It’s fun and satisfying – and increasingly part of popular culture – to think of politicians being natural-born psychopaths. And it seems so right.
Callous, manipulative, exploitative, unrepentant and smarmy – these are the diagnostic traits of the psychopath.
How often do we consider them on display among the rorters in Parliament House, when they get caught, and the hard-line proponents of policies that don’t seem especially humane?
And while politicians aren’t actual serial killers leaving deaths-head moths in the mouths of their victims, there are plenty who shake friendly with one hand and knife with the other when it comes to frequent leadership spills.
Last August, Oxford psychologist Dr Kevin Dutton ranked a number of leaders for psychopathic traits using a standard psychometric tool, the “Psychopathic Personality Inventory – Revised’’.
Dr Dutton found Donald Trump ranked above Adolf Hitler, but lagged a little way behind Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Henry VIII. He also found Hillary Clinton ranked between Napoleon and Nero.
In the end, Dr Dutton concluded that a touch of psychopathy in our leaders wasn’t such a bad thing – it gave them the tools they needed to steer their constituents through challenging times.
The story went everywhere. Fortune magazine trumpeted “Why Great Presidents Are Often Psychopaths’’, other publications were less celebratory.
Similar stories have been thrilling readers for years. The problems are these: the science isn’t as rigorous as it needs to be, psychopathy gets confused with criminality and every one of us has a capacity for psychopathy.
Nick Haslam is Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne. He said researchers have previously argued psychopaths are a discrete group of malevolent people, separate from the rest of us – but it’s broadly accepted that psychopathy is on a continuum.
“Everybody has social intelligence, which means they have the ability to manipulate and exploit others,’’ Prof Haslam told The New Daily.
Once psychopathy was no longer understood in terms of remorseless criminality, “it morphed into the idea of the successful psychopath” – people who exploit their psychopathic traits to prosper in the political and corporate world.
Prof Haslam said some politicians may show higher psychopathic traits, others not. But he suggests much of their poor, even morally defective behaviour, “reflects the nature of the job, which calls for and rewards calculation, manipulation and the exercise of naked power. We then mistake that behaviour for their intrinsic nature.
“This is one of the key messages of social psychology: we’re too quick to ascribe behaviour to people’s dispositions and too slow to ascribe it to their circumstances.’’
We’re too quick to ascribe behaviour to people’s dispositions and too slow to ascribe it to their circumstances.
Dr Katarina Fritzon is Associate Professor of the Forensic Psychology Program at Bond University. She said that most of the research that talks about “successful psychopathy’’ uses student samples, or general community samples using self-report instruments.
Dr Fritzon said that the Psychopathic Personality Inventory tool used in the Oxford University research was well regarded, “but in our research found a tendency for this measure to inflate the rate of psychopathic traits”.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about psychopathy is this: you can be a full-blown psychopath and not even know it.
In October 2005, neuroscientist James Fallon was studying the brain scans of serial killers, as part of a research project at the University of California Irvine.
He was also doing a study on Alzheimer’s that included scans of his own brain – and it matched the low activity in areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control.
He said: “I’ve never killed anybody, or raped anyone. So the first thing I thought was that… these brain areas are not reflective of psychopathy or murderous behaviour.”
Genetic tests for aggressive behaviour, however, confirmed the truth: his family line included seven alleged murderers.
And, really, he knew himself to be motivated by power and manipulating others. Family members also reported him to be lacking empathy.
He put down his relative harmlessness to being loved and protected as a child. Prof Fallon said he now tries to be more caring and responsive to others’ feelings.
But as he told the Smithsonian Magazine: “I’m not doing this because I’m suddenly nice, I’m doing it because of pride—because I want to show to everyone and myself that I can pull it off.’’