by Steve Taylor Ph.D: How psychology can save us from Abuse of Power…


One of the great things about democracy is that it allows anyone, no matter their initial social circumstances, to rise into positions of influence and power. But one of the worst things about democracy is that allows anyone, no matter their personality and their character flaws, to rise into positions of influence and power.

Throughout most of recorded history, one of the human race’s biggest problems has been that people who rise into positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with power. Desire for power correlates with negative personality traits, such as selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. So the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and least compassionate individuals. And once they possess power, they usually devote themselves to entrenching, increasing and protecting their power, with scant regard for the welfare of others.

There are countless examples of this throughout history, and in the present day. In feudal societies, power was often bequeathed by birth, but there were often power struggles amongst individuals who believed that they had a valid claim to power, or who simply wanted to overthrow the established order. Often it was the most aggressive and ruthless individuals would win control and quickly show themselves to be tyrants.

In post-feudal societies, the problem was arguably worse, since positions of power became accessible to many more people, and so competition increased. The absence of social structures and hierarchical obstacles enabled a mad, violent scramble for power which resulted in psychopaths such as Stalin and Hitler becoming absolute leaders. In recent decades, a similar process has occurred in African countries, where it has become depressingly common for leaders to be ruthless, self-centred individuals, completely lacking in empathy and responsibility. Tyrants such as Idi Amin (who terrorised Uganda in the 1970s) and the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor are examples of this. Many middle Eastern countries were afflicted with similar psychopathic leaders, such as Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi. These have been overthrown, but unfortunately the collapse of social order since their demise seems only likely to lead to the emergence of new psychopaths.

Of course, this is partly what democracy is designed to protect us from, and it certainly does to some extent. It provides constitutional checks and balances which prevent leaders from behaving tyrannically once they have attained power.

But what it doesn’t do is prevent people with flawed personalities attaining power in the first place.

From Psychopathic to Narcissitic Leaders

More than any other personality types, people with narcissistic or psychopathic personalities feel a strong impulse to attain power. Psychopathic leaders are characteristic of economically undeveloped countries with poor infrastructures and insecure political and social institutions. However, such psychopaths generally don’t become leaders in affluent, first world countries (perhaps they are more likely to join multi-national corporations). In these countries, there has been a movement away from psychopathic to narcissitic leaders. After all, what profession could be more suited to a narcissitic personality than politics, especially with the constant attention of the mass media? Narcissists feel entitled to gain power because of their sense of superiority and self-importance. They feel it is right that other people should be subservient to them, while craving for their attention and admiration. At the same time, their lack of empathy means that they don’t have any qualms about exploiting other people to attain or maintain their power.

We don’t have to look far for examples of politicians with signs of narcissistic personality disorder. In my own country, the UK, Tony Blair has clear signs of narcissism. His years in power were characterised by a grandiose sense of self-importance, an inability to share decision making, and a refusal to admit that he could make any mistakes, even in relation to the Iraq war. President Putin of Russia also appears to be a case of narcissistic personality disorder. A cursory look at the number of staged ‘action photos’ of him on the internet – half-naked on horseback, swimming in ice-cold rivers, hunting with a rifle in the wilderness – clearly suggests someone who is deeply in love with himself. In a more sinister way, his narcissism is evident from his refusal to relinquish power, and his inability to withstand opposition and criticism. (Perhaps this is the reason why Donald Trump reportedly admires President Putin – because he recognises him as a kindred spirit; that is, a fellow narcissist. Some psychologists have suggested that Trump appears to have characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder, such as an insatiable desire for attention, an acute sensitivity to slights, and a tendency to hold grudges against those who criticise him.)

This doesn’t just apply to politics, of course. It’s a problem in every organisation with a hierarchical structure – every company, every corporation, every government body. The people who gain power may not always have fully fledged narcissism or psychopathy, but they are frequently the most ambitious and ruthless individuals, who are also the least empathic and responsible.

A large part of the problem is the kind of people who should take on positions of power – because they are empathic, fair-minded, responsible and wise – are naturally disinclined to gain power. Empathic individuals like to remain on the ground, interacting with others, rather than elevating themselves. They don’t desire control or authority, but connection. So this leaves the positions free for people who do crave control and authority.

Different Types of Leaders

However, it would obviously be misleading to say that it’s only psychopaths and narcissists who who attain positions of power. I would suggest that there are generally three types of leaders.

The first are ‘accidental leaders.’ These gain power without a large degree of conscious intention on their part, but due to a combination of privilege and merit. David Cameron is an example of this. Cameron, the son of a millionaire businessman, went to an elite public school and university, where – like everyone else from his social milieu – he was inculcated with the belief that he was destined for a position of prominence in society. Partly due to family connections, he became affiliated with the Conservative party. There, due to his intelligence and charisma, he rapidly rose through the ranks, and was ear-marked as a potential leader. Cameron was famous for holding no strong ideological principles, and having no great ambition. Once he was asked why he wanted the job of prime minister and he replied simply, ‘Because I think I would be rather good at it.’

All over every country, there are many ‘accidental leaders’  in organisations – people who have slowly worked their way up their organisation’s hierarchy through their skill and diligence, without being propelled by particularly strong ambition. These are usually quite agreeable as leaders, with a sense of responsibility towards their underlings (partly because they used to belong to their ranks) and some degree of empathy. (Even David Cameron, many of whose views and policies I strongly disagree with, was less unpleasant and harmful than other leaders we’ve had in the UK.)

The second type of leaders are idealistic and altruistic leaders. These are probably the rarest type. They feel impelled to gain power for altruistic reasons. They are aware of injustice and feel an impulse to gain power in order to try to alleviate the injustice. They feel a passionate attachment to their particular field – perhaps education, law, environmental issues or race relations – and their passion and idealism gives them a great deal of motivation, which propels them to the higher positions within their hierarchy. And once they attain power, they become (or at least try to become) instruments of change, often battling with more conservative forces who are reluctant to shift. Their main motivation is not to gratify their own desires but to improve society or the wider world in some way, to alleviate suffering or injustice or enhance the lives of other human beings. Unfortunately there aren’t so many examples of idealistic and altruistic leaders, at least from the world of politics. However, even in Africa, there have been some rare cases – the ex-president of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, who led the country to reconciliation and recovery in the 1990s after a brutal civil war. There is also the present president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, and has devoted herself to peace-building, economic recovery and encouraging tolerance. Nelson Mandela is another obvious example.

The third – and unfortunately most common – are narcissistic and psychopathic leaders, whose motivation for gaining power is purely self-serving. These leaders can be ideological, but not idealistic. But when they have an ideology, this is always secondary to their desire for power, and often self-serving rather than devoted to the greater good. For example, President Putin’s nationalist ideology is clearly bound up with his own desire for power. By increasing Russia’s power, he increases his own power (and at the same increases his own popularity). On another level, he seems to identify himself with his country so strongly that any enhancement of Russla’s international status will be an enhancement personal status. Donald Trump’s ideology is difficult to ascertain, but seems to be largely a projection of his own personality characteristics (e.g. a nationalistic desire to increase America’s dominance and power and protect the country against those he believes take advantage of it and threaten its interests) together with policies designed to increase his popularity.

Further Checks to Power

In my view, what is urgently needed to safeguard the human race’s future are checks to power – not just to limit the exercise of power, but to limit the attainment of power. Put simply, the kind of people who desire power the most – people who the most ruthless and non-empathic – should not be allowed to attain positions of authority. Every country (and indeed every organisation) should employ psychologists to assess potential leaders and determine their levels of empathy, narcissism or psychopathy – and hence determine their suitability for power. At an even simpler level – if costs are limited – they could simply be given an empathy test. If the potential leaders lack empathy, then they should be barred from the position. At the same time, empathic people – who generally do not have the lust to gain power – should be encouraged to take positions of authority. Even if they don’t want to, they should feel a responsibility to, if only to prevent tyrants from doing so.

This might sound absurd and impractical, but we would by no means be the first societies to regulate power in this way. Although we lazily stereotype them as ‘primitive,’ most tribal hunter-gatherer groups are democratic to a highly sophisticated and rational degree. Most societies do operate with a leader of some kind, but their power is usually very limited, and they can easily be deposed if the rest of the group aren’t satisfied with them. Leaders do not have the right to make decisions on their own. In most tribal groups, decisions are reached by consensus. As the social anthropologist Gerhard Lenski writes, political decisions are not taken by the chief alone, but are usually “arrived at through informal discussions among the more respected and influential members, typically the heads of families.”

But most importantly for my argument, there are many tribal hunter-gatherer societies where great care is taken to ensure that unsuitable individuals don’t attain power. Any person who shows signs of a desire for power and wealth is usually barred from consideration as a leader. In the words of the anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, present day foraging groups “apply techniques of social control in suppressing both dominant leadership and undue competitiveness.” If a dominant male tries to take control of the group, primal peoples practise what Boehm calls “egalitarian sanctioning.” They gang up against the domineering person, ostracise him, desert him, or even – in extreme circumstances, when they feel that their own lives may be in danger due to his tyrannical behaviour – assassinate him. In this way, Boehm says, “the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members under their collective thumbs.”

At the same time, hunter-gatherer groups also have methods of trying to ensure that no individuals become narcissitic or domineering to begin with. This is done by sharing credit and putting down or ridiculing anybody who becomes too boastful. For example, the !Kung of Africa swop arrows before going hunting, and when an animal is killed, the credit doesn’t go to the person who fired the arrow, but to the person who the arrow belongs to.

Just as importantly, in many groups power is assigned to people, rather than being sought by them. People don’t choose to become leaders – other members of the group choose them, because they are experienced and wise, or because their abilities and their wisdomsuits particular situations. In some societies, the role of leader is not fixed, but rotates according to different circumstances. As another anthropologist Margaret Power notes, “The leadership role is spontaneously assigned by the group, conferred on some members in some particular situation…One leader replaces another as needed.’

Both of these principles could, and should, be applied to our societies, and psychologists should have the role of applying them. It’s time that power be taken out of the hands of narcissists and psychopaths, and assigned to empathic and responsible individuals, even if they are reluctant to accept it. Just as in hunter-gatherer groups, anyone with a strong desire for power should be automatically barred from power.

This would entail massive changes of personnel for most of the world’s governments, institutions and companies – but it would also bring a massive decrease in exploitation and oppression, and make the world a much safer and fairer place.

Source: Psychology Today