructs and brainwashes its members; it forms a sealed, authoritarian society; it has a self-proclaimed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the conclusions warrant the means.” [19] Bruce Campbell gives three ideal types of cults: a mystically-oriented illumination type, an instrumental type, in which inner experience is sought solely for its effects, a service-oriented type that focuses on aiding others [20]. In standard sociological typology, cults are, similar to sects, as new spiritual groups. But, unlike sects, they can form without breaking off from another sacred group, though this is by no means always the case. The characteristic that most differentiates cults from sects is that they do not support a return to pure religion but rather promote embracing something new or something that has been completely vanished or disremembered. Cults are also much more likely to be led by charming frontrunners than are other mystical groups, and the charismatic leaders tend to be the individuals who bring forth the new or lost component that is the focal element of the cult [21]. The sociologist Roy Wallis had introduced different classifications of sects and cults. He maintained that a cult is characterized by epistemological individualism by which he means that "the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member." According to Wallis, cults are usually described as "oriented towards the problems of persons, loosely organized, easygoing, non-exclusive", making "few demands on followers", without possessing a "clear distinction between followers and non-members", having "a rapid turnover of affiliation", and are transitory closed societies with vague margins and mutable belief systems." Wallis contrasts a cult with a sect in that he asserts that sects are characterized by "epistemological authoritarianism": sects possess some commanding locus for the legitimate attribution of heresy. According to Wallis, sects claim that they have matchless and private access to the truth or salvation, and their committed devotees regard all those outside the boundaries of the collectivity as 'in error’ [22]. In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its strang espiritual, mystical, or theoretical philosophies, or by its common interest in a particular goal, object, or personality. This sense of the term is controversial and is usually considered pejorative [23, 24]. Groups which are said to be cults range in size from local groups with a few members to international organizations with millions of members [25].

Narcissism: the essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a pervasive pattern of grandness, requisite for admiration, and absence of empathy that initiates by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts. Persons with this syndrome have a grandiose sense of self-importance [26]. Often implicit in the inflated judgments of their own activities is an underestimation (devaluing) of the aids of others. Where as personalities with this ailment usually need too much admiration, their self-esteem is nearly always very fragile. So, a sense of privilege, combined with a deficiency of sensitivity to the wishes and requirements of others, may result in the mindful or unconscious exploitation of others [26]. Also, these personalities are often jealous of others or believe that others are jealous of them [27]. Since vulnerability in self-esteem makes narcissists very sensitive to "injury" from criticism or defeat, they may react with scorn, anger, or defiant revenge [27].

Criminal conduct: Criminal behavior, or adult antisocial behavior, as it is referred to by forensic psychiatry, includes a wide spectrum of demeanor and describes normally functioning people engaged in making a fraudulent living, perhaps out of requirement. But, not all delinquents are psychopaths; indeed, many are not [28]. So, other traits, too, may be noted with regard to criminal problems. Among various characters, narcissism has fascinated publicly lots of attention [29]. Malignant narcissism is known as a mixture of narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. As well as having symptoms of NPD, a person with malignant narcissism also displays paranoia. As said by Diamond, there is a close correlation between antisocial behavior and pathological narcissism. So he employed the term ‘psychopathic narcissism’ to describe such persons [30]. Narcissists are great manipulators. They can spot the needs, emotions, and weaknesses in those around them and use this information to their advantage very quickly with no sense of regret. They do not have a conscience in this sense because they do not hold themselves responsible for the consequences of their actions [31, 32]. On the other hand, ‘narcissistic rage’ is a psychological concept that designates a reaction to narcissistic injury, which is conceptualized as a perceived threat to a narcissist's self-esteem or self-worth, which may range from instances of unfriendliness and expressions of mild anger or frustration to serious outbursts, including vicious attacks and killing [33]. According to Kohut, narcissistic rage is related to narcissists' need for total control of their environment, including "the need for retaliation, for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means". It is an attempt by the narcissist to turn from a impassive sense of abuse to an active role in giving ache to others, although at the same time attempting to remake their own (actually false) sense of self-worth [34].While rage comes in many forms, all pertain to the same important thing: ‘revenge’. Narcissistic rages are based on fear and will endure even after the threat is gone [35].


"Destructive cult" usually refers to the groups, whose followers have, through thoughtful action, physically injured or killed other followers of their own group or other people, or as "a highly manipulative group which abuses and sometimes physically and/or psychologically harms adherents and employees" [19]. Some scholars, as well, have quoted authoritarian systems of control as characteristics of a destructive cult [19], or describe it as a sociopathic syndrome, whose typical qualities comprise: "communicative and behavioral terations, loss of subjective character, interruption of pedagogic accomplishments, breakup from family, disregard to society and noticeable psychological control and enslavement by cult leaders" [36]. On the other hand, Kernberg believes that antisocial individuals are mostly suffering from malignant narcissism [9], because they form only manipulative associations and lack moral attitude [37]. As noted above, a psychopath person typically manifests pathological self-importance, or narcissism, which is displayed as excessive self-centeredness [38]. Psychopathy and narcissism have been interconnected in the writings already, as evidenced by research on the “dark triad” (i.e. psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism) [39]. Furthermore, psychopathy has been elected as a theoretical basis for evaluating narcissism in an externalizing sample due to symptom overlap among the syndromes and their particular associations with heightened risk for aggression and engagement in illegal behavior [40-43]. Then, what is the basis of wrongdoing or cruelty in Destructive cults. May we assume narcissism as the basis of sectarian delinquency? Sectarian narcissism, whether persuaded by personal ideas of current leaders or as a historical legacy delivered by preceding frontrunners or ideologists, is an egocentric persuasion that is inspired in a group of people, based on subjective wishes, individual ambitions, faulty extrapolations, episodic triumphs or innovations, or a mixture of them, purposefully or subconsciously, for gathering and safeguarding followers or teammates, guaranteeing survival and resurgence, and getting commitment and sacrifice. So, self-centeredness or egocentricity founds the backbone of every sect or cult, disregard to presence or absence of proof or confirmable validity. At such a status quo, common sense may be either easily disguised or denied and substituted by impassiveness, or being picked up selectively for justification of acclaimed principles. Except regular living activities, devotees of such cults, along with their collective philosophies and outlooks, usually don’t feel it necessary to think over short-term or long-term goals of sect and confer it on leader. But one important result of such kind of narcissism is intolerance of whatever else that shakes or encounters the sect’s groundless views and assurances [44]. Since, such a suspected challenge has no easy solution or explanation by way of existing documents and realities, and the instant outcome could be nothing than feeling of doubt in fans and harassment in leaders, so it may turn easily into anger and antagonism; a reaction, which is discernible, as well, in narcissist, vicious, uncultivated or vulgar persons, when asked for rational behavior or societal accountability. Because there is no guarantee that cult’s leaders are being carefully chosen from sophisticated people, so their response to the alleged invaders, which is spreadable fervently, not sensibly, to their admirers, as well, can be nothing except than isolation, irritation, annihilation or assassination of imaginary belligerent or opponent. The final outcome of such a morbid cycle is nothing except than immunization of cult by undeviating enthusiasts and biased guidelines. While in the past or in unindustrialized societies such a strategy for solving problems, which trades with thoughts and phantasies, not realities and evidences, could be beneficial for continued existence of simple life, it is not apt for globalized modern civilizations with the most complex network of interactions. On the other hand, reality testing of human being, for distinguishing true actualities from imaginary things, is not free from apperception and personality characteristics of persons. While suspiciousness and guardedness are supposed as the main apparatuses in every group, sect or nation for guaranteeing collective shield and persistence, narcissism may easily turn these serviceable implements into private instruments for following personal intentions. And since the prevailing induced narcissism can not tolerate anything or anyone that shakes or threats the matchlessness of sect’s philosophies, so turning protection into hostility becomes a routine method. While occasionally narcissism may count on some conquests or innovations, as well, for partial justification of its maneuvers, unjustifiable or unsubstantiated narcissism can do nothing except than obliteration of opponents or competitors, specifically when do not have a comparable or fitting role-model or apt answer for convincing the more worried supporters. An important characteristic of a narcissist cult is having faith in their unconditional exclusivity, whether ethnically, culturally, archaeologically, politically or any mixture of them. Also, though, apparently, it may have a high regard for humbleness, forgiveness and alliance, practically it does not tolerate any kind of transgress from the assumed prime rules, which may give rise to severe reactions. Another characteristic may involve its ignorance concerning the member’s safety, especially in face with excessive threats. Expecting unidirectional sacrifice, by the enthusiasts, is one the most selfish features of a narcissist leader. But, how supposed narcissism transpires, if the founder of the cult belongs to the past and is not alive or accessible currently. Long-tern centralization of hegemony and policymaking, which is a typical skeleton of many sects, and prohibition or suppression of disobedience or dissidence, which deprives the sect from proper feedback, may generate a fabricated sense of narcissism in ruling heads, which may cause the decision makers to go sightless and loss insight with respect to real state of affairs. Such a process may be precipitated especially in ill-informed and senseless front-runners, who can not analysis the condition further than their own apperception and understanding of real assets and deficits. Although, salvation, peace and justice are among the most important declares of many cults, in fact the aforesaid inspired narcissism impede their accomplishment, due to induction of prejudice and aggressiveness, which are the unavoidable outcomes of made narcissism, though they are vital mechanisms for supporting the egotistic state and settings. The said made-up narcissism, as well, may arouse a sense of mission, or ‘Noesis’, as a revelation in witch immense illumination occurs in association with a sense that one has been chosen to lead and command, or ‘Unio Mystica’, as an oceanic and mystic unity with an infinite power, in the leaders and/or followers. Nevertheless, such a morbid process, which may rise up to partial or complete delusion of grandiosity with fixed and uncorrectable contemplations and tactics, will be the beginning of sequential erroneous decisions that starts the final extermination of cult or sect. So, the growing fictional narcissism will behave eventually as an autoimmune reaction against its instigator. As has been described before, narcissism and antisocialism have some comparable characteristics that facilitate and justify criminal behavior in both of them. In the realm of psychotherapy, too, management of these two is more problematic than other personality disorders. So malignant narcissism, whether primary, as a personality trait, or made-up, as an induced misperception, can advise easily and unsoundly dishonesty, violence and bias in favor of sect’s selfishness. Also, in the best situation, the final outcome of said morbid process can be nothing except than establishment of totalitarianism. So, whether the sect is political, social, cultural, or spiritual, the end result of dominant narcissism can be creation of a kind of fascism, which is based more on forerunner’s attitudes than sect’s philosophies, because they can be restructured over and over by leader’s apperception and personal objectives. Restriction of news and filtration of data is important equipment for ensuring the ideal zest and commitment among fans. Limited interactions, undercover attitude, and occasional trance or dissociative rituals, whether chemically or mentally, as well, can warranty sect’s configuration. But, while in military civil service obedience is a necessary tool for continued existence of the armed forces, with clear responsibilities and obligations, in sects it means unidirectional vowing to leaders’ verdicts. Leaders’ decision, also, roots in earlier experiences and thoughts, with no flawless confine or perfect feedback. In such a situation, fans mean nothing more than arrows, scapegoat or safeguard for a sect that is overwhelmed by synthetic narcissism, which in itself is made up by their zealous and unmindful admirers. But, what creates heed less believers? In addition to the initial shared ideas or traits, some unconscious mechanisms, like identification, introjection, rationalization, externalization, primitive idealization, and projective identification create a concealed emotional link between frontrunners and followers. So, in the under ground circumstances of sects, fans perceive leaders along with their own apperception, as like as watching people in television, which can exaggerate the impact of usual people in the eyes of ordinary viewers. Hence, borderline level of intelligence, lack of knowledge or overenthusiastic feelings is enough for turning some of the devotees into heedless followers. The aforesaid unconscious mechanisms, as well, provide the necessary justification for every kind of criminality or misconduct, especially for followers with schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, avoidant or passive-aggressive traits. Dependent or histrionic traits, as well, offers the necessary background for unreasonable compliance and suggestibility. Likewise, paranoid, schizotypal, antisocial and narcissistic traits, or a combination of them, are prevalent among the sect leaders, which in the case of huge stress may be accountable for various delusions with complete impairment of reality testing. Furthermore, while in the realm of forensic psychiatry, delusional disorder is the most dangerous one with respect to possibility of violence, inflicting injury and even killing the suspected target, differentiation between overvalued idea, which is usually acknowledged as the main psychopathologic structure of malignant narcissism, and delusion, is not always practical, because the overvalued idea, as like as mood or environments, may consolidate the thoughts for falling into secondary delusions. So, at all times a reciprocal association between malignant narcissism and grandiose type of delusional disorder is supposable [45]. As said before, such a situation is beginning of sequential miscalculations and misunderstandings, with recurrent underestimation of real circumstances, which sooner or later destabilize the sect and eradicates its existence. Similarly, narcissist individuals habitually undervalue others’ competencies and cleverness, which per se can be the commencement of collapse. Though not free from sociopolitical factors, historical review of such cults shows that, usually, they could not exist for a long time. Presently, political parties are somewhat similar to preceding sects, but with many differences with respect to administrative and interactional processes. Clear doctrines regarding economic, political and social structure, tangible short-term and long-term goals and understandable strategy for achievement of those objectives, open fiscal processes, electability of leadership by means of voting and based on democratic values, altogether prevent establishment of made-up narcissism and subsequent fascism, through inner feedback mechanisms. Though, such codes can not modify narcissistic or antisocial traits per se, they may encircle them as much as possible. While democratic principles and rise of knowledge by advancement of modern technology should, logically, have decreased formation of autocratic sects, the abovementioned psychiatric characteristics, with a overall prevalence of five to ten percent in general population, and borderline intelligence with limited power of analysis, with a prevalence around six to seven percent in common people, may still afford the necessary milieu for formation of despotic cults or sects. When a well-intentioned leader may state his wishes, though satisfy others’ requirements, a narcissist leader pronounces others’ yearnings, while satisfies his or her desires. Also, while a benevolent frontrunner typically eludes untruthfulness, a narcissist leader may appeal to lie with no trouble. Moreover, while the compassionate leader desires reliance in social interactions, the narcissist leader favors suspicion, due to self-doubt. So, teammate selection among unaware, but needful, persons can not be so difficult, especially people who are in search of “The First”, “The Best”, “The Last”, or “The only Blessed” idols. In such a situation, development of charisma, which is the consequence of shared projection of blocked aspirations of a group of displeased people on to an individual that reflects them verbally and nonverbally, is plausible.


In addition to a variety of bio-psycho-social factors that may involve in the misconduct of cults, sects or any comparable group of people, with their exceptional or particular style of philosophy and manners, narcissism, with its specific physiognomies, like greediness, retaliation, and exploitation, can be accounted as one of the most important bases that facilitate or precipitate criminal behavior among the leaders or followers. Close overlapping between narcissism and psychopathy creates a conduit that may lead, sooner or later, the headless fans or self-centered frontrunners into the bridge of hell.


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