Q and A – the collective mind

Were you at all influenced by the role and impact charismatic leaders can have on the collective mind-set and the utterly devoted, almost docile, lemming like behaviour and following they can inspire. And how difficult it can be to say that the King doesn’t have any new clothes? Hope that isn’t too deep a question but it struck me as a theme.

Jackie, Northamptonshire

Thanks for your question Jackie! And I suppose the simple answer to it is – yes.

I did do quite a lot of research into cults and so on when I was writing the book. I was interesting in what motivates people to believe certain things and believe certain leaders.

475px-Goat_sacrifice_Louvre_K238When you look at the vast and bizarre range of religious beliefs people have held now and throughout history you could be forgiven for thinking that we human beings will believe any old nonsense – or at least that it’s possible to get some people to believe pretty much anything. I suppose the reality is you have to look at belief in psychological terms rather than in terms of whether a particular belief is right or wrong.

People want to believe in something I think – they want answers and the sense of community which comes from having ownership of the same set of answers together.  Charismatic leaders have long been preying on this propensity in human nature. Mostly this is pretty harmless I suppose – but at the extreme end of the spectrum it helps to explain how groups of believers can find themselves in the catastrophic mess that those did who were led to their deaths by David Koresh at Waco or by Jim Jones at Jonestown.

We look at tragic cases like these and wonder how anyone could be fooled in this way. The followers were many, the man leading them to destruction was one, surely they could have refused to do what they were told – walked out, got on with the rest of their lives. But the herd instinct is very powerful and once you have bought into something, particularly as a group, then getting out seems to be far easier said than done.

Of course we know this kind of behaviour happens everywhere there are human-beings. It’s in our nature to form groups and follow leaders and adopt a herd mentality, we do it in playgrounds and in political coups. So Sea God wasn’t intended as some kind of satire raging against this type of behaviour – it’s just a fact of nature, you might as well satirise rain.

I think the parts of the book where John Love manages to hold court and control the actions of large numbers of people are credible. People do that kind of thing all the time, there are mass meetings held over nothing. But it still strikes us as strange and alarming, in the way perfectly ordinary elements of nature often do.

Who, for example, has seen the vast gatherings of starlings which congregate in autumn and make elaborate shapes in the evening sky without stopping to wonder and look up at them? They are called a mumuration and are perfectly natural, but they still strike me as strange, fantastic even, every time I see them.

In the book my character John Love was trying to do more than just create a cult. Jim Jones’s influence died in the massacre at Jonestown, Koresh’s died in the conflagration at Waco. What John Love wanted wasn’t to be a cult leader, it was to be a god – and they have to leave a legacy. They sow the seeds of a belief which does not die with them but grows after they are gone and feeds on their legend.

GoldenBough(373x545)I’ve spoken before about the influence of the book The Golden Bough on Sea God. It’s a collection of myths and religious beliefs from around the world – and it illustrates, among other things, how the patterns of religious belief repeat themselves down the ages and across cultures.

The elements of the ‘create a god’ toolkit are all included in the Sea God – prophesies, disciples, miracles, a gospel and, of course, the death of the god.

So I wanted to write about people’s need for rituals, for magic and the mystery of things they can’t comprehend, but also their need to follow and believe as a group.

And – pick pretty much any religion you care to name and you find darkness in there. Incredible brutality often, violence at a Shakespearean level. It seemed to be almost recognised that when you stir these kind of elemental forces you don’t just find love you find hate and death too. So I put these things in my book.

Hope that goes some way to answering your question Jackie and thanks very much for it! If anyone has anything they wish to ask about the book, my blog, or writing generally please ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer in a forthcoming post.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

9 thoughts on “Q and A – the collective mind

  1. This is fascinating, Chris, but yes, I think you have nailed it here. We humans have a need to believe and belong. Even when we don’t have gods or religions to believe in and worship, we will adopt causes and flock behind them.

  2. I found it intriguing that John Love drew in the crowd by offering them a series of smaller truths to believe in, so that they became further and further invested in their beliefs regarding him as those truths mounted. How, then, to disavow him later without repudiating those same truths? To pull that neatly woven rug out from under themselves was tough going; much easier to take a leap of faith than wrestle with that psychological nightmare. Well done, Chris.

    • Thanks L.R very kind of you to say so. I thought of it as a process of people investing their trust in him bit by bit – so when it got to the point where he was involved in things no decent person could support they were involved too, they were part of it and to repudiate him would have been to repudiate themselves. I wonder if that’s how these things work in the real world – though there’s a ring-leader everyone is involved and implicated.

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