Are Politicians Psychopaths?


  1. An excellent and entertaining talk, and I must defer to Neil’s greater intellect and intelligence – not to mention, greater experience – however I wonder (in a nice sort of way) if he is being naive about human nature? That might seem like a strange observation on a talk that pinpoints political psychopathy, so for anyone interested in my thoughts, I will have to explain myself.

    I am sceptical about the concept of psychopathy, not as a socio-cultural and psychological phenomenon – I accept this exists in reality – but as a neurological, medico-legal and psychiatric concept. I must confess that when Neil went through the diagnosis list, I recognised myself in almost all of the attributes, the exception being sexual promiscuity. I would score above 18. I am envious of Neil’s score of 2. It may be no coincidence that, had things turned out slightly differently, I might have been a professional politician.

    However, although I am willing to recognise psychopathy as a ‘real thing’, I think possibly the clinicians and writers on the subject may be going too far when they try to suggest that psychopathy is a discrete neurological category. We’re back to the old Nature versus Nurture debate, aren’t we. I think it’s likely this behaviour is the result of traumas and abuses suffered during early childhood, especially if inflicted by the mother, who is the closest parent during the early months – for instance, if the mother is emotionally cold towards the infant. I’ll return to that in a moment, but briefly, my view is that psychopathy is not likely to be an ‘illness’ of some kind, but simply the upper end of a spectrum of socially-adaptive behaviours.

    Politics provides us with one laboratory for social adaptation. I wonder if Neil is confusing disagreement he has with various prominent politicians, past and present, over policy issues with suppositions about the personal characteristics of those same politicians? I agree and accept that it takes a certain type of person to think that you can send people to war and preach to the rest of the country on various social, moral and civic issues, but what’s missing from the talk is an acknowledgement of what motivates these people, surely a relevant consideration in any assessment of their psychology?

    Of course, Neil’s response to this will be to point to his larger-scale thesis that politicians form almost a different class in a statist society and are parasitical on the rest of the population. There is some truth in this, but my counter-response would be to point to my favourite maxim, from Lord Acton. As I have observed previously, politicians are not brought up on South Sea Islands. They attend mostly the same sort of schools that we do, albeit they have a more advantaged and privileged start in some cases, and they live in the same society. Their experiences are broadly similar.

    Let’s look, briefly, at some of the specific examples given in the talk.

    I’ll start with Denis Healey. “Tax the rich till their pips squeak”, I agree was wrong, but that was political rhetoric from a politician who was blinded by missionary zeal. Of course, the probability he genuinely and sincerely believed in social democratic politics does not excuse his policy errors, but his personal beliefs are of significance in the context of a discussion about political psychopathy. We don’t like Healey’s politics and he happened to be successful at politics, but that doesn’t mean he was psychopath.

    The example is given of Al Gore and the anti-global warming movement, but we don’t know whether or not he really believes in this stuff. Some people do, and also, even if the anthropogenic thesis is not strictly true, there is a strong argument for ecologically friendly policies anyway. I don’t accept that Al Gore is a psychopath.

    Tony Blair could be a psychopath, but didn’t he really believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? It was said that he lied, but this has never been proved. An untruth is not a lie. And didn’t he really believe in a liberal interventionist doctrine? You’d think he was on a religious mission, and perhaps he was. His genuineness doesn’t excuse him from his policy errors, but is of relevance in the present discussion.

    Neil rightly allows that it is “not entirely politicians who are guilty on this score” – and he mentions the media. There is another institution we should also mention – the People. Politicians get away with abuses due to the electorate. According to opinion polls, if they are to be believed, the Iraq War was very popular among the ordinary public. Why?

    It’s an awkward observation, but there are lots and lots of ‘ordinary’, colloquial psychopaths. I recall from my school days, several individuals I knew who could fit into the psychopath category. One of them put stones and pieces of glass in people’s sandwiches, and he also deliberately set another child on fire. He was in his middle teens and old enough to know that what he was doing was wrong. There are quite a few of these people around, and I am in no doubt they are potential psychopaths [score of 13+] within the definitions given.

    My point in raising that anecdote is that psychopathy may just be an ordinary attribute, and the percentage might not be <1% but more like 20% or 30%. Human beings are pack animals, are we not? There is a primitive socio-biology at work here. What we call psychopathy may be a gradation, and some people (such as politicians, etc.) may have these attributes to a more pronounced degree than others. As such, psychopathy may be a social phenomenon that reflects the way our society works, or it could be that the way our society works reflects psychopathy as an evolutionary tendency among the more dominant in society.

    • “I think it’s likely this behaviour is the result of traumas and abuses suffered during early childhood, especially if inflicted by the mother, who is the closest parent during the early months – for instance, if the mother is emotionally cold towards the infant. I’ll return to that in a moment, but briefly, my view is that psychopathy is not likely to be an ‘illness’ of some kind, but simply the upper end of a spectrum of socially-adaptive behaviours.”

      There may be something to that… Stefan Molyneux did a video on crime not too long ago going into the so-called warrior gene and the fact that parental abuse or neglect can be an epigenetic trigger for it. It may be that even in individuals lacking this gene, or a complex of such genes, adapt to such an environment through reducing empathy, especially if this impacts the development of mirror neurons in the individual.

      Nonetheless, I don’t think a lack of empathy is always a bad thing. There are cases where difficult decisions need to be made and being to emotionally susceptible can prevent one from carrying them out.

      Narcissism might be another trait more highly concentrated amongst politicians.

      • Yes, lack of empathy can be essential to effective decision-making in some situations. I’m reminded of Michael Crichton’s Odd Man Hypothesis, in his novel, ‘The Andromeda Strain’.

        I think the concept of psychopathy is useful, but a little simplistic and value-laden/judgemental and overlooks somewhat the complexity of human motivations.

    • Well Tom, it’s good for all of us that you didn’t become a politician. It’s good for us because you didn’t make (or help to make) any bad laws that hurt us. And it’s good for you because you (probably) won’t be against the wall when the Revolution comes.

      On nature versus nurture, I think you’ve picked up the same issue I did. The experts try to divide sociopaths (nurture) from psychopaths (nature). I was talking only about the latter; I suspect the separation is due to an unwillingness to confront the NvN issue.

      As to “what motivates these people,” I gave in the talk one very clear answer; power over others. And I implied another, “saving the world.” You yourself added “missionary zeal” when you talked about Denis Healey and Tony Blair. That’s a decent start, no?

      On Al Gore: I didn’t say he was a psychopath, only a hypocrite.

      When you say, “An untruth is not a lie,” I disagree. When someone is seeking to set a policy to be enforced on others, on the basis of an untruth, then such an untruth is as bad as a lie. And when they deliberately ignore facts and arguments that contradict that untruth, that’s worse yet. During the Q&A session, someone brought up exactly this matter. But, with the help of another questioner (Bob Layson), I feel I got my point of view over.

      As to the Iraq war and people’s views on it, I can’t comment on the polls in early 2003, because I didn’t record them. But at the fag end of 2004, when the damage done by the war had started to become apparent, I wrote the following:

      “And I have been very encouraged by the reaction in Britain to the war. For people in general are strongly opposed to it. I have heard figures as high as 70% against it. Yet the politicians, apart from a few loony lefties, seem to have been almost unanimously in favour of the war.”

      As to whether the politicians or the electorate are to blame for the problems, I discussed this in my (very) recent review of Jason Brennan’s book “Against Democracy.”

      From my own school days, I recall bullies being about 2 or 3 percent. And I was educated among the children of the toffs. Many children, I presume, lose the bullying as they mature.

      And when you say “Human beings are pack animals,” I proudly respond: “I’m neither a mule nor an elephant!” Nor even a wolf, neither. We are social, yes; but we are individuals underneath. I’m hoping to address this issue in a forthcoming paper.

      • Neil,

        I didn’t say that I am a psychopath and that’s not exactly what I meant. I have no idea about that really. All I’m saying is that I would score high on your test – depending on how loosely you want to apply the relevant diagnostic language – and I mentioned that just to underscore the malleability of the term ‘psychopath’.

        Virtually anybody in a position of power over others (I have been) and anybody who has inflicted harm on others (I have) could be called a psychopath, but then you are left with more questions than answers. Using the criteria given, in skilled hands it would be easy to drain the term ‘psychopath’ of all meaning and we would be left back at square one.

        I think psychopathy isn’t really a coherent concept at all. It’s just another word for something we don’t understand, and to an extent, don’t want to understand (i.e. we don’t want to peer under the rock). It’s the intellectual equivalent of switching water between buckets on the pretence that they are thereby all ‘full’.

        A few more observations in response to your points:

        (i). I agree with you about problems with the sociopath v psychopath distinction. However my scepticism is with the psychopath concept, as I think the evidence for the existence of psychopathy in a medical sense is tenuous at best. Loosely-speaking, a psychopath is simply an individual of diminished conscience. As such, the psychopath is an extreme manifestation of the sociopath, and the latter I think should be regarded as the umbrella term. I think most of the people you categorise as psychopaths are just individuals engaged in what the experts would classically call extreme sociopathic behaviour. Unlike the psychopath (whom I see as an extreme sub-category on a behavioural spectrum), the moderate sociopath has a normal conscience but engages in destructive behaviour anyway. Why? I think a lot of this is systematic – the outcome of the Stanford Prison Experiment is an important clue in this regard – but I also think it is biological.

        (ii). In regard to biology, when I say we are ‘pack’ animals, I regard this almost as a truism, since the most conspicuous form of human social organisation is – the pack. There must be a reason for this. It can’t simply be because we have made a choice to live that way, otherwise we would be reinventing basic social forms each generation. So a hierarchical society that (I would argue) fosters and encourages sociopathy, is being sustained inter-generationally. How could this be? It could only be sustained if something in our biology drives us that way. However, I accept this could quickly slide into reductionism and crude evolutionary psychology. I am not proposing that, as I fully accept that human beings are quite different from other animals, we are sentient in that we are conscience-driven and have intellects (otherwise we would not be able to idealise behaviours, as we do here), and we have free choice. My take on this is that the Nature versus Nurture debate can only be resolved on the social level. The question is do sociopathic instincts shape society, or is sociopathy the result of society? Personally, I think it is a complex interaction of both and any solution proposed cannot be respected unless it takes account of this awkward aspect of our nature.

        (iii). In relation to the politicians mentioned, I refer you to their motivations because I think when someone genuinely holds a belief that what they are doing is right (irrespective of whether it is right or wrong, in so far as that can be measured), this must affect any assessment of them as ‘psychopaths’. Of course, a psychopathic tyrant might believe he is doing right, but I think part of the problem here is that your assessment of whether a prominent individual is a psychopath is wrapped-up in your own political or philosophical beliefs and how you think the world should be, so this is not really an objective exercise in the first place, and any attempt to argue the case for one individual or the other will be fruitless and have us going round in circles. To bring up the example of Tony Blair again, I doubt he thought that Iraq would disintegrate into civil war and anarchy as a result of the invasion or that Iraq’s armed forces would resist the invasion as doggedly as they did. He probably thought it would be a walk-over with minimal casualties. However, in so far as I am defending him, it is only on the narrow question of whether he is a psychopath. I find the term difficult enough when used medically, never mind when used outside a medical or criminological context for somebody who is widely disliked.

        (iv). On the point about polls, I am certain that the earliest polls showed overwhelming public support for the war, and my anecdotal experience at the time was that most people supported the war. I accept this was because people were being badly misled, but that doesn’t address the fact that wars nearly-always have wide public support. In the case of Iraq, this only changed when the media message changed. However, we can’t simply blame the media. Don’t the public have a responsibility to think for themselves?

        A book that made a big impression on me many years ago, but which, alas, I no longer have (it seems to have disappeared during a house move) was a study of the medical records kept by Army depots in Britain during the Second World War. The author found that a significant number (I can’t recall now if it was a majority) of young recruits were thrilled by inflicting violence on others. I can’t remember the book or the (female) author now, but it caused quite a stir on publication. Will post up more information if I find it.

  2. Think of it this way. If your a child molester the dream job for you is to work in a child care facility. If your a pyromaniac then it’s a fireman. If you like to steal money then it’s working in a bank. Now where do you think a person who is into control of other people would like to work?

  3. Perhaps one of greatest challenges facing advocates of a peaceful society, is not that various forms of sociopathy run rampant throughout the institutions and the workplace, but rather society’s compliance towards it… The sheep would rather live a lie free from troublesome thoughts, than to acknowledge (never mind the difficult task of dislodging) the wolf at the doorstep. And the predator class knows this facet of human nature all too well; the traditional slaughter of opponents being replaced by demotion and ostracism (which is just as effective at removing opposition from the gene pool).

    The media is one of the greatest enablers of sociopathy; journalists, and even watchdogs, preferring to deny the sociopathy of public figures and institutions, than to see their own cherished optimistic worldviews shattered to pieces…

    I was born with a natural inclination to stand up to bullies, regardless of consequences, which has gotten me into a lot of trouble on numerous occasions. From my own experience, if a criminal psychopath wants to make your life a misery, there is very little the police can, (or are willing) to do; even siding with the criminal (I guess the devil looks after his own). Victims often have no choice but to move of even take their own lives as a means of escape. To me it again reeks of a mass complacency; the authorities being no different to the schoolyard, where you get an easier life sucking up to the bully than speaking out for the victim.

    Sociopaths fear being exposed publically (which is what I attempted to do with my ward councillors at a public meeting); but will retaliate violently if there are no witnesses (which one of the same ward councillors tried to do before realising that I was not alone). It makes me cringe that such people can win the majority vote, get support and even admiration/excuses for their character flaws by supposedly well-meaning people.

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