Why People Fall for Charismatic Leaders

A new book explores how fear, uncertainty, and group psychology lead people to believe leaders who say false things.

Why do people still believe Donald Trump when he says things like, "Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they've ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever"? (Even setting aside slavery and Jim Crow, “Nationally, the black poverty rate is 24.1 percent, which is much higher than the 9.1 percent percent it is for whites. But that’s still lower than it has been in the past,” Politifact points out.) Or that there could be anywhere from 3 to 30 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but “the government has no idea.” (The number is 11.4 million, Politifact says, and the government is quite sure.)

It could be because Trump, like many charismatic leaders, casts his arguments in ways that tickle the emotional parts of our brains while telling the more rational lobes to shush. That’s the process explored by Sara E. Gorman, a public-health expert, and her father, Jack M. Gorman, a psychiatrist and CEO of Franklin Behavioral Health Consultants, in their new book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us. “Persuaders might want to reduce the possibility of dissonance by constantly reassuring people that they have made the right choice ... or that there is no viable reasonable alternative,” they write. (Remember “I alone can fix it?”)

In the book, the Gormans explain not just how people fall for the false claims of politicians, but also how intelligent people wind up in cults or why a nation wracked by gun violence continues to reject gun-control measures. They admit they do not support Trump, but they’re otherwise equal opportunity debunkers, taking on GMO fear-mongering and anti-vaxers along with the National Rifle Association. I recently interviewed the Gormans about why false information and charismatic people can seem so seductive. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: You write that cults often draw people of above-average intelligence. Why is that?

Sara Gorman: I just want to say I think it was fortuitous that the book has come out now with Trump running for president, because we see a lot of parallels with the charismatic leader and the conspiracy theories. And one of the things that we emphasize in the book, that is really the center of it is that idea—this is what made us write the book—that a lot of the people who hold some of these beliefs including being easily easily persuaded by charismatic leaders or pulled into cults are actually very intelligent.

The response has usually been just to throw facts at people and assume that they just don’t know any better. When in reality, often you are dealing with intelligent people. I think what happens with people who fall into cults and also conspiracy theories, it has more to do with feelings of powerlessness, and especially if you're very very stressed, you can really be much more susceptible to these ideas. In that way, it's not as much about your intelligence as it is about your circumstances and feeling like you've lost control in some way.

Jack Gorman: That's totally right, and you know we also have to make a distinction between how much education someone has and how intelligent they are. One of the very amusing things was Trump right after the [first] debate developing a conspiracy theory himself that the microphones were broken and that the Democrats did it. So he sort of churns these things up, and although I don’t particularly like him, I would have to say he's intelligent. So that's just an example of somebody who not only believes them, but, you know, makes them up.

Just to get back to Sara's thing about "voiceless" and "powerless," there was actually an article in The Atlantic that looked at the characteristics of Trump supporters, and although it talked about the usual triad of male, poor, and white, the article said that the two most strong predictions of who supports Trump were not having a college degree and people who feel voiceless and powerless. So that voiceless and powerless trait looks like it aligns with both supporting Trump and being prone to believing in conspiracy theories.

Khazan: Would you call Trump a charismatic leader? Why or why not?

Sara Gorman: I would absolutely call him a charismatic leader. A charismatic leader is not necessarily a negative, but what we found in the book and what we see with Trump often is that anti-science charismatic leaders, or charismatic leaders who espouse things that are not true, obviously they have a big effect that can be very negative.

It’s really striking how he lines up with some of these anti-science charismatic leaders on some of the basic characteristics. One of the big things for him is that he’s positioned himself as an outsider and being on the fringes. That actually helps him build up his charisma and his identity as a charismatic leader because it creates a very strong sense of him being able to come in and create a totally different order and a revolution. But it also allows him to create a very strong us-versus-them narrative, in which he can really point to a very large group of people—no matter what party they're in—it's all of the government is against him and against us, the Americans.

And what that in turn does, is once you create a sense of a “them,” you reinforce a strong “us.” And when you reinforce a very strong “us,” a lot of group psychology will sort of kick up. There's a lot of conformity, there's a lot of not questioning things because other people seem to be going along with it. It's harder for individuals who are part of groups to make independent judgments and decisions.

He also uses fear and personal stories to heighten risk perception. He will lead with stories of individual people who were supposedly murdered by illegal immigrants. He also positions himself as the person who will protect all of your rights and all of these huge issues around justice and fairness and freedom of speech. He often will bring things back to those huge issues rather than going into more specifics around various policy issues. That makes it harder to disagree with him, and it creates a sort of authoritarian godlike aura around a person.

Olga Khazan: Being less specific makes it harder to disagree with them?

Sara Gorman: Absolutely.

Jack Gorman: I once heard a speech by Wayne LaPierre, the director of the NRA.  And you could insert almost any cause into that speech, because he almost never actually used the word gun. He talked all about freedoms, fairness, protection, family—you could imagine a far left person talking about their cause putting it in the same words. You’ll very rarely hear Wayne LaPierre talk about the data about whether personal gun ownership is actually safe or not. He’ll talk about, “I’m protecting your freedom.”

And you have the same thing when Trump talks about immigration. He’ll never cite actual data on the number of crimes committed by immigrants vs. non-immigrants. You probably heard if you listened to the VP debate when the moderator said to Pence, "but you know the most recent incidents were all done by American citizens, how do you account for that?" and he ducked that question and went right back to very loaded emotional words — “tragedies occurring to families.”  So what he does is deflect attention away from the data onto these base emotions, and then they tell you, “we’re the only ones who can save you." And if you already feel like you're a person who doesn't have a voice, that's an extremely attractive way to put things.

Khazan: One of the things you note is that most charismatic leaders tend to be great communicators and have a lot of verbal eloquence. Eloquence does not seem to be one of Trump’s strengths, but perhaps the “says what we’re all thinking” element telegraphs that a bit.

Sara Gorman: I agree with the verbal eloquence part, but he is always appearing as though he’s winging it. I think all of that sort of helps build his personality cult. Because in a weird way it makes him seem more approachable, like he’s being genuine, and he's a person, and so the cult around him or the whole support around him is about his personality versus political beliefs. That is so typical of the charismatic leader, versus the sort of traditional leader, which is more like Hillary Clinton, who really gleans her authority from experience and bureaucratic processes. And the personality cult, the groups that form around them tend to be much stronger than the groups that form around these traditional leaders.

Khazan: Don’t Hillary supporters do the same thing, though? Doesn't anyone who runs for president have to cultivate that same kind of aura around themselves?

Jack Gorman: I think that's a really important point, that's kind of the difference between the anti-science charismatic leaders that we're dealing with in the book and at least that aspect of politics, because politics is a forced choice. So you basically have to choose one of these two people. With the anti-science area, you don’t have to choose to believe [vaccine skeptic] Andrew Wakefield. [But] certainly there are people who are drawn to Hillary Clinton merely because she’s a woman and they want to vote for a woman.