When people with personality disorders gain power.
Posted July 31, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
The Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski spent his early life suffering under the Nazi occupation of Poland, closely followed by the brutality of Soviet occupation after the war. His experience of these horrors led Lobaczewski to develop the concept of "pathocracy." This is when individuals with personality disorders (particularly psychopathy) occupy positions of power. (1)
Lobaczewski devoted his life to studying human evil, a field which he called "ponerology." He wanted to understand why 'evil' people seem to prosper, while so many good and moral people struggle to succeed. He wanted to understand why people with psychological disorders so easily rise to positions of power and take over the governments of countries. Since he was living under a "pathocratic" regime himself, he took great risks studying this topic. He was arrested and tortured by the Polish authorities, and was unable to publish his life's work, the book Political Ponerology, until he escaped to the United States during the 1980s.
Pathocracy is arguably one of the biggest problems in the history of the human race. History has been a saga of constant conflict and brutality, with groups of people fighting against one another over territory and power and possessions, and conquering and killing one another. Surveying the course of human history from ancient times to the 20th century, the historian Arnold Toynbee spoke about the "horrifying sense of sin manifest in human affairs.”
But there is an argument that this is not because all human beings are inherently brutal and cruel, but because a small number of people—that is, those with personality disorders—are brutal and cruel, intensely self-centered, and lacking in empathy. This small minority has always held power and managed to order or influence the majority to commit atrocities on their behalf.
Power and Pathology
A small minority of humans suffer from personality disorders such as narcissism and psychopathy. People with these disorders feel an insatiable lust for power. People with narcissistic personality disorder desire constant attention and affirmation. They feel that they are superior to others and have the right to dominate them. They also lack empathy, which means that they are able to ruthlessly exploit and abuse others in their lust for power. Psychopaths feel a similar sense of superiority and lack of empathy, but the main difference between them and narcissists is that they don't feel the same impulse for attention and adoration. To an extent, the impulse to be adored acts as a check on the behavior of narcissists. They are reluctant to do anything that might make them too unpopular. But psychopaths have no such qualms.
At the other end of the scale, people with a high level of empathy and compassion usually aren’t interested in power. They prefer to be "on the ground," interacting and connecting with others. They may even refuse the offer of a high-status position because they’re aware that higher status will disconnect them (although for a non-empathic person, that is part of its appeal). So this leaves positions of power open for people with psychological disorders (or at least with a high level of ambition and ruthlessness, even if not a fully fledged psychological disorder).
Throughout history, these pathological individuals have always risen to the top. In some ways, pre-industrial feudal societies restricted them, since power was often bequeathed by birth rather than attained by individual efforts. The demise of the feudal system was certainly a positive step towards greater equality and democracy, but a negative side effect was that it gave psychopaths and narcissists greater opportunity to attain positions of power.
As Ian Hughes points out in his important book Disordered Minds, the whole point of democracy is to try to protect the mass of people from this pathological minority. This was the central idea of the American constitution and the Bill of Rights. Democratic principles and institutions were established to limit the power of pathological individuals.
This is why, as Hughes also points out, pathological leaders hate democracy. (2) Once they attain power, they do their utmost to dismantle or discredit democratic institutions, including the freedom and legitimacy of the press. (This is the first thing which Hitler did when he became German chancellor, and it is what autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban of Hungary and President Erdoğan of Turkey have done. It is also what President Trump has been attempting to do.)
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Moreover, pathological leaders are completely unable to comprehend the principles of democracy, since they regard themselves as superior, and see life as a competitive struggle in which the most ruthless deserve to dominate others.
But pathocracy isn’t just about individuals. As Lobaczewsk pointed out, pathological leaders always attract other people with personality disorders, who seize the opportunity to gain influence. At the same time, individuals who are moral, empathic and fair-minded gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them. As a result, over time pathocracies tend to become entrenched and extreme.
This isn’t to say that everyone who becomes part of a pathocratic government suffers from a personality disorder. Some people may simply have a high level of ambition and a lack of empathy without actually having a diagnosable condition, while others may simply ride the coattails of a pathological leader whose goals happen to coincide with theirs.
A significant part of the problem is the attraction that many people feel to charismatic demagogues. You can see this in the appeal of President Trump, despite the obvious flaws - his extreme narcissism, lack of empathy and his distorted, delusory view of reality - of his personality disorder. Psychologically, this is very similar to the attraction of spiritual gurus, who often attract the blind devotion of disciples, despite unethical and exploitative behavior. The attraction of gurus and demagogues is a deep-rooted impulse to return to the childhood state of worshipping parents who seem omnipotent and infallible and could take complete responsibility for our lives, and magically solve our problems. At the same time, the paranoia of pathological leaders leads them to demonize other groups and creates an intoxicating sense of group identity with a common purpose.
Protection Against Pathocracy
Is the United States is in danger of being taken over by a pathocracy? Unfortunately, I believe it has already happened. Despite a convention that psychologists shouldn't unofficially diagnose public figures, many American psychologists and psychiatrists have publicly stated that Donald Trump displays all the signs of narcissistic personality disorder. This would certainly explain his grandiosity, his lack of empathy and moral principles, his excessive need for admiration and his sensitivity to criticism (all of which are traits of narcissistic personality disorder). Similar cases have been made by psychologists for other 'strongman' politicians around the world, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Trump has certainly attracted politicians and advisors with a similar lack of empathy and conscience to his inner circle, while principled and responsible individuals have either been ejected or have removed themselves, so that the pathocracy has become more entrenched.
But we should remember that pathocracy only flourishes because we don’t take sufficient measures to protect ourselves from pathological leaders. We need to preserve and strengthen our democratic institutions and processes to ensure that the great mass of people is protected from the minority of psychopaths and narcissists with an insatiable lust for power. We need to make sure that our democracy does not transmute into a pathocracy.
In the long term, as I have argued in a previous post, we need stringent measures to restrict the attainment of power. Put simply, the kind of people who desire power the most—the most ruthless and non-empathic—should not be allowed to attain positions of authority. All potential leaders (or members of a government) should be rigorously assessed by psychologists to determine their levels of empathy, narcissism or psychopathy—and hence determine their suitability for power.
Łobaczewski, A. (2006). Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes.Grande Prairie: Red Pill Press.
Hughes, I. (2018). Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy. WInchester, UK: Zero Books.