Feb 8th 2014

Dangerous Personality Disorders in Leading Positions

by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes is trained in psychoanalysis. In the area of political science, he co-authored a study on the effectiveness of democracy in Ireland. He graduated with a PhD in atomic physics from Queen’s University in Belfast, and worked in some of the top research laboratories in Europe and the United States. These included JET, the nuclear fusion research facility, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States.

In his 2018 book Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy, he brought together his experience in science, psychology and political science to demonstrate that a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world. The book explored how demonstrably dangerous individuals, namely psychopaths and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders, can so easily gain power, attract widespread followings and lead societies towards calamity. He is also contributing author to the 2019 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork. His work at MaREI is aimed at helping to establish a common understanding among decision-makers across government of the challenges and opportunities associated with system transitions for sustainability and the policy responses which can enable the system changes needed to address climate change.

Small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders have dominated the psychologically normal majority of the population in every society on earth for most of human history. The conditions that prevailed the world over, until relatively recently, (including widespread poverty and disease), meant that life for most was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. In such conditions, those with dangerous personality disorders could thrive. It is only in the last few centuries that socio-economic development has enabled the normal majority to begin to wrestle power from this violent minority. Today that struggle is gathering pace, as a clash of civilisations takes place. That clash of civilisations is not between the West and the Rest, or between Islam and modernity. The main clash of civilisations we are seeing today is between the psychologically normal majority and a dangerous pathological minority.

What Are Dangerous Personality Disorders?

There are three dangerous personality disorders – psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder. The core feature of psychopathy is an absence of conscience. The cognitive and emotional functioning of people with this disorder is such that they see little or no distinction between people and things. Lacking any trace of empathy, they can commit violence of fraud without remorse. People with narcissistic personality disorder are capable of empathy, but that capability is often overridden by their rigid belief in their own superiority. People with this disorder treat others with disdain, and are cognitively incapable of even conceiving of the idea of equality. Paranoid personality disorder is characterised by a hyper-attentive paranoia, and people with this disorder view everyone around them as a real or potential threat. The role of people with this disorder is often to scapegoat acceptable enemies and to whip up hatred and fear in society.

How do People with These Disorders Come to Power?

In many circumstances people with dangerous personalities have a higher probability of reaching positions of authority and power than those with normal psychology. In violent situations, such as revolution or civil war, the ruthlessness of psychopaths proves an almost unassailable advantage. Such was the case with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and countless others. In societies scarred by violence or communal division, those with paranoid personality disorder can also gain widespread popular appeal by vilifying acceptable enemies. But it is not only violence that can allow those with dangerous personality disorders to gain positions of influence. Ideology can also play a crucial role. Examples of ideologies which have afforded pathological elites a ready path to power in recent times have included communism, national socialism, neoliberalism, and religion.

The Role of Culture  – ‘The bitch the bore him is again in heat”

The rise of pathological elites to power is not simply down to the psychology of those with these disorders; it is also crucially about the psychology of the rest of us. People with dangerous personality disorders often have a powerful appeal for the normal majority. Their ambition and boundless energy, their charisma, their dogmatic certainty, and unlimited confidence, means that we often willingly place power in their hands.

Culture plays a vital role in empowering pathological elites. The role of culture can be seen in examples as disparate as the rise of right wing extremism in Europe in the wake of the Financial Crisis, to the aggressive and predatory culture within the world’s largest financial institutions which caused the crisis in the first place.

In his play ‘The Resistible Rise of  Arturo Ui’, Bertolt Brecht wrote (of Adolf Hitler) ‘Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the bastard is dead, the bitch that bore him is again in heat.’ Culture can either enable those with dangerous personality disorders to flourish, or culture can act as a brake on their destruction.

What Can We Do?

The strongest protection against pathological elites is also the most logical – to ensure that individuals with dangerous personality disorders do not achieve positions of power or influence at any level of society – within communities, within organizations or within nations. However there is clearly much in our existing cultures, religions, politics and psychology that needs to be addressed for this to become a reality.

But we have already begun to put in place the rules and institutions that can protect us. The safeguards we have devised include the rule of law, electoral democracy, the separation of church and state, protection for individual human rights, social democracy, shared sovereignty, and cultures of tolerance and equality.

While in times past those with dangerous personality disorders may have had an evolutionary advantage, in modern societies that advantage is waning. The arc of history is bending slowly, away from tyranny, selfishness and violence, and towards democracy, equality, and human rights. A different future beckons.


Dr. Ian Hughes' blog DisorderedWorld can be found here.

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