How To Win Friends And… Start A Cult?

How To Win Friends And... Start A Cult?

On August 9, 1969, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Charles “Tex” Watson drove to the home of a famous Hollywood family and proceeded to murder everyone there.

At the end of the gruesome night, five people were killed, and the word “pig” was scrawled in blood on the house’s front door.

What drove these four seemingly normal people to do this?

Could it be revenge? Greed? Envy?

No. They did it because they were told to. Their bizarre leader, a “charismatic” man named Charles Manson, ordered them to go to the house and “totally destroy everyone in [it], as gruesome as you can.”

I remember seeing a picture of Charles Manson when I was younger. I think it was part of some PBS documentary. He’s the perfect villain. Disheveled hair. Intense “crazy eyes”. That psycho blank facial expression.

Why would anyone listen to this guy? How in the world could such a strange person build a following?

I was always baffled by this.

That’s why I was fascinated (and surprised) when I heard that he was a student of one of the kings of self-help, Dale Carnegie. Not only did he take a Dale Carnegie course on “How To Win Friends and Influence People”, but he also was an obsessive student of the identically titled book.

According to Jeff Guinn, the author of one of the definitive biographies on Manson, the crazy cult leader was particularly obsessed with chapter 7. The lesson of that chapter?

“(Principle 7) Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers”


Manson didn’t seem to be a hectoring, intimidating leader, but rather a soft-spoken seducer. If we are to take his interest in chapter 7 seriously, then you can imagine him slowly and carefully prodding and questioning people to get them to the “right” conclusions.

A lot of research has come out in the last few decades points out how tightly we cling to things that we consider “ours”. The feeling of ownership skews our perception of value in the positive direction–increasing it by ~2x in some instances. More recent research from Harvard’s Mike Norton also shows how we further overvalue those things that we’ve built / put effort into. This bias is, amusingly, called the “IKEA Effect”.

So by encouraging his followers to come to the conclusions he desired, Manson was harnessing some of the most powerful cognitive glitches in the human mind—using them to rewrite the worldviews of his flock, and build a dedicated, even murderous, following. If his followers felt like they were coming to Manson’s conclusions (and desires) on their own, then they would naturally believe in, and follow, them more all the more resolutely.

Guinn, the author of the Manson biography I mentioned, is out with a new book; this one on the preacher and cult leader Jim Jones.

Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed him about Jones the other day. It was an interesting listen. The thing that always strikes me about these “charismatics” is how they intuitively take advantage of flaws in our mental machinery. They effortlessly use social proof, authority, scarcity, reciprocity, loss aversion, the identifiable victim effect, and a variety of other biases and tactics. Whenever you see someone influencing large numbers of people, study them. Look for the time-tested persuasion principles.

That’s the only way you’re going to protect yourself against the tactics of these masters of mayhem.

It’s a scary world out there, full of dirty tricks and mental viruses. Vaccinate yourself.

Today’s thoughts,


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