The Startling Accuracy of Referring to Politicians as 'Psychopaths'

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The characteristics that define clinical psychopathy are many of the same that make effective leaders.

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In this presidential election season where, as usual, the fur is flying and name-calling is in full swing, one invective seems to be gaining currency -- psychopath. A web search for "Romney" or "Obama" and "psychopath" (or, more generally, "politician" and "psychopath") yields millions of hits. While it's tempting to dismiss this phenomenon as mere venting by angry voters, the rantings of conspiracy theorists, or even bloggers trying to drive traffic, it is worth at least asking the question: could they be right? If these pundits mean that the targeted office-seekers are evil or "crazy," probably not. But if they are pointing out that politicians and psychopaths share certain characteristics, they could be on to something.

Psychopathy is a psychological condition based on well-established diagnostic criteria, which include lack of remorse and empathy, a sense of grandiosity, superficial charm, conning and manipulative behavior, and refusal to take responsibility for one's actions, among others. Psychopaths are not all the same; particular aspects may predominate in different people. And, although some psychopaths are violent men (and women) with long criminal histories, not all are. It's important to understand that psychopathic behavior and affect exist on a continuum; there are those who fall into the grey area between "normal" people and true psychopaths.

Two of the hallmarks of psychopathy are a calculating mind and a seemingly easy charm.

The question, then, is whether it is reasonable to believe that people with serious abnormalities in the way they interact with the world can be found running for (and winning) office. However unsettling as this may be, the answer seems to be yes. It's possible for psychopaths to be found anywhere -- including city hall or Washington, D.C. Remember, psychopaths are not delusional or psychotic; in fact, two of the hallmarks of psychopathy are a calculating mind and a seemingly easy charm. 

In his landmark book on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, researcher Hervey Cleckley theorized that some people with the core attributes of psychopathy -- egocentricity, lack of remorse, superficial charm -- could be found in nearly every walk of life and at every level, including politics. Robert Hare, perhaps the leading expert on the disorder and the person who developed the most commonly used test for diagnosing psychopathy, has noted that psychopaths generally have a heightened need for power and prestige -- exactly the type of urges that make politics an attractive calling.

There is more at work than just the drive to seek office, though; psychopaths may have some peculiar talents for it, as well. Research has shown that disorder may confer certain advantages that make psychopaths particularly suited to a life on the public stage and able to handle high-pressure situations: psychopaths score low on measures of stress reactivity, anxiety and depression, and high on measures of competitive achievement, positive impressions on first encounters, and fearlessness. Sound like the description of a successful politician and leader?

Doubtless, it's easier to see some leaders as psychopaths than it is others. Presumably, no one would dispute the notion that Hitler and Stalin were psychopaths at the extreme end of the spectrum: completely unconstrained by empathy or guilt and willing to say or do anything to accomplish their goals. This, though, reinforces the perception of psychopaths as out-of-control madmen who are evil to the core. Might there be other, more mainstream political leaders who have psychopathic traits but fall closer to the "normal" range? Some have certainly thought so.

In 2003, neuropsychologist Paul Brok argued that Prime Minister Tony Blair was a "plausible psychopath" who was ruthlessly ambitious, egocentric, and manipulative. Respected psychologist and researcher David Lykken has written:

If we can believe his biographer, Robert Caro [...] Lyndon Johnson exemplified this syndrome. He was relatively fearless, shameless, abusive of his wife and underlings, and willing to do or say almost anything required to attain his ends.

In any event, the idea that a psychopath could reach the heights of power is nothing new. Over a century ago, famed American philosopher and psychologist William James said, "When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce [...] in the same individual, we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries." Perhaps, then, that's the key; it's the combination of other talents with certain elements of psychopathy that can make an effective leader.

Which brings us back to those currently tossing about the label of psychopath -- ironically, some of them may not be denigrating the candidates as much as they suppose.

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James Silver is the co-author of Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? and a former federal prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney.

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