Politics and Psychopathy
A meme, which has drawn itself to my attention recently, is that politicians – or many of them, at least – have psychopathic tendencies.
In this essay, I’ll seek to make a case that there’s more than a grain of truth in this idea. And that not only do psychopaths seek power, but today’s political systems, including democracy, give them an advantage over non-psychopaths in terms of getting power. With negative consequences for us all.
To ameliorate this problem, I’ll suggest a test, based on the work of psychologist Robert D. Hare, to screen for psychopathic tendencies among those in or seeking positions of power, and politicians in particular.
The word “psychopath,” dating from 1885, means: “a mentally ill or unstable person; especially a person affected with antisocial personality disorder.” It’s estimated that around 1 per cent of the population are psychopaths ; though it isn’t clear how accurate this estimate is.
If you Google for “are politicians psychopaths?” you’ll find, among much else, a most interesting article from 2012 by James Silver in the Atlantic Magazine , entitled: “The Startling Accuracy of Referring to Politicians as ‘Psychopaths.’” I’ve seen this idea again in several essays recently; at the moment, I seem to catch a reference to it every week or so.
It seems that English neurophysiologist Paul Broks planted this meme back in 2003, when he suggested that Tony Blair was a “plausible psychopath.” His accusation was, of course, rejected by the establishment; but the meme was in fertile soil.
Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist
In the 1970s, Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare (born 1934) developed the “Psychopathy Checklist” (PCL-R), which is the primary measuring instrument for the condition. It is used by psychiatrists today in their forensic work for courts of law.
Besides PCL-R, there is a more recent, cut down Screening Version, PCL:SV. This can be used in, as Hare’s own website  puts it, “psychiatric evaluations, personnel selection, and community studies.” This is closer to my purposes than the context in which PCL-R is normally used. So I decided to use the PCL:SV list as the basis of my evaluations.
I located the 1999 paper , co-authored by Hare himself, comparing PCL:SV with PCL-R, and concluding that it “is an effective short form of the PCL-R.” Table 2 in that paper lists the 12 items in PCL:SV. They are divided into two groups, Part 1 and Part 2; reflecting an earlier division of PCL-R into Factor 1 and Factor 2. Factor 1 and Part 1 refer to “selfish, callous and remorseless use of others,” while Factor 2 and Part 2 refer to “chronically unstable and antisocial lifestyle.”
Here are the six items in Part 1 of the list. I’ve added a few words of explanation to each:
- Superficial (e.g. glib; having a surface charm).
- Grandiose (e.g. arrogant; think they are superior human beings).
- Deceitful (e.g. lying, insincere, selfish and manipulative, unscrupulous, dishonest).
- Lack of remorse (e.g. cold and calculating attitude to others; seeming to feel no guilt; lacking concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims).
- Lack of empathy (e.g. lacking sensitivity towards, or regard for, people in general).
- Doesn’t accept responsibility (e.g. evading responsibility or accountability).
And here are the six items in Part 2:
- Impulsive (e.g. foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic and reckless).
- Poor behaviour controls (e.g. showing irritability, annoyance, impatience).
- Lacks goals (e.g. living a parasitic lifestyle; having no realistic, long-term goals).
- Irresponsible (e.g. untrustworthy; repeatedly failing to fulfil or honour obligations and commitments).
- Adolescent antisocial behaviour.
- Adult antisocial behaviour.
There were also two items in PCL-R (promiscuous sexual behaviour, and many short-term marital relationships) which were not carried over into PCL:SV.
As to the scoring system, the paper describes the PCL-R scoring thus. “Items… are rated on a 3-point scale (0 = item doesn’t apply, 1 = item applies somewhat, 2 = item definitely applies). The items are summed to yield total scores, ranging from 0 to 40, that reflect the degree to which an individual resembles the prototypical psychopath. A cutoff score of 30 or greater is used to diagnose psychopathy.” For PCL:SV, the scoring system is the same, except that the maximum possible score is 24 and the cutoff score is 18.
I invite you, next, to consider politicians in general. I’m thinking not about specific individuals, but about an amalgam of characteristics that could represent “the typical politician.” I’ll call this representative of its species “Mr. Politico.”
In assessing Mr. Politico, I’m going to look mainly at the six items in Hare’s Part 1. This isn’t to say, of course, that Mr. Politico is immune from other psychopathic tendencies. He can be reckless and erratic; for example, by supporting wars in places like Syria, first on one side, then a couple of years later on another. He can be irritable; who, of a certain age, will forget Khrushchev’s shoe? He is a parasite, living off taxation. He has a habit of making promises, then conveniently forgetting about them. It’s almost a cliché to say that he has no interest in anything beyond the next election. And he can be sexually promiscuous, as Christine Keeler and Monica Lewinsky, to name but two, might attest.
But it’s on Part 1 that I’ll concentrate. For these are the items that measure selfish, callous and remorseless use of others – which, I think, well describes how today’s politicians treat us human beings.
Mr. Politico goes out of his way to be smooth, slick and charming. He takes great care over his appearance. He’s hardly ever at a loss for words; quite the opposite, in fact. And when he’s speaking, he often moves his hands about more than most people – a known characteristic of psychopaths.
Mr. Politico wants power. He seeks positions in which he can order people around, and impose burdens on those he doesn’t like. He feels good about doing these things. And if he manages to get power, that will only reinforce his conviction that he’s a superior being to those he rules over.
Lack of empathy
Empathy is “being sensitive to… the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Knowing that we ourselves are human beings, and recognizing that others are individuals of our species too, leads us to a natural regard and respect for our fellow human beings. Although, of course, it can sometimes be difficult to feel such a regard across a cultural divide. Also, fellowship is a two way process; and thus, no-one can be expected to feel empathy for those, such as psychopaths, that show no empathy towards them.
Mr. Politico doesn’t show any regard or empathy for us. Surely, he’s very clever at making it appear that he cares about people. But if we look hard at his behaviour, we don’t see much evidence of any fellow feeling towards us human beings. We might as well be objects, as far as he is concerned. He really doesn’t care what happens to us.
Mr. Politico belongs to a political party; a gang with an ideology and agendas it wants to impose on people. And he usually toes the party line. He supports whatever policies the party hierarchy dictates. And he is willing to say and to do whatever it takes to get those policies imposed.
Almost no political ideology extant today shows any concern at all for the human individual. With one exception – true liberalism, the philosophy of maximum freedom for every peaceful, honest human being who respects the equal rights of others – all ideologies put some or other Great Cause above us human beings. Communism and socialism, for example, put the collective above the individual; as does nationalism. Social “liberalism” allows a privileged political élite to force people, who manifestly are not equal in talents or in application, into the élite’s own conception of a state of “equality.” Conservatism, on the other hand, seeks to force people to behave according to the élite’s idea of social or religious mores. Fascism, in its modern variants such as health fascism and safety fascism, seeks control over our lives. The security state seeks to destroy our human rights like privacy and security of person. And deep green environmentalism seeks to destroy human civilization.
Whatever his ideology, Mr. Politico shows no sympathy for the people whose lives he damages. Nor does he show any concern for the things we human beings really do need and want from governance: A peaceful world. An environment of truth and honesty. The rule of law and justice; objective, individual justice for all. Upholding of basic human rights and freedoms. No barriers to prosperity for those who earn it. And most of all, freedom to make our own choices.
And when he rants about his Great Causes – for example, “sustainable development,” “national security,” “the interests of the UK” or “making America great again” – all that matters to him is the Cause. It doesn’t worry him that people’s lives will be (or already have been) harmed by the policies he and his kind make and support. It doesn’t concern him if his policies violate our basic human rights such as liberty, property or privacy. No; Mr. Politico isn’t on our side. He hates humanity; and he hates us individual human beings.
That politicians lie is old news. Who can forget Blair’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction? And the reason politicians lie so much, we’re told, is because lying brings them, overall, more benefit than telling the truth .
Mr. Politico is a serial liar. Worse, he seems completely uninterested in the truth. For example, it doesn’t matter to him that the accusation that “human emissions of carbon dioxide cause catastrophic global warming” is without any objective scientific proof. He continues to support destructive policies based on this lie.
But Mr. Politico isn’t just a liar. He likes to scaremonger and to manipulate people’s emotions. He likes to confuse and to obfuscate. And he has little or no sense of right and wrong; particularly when he has an opportunity to secure some selfish gain.
Mr. Politico is also a hypocrite. For example, he supports policies to make us cut our energy use, and drive and fly less. Yet he himself isn’t willing to make any such sacrifices; he lives in a warm, brilliantly lit mansion, is driven around in limos, and flies all over the world. As another example, he sheds crocodile tears over “the poor,” and favours re-distributing wealth away from the honest, productive people who earn it, and towards the lazy, the dishonest and the feckless. Yet he isn’t willing to donate his own personal resources to the poor people he claims to care so much about.
Doesn’t accept responsibility
Mr. Politico is, of course, always eager to take on the kind of “responsibility” that brings him more power. But he doesn’t own up or accept responsibility when things go wrong. When did you last see him hold his hand up and say, “Sorry guys, I got that one wrong?” When did he last pay compensation for the damage his policies caused to an innocent person?
No; he will go all silent on the matter, or point the finger of blame at someone else. Or lie in an attempt to rationalize what he did, or bluster to try to convince people that he was right all along.
Lack of remorse
Remorse is: “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.” Mr. Politico, as I’ve suggested above, is not just willing, but eager, to do things that harm the very people he is supposed to “represent.” By doing these things, he shows that he is cold hearted and uncaring, and often calculating too. But he almost never shows any sense of guilt about what he has done; nor does he show any distress because of it.
Assessing Mr. Politico
Mr. Politico is, of course, not a real individual. He is a cardboard cut-out of a politician. But he scores somewhere between 6 and 12 on the items in Part 1 of Hare’s test. On the test as a whole, I’d estimate (being generous to him) that he scores between 10 and 16.
Mr. Politico is, to a greater or lesser degree, deceitful, selfish, irresponsible, warlike, callous, and remorseless. He is, quite clearly, not the kind of individual that any peaceful, honest human being would ever want to associate with; let alone vote for. In a decently run, apolitical society, he would be shown the gates and given his marching orders in no uncertain terms. And yet, in today’s politics, he’s the norm rather than the exception.
For something to compare him against, I located a graph of the distribution of PCL:SV scores in a reasonably representative sample of the general population. This is Figure 1 in a 2008 paper , in which Hare was again a co-author.
36 per cent of the sample scored zero on the test, and 50 per cent scored zero or 1. Only 8 per cent of the sample scored 10 (my lower bound for Mr. Politico’s score) or more. And a score of 13, which in that paper is considered the cutoff for “potential psychopathy,” was reached by just 1.2 per cent of the sample. This suggests that Mr. Politico has stronger symptoms of psychopathy than more than 90 per cent of people. He is a near psychopath, even if he isn’t actually one in the formal sense.
Now consider. If so called “democracy” means anything at all, if government really is for the benefit of the governed, then how can psychopaths or potential psychopaths possibly be allowed political power? If government really is supposed to “protect” us from ills, then shouldn’t one of its very first responsibilities be to protect us from psychopaths that want power over us?
Why power attracts psychopaths
It’s easy to see why psychopaths are drawn to political power. It enables them to live out their grandiose delusions of superiority over others.
Indeed, the political state, based on ideas put forward by Jean Bodin in the 16th century, could almost have been designed as a breeding ground for psychopaths. For such a state has at its head a sovereign (be it an individual or an organization), which has supreme power over everyone and everything else in its territory. Among much else, it has a right to make wars, to levy taxes on its “subject” people, and to make laws to bind them. Furthermore, it isn’t bound by the laws it makes, and it ultimately doesn’t have any responsibility for the consequences of what it does.
Give a psychopath control or even partial control of a state, give him sufficient political power, and he can live out his psychopathic fantasies to the full. He can start wars. He can behave towards us “little people” with the full force of the disdain he feels for us. He can plunder us, and tax us all but out of existence. He can set agendas and policies, and make bad laws that actively harm us and violate our rights. And, as likely as not, he will get away with his crimes.
And when the worst psychopaths get power, the results can include the murder of millions, or even genocide; as the examples of Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot have taught us.
Why politics selects for psychopaths
It works the other way around, too. For today’s political systems are very well suited to bringing psychopaths to power. Where power can be obtained by military force, for example, then all else being equal, psychopaths are likely to win out over their rivals. For callousness, deceit and remorselessness are very effective in war. And where an evil dictator grooms his successor, it’s not likely that the successor will be much, if any, less psychopathic than his predecessor.
But the circus called “democracy,” too, selects in favour of psychopaths. For, first, a system that requires aspiring candidates to persuade tens of thousands of people (or more) to vote for them gives a great advantage to those with the psychopathic traits of glibness and superficial charm.
Second, democratic politics is perfect as a means of attracting and training new psychopaths. Once a political party – or, worse, an entire parliament – becomes seeded with psychopaths or potential psychopaths, others will be drawn to join them. The old adage that “birds of a feather flock together” is true for psychopaths too.
Sometimes, an individual who isn’t a psychopath does manage to acquire a position of power at a certain level. But inside a political party, the pressure to conform is great. And such people, once surrounded by psychopaths, will be at a disadvantage against them. If you’ve ever wondered why the few honest people, who do enter politics, seem rapidly to become either corrupted or sidelined, this is almost certainly the reason.
Third, democracy provides a veneer of apparent legitimacy for the policies of those elected into power, however bad they may be. For, so the theory goes, these individuals are supposed to be there in government to “represent” us, “the people.” And their policies have been “approved,” in an election, by this same “people.” Thus, democracy allows psychopaths a “mandate” to rule.
But consider that 36 per cent of a sample of the general population scored zero – zero! – on the PCL:SV test. So, how can a politician with any trace of psychopathy at all credibly claim to “represent” even one individual among these 36 per cent of the population? And how can a politician that is deceitful, selfish, irresponsible, warlike, callous, or remorseless – or any combination of these things – possibly claim to “represent” any peaceful, honest human being?
What is to be done?
Here, in a nutshell, is the problem we face. Psychopaths want power. Current political systems, including democracy, tend to favour psychopaths over non-psychopaths for positions of power. While this tendency acts quite slowly, over more than a century it has relentlessly increased the incidence of psychopathy or near psychopathy among politicians. And so, today too many of those in power – arguably, including all UK prime ministers and US presidents since the millennium or some decades before – are selfish, callous and remorseless in their treatment of people. A government run by psychopaths isn’t exactly a recipe for a free, just, honest society, is it?
As a radical visionary, I’m often criticized for looking too far ahead. For example, for seeking ways to get rid of the political state entirely, rather than trying to sketch practical steps that people can take to defend themselves against it right now. But in this case, I’ll going to make a suggestion which, implemented with skill and a good publicity machine, I think could work. I’m going to suggest that anyone in, or applying for, any position of government power over others, should have to pass a psychological test to show that they are not psychopathic. As a pilot project, we should start with elected politicians. They’re supposed to be on our side, right? Once we’ve got that working, we can extend it to other legislative houses, and to bureaucrats, police, military officers, judges and all others in positions of power funded by government.
Adapting Hare’s test
We can’t, unfortunately, use Hare’s PCL:SV test exactly as it stands. For it fails to diagnose even our cardboard cut-out “Mr. Politico” as the dangerous madman he is. This is because the cutoff score is far higher than it needs to be for our purposes.
I suggest that there shouldn’t be a single high score, which when reached condemns the individual to be locked up as a psychopath. Rather, the cutoff score that says “this individual shouldn’t be allowed power” should depend on the level of the position the individual is in or seeking. The greater the power, the lower the cutoff score should be.
At the national politician level, for example, I’d suggest that no-one should be allowed power who scores more than 1 on the test. This isn’t at all unreasonable, given that 50 per cent of a random sample from the population as a whole scored zero or 1. Shouldn’t we expect any policy maker to be at least as good a person as the median of the general population? And for president or prime minister level, only a score of zero will be good enough.
Making it happen…
Here are some further steps, that someone setting out to make this suggestion practical would need to take:
- To sell to a wide public the idea of psychopathy testing to avoid selfish, callous, remorseless, irresponsible individuals being allowed into positions of power.
- To be able to argue strongly the case for this testing, both rationally and emotionally. For example, by drawing an analogy with tests to stop paedophiles from working with children.
- To make the test foolproof – remember, these are charmers and deceivers we’re dealing with. It shouldn’t be possible for anyone to rig or bribe their way around the test.
- To allow input to the test, not just by trained psychologists as with Hare’s current tests, but by ordinary people too. Perhaps a judge-and-jury system might be appropriate for screening applicants for high level posts.
- To develop just means of removing or blocking individuals from office if they fail the test.
In the meantime…
Of course, we can’t expect anyone in the political establishment even to listen to this idea. For they are, after all, the self-serving beneficiaries of a system that selects for them. And they have a lot to fear from such a test. Therefore, they will at first ignore it with hauteur, then oppose it with all their usual lies and bluster.
So, in the meantime, I suggest a bit of do-it-yourself. Why not use the PCL:SV test informally and for fun, to rate specific individuals in politics? Your member of parliament or your congresscritter, for example? The best and worst among the politicians you know? And a few in between? All you need is to understand the 12 items in the test and the scoring system, and an Internet connection to find out the facts about the individuals you are testing. And you don’t need any expertise in psychology; for this isn’t about branding individuals as Psychopaths with a capital P, and seeking to lock them up because of it. It’s just a bit of fun – isn’t it? Heh.
The meme that “politicians are psychopaths,” while an over-simplification, contains a substantial kernel of truth. Under democracy as well as other political systems, those in or seeking power are far more prone to psychopathic tendencies than the population as a whole; and this has negative consequences for us all.
One possible step forward might be to institute testing, based on the work of Robert D. Hare, to screen out psychopaths and potential psychopaths from among those in or seeking positions of political power.