The Winner Effect

Exploring the neuroscience of success and failure

The Danger That Lurks Inside Vladimir Putin's Brain

Contempt is key to Putin's troubling psychological profile.

At a joint German-Russian cabinet meeting in Siberia in 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel unsuccessfully tried to persuade President Vladimir Putin that cabinet ministers should be treated with respect rather than contempt. Resentment is the emotion for superiors while anger is reserved for equals. But contempt is the emotion reserved for those we regard as inferiors.

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Now, Putin’s contempt for others is spreading far beyond his cabinet to include the entire western leadership, from Cameron to Obama. Putin’s personality and thinking have become grossly distorted by the effects of enormous, largely unfettered power on his brain. Since then, Putin has invaded the Crimea and engineered the swift dissolution of a country.

Interpreting political behaviour in psychological terms is always a risk: Ukraine’s ethnic balance is a fragile one and there is the scent of possible Crimean oil reserves as a juicy incentive for Putin’s political adventurism. But perhaps most politically-useful of all, is the whipped-up nationalist fervour to bolster Putin’s hold over a decaying Russian economy with its ageing workforce and corrupt institutions.

But, after 15 years in power, psychological factors have to be taken into consideration in analysing Putin’s actions and, more importantly, in deciding how to respond to them. And contempt must be considered as one of the most important elements of his psychology. It is not only contempt for what he almost regards as weak—and, possibly in his macho world view, effeminate—western leaders. More important is his contempt for their institutions such as international treaties and laws.

Putin was brought up under a Marxist-Lenninist worldview where there was a strong tradition of regarding such things as instruments of capitalist or bourgeois oppression, to be treated with, well, contempt. He grew up in a culture where the ends justified the means. And this is why he could so easily tear up an international treaty with Ukraine guaranteeing its independence in return for giving up its nuclear weapons.

I do not have the slightest doubt that Putin intends to stay in power at least until 2024 and perhaps beyond. There can be little doubt that his brain has been neurologically and physically changed so much that he firmly and genuinely believes that without him, Russia is doomed. Absolute power for long periods makes you blind to risk, highly egocentric, narcissistic and utterly devoid of self-awareness. They also make you see other people as objects and the emotional-cognitive consequence of all this is…contempt.

It is very likely that he feels contempt for the potential political leaders who might succeed him, just as much as he feels contempt for anyone—for instance Ukrainians—who thwart him. A recent report said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has talked with Putin more than any other leader in the last few weeks, reported feeling “bewildered” by Putin. After speaking with him, the report claimed, she said she was not sure he was in touch with reality, telling US President Obama that Putin was “in another world”.

This makes sense, neuropsychologically speaking: Progressive isolation and a contempt for anyone else’s opinion are classic signs of the “hubris syndrome”—that acquired personality disorder to which some world leaders are susceptible.

The fear factor

There is of course another psychological factor playing out in this very dangerous game—fear. Putin knows that he and his regime would be vulnerable to prosecution by a successor government if they were to relinquish power. That is another reason why he will try to exceed Stalin in the length of time he will have held power in Russia.

But there is an ideological aspect to his psychology also. He wrote in his biography: “I consider it to be my sacred duty to unify the people of Russia, to rally citizens around clear aims and tasks, and to remember every day and every minute that we have one Motherland, one people and one future.”

There is something about the metre and cadence of that “One Motherland, one people, one future” which sends shivers down my spine.

The bottom line is that the current psychological trajectory of Vladimir Putin is one of a feeling of historical destiny leading him to reclaim the dignity and respect due to his great Russian empire. This is a journey which is as much personal as political, because once the hubris syndrome takes hold in the brain, the personal and the national are identical because the leader is the nation and its destiny.

How to handle a man like Putin

I have little doubt that Putin feels personally humiliated by the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire and that, fuelled by power and with a blindness to risk, he will work ever harder to make good that humiliation through further dangerous adventures. He will be all the more driven by his feeling of personal and national superiority to the contemptibly weak, decadent and cowardly western powers—as he probably sees them.

So how should the West respond? Psychologically speaking, the very worst response would be appeasement because this will simply fuel his contempt and strengthen the justification for his position. Strong consequences have to follow from his contempt for international law and treaties. This will cost the West dearly, economically speaking, but the longer-term costs of appeasement will make the costs of strong, early action appear trivial in retrospect.@ihrobertson

Ian Robertson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and the author of The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure.

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