During the 1964 US Presidential election, Fact magazine had polled psychiatrists as to then-Senator Barry Goldwater's mental health, asking whether he was fit to be president. Whatever you might think of Fact's poll - whether you believe it was so slanted as to be libelous, or whether it was reasonably fair -- is the idea to assess the psychology of presidential candidates a good one?

Some of the responding psychiatrists found the idea repugnant. One M.D. from Richmond, VA wrote into the magazine:

"What type of yellow rag are you operating? I have never in my life witnessed such a shabby attempt to smear a political candidate. I would suggest that you change the name of your magazine [from Fact] to 'Fancy,' or better, 'Smear'!"

Others agreed the poll was a bad idea: Robert C. Murphy, Jr., M.D., another of the psychiatrists, opined:

"The sort of marriage between psychiatry and politics you are proposing is utterly grotesque. Psychiatrists have no more to contribute to judging a political candidate than do movie actors to one cigarette brand over another...[ellipses in the original]."

But Oscar Sachs, M.D., of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute thought that questioning the candiate's mental health was a good idea. He wrote in:

"Perhaps one day we will demand a standard of mental health in our representatives as we do in other spheres. Presidents of large corporations today demand psychological evaluations before hiring key executives. It would appear that running American businesses is more important than running the American Government."

I agree with Dr.Sachs that psychological screening is a good idea, even from afar. It just has to be fair and have some validity. The Fact poll left much to be desired in that regard, but there are attempts to do better.

In 1993, I suggested that those in the psychiatric community consider the existence of a "Dangerous Leader Disorder" (PDF).  I proposed that dangerous leaders exhibited three central characteristics: "indifference toward people's suffering and devaluation of others," "intolerance of criticism," and a "grandiose sense of national entitlement." Each of these areas was characterized by more specific leader-behaviors.

For example, to meet the "indifference toward people's suffering..." criterion, leaders needed to meet several criteria from this group (I am abbreviating here, but you'll get the idea...)

  • "wholesale murder of advisors,"
  • "torture of citizens without trials,"
  • "the murder or imprisonment of family members or relatives,"
  • "targeted killings of particular groups within the state and (after invasions) beyond the state,"
  • "unrestrained and unapologetic attacks on the character or worth of other peoples (excluding opposition leaders), especially based on race, religion, or socio-economic status."

My colleagues Frederick L. Coolidge and Daniel L. Segal of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, also have examined dangerous leaders.  They recruited citizens from a leader's country to fill out symptom checklists on the leaders.  The symptom checklists were adapted from psychiatric questionnaires assessing personality disorders. 

A wise teacher once told me that you can't stop people from trying to solve their problems, even when they are using methods that won't work.  A better approach is to provide more effective ways for them to solve their problems. 

I wonder whether the approaches employed by Coolidge and Segal, and in my own research, might improve the methods we have for assessing danger in leaders.  If so, developing them further might better protect both citizens and leaders.

Had such assessments for dangerousness been around in 1964, perhaps the Fact poll would never have gotten started.  After all, looking at today's checklists for dangerousness, I do not think Senator Goldwater would have come close to meeting the necessary criteria.

Having some agreed-upon standards for flagging potentially dangerous leaders might make us all safer -- citizens and senators.


"What type of yellow rag?..." (p. 50), "The sort of marriage..." (p. 48); "Perhaps someday..." (p. 47-48) all from: Boroson, W. (1964, September/October). What psychiatrists say about Goldwater. Fact, 1, pp. 24-64.

My article was: Mayer, J. D. (1993). The emotional madness of the dangerous leader. Journal of Psychohistory, 20, 331-348. The articles of my colleagues Coolidge and Segal are: Coolidge, F. L., & Segal, D. L. (2007). Was Saddam Hussein like Adolph Hitler? A personality disorder investigation. Military Psychology, 19, 289-299. See also: Coolidge, F. L., Davis, F. L., & Segal, D.L. (2007). Understanding madmen: A DSM-IV assessment of Adolph Hitler. Individual Differences Research, 5, 30-43.

Copyright © 2009 John D. Mayer

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