This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The 48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Overview of Law #27: Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following
People desperately want to believe in something. Offer them a cause to follow. Promise the world but keep it vague; whip up enthusiasm. Mimic a religious structure with a hierarchy, rituals, and requests for sacrifice (donations). Create a cultlike following. You’ll have untold power over your followers, who will worship you.
Principles of Law 27
Creating a cultlike following is an effective way to build and use power. Among the many benefits:
- It opens up myriad opportunities for deception.
- It will increase your wealth.
- Your followers will defend you against your enemies.
- They’ll recruit others to join the cult, giving you even more power and wealth.
- They’ll treat you as one who can do no wrong, so you can get away with anything.
According to Law 27 of the 48 Laws of Power, it’s surprisingly simple to create a cultlike following. The reason is that people have a desperate need to believe in something, and belong to a group or cause. They’re highly susceptible to the siren call of a new movement or trend.
History is filled with examples of people and movements that attracted a mass following. They look foolish or even tragic in retrospect, but they seemed divinely inspired to adherents at the time.
Rather than leaving people adrift or having to conjure up saints to believe in, offer them yourself as the next savior. Encourage people to form a cult around you.
Charlatans of 16th- and 17th-century Europe were masters at luring and manipulating people. A key was attracting crowds, where people get caught up in a contagious passion and suspend independent judgment and skepticism.
Modern-day charlatans in politics, entertainment, and business intuitively exploit the same psychological weaknesses; however, taking a systematic approach is most effective.
From studying the charlatans of old, it’s easy to identify five proven steps to create a cultlike following.
- Concoct a vague and simple message: Attract attention with vague promises of something wonderful and transformative. Listeners will fill in the blanks with their own yearnings and beliefs. Speak forcefully and with passion, using words that resonate and stir nostalgia, but whose meaning can’t be pinned down. But keep it simple because people want quick fixes, not complexity.
- Create a spectacle: To avoid waning interest and skepticism, give them a spectacle. Overwhelm the senses (and any ability to think) with sights, sound, scent, color, movement.
- Imitate organized religion. Create a hierarchy, rituals, rankings, and religious-sounding titles. Ask for money to increase your wealth and power. Seem like a prophet or guru.
- Hide your income source. By living a luxurious lifestyle you’ll give your followers hope and something to aspire to, but don’t let them know they’re your source. Make your wealth seem like proof of the validity of your message. While busy trying to emulate you, your followers won’t notice they’re being fleeced.
- Give them enemies: To keep your followers united, set up an us-against-the-world dynamic. This should be easy, since you’ll generate outside critics as your movement grows. Then give them enemies, real or invented. They’ll vigorously defend their new cause against unbelievers.
Putting Law 27 to Work
Here’s an example of how to apply Law 27 of the 48 Laws of Power: In the late 1700s, a French doctor, Franz Mesmer created a mass following with claims he could cure people of all ills by using magnetic forces. He invited people to his apartment for demonstrations; with a background of incense and harp music, people sat around a pool of supposedly magnetic water, from which rods protruded. Visitors touched their bodies with the rods, and held hands with their neighbors to channel the magnetic force.
Mesmer’s assistants sprinkled water on participants and rubbed the supposedly healing fluid into the skin. Participants experienced trance-like states or hysteria, and felt a strange power moving through their bodies.
Word of Mesmer’s powers spread, and his fame and wealth grew, even attracting royalty. A cult of “Mesmerism” was born and societies formed around the country to experiment with magnetism. Eventually, however, a French commission investigated and debunked his practices and theories. Mesmer’s reputation was ruined and he retired, but a few years later his cult revived and spread again. Mesmer knew how to create a cultlike following.
With the right mix of spectacle, message, and religious fervor, you can get people to believe anything, and make you powerful and wealthy.
Exceptions to Law 27
Are there any exceptions to Law 27 of the 48 Laws of Power? Should you ever not create a cultlike following? Because of group psychology, it’s easier to get a group to believe you than an individual. But the downside is that if the group sees through you, you’ll face an angry mob. Europe’s charlatans faced this risk — people eventually figured out that their potions didn’t work — and so they were always ready to move to the next town and find new followers.
Always stay attuned to your crowd’s emotions, pay attention to how people are behaving, and be ready to run. But if you can do it safely, follow Law 27: Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following.
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