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What Can Personality Profiles of President Putin Tell Us?

A strategic public persona overlays Putin's evasive personality.

Key points

  • Words like sadistic and psychopathic are more descriptive than explanatory or predictive when it comes to assessing Putin.
  • Perhaps we might learn more about Putin by reflecting on the reactions he provokes in us.

As I write this, Russian forces in Ukraine are destroying homes, firing on civilians, targeting hospitals, and using cluster bombs and threats of nuclear weapons. The news reports blockages of humanitarian aid, food, and water. To my knowledge, such acts of exceptional violence are exclusive to humans who have evolved to possess highly developed prefrontal cortices capable of what could be described as unrivaled intelligence.

To identify what brain malfunction might account for an apparent devolution of human consciousness in which ideologies are preferenced above tangible flesh and blood I read two personality profiles of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. These are based on secondary data as it is near impossible to obtain self-reports from political figures. We impute if we can’t confirm.

The conclusions drawn in the two Putin profiles are interesting when you consider them against other commentaries on Putin, such as a chapter titled ‘Who Is Mr Putin’ in the book ‘Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin’. Publicly available information on Putin is cherry-picked as he disseminates information to impression manage or fulfill objectives via his political brand or persona. The question of how a sadist or psychopath creates a persona enabling a rise to power emerges from my naive readings.

Immelman and Trenzeluk offer a personality profile of Putin using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria. It is suggested that Putin’s personality reflected that of a ‘hostile enforcer’ five years ago. Hostile enforcers are non-pathological types, reportedly characterized by compulsive and sadistic traits. They are sticklers for rules, unrestrained in discharging hostile impulses against those who are powerless, and operate under the guise of socially endorsed public service roles with ulterior motives. Their ‘trademark’ is to search out ‘rule-breakers’ that fall within the scope of their socially sanctioned roles and to exercise their powers to the fullest.

Millon’s ‘enforcing sadist’ is the pathological form of Immelman and Trenzeluk’s ‘hostile enforcer’ typology, and arguably this better reflects Putin’s personality at present. The enforcing sadist is said to be society’s ‘sadistic superego,’ vested in punishment with righteous indignation and unrestrained emotions that drive vindictive actions. Putin’s recent speech ‘justifying’ his invasion of Ukraine referred to perceived wrongs inflicted by the West upon the Russian state and its people. Purported acts of wrongdoing included claims of genocide against ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine.

Either Putin’s compulsive and sadistic traits have always been extreme, or he has decompensated over the years since Immelman and Trenzeluk’s initial profiling. Significant world events perceived by Putin to push the limits of tolerable wrongdoings might point to what may have contributed to his escalation of punishing behaviors and thoughts under the pretence of ‘preserving’ or ‘saving’ Eastern values and virtues from ‘amoral Western influences.' President Donald Trump was in power from 2017 to 2021. Whether any events within this period were significant is speculative. We saw allegations of Russian cyber hacks, the closing of Russian consulates in several states, Russia’s formal separation from the G8, the withdrawal of Russian diplomats from several countries, and a variety of sanctions which affected Russia’s economy negatively and strained East-West relations.

Nai and Toros profiled 14 political leaders who display ‘autocratic’ tendencies and published results of their profiles offering another take on Putin’s personality. They compared experts’ assessments to yield perceived personality profiles using the NEO Personality Inventory measuring the Big Five traits of agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, emotional stability, and openness to experience, and a measure of the Dark Triad: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. This study found that Putin scored highly relative to the average scores of other autocrats on the traits of agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, narcissism, openness to experience, and psychopathy. Notably, he yielded the highest score of all autocrats for emotional stability which ironically reflects calmness, detachment, lack of anxiety, and low emotional distress. Would being too calm, cool, and collected equate to being callous?

Offering yet another perspective on Putin, Hill and Gaddy opined that he is calculated and that he stages attacks to collect information on his counterparts and enemies. If he wants to know what is essential or important to a country or any person, he provokes a reaction allegedly as this reaction reveals his opponents’ priorities. Pushing someone’s or something’s buttons helps to identify triggers or vulnerabilities, and this knowledge is useful potentially when it comes to conflict or negotiations. What have countries communicated through reactions such as sanctions against Russia? Were specific sanctions anticipated by him and, if so, why? Will he use sanctions against Russia to strengthen his case of victimization and the ‘necessity’ of war to ‘reinstate’ the ‘correct order’?

Reflecting on the Putin profiles I have read, I question whether they can inform predictions of Putin’s behavior, particularly given that they are based on publicly available information that has questionable validity. The profiles are interesting nonetheless, providing what seem descriptive rather than explanatory accounts of his behaviors. Surely ‘sadistic’ and ‘psychopathic’ serve as descriptors of murderous actions and choices. Replacing scrutiny of his personality with reflection on our own reactions, what these communicate, and whether these serve our interests and intentions best could be a productive investment of time to the extent that this may translate to being responsive over reactive.


Immelman, A., & Trenzeluk, J. V. (2017, January). The political personality of Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin (Working Paper No. 1.4). Collegeville and St. Joseph, MN: St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics. Retrieved from Digital Commons website:

Hill, F. & Gaddy, C. (2012). Who is Mr Putin? In Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (pp. 1-15). Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

Nai, A. & Toros, E. (2020). The peculiar personality of strongmen: comparing the Big Five and Dark Triad traits of autocrats and non-autocrats, Political Research Exchange, 2(1). doi: 10.1080/2474736X.2019.1707697

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