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Psychopathology and Political Leadership

Could you drop a bomb that killed thousands of innocent people? Could you withhold information of an enemy raid even though you knew it would wreak havoc on one of your cities? The evidence is that if you have psychopathic tendencies you could, all in the name of pragmatic leadership.

Some of this work comes from what has been called the trolley problem, a thought experiment in which you are told to imagine that you’re riding on a trolley that is headed down a track and will kill five people. Your only choice is to switch the rails and have the trolley go down an alternate track and kill just one person. Most people can do that with some discomfort. However, in another version of the experiment, the only way you can stop the trolley and avoid the deaths of five people is to throw an overweight passenger off the trolley to his certain death. Most people balk at doing this but psychopaths don’t. As psychologist Kevin Dutton says in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, in the experiment psychopaths, without batting an eye, are perfectly happy to chuck the fat guy over the side, if that’s how the cookie crumbles.”

Neuroscience research shows that in these morally difficult dilemmas psychopaths can sometimes understand how others might feel but they don’t care. Areas of the brain that are involved in empathy and sympathy light up in “normal” people when faced with moral decisions, but in psychopaths stay as quiet as Bourbon Street on a Sunday morning.

So was a Harry Truman a psychopath for dropping the A bomb? And one of Britain’s finest, Winston Churchill, was reported to have offered no warning for the Luftwaffe’s attack on Coventry that claimed almost 600 lives, even though he apparently knew of the raid. Why? Because he didn’t want the Germans to know the British had hacked their communications code.

Look around the world and you will find leaders who might score fairly highly on tests of psychopathy. Could it be that leadership, specifically political leadership, demands the ability to put pragmatism above morality? Many of us could not put our moral concerns and consciences aside, which is probably why nice guys don’t get elected president. If we gave all presidential hopefuls an fMRI test to determine their empathy and psychopathy, would we elect the moral candidate or the one who could put morality aside?

As far as narcissism is concerned, if you weren’t a narcissist before you became president you’re likely to become one once you are elected. Psychiatry Professor Robert Millman first identified “acquired situational narcissism” to describe people who were once reasonable but because of their star status develop a sense of superiority. It would be hard to imagine anyone in the office of President maintaining their humility in today’s world.

Perhaps they shouldn’t?

References

Dutton, K. (2012) The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Macmillan.

National Public Radio interview with Doctor Robert Millman on Talk of the Nation, August 21, 2002

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