On Politics and Psychopathy
Neil’s Note: This is an updated, and greatly improved, version of an essay I published here a few years ago.
There’s been a meme going around, for some time now, that politicians are psychopaths. Or, at least, have mental disorders. It seems this meme was first sowed in 2003 by neurophysiologist Paul Broks, who suggested, on the evidence of conduct leading up to the Iraq war, that Tony Blair was a “plausible psychopath.” It was spread in 2012 in an article by James Silver in the Atlantic Magazine. The meme is still around today in the blogosphere, and every so often I catch new echoes of it.
So, today I’ll take a look at how much of a link there may be between politics and psychopathy.
What is a psychopath?
The word “psychopath,” dating from 1885, means: “a mentally ill or unstable person; especially a person affected with anti-social personality disorder.” Some use an alternative term, “sociopath.” Even among the experts, the distinction between psychopath and sociopath doesn’t seem entirely clear. But broadly, sociopaths suffer from anti-social personality disorder (ASPD). For example, they have little regard for morality or for the rights of others, they tend to be violent, and they do not feel remorse or guilt. Whereas psychopaths show further, and more severe, symptoms. Including: lack of empathy with others, dishonesty and manipulativeness, and a tendency to take risks and be reckless.
Moreover, psychopaths tend to be better able to hide their disorder, and are often glib and charming. So, compared with sociopaths, it is easier for psychopaths to get away with their bad acts. Which makes them more dangerous to all of us.
Robert D. Hare
In the field of psychopathy studies, a central figure is Robert D. Hare. He is a Canadian psychologist, now in his 80s, who has specialized in the psychology of criminal offenders. About 1980, he developed his Psychopathy Check List (PCL). At the time, there was no general agreement on what a psychopath was, or how to identify one. Hare set out to create a measuring tool for psychopathy, so psychologists could be sure they were talking about the same things.
Since then, his check list has evolved into several different forms. The one, with which I’m concerned today, is the Screening Version (PCL:SV). This was developed in the 1990s, for use in psychiatric evaluations and personnel selection. Hare himself co-wrote a paper in 1999, which concluded that the Screening Version is an effective short form of the earlier, more detailed and complete, version of the checklist.
The effects of psychopathy
Hare’s work was, initially, done in prison settings. It is generally reckoned that about 20 per cent of prison inmates are psychopaths. And that psychopaths are responsible for over 50 per cent of violent crimes. So, it’s clear that psychopaths cause real problems for those around them.
They can cause a lot of trouble at work, too. Many of you will have known the types that behave with cruelty towards those they work with, while sucking up to the big bosses. And if you’re unlucky enough to get one of them as your manager, you’re in big trouble.
The prevalence of psychopathy
Hare has estimated that about 1 per cent of the population are psychopaths. Other researchers think his number is high; perhaps ½ per cent might be more supportable. But there seems to be a substantially higher proportion of psychopaths among business executives and CEOs. A figure of 4 per cent has been suggested for this. Hare himself has said: “Not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the boardroom.”
Hare’s check list and its Factors
Robert Hare’s check list, in both the full and screening versions, consists of three elements. One, a list of items to be assessed. In the screening version, there are 12 such items. Two, a scoring system; the higher the score, the greater the level of psychopathy. Three, a cut-off score, at or beyond which an individual is to be regarded as psychopathic. The scoring system is the same in different versions of the test. But the lists and cut-off scores are different. For the screening version, there seem to be two different cut-off scores. The lower represents a “potential psychopath,” while the higher is simply referred to with the word psychopath.
There’s some dispute about Hare’s division of the list of items to be assessed into Factors, representing different aspects of psychopathy. The original check list had two of these: Factor 1 and Factor 2. There have been developments since, by Hare himself and others. For my purposes, however, I find Hare’s original two-factor approach good enough. So, I’ll stick with it.
There’s another point of dispute between Hare and his critics. The American Psychiatric Association, publishers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) which aims to offer a standard set of rules for classifying mental disorders, list both sociopathy and psychopathy as forms of ASPD. But Hare maintains that psychopathy is different from, and goes beyond, ASPD. Now, it seems that Hare’s Factor 2 correlates quite well with ASPD, but Factor 1 not so well. Factor 1 seems to correlate better with a different disorder, narcissistic personality disorder: “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” For this reason, I find myself agreeing with Hare’s view.
The list of items to be assessed
Here are the six items in Factor 1 (Part 1) of the test. As a whole, they refer to “selfish, callous and remorseless use of others.”
- Superficial. Glib; having a surface charm.
- Grandiose. Arrogant; think they are superior human beings to others.
- Deceitful. Lying, insincere, selfish and manipulative, unscrupulous, dishonest.
- Lack of empathy. Lacking sensitivity towards, or regard for, other people.
- Doesn’t accept responsibility. Denies responsibility; seeks to evade accountability for actions.
- Lack of remorse. Cold and calculating attitude to others, seeming to feel no guilt, lacking concern for the losses, pain and suffering of victims.
And Factor 2 (Part 2): “chronically unstable and anti-social lifestyle.”
- Impulsive. Foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, reckless.
- Poor behaviour controls. Showing irritability, annoyance or impatience.
- Lacks goals. Living a parasitic lifestyle, or having no realistic, long term goals.
- Irresponsible. Untrustworthy; repeatedly failing to fulfil or honour obligations or commitments.
- Adolescent anti-social behaviour.
- Adult anti-social behaviour.
The scoring system and cut-off
To quote one of Hare’s papers: “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 … that reflect the degree to which an individual resembles the prototypical psychopath. A cut-off score … or greater is used to diagnose psychopathy.”
In the screening version, the scores lie in the range 0 to 24, and the cut-off score is 18. Anyone scoring 18 or more can be considered a psychopath. The threshold for “potential psychopath,” however, is much lower, only 13.
Of course, in a prison setting, or when screening someone for a job such as a police officer, the assessments must be done objectively and without bias. A mistaken positive diagnosis of psychopathy can bring undeserved ruin to the victim’s career and life. Because of this, Hare mandates that the test must only be carried out by suitably trained professionals.
Nevertheless, I think Hare’s test is of great value to ordinary people. Not so much to evaluate specific individuals like Tony Blair – though Paul Broks, I think, was along the right lines in his opinion. But more to gain an understanding of the levels of psychopathy among different sectors of the population. Among politicians, for example, or bureaucrats. Or among politically active groups, such as socialists, racists, religious or social conservatives and green activists.
Psychopathy in the general population
Next, I’ll look at the distribution of scores among the general population, as reported in a 2008 paper by Craig Neumann and Robert Hare in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Neumann and Hare took, from the MacArthur violence risk assessment published in 2001, the PCL:SV scores from a group of 500 or so randomly selected people, whom the study had tested in order to provide a “comparison group” for the offenders tested in the main part of the study. These people came from the same demographic and racial mix as the offenders. The most remarkable result, for me, was the distribution of test scores among the comparison group. I quote from the paper: “Over half of the total sample had a score of 0 or 1, and about two-thirds had a score of 2 or less. A score of at least 13, used in the MacArthur civil psychiatric study as an indication of ‘potential psychopathy,’ was obtained by 1.2 per cent of the total sample.”
This is an amazing result – and they add that this “is consistent with the findings of other large community studies.” Reading their graph, 36 per cent of the people in that random sample have no trace of any psychopathic tendencies at all. Zero! This is extremely reassuring news for those who, like me, posit that humans are naturally good, and psychopaths are aberrations.
Now, I’ll create a cardboard cut-out of a “typical politician.” I’ll try to give him a good mix of the characteristics that politicians often have. I dub my candidate Mr. Politico. Let’s see how well he does on the test, shall we?
Superficial? Glib? Having a surface charm? Check. Mr. Politico goes out of his way to be smooth, slick and charming. He takes great care over his appearance. He is hardly ever at a loss for words; quite the opposite, in fact. And when speaking, he moves his hands about more than most people – a known characteristic of psychopaths. Score: generous 1, harsh 2.
Grandiose? Arrogant? Thinks he is a superior human being to others? Check. Mr. Politico wants power. He wants to order people around. And the more power he gets, the more it will reinforce his conviction that he’s a superior being to those he rules over. Score: generous 1, harsh 2.
Deceitful? Lying? Insincere? Selfish and manipulative? Unscrupulous? Dishonest? Don’t make me laugh! Lying, exaggerating, hyping, denying or obfuscating the truth; these are Mr. Politico’s stocks in trade. He doesn’t have any interest in the truth at all, if it conflicts with his policies or prejudices. Indeed, he may even deny that truth exists at all. Moreover, strongly abetted by his media cronies, he likes to scaremonger, to manipulate emotions, and to instil false guilt.
He seems to have little or no sense of right and wrong; most of all, where his own selfish gain is involved. He often behaves as a hypocrite, and fails to practice what he preaches others ought to do. Mr. Politico ticks every one of the boxes under the Deceitful heading. Score: 2.
Lack of empathy? Lacking sensitivity towards, or regard for, other people? Check. Empathy is “being sensitive to… the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.” And, vitally important, empathy is feeling for individuals. You can’t have empathy for a nation, or a species of wildlife, or a political policy. You can only have empathy for people – for persons. Of course, there are situations in which you can reasonably cut off empathy to particular individuals. For example, those that have wronged you, or promoted or supported political policies that have harmed you. But such cases apart, we should always try to be sensitive towards the feelings of others, and mindful of their differences from ourselves.
But Mr. Politico doesn’t care a damn about individuals, except his cronies and perhaps his family. He has no empathy for ordinary people. Oh, he’s very clever at using his skills of glibness and deceit to make it look as if he cares about “people.” But if we look hard at his behaviour, we don’t see much evidence, if any, of fellow feeling towards us individual human beings; even towards those he is supposed to “represent.”
Mr. Politico belongs to a political party. That is, 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. He supports the “Great Causes” and policies pushed by his masters – like “sustainable development,” “clean air” or “health and safety” – ahead of the needs, desires, rights and freedoms of us human beings. And he is willing to say and to do whatever it takes to get those policies imposed. The politics of the day, and his own privileged position in it, are all that matter to Mr. Politico. Score: 2.
Doesn’t accept responsibility? Seeks to evade accountability for actions? Check. Mr. Politico may try to cover up his wrongdoings, or point the finger of blame at someone else, or lie in an attempt to rationalize his actions, or bluster to try to convince people that he was right all along. There is only one kind of “responsibility” that Mr. Politico really wants; the kind that will give him more power, fame or riches. Score: generous 1, harsh 2.
Lack of remorse? Cold and calculating attitude to others? Seeming to feel no guilt? Lacking concern for the losses, pain and suffering of victims? Check. Just about every “law” that politicians make today is seeking to inconvenience us, to make us poorer, to violate our human rights, or all three. And when was the last time a politician ever said “sorry?” Don’t make me laugh. Score: 2.
Impulsive? Foolhardy? Rash? Unpredictable? Erratic? Reckless? Maybe Mr. Politico isn’t all these things all of the time; but they’re in there, all right. He may support wars in places like Syria; first on one side, then a couple of years later on the other. Or he may support highly risky “solutions” to green non-problems, like geo-engineering schemes, or replacing reliable energy sources by intermittent ones. Score: 1.
Poor behaviour controls? Irritable? Annoyed? Impatient? Again, Mr. Politico isn’t all these things at once. But today we far too often hear politicians demanding ACTION! NOW! on the trumped-up scare du jour. For example: “We have only 12 years left to act on global warming!” “We must act NOW! against this air pollution crisis!” Score: 1.
Lives a parasitic lifestyle? Has no realistic, long term goals? Well, I’ll admit, Mr. Politico is innocent on that last one. He does have goals – to make himself popular, rich and famous, while screwing everyone except his cronies and supporters. But virtually all professional politicians are parasites; because they live off taxation, yet do nothing worthwhile for the people they are supposed to “represent.” Score: 1.
Irresponsible? Untrustworthy? Repeatedly failing to fulfil or honour obligations or commitments? Check. “Read my lips, no new taxes.” “The government will abide by the result of the [Brexit] referendum.” Politicians – and Mr. Politico is no exception – can’t be trusted further than you can throw them. And that, unfortunately, isn’t far enough. Score: 2.
As to the last two, adolescent and adult anti-social behaviour, Mr. Politico is probably not guilty. (But if he was, the story would have been suppressed, of course.)
Assessing Mr. Politico
Mr. Politico has scored between 9 and 12 on Factor 1, and 5 on Factor 2. His score on Factor 1 shows him to be likely a narcissistic personality. His score on Factor 2 shows that he may be an anti-social personality, too. His combined score is between 14 and 17. Mr. Politico is a potential psychopath, verging on a full psychopath. Mr. Politico is, at best, in the worst 1.2 per cent of the population.
Mr. Politico is, quite clearly, not the kind of individual any decent human being would want to associate with. Let alone vote for! In a properly ordered community of human beings, he would be expelled, or at least imprisoned. He would never get even a sniff of power.
Assessing politicians in general
Now, Mr. Politico is a cardboard cut-out of a politician. So, it would be rash to try to deduce, from the above, that every politician is a potential psychopath. In reality, most politicians show some of these psychopathic traits to some degree. Some possess more of them, others less. It is only when the traits are aggregated together that the diagnosis of psychopathy becomes sound.
However, in a supposedly “democratic” system, we should be able to expect – should we not? – that those allowed into positions of power should be qualified to represent the people. Thus, each of them must be at least as good a person – in this context, that means must score no higher on the PCL:SV test – than the people they are supposed to represent. And since half of the general population score 0 or 1 on the test, we should reasonably be able to expect that the great majority of, if not absolutely all, those allowed power should score 0 or 1 on the test too.
But consider that, if an individual has even one of these psychopathic traits at the level of “item definitely applies,” that puts them over the median score, so ought to disqualify them from power. Yet many of today’s politicians seem to have two or more of these traits: glibness, arrogance, deceit or dishonesty, lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility, lack of remorse, recklessness, impatience, untrustworthiness.
Assessing the wider political class
But it isn’t just politicians that show these psychopathic traits. Most political activists, and many in government positions, have them too.
For example, when you see activists or “spokespeople” glibly trying to sell their policy wares, usually without being at all specific about what they’re really selling and what the consequences would be, that’s a pointer they may have psychopathic tendencies. They’re probably lying, too; and many of them, in addition, are impulsive or have poor behaviour controls.
Behind the scenes policy drivers, such as self-appointed aristocrats in organizations like the UN and the EU, are probably psychopaths. The grandiosity and arrogance of “celebrities” and many of the rich is easy to spot, as well. Businessmen that mistreat their people, or go to government to get rules made to hobble their competitors, are also showing arrogance, as well as lack of empathy and lack of remorse for their victims.
Deceit, lies, insincerity, and dishonesty are stocks in trade, not only of politicians, but also of virtually all the main stream media, as well as politicized academics and “scientists.” And the politically active routinely show their lack of empathy, not to mention lack of remorse for their victims. For example, when they seek to promote, support or enforce a political policy that is intended to harm, or is likely to harm, innocent people. Or to single out people for bad treatment by, for example, race, religion, economic pursuit or status, sexual orientation or lifestyle.
The same goes for bureaucrats and other jobsworths, that seem to enjoy making life difficult for people. Moreover, bureaucrats, that fail to deliver what those who are forced to pay for their “services” actually want, are parasites too.
Psychopaths and power
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. If they can get enough power, they can start wars. They can behave towards the “little people” with the full force of the disdain they obviously feel for us. They can tax us all but out of existence. They can set agendas and policies, and they can make bad laws that violate our rights, or actively harm us. The 16th century, failed system of political states and “sovereignty” is explicitly set up to give them “rights” to do such things! And it allows them, more often than not, to get away with their crimes.
Furthermore, today’s political systems are well suited to bringing psychopaths to power. Even the circus called “democracy” selects in favour of psychopaths. It’s almost a requirement to be glib and persuasive, in order to get elected in the first place! And once a political party has become seeded with psychopaths or potential psychopaths, then – as in a septic tank – the really big chunks will rise to the top. If an honest person does get elected, they must kow-tow to their party’s policies, or risk their careers. That, I think, is why the very few honest people, who do enter politics, almost always rapidly become either corrupted or side-lined.
It gets worse. Once a critical level of psychopathic tendency is reached among those at the top of a political system, the entire system becomes corrupt. As an old Italian proverb says: “If you want to know that a fish is bad, look at its head.” This explains, I think, a lot of what we are going through today. Even if some (or even many) individual politicians are not in any way psychopathic, once the critical level is reached, the political institutions, collectively, go insane.
And that’s where we are today. Politicians, government officials, political activists, many academics, the media, big business, all those that profit unjustly from the current system; all have gone insane. The rulers and beneficiaries of the failed political system, under which we are all forced to live, have coalesced into what is, in effect, a giant, collective psychopath. Glibness; arrogance; lies, deceit and dishonesty; lack of empathy or remorse; recklessness; impatience; parasitism; untrustworthiness. All of these things have become the norm rather than the exception.
We’re living in a time of madness. And we sane people aren’t happy about it.
To sum up
Psychopaths want power. Current political systems, including democracy, tend to favour psychopaths over honest people for positions of power. While this tendency acts quite slowly, over time it has relentlessly increased the incidence of psychopathic traits among politicians. And so, today too many of those with political power are arrogant, deceitful, selfish, callous and remorseless in their treatment of others. Not to mention impatient, reckless and untrustworthy. And once a critical level is reached, political institutions go mad.
The same psychopathic tendencies also exist among those that hang on to the coat-tails of those in power. Political activists and their supporters, celebrities, big business, the rich, the media, academe, bureaucracy. All are corrupted by at least some degree of psychopathy. As a result, today we’re in the grips of a giant, collective, psychopathic insanity.
This essay is about diagnosis, not about cure. So, I’m going to leave it there for today.