• Shawn
    10.8k
    I've long been thinking about the problem of psychopathy and positions of power. A worrying conclusion I have arrived at is that some elements of psychopathy are necessary for a public official to efficiently govern XYZ (people).

    Can anyone convince me otherwise from this rather Machiavellian conclusion? Can we do away with or prevent such occurences of psychopaths in power as seen in the past with authoritarian/totalitarian regimes as personified through people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao?

    Thanks!

    As a side matter it would be pretty easy using existing technology to give a barrage of tests on potential power positions through mandating a MRI scan on such people and having either tests done to detect the occurrence of lies or falsehoods being made by a subject or doing a statistical analysis done on their brain structure as compared to confirmed psychopaths...

    A serious issue that concerns me nevertheless.
  • Pierre-Normand
    1.6k
    As a side matter it would be pretty easy using existing technology to give a barrage of tests on potential power positions through mandating a MRI scan on such people and having either tests done to detect the occurrence of lies or falsehoods being made by a subject or doing a statistical analysis done on their brain structure as compared to confirmed psychopaths...Question

    If the candidate leader is to have absolute power, then, assuming "psychopathy," as potentially suffered by an individual, is a unified syndrome, such a screening could have some effectiveness. But what if the power structure is more complex, shared among many individuals, and the "psychopathy" of a regime arises from a bad social dynamics, such that the individual who represents nominal power (e.g. the President or Prime Minister) just is a brainwashed tool who believes she is serving the greater good, or doing the best she can in conditions of great urgency? In this case, the psychopathology could be collective while no individual actor is a psychopath. But this could also happen to a benevolent dictator who would fall prey to her own ideological mirage. An fMRI can't screen off an individual's suitability to dangerous ideological conviction since no such physiological test can distinguish sound from unsound political and/or moral belief.
  • Shawn
    10.8k


    This is why democracy is the least of all evils despite the fact that fascism or any sort of dictatorial/coercive central management is the most efficient form of government...

    On the other hand "democracy" is always prone or even "under attack" to/from an ignorant and uneducated public, hence the need for an educated public; but, I digress...
  • Bitter Crank
    8.9k
    Psychopathy isn't an all or nothing condition. It presents itself in degrees, from a slight tendency to psychopathy to extreme disassociation of feeling and action. Few people are extremely psychopathological, maybe 1% (an guess) range in degrees of psychopathy.

    Mild psychopathy can be a genuine advantage for an administrator who has to make difficult decisions producing both the good of the whole and the misfortune of a portion. War requires such a decision, especially a genuine defensive war (not the sort of war that characterized the misbegotten war in Iraq). One has to be able to send men to die, but keep on functioning as an effective leader. Or, take the case of a business like IBM. IBM's old line of manufacturing became obsolete and irrelevant--twice over--first as digitization replaced punch card technology, then as much old mainframe computing was replaced by either desktop machines or much more powerful mainframes.

    IBM had to shed production lines and good loyal workers several times in order to shift to take advantage of new technology. Now they do little manufacturing (except high-end mainframes) and focus on services. A chief executive at IBM whose heart was too tender would be unable to make the cuts that were needed. Laying off people ruins their lives, sometimes. But... that's life. Onward and upward. A little psychopathy would be a big help.

    I'm not arguing on behalf of making more psychopaths--god forbid. In ordinary life even mild psychopathy is likely to be an aid to liars, thieves, knaves, and scoundrels of various kinds.

    And psychopathy isn't the only trait that is problematic. People who are very 'other directed' and are in the wrong kind of job for that can be a real pain in the ass. People who are a bit autistic can be problematic to other people--not because they are psychopathic, they are just not sensitive to social cues. People who grew up in dysfunctional, chaotic homes might not be able to tie their own shoe laces (figuratively speaking).
  • Shawn
    10.8k


    Sure, there are no absolutes. But, you haven't really answered my question. Are psychopathic traits desirable in regards to people in power? I'd think that history has shown that the answer is a resounding 'no'.

    Thanks.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.9k
    Your question doesn't have a simple answer.

    Generally, NO we don't want to grant power to psychopaths. But remember: psychopathy isn't an all or nothing condition. There are degrees. I said it might be an advantage in certain situations where people need to make difficult decisions and continue to function well afterwards. A limited amount of psychopathy might be helpful.

    But there are other ways that people cope with needing to make one difficult painful decision after another. They rehearse for themselves why these difficult decisions are difficult and painful. They recognize that they are going to feel a lot of emotional pain and learn to live with it for as long as they can. They ventilate a lot. They pray. They do whatever it takes to keep functioning. Sometimes they crack under the strain -- have a heart attack, become suicidal, and so on. Generally, though, they cope.

    Generally, we want power to be wielded by people who have consciences, are capable of feeling guilt for acting badly, have good judgement, and a few dozen other traits that may or may not come packaged together.

    And your question presumes that we know who the psychopaths are. Most often, we don't know (because they aren't behaving in such a way that they will be confronted by a forensic psychiatrist).
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    The following is based on Bruce Fink's book "Against Understanding, Commentary and Critique in a Lacanian Key" Fink is a practicing psychoanalyst and well known translator and interpreter of Lacan.

    Fink following Lacan divides the issue up into neurosis/psychosis. He indicates that the problems these individuals experience are almost opposite at its most basic level. The neurotic is too ego centered and the psychotics ego is too weak.

    Ways to distinguish psychotics:

    The neurotic's represses, the psychotic does not repress. Neurotics' unconscious is due to their ability to repress, psychotics have no unconscious dimension. What the neurotic finds too distressing to discuss, does not phase the psychotic at all. The neurotic has slips of the tongue (a way unconscious intrudes on consciousness) all the time, not so with the psychotic, who use language very carefully.

    The language of psychotics is very literal, very concrete with very little figurative meanings. They have little use of personal pronouns, they don't get metaphors, irony, nor jokes that depend on figurative understanding. . They attach non-normative meanings to words, 'private' meanings.

    Intersubjectively psychotics can't put themselves in someone else's shoes (the lack of empathy) Where neurosis is about the desires of the other, this is not an issue for the psychotic. The psychotic expects that what it desires others desire, what it thinks others think , what it opines others opine.
  • Wosret
    3.2k
    There are no such thing as pyschopaths. Not that I take psychology all that serious, but it's not in the DSM, its closest analogue would be anti-social personality disorder, but that requires a criminal history (as it is by definition a criminal mind, and doesn't even focus on personality traits but anti-social activities), and thus doesn't apply to most CEOs.

    I believe in big fat assholes though, they definitely exist. Ought big fat assholes be in charge? Nope.
  • Shawn
    10.8k
    I find it almost fascinating and at the same time disturbing that more isn't done on such a matter. I'm assuming people think the whole political process would "filter out" such potential psychopaths from power, at least in any democracy.

    Disturbing ignorance that can only spell disaster in the end, in my opinion.
  • Baden
    10.9k
    I'm not sure I understand the relevance here. Psychosis and psychopathy are completely different conditions, no?
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    Yes, you're right. I got them muddled.
  • Shawn
    10.8k
    Why are people not concerned about this? Seriously?
  • Wosret
    3.2k
    I'm unconcerned because it's a media invention, just as I'm unconcerned about vampires.
  • WhiskeyWhiskers
    151
    Why discriminate against individuals who haven't necessarily done anything wrong?
  • Bitter Crank
    8.9k
    It isn't against the law to BE psychopathic. Indeed, as I pointed out above, it might even be a socially acceptable advantage to be slightly psychopathic, in certain specific kinds of positions.
  • S
    11.8k
    I was also concerned about that. Insofar as it negatively effects one's job in a significant way, and especially if one's job is a public role, then any mental illness is not just a private concern for said-individual. That said, I think that the comparison to Hitler, Stalin and Mao is an uncharitable caricature. You might as well mention Patrick Bateman while you're at it.
  • Sinderion
    28
    I think a lot of this turns on what psychopathy is and what about it would necessarily entail that a psychopathic person would be unfit to be in a position of power. Following which the question would be, why focus on psychopaths as opposed to the set of properties they possess?

    Also I may have a different notion of what a psychopath is, judging from what people have said so far.
  • Shawn
    10.8k
    Also I may have a different notion of what a psychopath is, judging from what people have said so far.Sinderion

    My notion of a psychopath in essence is a person who is excellent at exploiting others and has no conscience about it.

    I'm wondering if that definition itself is up for debate...
  • Sinderion
    28
    My notion of a psychopath in essence is a person who is excellent at exploiting others and has no conscience about it.Question

    Not sure if that's what most people have in mind, but I'll grant you that definition.

    So there seem to be two salient points here:
    1) Psychopaths are excellent at exploiting others
    2) Psychopaths have no conscience (when exploiting others)

    The first point doesn't seem like it helps you all that much. It doesn't seem like it is necessarily a bad property to be excellent at exploiting others. There might even be situations where exploiting others would be a necessary ability to have in order to govern a successful state. In addition, the ability to X is a non-factor if it is never employed.

    I think what you would have to establish is that exploitation is necessarily (i) an ability that can only be used to the detriment of the state or (ii) will necessarily be employed by a psychopath to the detriment of the state, and will inevitably be employed by a psychopath to the detriment of the state (or people of the state or whatever you see as the primary aim/purpose/beneficiary of the state)

    I suppose what you hint at with the second point (psychopaths have no conscience when exploiting others) is that in some sense, exploiting others without conscience as a psychopath does will inevitably and necessarily lead to the detriment of the state.

    Before establishing the rest of my counterargument, I will note that I am taking conscience to mean something approximating the faculty of the mind that compels a person to do the right thing. In other words, the lack of conscience of the psychopath can be translated to: The lack of motivation to do the right thing.

    Now, why would the motivation to do the right thing be important to a leader? Presumably, because we expect that a leader who has this motivation necessarily is a certain way that facilitates her ability to benefit the state. However, I do not see how a clear link can be drawn between the lack of conscience and the ability to govern a state.

    Consider: Hypothetically speaking, can an individual possess no conscience and still be legitimately interested in maintaining a successful state, for its own sake? What would the problem be with such an individual? On the other hand, suppose someone with access to the objectively correct moral theory has a strong conscience that requires him to go against the "interests" of a state? Would such an individual be considered a good political leader? (Assuming that the moral imperative and the aims of a good government are irreconcilable)
  • Marchesk
    3.6k
    Sociopaths certainly exist. I wasn't aware that psychology denied this. But it is on a continuum, as has been pointed out. Most sociopaths aren't serial killers, where the term "psychopath" probably came from. And the majority aren't anti-social. What they are is different, emotionally, but varying by degree. They tend to be cold and calculating, instead of empathic. But they're good at faking it. This does have advantages in some arenas. The disadvantages to others is when a sociopath is manipulative and exploitative. They can use their superficial charm and lack of empathy to fool others for personal gain or for the fun of it.

    This is different from being a jerk. The truth is we all probably have a bit it of sociopathy at times, just like we can all be a bit narcissistic. And that's probably healthy, because you wouldn't be able to function if you were always feeling altruistic.
  • Wosret
    3.2k
    "Anti-social" doesn't mean that they have no friends, it means evil. Anti-social as opposed to pro-social, or things that harm, or go against the community, and mores.

    What they are is a modern day monster. Today's vampires and werewolves.
  • S
    11.8k
    That's tongue-in-cheek, right?
  • Wosret
    3.2k


    The vampires and werewolves part? No.

    One first only need understand that it isn't actually a technical term for anything, it's a colloquial term, taken from a term that just means "mental disorder", or literally, "mind disease" -- and just sounds like a technical way of calling someone a crazy person. In popular fiction the evil serial killer usually has a mismash of things like schizophrenia, disassociative personality disorder, or in the case of Buffalo Bill, also something of a transgender disorder as well. It's just a mismash of what people think are crazy people, combined with evil actions.

    The facts are though, that a person with a mental disorder is not any more likely to commit horrible crimes than someone with no mental disorders. They still have to be crazy to be murders, and evil though, don't they?

    The word is just synonymous with evil now. A pyschopath is just an evil person. Someone that is remorselessly manipulative, violent, or self-entitled. That uses others without qualms, and enjoys the suffering and misery of the innocent. As well as murders and eats people. It is just a technical sounding word for an evil person, that often doesn't actually have any kind of mental illness, but the very fact that they're evil means that they must be insane!

    This is just exaggerated, and unscientific, but it also is based on a distrust, demonization, and marginalization of the mentally ill.
  • darthbarracuda
    3.1k
    I don't think psychopathy is necessary to rule, per se. I have a hard time imagining Lincoln being a psychopath, for example. It may be, though, that psychopathy or sociopathy make it easier to operate in the political climate.

    Shoot, I forgot, Lincoln was a vampire killer.
  • YIOSTHEOY
    76
    the ancient Greeks already dealt with this issue which you have raised in deep detail, and at least in the case of the city-state they have concluded that democracy is better than tyranny. I am of the opinion that representative government with term limits is better than tyranny as well. There must also be separation of powers, with impeachment procedures, in case a Nixon ever appears anywhere. In the USA the Joint Chiefs together with the various Army generals and Navy admirals would most likely refuse to follow any unlawful order from the POTUS and would instead refer to the Speaker of the US House, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Chief Justice of the SCOTUS if anything of a tyrannical nature ever got started or went too far. Nixon was a tyrant. Fortunately he was the only one, unless you count Abe Lincoln too. But times were tough for Abe and he had all the Union generals firmly behind him in reuniting the Nation and destroying Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee.
  • YIOSTHEOY
    76
    try Nixon then. He was definitely a psychopath.
  • YIOSTHEOY
    76
    so you're not too worried then that Trump has a mental disorder ??

    He sure worries me. He worries a lot of other people too.
  • YIOSTHEOY
    76
    democracy or any other representative government is always going to be contentious because you inherently will always have more than one side vying for power.

    Hopefully the majority consciousness will always be able to make the right choices in America and elsewhere.

    I find it startling that Adolf was elected by the Germans in the 1930's. Of course he deceived them with many promises, most of which he kept, right up until he got his own armies slaughtered in Russia.

    Trump reminds me of Adolf now in many ways. Same kinds of ridiculous undeliverable promises. Some of them even racist.
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