How many politicians are psychopaths?
Dark Triad traits are over-represented in positions of power. Are the halls of Congress and Parliament overrun with psychopaths?
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Would you swap places with a politician?
Whenever I give public lectures about power, I often do a simple experiment. I ask people in the audience to raise their hand if they would willingly switch places—trade careers—with a member of Congress or a member of Parliament.
Without fail, few raise their hands. When I ask why they kept their hands tucked to their sides, many tell me that nobody could pay them enough to become a politician.
You have to be fake. You have to raise money. You’re beholden to lobbyists. Powerful people will constantly be working to destroy your life, poring over every fragment of your past, hoping to take you down. Your personal and family life will never again feature a moment’s peace. (Most of the people who do raise their hands are thinking about the money; political power is directly linked to future wealth).
Those costs of obtaining political power in modern society are real. But there’s a certain kind of person who systematically discounts those risks; who thinks the costs don’t apply to them because they are smart enough to game the system; and, most importantly, who thinks that the power is worth any cost.
In English, we use the phrase “power-hungry” as an insult. But it literally means “someone who wants power.” And people who want power are more likely to get it.
Unfortunately, it turns out that psychopaths really want power—and are very good at getting it. There are, as we’ll soon see, a disproportionate number of psychopaths in politics (and business), destructive figures who have been dubbed “snakes in suits.”
That’s why the dedication of my last book, Corruptible, reads as follows: “To all the nice, non-psychopaths out there who should be in power but aren’t.”
Who becomes a politician?
In 1972, the political scientist GS Black came up with a mathematical equation for whether someone will decide to run for office. It was this: u = PB - C, in which the choice to run is determined by the probability that you’ll win the race (P) times the benefits you’ll derive from victory (B), minus the costs of running (C).
It’s just a fancy way of saying that people make decisions with a cost-benefit analysis, which is obvious. But too many political science analyses of politicians have focused on these variables as though they’re exclusively financial. They’re not. In one corrective, Andrew Hall writes that many of the costs of running for office aren’t easily turned into a mathematical formula:
Others, like the stress a campaign places on a candidate's family, the personal distaste and shame that comes along with the incessant public pandering candidates must do, and the sheer boredom of the endless banquets that candidates must attend, are harder to quantify.
What’s been missing from a lot of these political science accounts of how and why people decide to enter politics is a hidden variable: an individual’s psychological thirst for power. Psychologists have tried to capture this concept, but the various measures are pretty flimsy. They go by various names: nPow (need for power); SDO (social dominance orientation); and so on. They’re certainly better than nothing, but they remain too subjective.
Nonetheless, they’re aiming to capture a crucial variable. Some of us crave power. Others couldn’t be bothered and actively avoid seeking power.
To become powerful, you need to overcome three hurdles.
First, you must seek power. Those who don’t seek power usually don’t become powerful, because (unfortunately) political parties don’t do enough active recruiting, instead waiting for candidates to put themselves forward. This hurdle is the one the blocks most people; there’s a vast pool of wonderful would-be leaders out there who simply bow out because it doesn’t appeal to them, or they don’t think they’d be good at it, or they think they’d lose.
As a result, you’re left with a much smaller pool of people who believe they would be good leaders and would win. We need good people who think this way, because egotists and narcissists certainly do. As a result, undesirable people end up as a higher concentration among the potential pool of politicians. People who are too modest or who have self-doubt but might make excellent leaders don’t usually set their sights on political power.
Second, you must obtain power. This requires a certain set of skills that aren’t neutral. Those who are a bit more manipulative, a bit more strategic, a bit more ruthless, and a bit more power-obsessed are most likely to overcome this hurdle. Douglas Adams was broadly correct when he wrote that “anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
Of course, this process is also reflective of social biases, such that women and ethnic minorities face greater hurdles here. So, the selection process isn’t just reducing the pool by personality traits, but also by demographics based on society’s flaws.
Third, you must maintain power, which is easier said than done, given that other power-hungry people are constantly gunning for your job. As I wrote in Corruptible, nobody has ever heard of Pedro Lascuráin, because although he sought and obtained power, he served as Mexico’s president for just 45 minutes.
A certain kind of person is good at political survival and the brutality of the political arena amplifies undesirable traits, culling those who can’t (or won’t) cut it. Again, this distills the potential pool further, getting rid of too many good, decent people who want to serve, not wield power for its own sake.
Who has an easy time clearing all three hurdles? The answer, unfortunately, is psychopaths.
The Dark Triad
Psychopaths have abnormal brain function and emotional regulation. Some studies have chalked this up to physical abnormalities in their amygdalas, a crucial part of the brain that regulates emotion and anger. Others have questioned whether it’s genetic or physical, and have instead focused on environmental factors. And some have pointed to a complex, hidden series of factors—perhaps tied to epigenetics, in which the environment affects how genes are expressed.
Regardless of where psychopathy comes from, people who are psychopaths do not feel empathy like the rest of us. Such people have existed forever.
In Corruptible, I wrote about one of the early origin stories of how psychopaths were first conceived of as possibly a distinct category of mentally unwell person.
A little over two hundred years ago, a French physician named Philippe Pinel watched on in horror as a man kicked a dog to death. The man did it methodically, without remorse. He treated it as though he were accomplishing a mundane task, like hammering a nail or taking the trash out. Pinel developed a new typology for this type of behavior, something he called manie sans delire, sometimes translated as “moral insanity,” though the more direct translation is “madness without delirium.”
Over time, diagnoses have been revised, and psychopathy has emerged as a clinical category. But it’s at its most dangerous when it arrives in tandem with other flaws.
Psychologists refer to a particularly toxic set of personality traits as “The Dark Triad,” and as the name suggests, it has three components: Machiavellianism; Narcissism; and Psychopathy (being a psychopath).
When you pause and consider it, it seems particularly obvious that people with these traits would excel as politicians. The Machiavellian schemes and strategizes. The narcissist chases the spotlight. The psychopath craves power and control.
Most politicians are not psychopaths. But as a proportion of the whole, there are vastly more psychopaths in politics than in society more generally.
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What do the data say?
When I interviewed psychopath experts about their research, all of them made two key points. First, psychopaths are known for superficial charm, which is useful both a serial killer luring victims to their car and for winning elections.
Second, psychopaths can be split into two categories: successful and unsuccessful, or disciplined and undisciplined. The unsuccessful psychopaths are unable to control their impulses. They end up in prison as abusers and serial killers. Where do the successful psychopaths end up? Too often, in board rooms and public office.
The system also mediates behavior. For example, a recent 2022 study conducted the first serious psychopathy testing of war criminals and those who commit crimes against humanity. It found that those perpetrators did indeed score much higher on the psychopath spectrum. That makes sense. But consider this: what would those abusers have done if they lived not in a war zone, but in a peaceful democracy? They would still be psychopaths, they’d just face different incentives and career paths.
Many of them would seek power.
Because psychopathy exists on a spectrum, the prevalence of psychopaths in leadership positions relative to the general public depends on how you measure it. But the evidence is really clear that psychopaths are vastly over-represented in positions of power. Depending on the study you look at, the numbers range from four times to one hundred times more psychopaths in positions of leadership than in the general population, with some of the best studies putting the figure closer to twenty-five times higher.
The kind of politician may matter, too. A recent analysis by Alessandro Nai found that populist candidates are particularly likely to score higher on measures of disagreeable narcissism and psychopathy.
The wisdom of psychopaths? Not so much.
Kevin Dutton wrote The Wisdom of Psychopaths, which argues that psychopaths are really effective at certain jobs precisely because their emotions and empathy are blunted relative to the rest of us. His argument is plausible: maybe people who defuse bombs should be those unfeeling drones with broken brains, who aren’t affected by stress like the rest of us.
But it’s totally impractical. A psychopath may make a good surgeon because they’re unaffected by stress or swayed by emotion, but who would willingly go under the knife with a known psychopath wielding the scalpel?
Similarly, when it comes to politics, a wide array of research has suggested that psychopaths may be better at getting power, but are worse at wielding it. Leanne ten Brinke from the University of British Columbia told me about her research, which shows that politicians with more psychopathic traits are less effective when they become higher in the political hierarchy within Congress.
It’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from limited observational data, of course, but it all points in the same direction: psychopaths are better than the rest of us at getting power, but eventually become less effective leaders—and are often highly destructive before they’re taken down by their own vices.
So, is your elected representative a psychopath? It’s impossible to say for sure without conducting rigorous examinations, and even then, psychopathy diagnoses are somewhat subjective.
But what we can say is this: you’re more likely to encounter a psychopath in the halls of Congress or in Parliament than you are in your local supermarket.
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An interesting reading about psychopaths is also: The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, James Fallon, 2013. The author is a bit of a psycho himself which makes the book even better (and no, you don't want him as your surgeon or brother or ...).
A problem in politics is that it's an area for compromise. You can promise your voters whatever but once in power, it may not be so easy - practically or because of the different priorities etc of other people in power. For normal people that makes it hard; for habitual liars such as psychopaths, that's not a cost.
Of course, the public is at fault, too. If voters are ready to listen to statements with qualifications rather than sound bites, honest politicians have an easier life. Or if the public were better informed (eg some constituents were mad at my party for not delivering on an election promise, unaware of the fact that we are in opposition, not in government)
Brian, this pairs well with your previous Substack regarding conspiracy and the political right. Question for you and others: What happens when people/politicians only have 2 of 3 or even 1 of 3 of the dark triad?
My guess is that narcissism is accompanied by some kind of psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies. For example, the right in the US is the party of grievance and victimhood. That definitely has a narcissistic bent, but also lacks empathy as well as if others do not have problems to bear. To me that is 2 of 3.
Or the Machiavellian “ends justify the means”? That is usually accompanied by narcissistic behavior. Again, 2 out of 3.
One can be politically savy and navigate the jungle that is politics in government and the corporate world while still having empathy and serving the greater good. Jimmy Carter comes to mind. But those people are few and far between. As you say, why would anybody want that gig.
So what are we to do? Cannot cure a mass psychosis so easily unless something terrible happens..see Italy and Germany in WW II. What will it take to change this dynamic?