The Problem with Psychology Today’s Commentary on Political Leaders’ Psychological Profiles

Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin

Last summer Psychology Today posted an article online (which I just read recently) called Pathocracy. The term refers to the psychological pathology often found among political leaders and how the political and social structure of the modern world seems all too often to catapult pathological people to positions of power.

The author, Steve Taylor PhD, discusses the origins of the naming and study of pathocracy. The term was coined by Andrew Lobaczewski, a Polish psychologist who lived under Nazi occupation during WWII and then under repressive Soviet rule. Taylor writes of Lobaczewski:

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.

Taylor explains that Lobaczewski was jailed and tortured during the Soviet era in Poland and unable to publish his work on pathocracy and ponerology until he escaped to the west.

This line of study is fascinating and totally legitimate. But there are some problems with Taylor’s essay as it goes on. First, he repeats the common myth about human history that the brutality and tyranny of the modern world has always been so:

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.

This is actually not an accurate portrayal of human history. For most of existence, humans lived in relatively small egalitarian tribes that emphasized cooperation. As outlined by anthropologist Douglas P. Fry in his groundbreaking work The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions About War and Peace. While there were individual homicides, we did not see “constant conflict and brutality, with groups of people fighting against one another over territory and power and possessions” until the rise of agricultural settlement around 10,000-13,000 years ago. Once humans settled in one place and grew crops, food could then be hoarded, controlled and weaponized, while surpluses could promote larger population growth. Essentially, this allowed humans to go beyond taking what they needed from their immediate environment to survive to then taking more than their fair share from both the environment and other groups of humans. Social stratification, hierarchy and competition for territory rose out of this manner of organizing humans, with all of the attendant horrors like war and torture emerging in the archaeological record.

If Taylor has an erroneous starting point as his premise, then he’s not going to be asking the right questions surrounding ponerology. He goes on to point out that a small number of humans suffering from personality disorders on the anti-social spectrum have often managed to rise to positions of power:

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.

He then points out that, conversely, those with reasonably high amounts of empathy are not interested in attaining power, leaving the field open to the pathological types lacking empathy. Those who have a sufficient level of ambition and ruthlessness will serve as enablers within the power structure.

Taylor then quotes from a writer, Ian Hughes, who posits that democracy – specifically touting the founders of the US constitution – was intended to put a check on the rise of these disordered individuals. I can see where this idea might sound like it makes some sense in theory, but in reality it’s problematic because we’ve had many leaders throughout US history that have started and presided over wars as well as large-scale massacres of Native Americans and the enslavement of African-Americans. It’s also very debatable whether we have a substantive democracy at all these days in the US rather than the outer trappings of democracy – and even those superficial trappings seem to be disappearing.

Following up on this line of reasoning, Taylor states that these pathological leaders always hate democracy and seek to destroy or roll back what democratic institutions may already be in existence. One of the leaders he cites as an example of this is, of course, Vladimir Putin. I’ve written more than once of how this is not an accurate depiction of Putin. This demonstrates that Taylor is immersing himself in establishment media sources that are distorted, which is another problem with his essay.

In terms of Taylor’s overarching argument that pathological personalities on the anti-social spectrum often rise to the top echelons of power, it is also an oversimplification. One of the worst tyrants and mass murderers in modern history was Adolph Hitler. Interestingly, several psychologists at the time pegged Hitler, not as a psychopath, but as a likely paranoid schizophrenic. Taylor doesn’t seem to acknowledge that people suffering from other severe psychological disorders can also rise to power and be dangerous. Hitler held extremely dangerous delusions that fed an evil ideology that gained steam at a particular time and place in history.

This brings us to another shortcoming of Taylor’s analysis. How are specific political and social conditions conducive or not to the rise of someone like Hitler? Or Stalin? While Stalin is not specifically mentioned by Taylor, he’s consistently recognized as a particularly evil leader (Hitler’s contemporary) who governed over and created the Soviet system for many of the years that Lobaczewski lived under its occupation of Poland. While Stalin no doubt had traits of psychopathy, he also was very much a product of the revolutionary milieu of his time that believed the ends justified the means with regard to violence.

There is also no acknowledgment of the phenomena of the most tyrannical elements emerging from the jockeying for power that follows when diverse revolutionary movements sweep out previous tyrannical regimes.

On the home stretch of the article, Taylor discusses how many psychologists and psychiatrists have publicly stated they think Trump is a leader with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Trump is a full-blown narcissist. However, there are professional rules against psychologists or psychiatrists officially diagnosing a living person whom they have never examined or spoken to.

This also has the effect of pushing the idea – popular among establishment Democrats – that Trump is a uniquely evil or dangerous president rather than a cumulative product of what has come before with previous presidents laying the groundwork for the abusive powers that Trump currently has access to. These include: aggressive war-making with Congress abdicating its responsibility to declare and oversee wars, as well as authorizing torture and illegal surveillance (GWB); expansion of illegal surveillance and drone strikes, the assassination of American citizens without due process, kill lists, limiting of habeas corpus, targeting more whistle-blowers than all previous administrations combined, and allowing government propaganda to be directed at domestic audiences (Obama).

In short, Psychology Today is oversimplifying the problem of pathological and inhumane political leadership and what shapes it, ignoring that there is a dynamic interplay of elements at work. Readers would benefit from a deeper and more comprehensive exploration of this problem from a perspective that better incorporates social psychology and political history.

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