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The Danger of Dark Triad Leaders

The link between psychological disorders and power.

Key points

  • Dark Triad personalities are attracted to power and find positions of power easy to attain.
  • The political actions of dark triad leaders can be seen an extension of their personality traits.
  • These leaders are nationalistic, warlike, and authoritarian.
vlad/flickr
Source: vlad/flickr

The sheer horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is so shocking that it’s difficult to process. It’s hard to believe that a leader — and his wider government — can be so malevolent and destructive. It seems like a return to an earlier, more brutal era of European history.

The war highlights the link between psychological disorders and political power. It was the British historian and politician Lord Action who coined the famous phrase, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” However, this phrase doesn’t take account of another factor: that power attracts people who are already corrupt (and who become even more corrupt once they attain power).

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.

In my view, some of the suffering that has filled human history since the beginning of the 20th century has been caused by psychologically disordered dark triad leaders. Before the 20th century, inheritance-based systems of power restricted access to leadership roles. But once these social structures broke down — and particularly if they weren’t replaced by democratic systems — the most brutal and amoral individuals tended to rise to the most powerful positions. Some examples may include Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Mussolini, General Franco (of Spain) Pol Pot (of Cambodia), Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi. Towards the end of the twentieth century, most of Africa and South America was ruled by ruthless, amoral dictators who inflicted massive amounts of suffering on their own people.

Dark Triad Traits in Power

The political actions of dark triad leaders are simply an extension of their personality traits. For example, one of the traits of dark triad leaders is a constant desire to accumulate. They seem to feel a deep sense of inner lack which drives them to constantly try to collect more power, wealth, fame and success. This is what drives them to become leaders in the first place, and once they become leaders, they project this impulse onto their nations. As a result, they are nationalistic, obsessed with increasing their nation’s power and prestige. They promise a great future, where the nation can regain its prestige. They also usually hark back to mythical great past, when the nation once possessed power and prestige, which has now ebbed away. In their nationalist fervour, they see themselves in competition and conflict with other nations. They withdraw from international agreements, stubbornly insisting that they can prosper alone.

This is also why they often follow expansionist policies, to try to increase the nation’s (and by extension their own) power and wealth. They feel impelled to try to increase their nation’s territory, to conquer other nations and build an empire. This was the impulse which led Hitler to try to create his ‘Third Reich’ and it is impulse that lies behind Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Destructiveness

Dark triad leaders are authoritarian, as they have a limitless desire for power. They love to project an image of “toughness” and follow hardline policies, restricting people’s rights and increasing punishments. They often see themselves as guardians of a nation’s traditions, with a role to resist any progressive developments. However, despite their desire to appear as “strongmen,” dark triad leaders are usually highly insecure people who can’t endure criticism and dissent. Expressions of disapproval conflict with their grandiose self-image. As a result, they can’t endure people with different views, and pack their governments with sycophantic loyalists. Their sensitivity to slights is one of the reasons why they restrict freedom of the press, and fill media channels with their own propaganda. It is simply too much for them their fragile egos to tolerate a steady stream of commentary and criticism through different media channels.

There is a terrible destructiveness at the heart of dark triad leaders. Perhaps because they live in a state of complete disconnection, and feel a deep sense of lack, they feel a deep malevolence towards the world, and other human beings. It’s almost as if they are on a mission to cause as much as chaos and devastation as possible while in power — to kill people, to bomb countries, to destroy institutions, to damage the environment, or to roll back rights and regulations. Some of their actions appear gratuitous, purely for the sake of causing damage, like young children who trample on other children’s toys or knock down sandcastles just for the sake of it.

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.

In my opinion, the above factors may help explain the actions of President Putin. It is impossible to understand his behaviour in any rational way because it is irrational. It is impossible to judge his actions by normal human standards because his actions are inhumane. All we can do is to try to protect ourselves against the pathology of political leaders, and to try to counter their malevolence with morality. Lobaczewski said that all pathocracies ultimately fail because the amorality and brutality of the ruling elite is not shared by the majority of the population. I hope that this holds true in this case.

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