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A Guide to Putin’s Brain Crinkles: How Neuropathology Explains the Behavior of Dictators. Narrated by a Science Journalist

Nastia Travkina

Remembering Nero, Pol Pot, Hitler, Vladimir Putin, humanity wonders what black hole in the brain leads these people to repression, mass murder, and genocide. Neurophysiologists, psychoanalysts, and therapists have not yet come to an unequivocal answer, rather, there is a bio-psycho-social construct, which, if unfortunate, will assemble into a tyrant. At the request of Zaborona, science journalist Nastia Travkina tells us what this constructor is, why power causes neurotoxicity (not only in Putin, but also in chimpanzee leaders), and whether the dictator gene exists.


Why are dictators like that? The answer: it’s all about the dark triad

At first glance, dictators and war criminals are quite different personalities. Restrained and ascetic, like Joseph Stalin and Xi Jinping, or vivid and artistic, like Muammar Qaddafi; some are more concerned with perpetuating their own scale and greatness, like Turkmenbashi Saparmurat Niyazov, others with seeking enemies and revenge, like Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin.

As a rule, these people have something in common: they are united by the traits of the so-called “dark triad” — narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. The different ratios of the triad’s traits form a unique personality. Canadian psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams developed this concept (and the triad personality test) in 2002 to examine the complexity and diversity of the anti-social personality (not necessarily a dictator, but any criminal or manipulative person).

Here is a definition of aspects of the triad:

— The narcissism of the authoritarian (or totalitarian) leader manifests itself as a sense of great destiny and superiority over other people. We are talking about subclinical narcissism: it is not yet a diagnosis of “narcissistic personality disorder” (although in extreme cases it is also the case), but it is not the usual overestimation of oneself either.

— Subclinical psychopathy is characterized by low levels of anxiety and fear, ruthlessness, amputated sympathy, and empathy. Although with a high level of intelligence, a psychopathic personality can “read” people’s emotions without empathy or understanding of the nature of those experiences. Some types of psychopathy are associated with impulsivity and the need for mental stimulation (e.g., dangerous adventures or high-risk behaviors).

— Machiavellianism is characterized by cold, manipulative relationships with people and a complete rejection of society’s moral standards. Heartlessness, immorality, a focus on self-interest, manipulation, blackmail, and lies are considered the key to success.

Psychopathy and Machiavellianism often overlap: they are almost identical in the case of so-called primary psychopathy (cold prudence, cold-blooded composure, and also the ability to think strategically and sacrifice momentary interest in anticipation of greater reward). Secondary psychopathy, on the other hand, is associated with high impulsivity and an inability to think strategically; conversely, Machiavellianism is excluded. Both traits are associated with low emotional intelligence.

All three traits of the triad correlate with unkindness, coldness, and inattention to the needs of others, tending toward rivalry rather than cooperation.

The dark triad is highly likely to produce an antisocial personality: such a person systematically disregards the rights of others and is not particularly worried about the consequences of his/her actions — most importantly, he/she has no guilt complex. A person with high scores on the dark triad is more likely to commit a crime or cause harm to the organization in which he/she works (especially if he/she occupies a managerial position).

Sometimes the dark triad is expanded into the dark tetrad by adding sadism to the list. Sadism intersects with psychopathy — a lack of empathy, and causing suffering to others. A psychopath without sadistic tendencies may not commit a violent crime, while sadism is a reliable predictor of socially dangerous and violent behavior on its own, without the “dark triad”.

When parsing the biographies of the most notorious dictators, researchers often say that the features of their personalities cross the line into psychiatric conditions, corresponding to the diagnosis of minor psychiatry — “personality disorder”.

For example, dictator psychopathology researcher Frederick Coolidge believes that Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (father of current dictator Kim Jong Un) had several disorders: sadistic, paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, schizoid and schizotypal — and all three showed signs of psychotic thought disorder.

Coolidge has worked with professional biographers of dictators. The lack of available documents, archives, and corroborated facts about the nature of interpersonal communication (not just public rhetoric and political actions) makes it difficult to accurately diagnose incumbent dictators. For example, we can obviously observe that Vladimir Putin possesses the traits of the dark triad, or we can state that isolation, suspicion, and searching for enemies everywhere resemble paranoid personality disorder — but psychologists, biographers, and journalists can make a final diagnosis only after the dictator’s death and access to protocoled documents and his inner circle. By the way, a psychopathic portrait of a dictator can be drawn by communicating with his servants — a striking example is the recently published book of Polish journalist Witold Szablowski, in which he talks to the autocrats’ cooks and puts together a personality puzzle according to gastronomic habits and attitude to his subordinates.

However, there are two arguments against diagnosing dictators and criminals.

First, a mental disorder is not simply a set of unusual traits. It presupposes such a degree of expression and extremity of these traits that their possessor becomes maladaptive, not adapted to life, and suffers from them himself. Can people with enormous power over other people be called maladaptive if they abandon moral judgment? It might as well be assumed that they have adapted to the existing rules and won the race for power like no one else.

Finally, the biographical diagnosis of a dictator is descriptive, but not explanatory: we can classify dictators and villains by type, but the diagnostic criteria will not explain why, of all people with such traits, these particular people have gone on to mass repression or genocide. And it is unlikely to help us predict in advance the scale of the danger posed by them: we keep electing Trumps and trading with Putin.

Is the pathology of dictatorship about genes or social environment? Or both?

Our character and personality are shaped by genetic material under the influence of the environment. The environment is everything from your mother’s body during pregnancy to the relational culture of your peers in whose company you grow up. The environment is also the consequence of our actions and decisions that shape us through a feedback loop. So villains mature, like yeast dough on a warm radiator, under the influence of not only internal biological factors but also external environmental ones.

Many characteristics are inherited — that is, tied to certain genes. For example, psychopathy is an inherited brain organization in which the amygdala (responsible for emotions) and the orbitofrontal zone of the brain (sensitivity to punishment and rewards) are impaired. The more pronounced the psychopathy, the less a person feels fear and anxiety, is poorly able to distinguish signs of distress and negative emotions in other people, and his behavior is difficult to correct with the threat of punishment (conviction or imprisonment).

However, genetics is not a sacred tablet on which a person’s destiny is written. When geneticists talk about the effect of a gene on a trait, they necessarily explain that the gene is realized by some percentage under certain conditions. For example, genes associated with hereditary alcohol addiction have a reduced effect on the life and health of a person who was born and lives in a religious community with a ban on alcohol.

When researchers talk about the manifestation and exacerbation of a biological propensity for violence, they cite two critical factors:

Experiencing physical, sexualized, or emotional abuse as a child;

Growing up in poverty and disadvantage.

A child with a genetically psychopathic brain organization from birth who is a victim of violence is highly likely to follow a path of violence and abuse himself. Whereas a cared-for little psychopath can grow up as a cold-hearted risk-taker who won’t cause anyone much harm.

The same happens with the infamous (and misunderstood) “warrior gene“, a variation of the MAO-A gene that codes for the enzyme monoamine oxidase, which breaks down adrenaline and serotonin in the body. This variation occurs more often in boys (as it is encoded on the X chromosome), and for some time it was thought that this gene was responsible for the increased aggressiveness and antisociality of boys and men. But studies have shown that only boys who are exposed to violence become adults with aggressive behavior. And boys with this gene variation who grew up in a caring and loving environment were slightly more impulsive than other children.

Many neuro studies correlate poverty with negative consequences for brain and personality development. The primary consequence of poverty is chronic stress and a sense of lack of control over life. Chronic stress impairs cognitive abilities by disrupting the parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, planning, and self-control. Constant feelings of lurking danger disrupt the amygdala, which is responsible for negative emotions, anxiety, and the ability to “calm” its activity through control of executive brain centers in the prefrontal cortex. Lack of a sense of agentivity often leads to the formation of an external locus of control: the feeling that someone or something from the outside influences the course of your life more than you do.

Neuroscientist and psychiatrist James Fallon, a psychopathic brain who was lucky enough to grow up in a functional family and not commit violent crimes, correctly observes that if we knew which children carried the unfortunate biological constants, we would guard them as the apple of our eye against violence and cruelty. But since we cannot know which children carry psychopathic potential, we should love and protect all children from violence.

Genetic scientists tend to be surprised by our belief in the fateful omnipotence of DNA. There is even a term for this deification of the genome — genetic essentialism. It has strange consequences: for example, if you convince people that they have athletic genes, they will be tougher on the treadmill and enjoy sports more than those who have been told that they are not athletic. This experiment is often interpreted as an indicator of overconfidence in science, but it has another aspect: we form our picture of ourselves and the world by relying on other people. We choose how we feel about ourselves — but based on what others tell us.

The environment is not just economics, climate, and stressors. It is also people who shape our emotional and communicative habits and mental models of ourselves, others, and the world. This includes shaping political preferences based on genetic material.

For example, narcissism may have a partial genetic basis — but it is transmitted in families primarily in a communicative rather than a genetic way. The narcissistic parent either demands tremendous success from the child as an “extension of himself,” or projects narcissistic shame on the child and designates him as the “chief lowlife” in the family.

And there is a whole book about the variety of Machiavellian schemes of relations in dysfunctional families — Emotional Blackmail by American psychologist Susan Forward (the author of the famous book Toxic Parents).

What do the surrounding adults teach the growing villain and what communication patterns are accepted among his peers? Is it acceptable to respect the feelings and opinions of the other, even if you don’t understand or share them — or is dissimilarity in a society considered a red rag for bullying and violence? Is it considered that with communication and negotiation, it is possible to reach a compromise in a conflict situation — or is there a “right of the strong” in the community (whoever is stronger is right)?

No character is formed “by itself,” growing solely from biological causes. Whatever the genetic richness of the so-called “Mowgli children” (discarded in infancy), it could not be realized without social learning, speech, and complex human communication. According to the social brain theory of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the complexity of the primate brain, and especially the human brain is directly related to the complexity of the social group in which the species exists. Each character, communication style, and each brain is unique, like a fingerprint — and yet flesh from the flesh of its social group. Research shows that the manifestation of genes associated with political orientation is strongly influenced by friends.

How do authoritarian personality and obedient masses form?

A one-man dictatorship is impossible. To become a dictator, you need people involved in the political game according to specific rules: on the one hand, you need the inner circle, the so-called “elite,” which will both provide and share unlimited power with the dictator; on the other hand, you need the masses who agree to accept the norms of this game (out of real support, as in the tyrannies of ancient Greece, or out of fear, as in Iran).

If dictatorship is a neuropsychological condition, then it is probably collective and complex. That is why most studies of the problem of authoritarian dictatorship examine not only the dictator himself — but also the character of the people who surround and obey him. In answering the question about the neurobiological preconditions of dictatorship, we should look not only and not so much for the exceptional characteristics of the dictator — but for the universal characteristics of the people who, time after time, create the collective reality of dictatorship. The dictator and his flock, like the abuser and his victim, are thought to be formed on the same psychosocial conveyor belt.

Many have tried to answer the question of what kind of society shapes a dictator. The type of “authoritarian personality” was first actively researched during and after the collapse of Nazi Germany to somehow explain how moral catastrophes on such a scale are possible (as you see, almost 80 years have passed, and we still do not understand the nature of dictatorships).

Erich Fromm derived a type of “authoritarian personality” in his 1941 work Escape from Freedom. These are individuals who cannot endure the uncertainty of freedom and the burden of responsibility for their own choices — and to get rid of oppressive existential anxiety are willing to submit to an authoritarian leader who will tell them what to strive for, what to love, and whom to hate. The well-known and heavily criticized for its tendentiousness, Theodor Adorno and colleagues’ psychoanalytic work The Authoritarian Personality continued the theme, in which the authors developed the idea that severe exploitation, narrow-mindedness, resistance to new things and high social aggression are not related to the dominant personality, but to the anxious character of the individual, who seeks escape from uncertainty in categorical judgment and defense in the attack. 

Psychologists tend to reduce the reasons for the formation of an authoritarian personality to primary socialization (parents and family, teachers and school). Psychologist Diana Baumrind identified three styles of formative parenting based on studies of the authoritarian personality: authoritative, authoritarian, and liberal. The authoritarian style is characterized by an abundance of demands and rules that are inflexible and unexplainable; it is dominated by punishment, and the emotional needs of the child are not considered. A person raised by authoritarian parents tends to follow others’ instructions and be conformist, but this submission is often accompanied by dissatisfaction with life, resentment, bitterness, and a vengeful outburst.

Different cultures and social classes are dominated by different parenting styles and different preferred personalities (a classic contrast is an individualistic personality in the United States and the collectivist personality in the PRC). Anthropologist Adrie Kusserow has compared the upbringing in American rich families, families of well-to-do workers, and families of poor people from crime-ridden neighborhoods. It was in the latter that the most authoritarian style of upbringing — “hard protective individualism” prevailed. Parents tried to shield their children from the street and the cruelty of the world and at the same time train them to endure adversity.

The more prosperous the family, the more freedom and respect for the individual it could afford. At the height of prosperity, sensitivity, otherness, and creativity were encouraged, incomprehensible to families from the social bottom.

This class tendency of authoritarian upbringing coincides with the idea of the emergence of dictatorships as society’s response to crises. The ancient Greeks elected a tyrant in moments of social upheaval so that the quick decisions of a sole ruler would help preserve society — even if there was a great risk of total usurpation of power. Perhaps modern dictators rise to the top and meet no active resistance in their societies not only for fear of punishment — but also out of the hope of a mass of authoritarian personalities that a “strong hand” will take even more trouble away from a society frightened by the unknown and by freedom.

And how do politicians go mad for power? We show by the example of the chimpanzee

Finally, the personal character formation is complete and the power character formation of the future dictator (and for now, the aspiring leader or young politician) begins.

Politics is a competitive game of allocating resources and the source of those resources, power. In this sense, even chimpanzees are engaged in politics, as the primatologist Frans de Waal showed in his famous book: our muscular cousins, it turns out, are still fans of Shakespearian power dramas.

From de Waal’s Politics in Chimpanzees to Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex, many works explain the various biological drives of power struggles. In short, in a hierarchical relational system (where a position in the hierarchy directly affects the availability of food, security, and access to the opposite sex), lack of power causes stress, and social victories lead to its reduction, a sense of security, and increased self-confidence. The possibility of losing power indeed brings both primates and humans into a new circle of anxiety, hence power-retention activities.

As a rule, any stimuli that cause biological motivation have a “dark side” of addictive behavior: the need for sex turns into porn addiction, the joy of social encouragement — into social network addiction, and the pleasure of achievement — into so-called achievementism and burnout.

Empirical observations of those in power show that distortions in their perception of the world grow in proportion to the degree of power. This is confirmed by the biographies of many of those who have sat on the throne for too long.

The British politician and physician David Owen in the late 2000s described a “hybris syndrome” (from the Greek for “pride”) based on his observations of world leaders and politicians. This is what he called the altered psychological state, the “possession-of-power disorder” that is characteristic of politicians. A person with this syndrome sees the world as an arena for the perpetuation of himself, mostly with the use of force. Showing traits of messianism and exaltation, he confuses his “self” with organizations and whole nations, using the royal “we” in speech. The person with hybris syndrome has a sense of responsibility only before a higher court, usually God or history, and is absolutely sure that in this court he will be justified. At the extremes, he loses touch with reality and becomes irrationally restless, reckless, and impulsive.

The hypothesis of the neurotoxicity of power (especially prolonged and poorly restricted power), still needs research and evidence. Dictators and the elite around them are challenging to cram into an fMRI machine for brain scans. However, it is clear that the institutions that limit the power of the individual should be valued and developed, and seen as a protective mechanism against the neuro intoxication of people who take on more responsibility.

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