What’s the “Messiah” Complex — And Why Do People Fall For It?

What leads to murderous mayhem? What is a “Messiah” complex, and why do so many fall for it, even if not always in extreme forms?

Whether it’s Osama bin Laden, the leaders of the up and coming terrorist group ISIS, or more individualized examples — the Islam-promoting beheader in Oklahoma this past week, 1960s mass murderer Charles Manson, or spiritual cult crusaders Jim Jones (in 1978) and David Koresh (of the Branch Davidians, in 1993) — what fuels the so-called “Messiah complex” thought to exist in cult leaders? And, more significantly, what leads so many people (in varying degrees) to fall for it?

Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D., writing at psychologytoday.com [9-29-14], has this to say:

Like convicted mass murderer Charles Manson, [David] Koresh’s grandiose dreams of being a rock star in this life were crushed after coming to Hollywood. Fame eluded them. Their compensatory narcissistic fantasies were frustrated. Their inflated egos wounded. What followed in both cases was a bloody and embittered reaction to feelings of frustration, narcissistic injury and rejection, one that lashed out against the world in a relentless pursuit of destructive infamy, fueled by a wicked rage for recognition.


Manson, like Koresh, never knew his father. His mother was an alcoholic and possible prostitute who physically neglected, rejected, abused and abandoned him. In and out of juvenile detention since he was twelve–closely fitting the profile of so many antisocial characters– Manson became a career criminal who has spent the bulk of his adult life behind bars.

Essentially, he’s saying that terrorist leaders think more of themselves than they really are, and as a result they seek to do wild and evil, vicious things in order to give them a sense of power and love they otherwise lacked in childhood. Or, perhaps they do possess some authentic potential, but they expect it to come more easily and automatically than it actually can, and when they start to see this they become extremely angry, upset and full of rage. They’re emotional children in adult bodies; and they decide to take up arms.

The childhood theory makes some sense, if only on the surface. It’s not difficult to imagine an emotionally abandoned or psychologically invisible child growing up to seek out the attention and adoration of others. When you study the lives and psychological histories of “Messianic” leaders, you’ll surely find that hurt feelings and unmet needs abound in their early and later lives. But is it possible that they brought some of this on themselves? Maybe, particularly as adults, their irrational narcissism, or other personality defects, drove people away? Why do we always and automatically assume that a brutal cult leader or killer is a victim of someone, and that the victimization in childhood must lead to later violence and treachery?

Even if we do assume that all “Messianic” control freaks had bad parenting, so did a whole lot more people who would never do anything of the kind. People who come from inadequate or hurtful childhoods grow up to be all kinds of things. Only a small minority end up being leaders of mentally unbalanced groups or evil terrorist gangs.

Even more important is to understand why some people fall into the trap of following a Messianic leader. Granted, most will not go so far as to literally “drink the Kool Aid” that Rev. Jim Jones’ selfless followers did in 1978, or put their lives — and their childrens’ lives — at risk as followers of David Koresch did and jihadist groups willingly do. But lots of people do end up uncritically following leaders of various sorts — political, religious, gurus — as a substitute for their own thinking and judgment. Sometimes this takes a violent or extreme form, and more often it does not.

It’s crucial to distinguish between blind following and authentic hero worship here. Hero worship is a perfectly fine, and even necessary aspect of human experience. When you admire someone as a hero, you appreciate their objectively demonstrated intellectual or physical accomplishments. The proof is in what they do, who they are, and what that means for you. You don’t depend on this hero (be it a celebrity or a figure in your personal life) to tell you what to think, what to want or how to value. You already know these things, at least on some subconscious emotional level. And when you find someone who embodies what you value, like and desire, you feel a sense of admiration.

Perhaps this is how some cult followers start out. They lack heroes, and they’re looking for someone to look up to. Unfortunately, they have never identified — for themselves, consciously, objectively and rationally — what a hero means to them. As a result, in their uncertainty and lack of confidence, they’re unnecessarily vulnerable to the first and strongest personality who comes along. To them, the hero void is filled by a person with a strong personality who tells them what they seem to want to hear. Maybe because of their own psychological invisibility in childhood, or whatever else has disappointed or damaged them, they’re vulnerable to the type of person who seems able and willing to take charge for them.

I will tell you that this comes up a lot in psychotherapy, particularly with people who have prolonged emotional problems. In one form or another they’ll tell me, “I want someone to take over for me, to tell me what’s true and what to do.” My response is always, in one form or another, “My job is to help you become confident in your own abilities, your own capacity to think.” Many people struggle with this self-responsibility and find it a burden. Some are very happy to accept “help” from someone ready and willing to tell them what to do. The world is full of such people; not only in cults, but in families, organizations, communities, churches or religious movements, the psychotherapy field, the spiritual guru field, etc.

Dr. Diamond writes,

…the Messiah phenomenon can be understood as part of the eternal and universal search for the “ultimate rescuer”: an omnipotent and omniscient force or being that loves and protects us. The ultimate rescuer saves us from our existential aloneness, freedom, anxiety, responsibility to think for ourselves and decide on our own behavior, and provides hope and meaning to counteract our lack of purpose in life and despair.

He goes on:

Though an ultimate rescuer may be construed in many forms … magical powers are projected onto the person of the cult leader or messiah, accompanied by a surrender of one’s personal will and ego to the messianic leader and the collective needs of the cult. This gives followers of the messiah an opportunity to transcend their own individual egos and to function as part of something greater than themselves. In this sense, participants in the messiah syndrome seek spirituality, some way of transcending their sense of meaninglessness, powerlessness, helplessness, and isolation.

In a sense, a Messiah steps in where your own self-confidence in your own thinking, conclusions and choices might have been.

I’ll explain. Your emotional states are caused by your ideas. Your ideas have to do with very fundamental things, such as, “Can my mind be trusted to figure out what’s true, what’s real and what’s right?” On a very basic emotional and psychological level, people have already answered this question for themselves. No person confident in the powers of his or her reasoning, thinking mind could ever fall prey to the claims of any Messianic leader. For one thing, such a leader counts on you to surrender to blind faith — most particularly, to him. Authentic self-confidence would prevent this from ever happening.

The tragic lesson of cults and terrorist movements recruiting the uninformed, vulnerable and intellectually evasive? We should all be our own messiahs — not in an irrational sense, but in the reality-based sense of utilizing reason, self-responsibility and principled independence. You simply cannot have too much of these good things. The false “Messiahs” who claim to have substitutes for confident use of our reasoning faculties are the most lost of all.


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