In the wake of numerous late twentieth century cult disasters, and most recently, the September 11 tragedy, this paper considers the question, why do people obey outrageous commands from charismatic authorities? According to Gary Becker, “the economic ap‐proach provides a valuable unified framework for understanding all human behavior” (Becker 1976:14). We test this generalization by attempting to explain, in terms of rational choice theory, the behavior of two members of infamous cults, the Manson Family and the Ragneesh Foundation International. Each of these subjects slavishly obeyed orders from a charismatic personality, one to the extent of committing murder. Were they mentally ill or rationally maximizing their utility? We consider these theoretical options. In August of 1969 Charles Manson ordered several of his followers to commit gruesome murders for the purpose of initiating the apocalypse. They obeyed. In late 1978, Jim Jones commanded over 900 members of the Peoples Temple to commit suicide. They obeyed. From 1981 to 1985, executing orders to build utopia perceived to come from their guru, members of the Ragneesh Foundation International terrorized the inhabitants of Antelope, Oregon. Similarly, followers of Osama Bin Laden are suspected of carrying out the disastrous suicide murders of September 11. Over past decades, the incidence of violence involving submission to a charismatic leader appears to be escalating. Increasingly the public must contend with the “awesome power” of charisma, “enshrouded in a mystique of irrationality” (Bradley 1987: 3–4). The extent to which followers committing criminal acts of obedience may be held accountable has become a pressing legal issue. How can this kind of volatile religious commitment be explained? In recent years, experts on cults have experimented with rational choice theory. According to economist, Gary Becker, “the economic approach provides a valuable unified framework for understanding all human behavior” (Becker 1976: 14). We test this extravagant claim with two cases of seemingly irrational commitment to a charismatic cult leader—one a follower of Bhagwan Rajneesh, the other a Manson Family killer. These subjects are not representative cult members but rather were chosen because they demonstrated an exceptional loyalty to their leaders that has been widely construed as the result of brainwashing or insanity. Rather than survey data, we rely on autobiographical testimonies since they offer a more detailed and comprehensive view of the thought processes that motivate behavior, the subject matter of this paper.
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