Friday, March 9, 2012

The "anti-Cassandra" curse: being always believed

It is well known that Cassandra was cursed so that her prophecies would never be believed. But there exists also an opposite curse affecting charismatic leaders who are always believed by their followers. In the long run, leaders are deluded into believing themselves infallible and the results are often disastrous. We could call that the "anti-Cassandra" curse.

People are easily duped into following charismatic leaders, as it is well known. But, while the psychology of adepts is not so difficult to understand (we all may fall in the trap, at least occasionally), it is less clear what passes in the minds of leaders. Do they really believe that they are as smart and powerful as they present themselves to their followers? Or are they consciously misleading their adepts for personal gains? Of course, both possibilities may be true in different circumstances, but a recent posting by Sam Harris convinced me that, in many cases, the leader is even more deluded than his/her followers.

Let me explain this point. First of all, give a look to this clip, taken from Sam Harris's blog. (No need to watch it all, just the first minute or so)

Now, I think you'll agree with me that what we are seeing looks very much like a staged fight. It is hard to say what exactly these guys are doing: maybe it is a show or maybe they are training as actors for some Chinese Kung-Fu movie. For sure, it seems unthinkable that their black-clad leader, Mr. Yanagi Ryuken, would believe that he can really defeat people in this way; without even touching them.

Really? Well, then give a look to this clip where we see again "master" Ryuken, but in a very different situation: fighting against a tough opponent who doesn't accept to be intimidated by Ryuken's alleged power. (note: be careful because it is really disturbing.)

How was that Master Ryuken agreed to submit himself to this punishment? The only explanation I can think of is that he really believed in his magic chi power.  This is also the opinion of Sam Harris, who states:

Master Ryuken apparently believed himself capable of defeating multiple attackers without deigning to touch them. Rather, he could rely upon the magic power of chi. Video of him demonstrating his devastating abilities shows that his students were grotesquely complicit in what must have been a long and colorful process of self-deception. Did these young athletes actually think that they were being hurled to the ground against their will? It is hard to know. What seems certain, however, is that Master Ryuken came to believe that he was invincible; otherwise he wouldn’t have invited a martial artist from another school to come test his powers.

I think this is a very general principle: leaders are easily subjected to this kind of self-delusion that we could call the "anti-Cassandra" curse. Whereas Cassandra was cursed so that she was never believed, charismatic leaders are cursed so that they are continuously believed and praised by their followers. Apparently, at some point something goes short-circuit in their minds and they start thinking that they really are invincible geniuses able to perform miraculous feats. Mr. Ryuken gives us an especially impressive example in the area of martial arts.

But the anti-Cassandra effect is active in many fields and it may be especially common in politics. Think of Benito Mussolini; Italy's charismatic leader for more than 20 years. During those times, a common political slogan in Italy was "Mussolini is always right."  In the end, it backfired, affecting Mussolini's mind and the disastrous results are well known. From Hitler's invasion of Russia to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, country leaders consistently overestimate their power, most likely being misled by the aura of power that their own propaganda creates. 

Science is not immune to the anti-Cassandra curse. Think of the recent case of the "Energy Catalyser" or "E-Cat," the miracle nuclear device invented by Mr. Andrea Rossi. The lack of evidence on the powers of the E-Cat is rapidly consigning the device to the depths of "pathological science", where it belongs. Nevertheless, Rossi still claims that his invention is a nuclear reactor and he maintains a number of faithful followers who heap lavish praise on him (see here - in Italian). Does Mr. Rossi actually believe in the E-Cat power, just as Mr. Ryuken believed in his own chi power? Of course, we can't say for sure, but there are hints that Rossi may be a believer, not a scammer. If he had been consciously cheating, he could easily have used tricks to make his device appear to produce plenty of energy. Instead, what we see in the purported "demonstrations" of the E-Cat operation is simply a poor set-up that can't demonstrate anything. That, of course, leaves space for the believers to keep their faith intact. That's a group which may well include Mr. Rossi himself.

There are many more examples of the Anti-Cassandra effect at work, but at this point the mechanism should be clear. It is the result of a feedback which occurs between the leader and his (rarely her) followers. It is self-sustaining: as leaders are praised by their followers, they become more convinced of their own powers. This makes them very sure of themselves and that affects their followers who believe more and more in the power of their leaders. The end result can only be disaster. We could use the term "Ryuken effect", to define the sad fate of a lone deluded leader. But, more often, the disaster strikes also followers and innocent bystanders.

In the end, perhaps it is better to be a regular Cassandra. Nobody believes you, of course, but, at least, you don't overestimate your powers!


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)