Psychological disorders, power and the future of humanity

Steve Taylor has written a great post in Psychology Today on The Danger of Dark Triad Leaders: The link between psychological disorders and power. So what are dark triad leaders? Steve explains:

While some psychologists like to think in terms of specific disorders like psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder, I prefer — like many psychologists nowadays — to think in terms of a “dark triad” of three personality traits that appear together: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. This makes sense because these traits almost always overlap and are difficult to distinguish from one another.

Dark triad personalities crave power and find powerful positions easy to attain, because of their ruthlessness and manipulative skills. Since they lack empathy and conscience, they have no qualms against deceiving and exploiting other people in their rise to the top. Since they are often charismatic and charming, they often gain the support of ordinary people, who are impressed by their apparent confidence and decisiveness.

Sounds familiar? This psychological abnormality attracts to itself others of similar mindset, forming a pathocracy:

Of course, such leaders don’t work alone. Once dark triad leaders gain power, moral and responsible people rapidly fall away, and other dark triad personalities collect around them. The government quickly becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski referred to as a “pathocracy” — a government made of individuals with personality disorders.

The history of the last 200 years shows too many examples of such pathocracies across the world; there are many today, with Putin’s Russia currently the most evident. There is an urgent need for the world to work out how to manage human affairs without such individuals and pathocracies gaining further hold. They bring out the worst in humanity, such as what is now happening in Ukraine. There will be little prospect for humanity for many thousands of years if one of these dysfunctonal cabals unleashes nuclear or biological terror across the world.

Photo of Himmler, Hitler et al: Newsweek

Pathocracy, psychopathy and narcissism

In a fascinating article in Psychology Today on The problem of pathocracy, Steve Taylor reflects on the concept of pathocracy – which was defined by Andrzej Lobaczewski after observing Stalin’s government in Russia.

“pathocracy is a system of government ‘wherein a small pathological minority takes control over a society of normal people’… the transition to pathocracy begins when a disordered individual emerges as a leader figure. While some members of the ruling class are appalled by the brutality and irresponsibility of the leader and his acolytes, his disordered personality appeals to some psychologically normal individuals. They find him charismatic. His impulsiveness is mistaken for decisiveness; his narcissism for confidence; his recklessness for fearlessness.

Soon other people with psychopathic traits emerge and attach themselves to the pathocracy, sensing the opportunity to gain power and influence. At the same time, responsible and moral people gradually leave the government, either resigning or being ruthlessly ejected. In an inevitable process, soon the entire government is filled with people with a pathological lack of empathy and conscience. It has been infiltrated by members of the minority of people with personality disorders, who assume power over the majority of psychologically normal people… Soon the pathology of the government spreads amongst the general population… an epidemic of psychopathology in people who are not, essentially, psychopathic.”

Look at countries around the world and we see many plausible examples. Steve goes on

“there is a good deal of evidence that people with psychopathic and narcissistic traits (or people who are just ruthless and lacking in empathy and conscience)… are attracted to high status positions… ‘like moths to a flame’.”

Steve quotes evidence that suggests around 1% of the population have these traits, whereas 12% of corporate senior managers have them. My own personal observations during a period working in a large company would seem to confirm this. Interestingly, Machiavellian has been observed by psychologists as the third of a ‘dark triad’ of traits which are closely associated.

The real question Steve raises is how do societies and organisations protect themselves against these people, indeed how do democracies prevent themselves from being undermined by them. Lacking empathy, these people do not see the point of democracy; life is seen as a power struggle. This is of course reflected in the current dominant trends of thought in modern right wing Republicanism in US and Conservatism in UK.

There are no easy answers, and psychological vetting of candidates for power is unlikely to become ubiquitous. But, if we observe and ask the questions, that is progress in itself. The majority must protect itself against these pathologies. The quote attributed to Edmund Burke comes to mind:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

Picture of Mao, Bulganin, Stalin, Ulbricht etc Moscow 1949, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nationalism is a psychological aberration

Nationalism is a psychological abberation, driven by insecurity. This is the message of this excellent article by Steve Taylor in Psychology Today, which I recommend reading. Nations are artificial constructs, which lead to pathological effects such as wars. The basic psychology of human beings is co-operative with their fellow human beings. The problems we now face, such as the covid19, climate breakdown, species extinction transcend national boundaries. The only future for humanity is one of global co-operation.

The impulse behind Brexit, of ‘making the UK great again’, and the similar impulse behind the Trump presidency, have been going in precisely the wrong direction, driven by the insecurity of their former working populations who have been driven to feel insecure by the economic system. The US appears to have a ‘get out of jail’ card in a Joe Biden presidency, but only if he addresses that failed economic system. The UK has got itself into a more permanent mess with Brexit, but can emerge if the co-operation engendered by a fair ‘deal’ is brought to fruition. A ‘no deal’ will be a psychological disaster for not just UK, but the whole of Europe. The insecurity generated can only lead to more problems.

Of course, nations will still need to exist in some form to organise human affairs, but only within the context of the larger groupings of which they are a part. History tells us that these are largely geographically based – China, India, various European empires, USA… or more global such as the Spanish, British and French colonial expansions. And the context of the United Nations or equivalent organisation is vital.

The charismatic and the populist leader are most suspect in this whole context. I suspect they automatically come to prominence as the collective sense of insecurity rises.

As Steve says,

Nationalism is a psychological aberration, and we owe it to our ancestors, and to our descendants — and to the other species, and to the Earth itself — to move beyond it.