It’s no secret that politicians can be driven by outsized egos. I mean, who among us really thinks he or she deserves a seat in Congress — or a desk in the Oval Office?
But can egotism alone explain why so many elected officials seem to get caught telling lies, having affairs, committing financial improprieties or engaging in other scandalous behavior? Not everyone is convinced that it can, and some in the blogosphere have gone so far as to wonder if bad-boy (and bad girl) politicians are actually psychopaths. And a recent article in The Atlantic asks of these pundits:
Could they be right? If these pundits mean that the targeted office-seekers are evil or “crazy,” probably not. But if they are pointing out that politicians and psychopaths share certain characteristics, they could be on to something.
Just what does it mean to be a psychopath? Turns out psychopathy isn’t a formal psychiatric diagnosis but a term first popularized by Medical College of Georgia psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley in his 1941 classic The Mask Of Sanity. Psychopaths seem superficially normal but tend to be cold-hearted, lacking in empathy, egocentric, manipulative, irresponsible, and antisocial. Or, as a 2007 Scientific American article put it:
Superficially charming, psychopaths tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal. Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behavior for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it… Psychopaths routinely offer excuses for their reckless and often outrageous actions, placing blame on others instead.
Hmm. That description could probably describe more than a few politicians — though you and I might not agree on whom to nominate for psychopath status. But before indulging in any armchair analysis, I reached out to Dr. Martha Stout. A clinical psychologist who was long affiliated with Harvard Medical School, she’s the author of The Sociopath Next Door and other popular books on emotional disorders (including a forthcoming text that explores the link between emotional disorders and politics). By the way, Dr. Stout tends to use the term sociopath instead of psychopath, explaining to me that the terms are often used interchangeably by mental health professionals.
Anyway, when I asked Dr. Stout if there’s any truth to the contention that politicians are more likely to be psychopaths, she said in an email that no solid statistics were available to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Yet despite the lack of proof, she gave a surprisingly definitive answer to my question:
Yes, politicians are more likely than people in the general population to be sociopaths. I think you would find no expert in the field of sociopathy/psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder who would dispute this… That a small minority of human beings literally have no conscience was and is a bitter pill for our society to swallow — but it does explain a great many things, shamelessly deceitful political behavior being one.
At one time, she continued, the terms psychopath and sociopath conjured up image of mass murderers and serial killers. “As it turns out, the majority of sociopaths/psychopaths never kill anyone with their own hands, nor do they end up in prison,” she said. “A smart sociopath can avoid prison and find other, less conspicuous ways to satisfy his or her lust for dominating and controlling others, and what better way than through politics and big business?”
Which politicians deserve to be labeled sociopaths? Dr. Stout was reluctant to name names of living politicos, saying it would be unethical to do so. But she told me in the email, “I think most experts would agree that Hitler, Pol Pot, Nicolae Ceausescu and the like were sociopaths. But a leader certainly does not have to be an infamous dictator to be sociopathic.” In fact, she said, sociopaths often are extremely charismatic. They may not feel “higher emotions” like love and guilt, they may not have actual consciences, but they study those of us who do — and simply pretend.
Some have hypothesized that there are times when we want our leaders to be cold and calculating and even deceitful — for example, in times of crisis or when our national security is at stake. But for the most part, it would seem to me a very bad thing when we elect men and women who feel they can say anything and do anything and damn the consequences.
What’s a concerned citizen to do? Dr. Stout offered a not-so-modest proposal: along with releasing their tax returns and medical records (and, sometimes, birth certificates), maybe political candidates should be asked to prove their psychological fitness before their names go on the ballot. Though psychopaths can apparently fool even skilled psychiatrists into thinking they’re normal, Dr. Stout maintains that standardized psychological tests like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (and someday maybe brain scans) might be able to tip voters off to candidates who exhibit worrisome personality traits.
“I’m not sure that we will do this,” she said of psychological testing of politicians. “But given the stakes, it might be a decent idea.”
If psychological testing really could distinguish great leaders from destructive creeps, it’s an idea that gets my vote. What do you think? If you’d like to join the discussion, please leave me a comment.