Apr 8th 2021

How to stop psychopaths and narcissists from winning positions of power

by Steve Taylor

 

Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Leeds Beckett University

 

One of the human race’s biggest problems has been that people who occupy positions of power are often incapable of using power in a responsible way. In the past, this was mostly due to hereditary systems which assigned power to kings and lords and others, who often didn’t have the intellectual or moral capacity to use their power well. But in more recent times, it seems as though power attracts ruthless and narcissistic people with a severe lack of empathy and conscience.

In psychology, there is a concept of a “dark triad” of malevolent personality traits: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. These traits are studied together because they almost always overlap and combine. If a person has psychopathic traits, then they tend to have narcissistic and Machiavellian traits too.

People with these personalities can’t sense other people’s feelings or see the world from any perspective apart from their own. They don’t have a sense of conscience or guilt to stop them behaving immorally. They feel superior and enjoy manipulating and controlling other people. At the same time, they need to feel respected and admired and like to be the centre of attention.

There’s a great deal of evidence that people with dark triad personalities are attracted to the corporate and political worlds. Research, for example, shows that people with narcissistic and psychopathic traits have a strong desire for dominance and are disproportionately common in leadership positions.

As the psychologists Niklas Steffens and Alexander Haslam put it, “like moths to a flame, narcissists may be drawn naturally to positions of power and influence”. Or as the psychologist Robert Hare writes of psychopaths, they “are social predators and like all predators they are looking for feeding grounds. Wherever you get power, prestige and money, you will find them”.

The most evil leaders of the 20th-century, such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi, clearly had severe dark triad traits. They didn’t become leaders because of their ability or intelligence, but simply because they had a tremendous desire for power and were incredibly ruthless and cruel in their pursuit of it.

Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles.

Narcissists and sociopaths

In democratic countries such as the UK and the US, one could argue that there is less likelihood of psychopathic people becoming leaders. But there’s still a serious problem with highly narcissistic, ruthless and non-empathic people attaining power. This is clear from Donald Trump’s presidency.

Like many mental health professionals, the president’s niece, Mary Trump – a clinical psychologist – voiced her opinion that Trump suffers from a range of personality disorders. She suggested that his main issue was his severe narcissism, but also that he “meets the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, which in its severe form is generally considered sociopathy”.

Donald Trump against a stars and stripes backdrop.
‘Who me?’ Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

Over time, as sensible and responsible people left his administration, Trump attracted others with similar personality traits to himself. In this way, his regime became what the Polish psychologist Andrew Lobacewski called a “pathocracy” – a government consisting of people with personality disorders. In the UK there has also been a trend for leading politicians to display signs of narcissism, ruthlessness and a lack of empathy. This also suggests a movement towards pathocracy.

The essence of the problem is that callous, low-empathy people are drawn to power, whereas empathic and responsible people (who would make ideal leaders) don’t have a desire for dominance. They usually prefer to remain on the ground, interacting with other people. This leaves positions of powers free for the wrong people.

What can be done?

Like others who have studied the problem of “corporate psychopathy”, the Australian psychologist Clive Boddy has suggested that companies should screen leadership candidates for psychopathy. In my view, we should do something similar in politics. Every government (indeed every organisation) should employ psychologists to assess potential leaders and determine their suitability for power.

Office concept with woman wearing glasses in forefront.
Could personality profiling help companies find suitable leaders? pexels/fauxels

Personality tests might not be much use, because dark triad personalities are manipulative and dishonest. But other assessments could be used. It’s widely accepted there are childhood signs of dark triad traits, such as callousness and cruelty and a lack of empathy, guilt and emotion. So psychologists could examine the candidate’s life history, interviewing previous supervisors and coworkers. They could also speak to past acquaintances, former schoolteachers or university tutors.

Some might argue this would give too much power to psychologists, who would effectively become kingmakers – and perhaps become vulnerable to corruption themselves. While this is true, it’s surely preferable to the present situation, where there’s nothing to stop people with narcissistic and psychopathic traits gaining power and then using their power malevolently.

Steve Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Leeds Beckett University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world. ---- The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."