A Mainstream Foray into Political Ponerology
Harrison KoehliApr 23
Just a week or so after the new edition of Political Ponerology was published in March 2022, I saw this tweet:
As something of a nerd, I was quite excited. Especially after I saw that Robert Hare was the lead author. Dr. Hare is the leading expert on psychopathy, developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, and this was his first foray, to my knowledge, into the explicitly political dimensions of psychopathy, something of an obsession of mine (though his work with Paul Babiak did introduce and popularize the idea of the white-collar, corporate psychopath).
Now, for some, the answer to the question posed in the tweet is obvious. Who would need to conduct a study to find the answer? Fair enough. But I was still excited. This is the first study of its kind, and despite how obvious the conclusion might seem, the number of researchers willing to go out on a limb to make the connection without such a study are few and far between.
Here’s a quotation from Harold Dwight Lasswell, credited as being the father of political psychology. I recently read his 1930 book, Psychopathology and Politics(you can read it for free online by following the link). While the book is a tad too Freudian for my tastes, the chapters on political agitators are a gem. I may return to them in future writings, but for now I just want to quote a single passage from the book’s conclusion:
If anyone undertakes to use the ethnologist’s approach to a familiar culture, the results are likely to strike the participant in that culture as perfectly obvious and hardly worth the effort. The whole aim of the scientific student of society is to make the obvious unescapable, if one wishes to put the truth paradoxically. (p. 250)
Hare and his colleagues conclude their paper:
Finally, we understand that our findings would not surprise the countless victims and casualties of the Pinochet dictatorship or of any state-sponsored terrorism. Behavioral science often confirms the obvious. … Recognition of the psychological makeup of actors who were responsible for the planning, oversight, and commission of crimes against humanity is of considerable importance. However, the challenge is to use this information for preventative and management purposes, difficult tasks in a world plagued with intractable ideologies and geopolitical conflicts, many fostered and facilitated by actors with the temperaments described herein. (p. 14)
The researchers had access to over 100 members of Pinochet’s armed forces convicted and incarcerated for crimes against humanity. They tested these men using the PCL-R and found that not only was the average psychopathy score similar to that of a typical prison population (i.e. they had significantly higher rates of psychopathy than the general population); these men scored particularly high on the interpersonal/affective facets of psychopathy. That is, they had highly psychopathic personalities, even though their antisocial/lifestyle scores were on average lower than the general prison population. Their scores conformed to the “conning/manipulative” subtype of psychopathy.
As rated, these men generally were extremely grandiose, manipulative, deceptive, callous, and remorseless, about as impulsive, irresponsible, and sensation seeking as other offenders, yet not burdened with a manifest history of delinquent or severe antisocial behavior. This particular pattern of clinically rated traits and behaviors in a well-defined group of human rights violators is remarkable, even unique, in the empirical literature on psychopathy and terrorism. It appears that ambitious, callous, and ruthless officers were suitable candidates for roles dedicated to suppressing and eliminating proclaimed enemies of the state. (Hare et al., p. 14)
I discuss all these details in the MindMatters episode above, so I won’t cover them all again here. Instead, I want to introduce some points I didn’t raise in the podcast or discuss in much detail. Specifically, how do this study’s conclusions relate to Political Ponerology and the wider claims Lobaczewski makes in his book?
When Psychopaths Rise to the Top
The study only relates to a small and specific subset of people involved in the Pinochet regime: members of the armed forces convicted of crimes against humanity. It is not a systematic study of political figures or even armed forces personnel as a whole. As the authors point out, they could not get access to a sample of armed forces members who served at the same time, but who were not convicted of such crimes. So it’s impossible to estimate how much greater, if any, the incidence of psychopathy in this group was compared to the general population (i.e. generally accepted to be approximately just over 1%).
Lobaczewski gives some rough demographic estimates for communist Poland at the time he lived there (from the 1950s to the 1970s): a base rate of 0.6% for psychopathy, top-level active leadership who numbered around 6% of the population (5.8% of the population were party members by 1989), highly concentrated with psychopathic individuals, and another 12% who formed a sort of “new bourgeoisie.” His figures suggest possible rates of psychopathy within these groups from 3-10% (3% of the whole 18%, up to 1/10 of the 6%; see Political Ponerology, pp. 230, 232). (About 15%–25% of U.S. inmates have high psychopathy scores.) Phrased differently: psychopathy is present in these leadership groups at a rate 5x to 17x that of the general population.
Hare et al. found that the higher the military rank, the higher the psychopathy score. Most interesting for me was this: “All those with the maximum Factor 1 [interpersonal/affective] score of 16 were in the senior ranks” (p. 12). As they put it, this was “unusual” (p. 8). Their scores were in the 100th percentile for North American offenders. They write:
In essence, before and during the Pinochet era, Chile’s political and economic atmosphere was ideal for the emergence of a brutal, despotic regime populated by ambitious, unscrupulous, and opportunistic individuals who seamlessly adopted a role as defenders of the state. … those who rose to the top were the most psychopathic of all. (p. 8)
Lobaczewski specifically connects psychopathy with the commanders of the Nazi concentration camps (p. 243), for example. In a 1984 interview he said:
We find typical psychopaths wherever evil has already germinated, wherever cunning and ruthlessness are paramount and the customs of normal human beings are scorned. They were and are Secret Police organizers and Kommandants, guards, and SS men in concentration and death camps, they are into organized crime and drug trafficking, they are the core of security apparatuses. They can also be … ostensibly suave but repulsive diplomats.
I was pleased to see some conclusions congruent with my own arguments in the introduction to Lobaczewski’s book, where I argued that the proper conclusion to be drawn from experiments like Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s, and the data studied by Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men, is a combination of psychopathy at the top (as well as in the ranks, though as a minority) and conformity at the bottom. Hare et al. write:
Importantly for our purposes, Diggelmann distinguished between perpetrators with the highest ranks and those with only a high rank. The former are conflict entrepreneurs who use neutralization techniques to create a group value system and identity to normalize criminal and violent enterprises [emphases added]. They “formulate and spread the ideology and demand allegiance from the rest” (p. 1093), and their actions and lack of remorse are related to psychopathologies, such as malignant narcissism or psychopathy. According to this view, perpetrators’ actions below the highest rank result, in large part, from conforming to the group’s sense of morality and purpose rather than from psychopathology.
… we must consider that these actors were elite operatives with a relatively specific mission who acted within particular boundaries and expectations set by organizations for which they worked. In this respect, some of Pinochet’s killing machines were soldiers following orders, but many were ruthless, mission-oriented individuals whose nature fitted the job description. (p. 14)
As for political leaders, Hare et al. write:
Hakkanen-Nyholm and Nyholm (2012, p. 195) commented, “…even if there are no empirical studies about the subject, a very dangerous situation may occur when you have persons with psychopathic traits in the lead of both the nation’s politics and the military. In practice, the military and political leadership may be personified in one person.” Of course, the name that immediately comes to mind is Pinochet. However, we did not assess him and therefore did not comment on his personality traits; many others have done so. (p. 5)
Lobaczewski thinks that Bormann and Beria were psychopaths (but not Stalin or Lenin, and while he thinks Hitler was definitely personality disordered, he does not hazard a specific diagnosis). But to focus solely on leaders is to miss the big picture.
It’s not just the security services, or the personality of the top leader. Under certain conditions, the problem becomes systemic:
All leadership positions (down to village headman, the managers of workplaces and agricultural cooperatives, not to mention the directors of police units, secret police personnel, and activists and propagandists in the pathocratic party) must be filled by individuals whose sense of connection with such a system of power is conditioned by corresponding psychological deviations, which are usually inherited.
However, such people constitute a very small percentage of the population and this makes them more valuable to the pathocrats. … After such a system has lasted several years, one hundred percent of all the cases of essential psychopathy are involved in pathocratic activity; they are considered the most loyal, even though some of them were formerly involved on the other side in some way. (p. 196)The name for that systemic concentration of psychopaths in positions of leadership is pathocracy.