Monday, April 24, 2017

Evil leaders: what makes their brain work?

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. During the final years of his career, he made a series of truly colossal mistakes that led to disaster for Italy and for him, personally. Was Mussolini mad? An idiot? Or brain damaged? We cannot say for sure, but the problem with the way the minds of leaders function seems to be more and more important in our times.

An evident trend that we observe in history is that, in times of crisis, strong leaders tend to take over and assume all powers. It has happened with the Romans, whose government system moved from democracy to a military dictatorship managed by emperors. It seems to be happening to us, too, with more and more power being concentrated in the hands of the man (rarely the woman) at the top of the government's hierarchy.

There are reasons for this trend. Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward, exploiting what's available. So, in a certain way, it makes sense to put a real brain in charge. The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe and it is not unreasonable to hope that it could manage society better than a mob.

The problem is that, sometimes, the brain at the top is not so good, actually it may be horribly bad. Like in the movie "Frankenstein Junior," even with the best of good will, we may put abnormal brains inside society's head. Dictators, emperors, warlords, big men, generalissimos, strongmen, tycoons, and the like often indulge in killing, torturing, and oppressing their subjects, as well as in engaging in unprovoked and ruinous wars, in addition to being sexual perverts. The final result is that they are often described as the prototypical evil madman character of comics or movies, complete with bloody eyes, wicked smile, and Satanic laughing.

But simply defining leaders as "mad" or "evil" doesn't tell us what makes their minds tick. Could some of them be truly insane? Maybe brain-damaged? Or is it just a kind of personality that propels them to the position they occupy? These are very difficult questions because it is impossible to diagnose mental illness from one person's public behavior and public statements. Doing that is, correctly, even considered unethical for professionals (even though it is done all the time in the political debate).

Here, I am not claiming to be saying anything definitive on this subject, but I think we can learn a lot if we examine the well known case of Benito Mussolini, the Italian "Duce" from 1922 to 1943, as an example of a behavior that can be seen as insane and, also, rather typical for dictators and absolute rulers.

The mistakes that Benito Mussolini made during the last stages of his career of prime minister of Italy were truly colossal, including declaring war on the United States in 1941. Let me give you a less well known but highly significant example. In October 1940, the Italian army attacked Greece from Albania, a story that I discussed in a previous post. That implied having to cross the Epirus mountains in winter and how in the world could anyone think that it was a good idea? Unsurprisingly, the result was a military disaster with the Italian troops suffering heavy losses while stuck in the mud and the snow of the Epirus mountains during the 1940-41 winter, until the Germans came to the rescue - sensibly- in the following Spring. In a certain sense, the campaign was successful for the Axis because eventually Greece had to surrender. But it was also a tremendous waste of military resources that could have been used by Italy for the war effort against the British in North Africa. The blunder in Greece may have been a major factor in the Italian defeat in WWII.

The interesting point about this campaign is that we have the minutes of the government reunions that led to the ill-fated decision of attacking Greece. These documents don't seem to be available on line, but they are reported by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). It is clear from the minutes that it was Mussolini, and Mussolini alone, who pushed for starting the attack at the beginning of Winter. During a reunion held on Oct 15, 1940, the Duce is reported to have said the date for the attack on Greece had been set by him and that "it cannot be postponed, not even of one hour." No reason was given for having chosen this specific date and none of the various generals and high level officers present at the reunion dared to object and to say that it would have been better to wait for spring to come. The impression is that Italy was led by a bumbling idiot surrounded by yes-men and the results were consistent with this impression.

What made Mussolini behave in this way? There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis and that it is an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death, in 1945, and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62 year old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death.

Mussolini is one of the very few cases of high level political leaders for whom we have hard evidence of the presence or absence brain damage. The quintessential evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, is said to have been suffering from Parkinson or other neurological problems, but that cannot be proven since his body was burned to ashes after his suicide, in 1945. After the surrender of Germany, several Nazi leaders were examined in search for neurological problems and, for one of them, Robert Ley, a post-mortem examination revealed a certain degree of physical damage to the frontal lobes. Whether that was the cause of his cruel behavior, however, is debatable.

That's more or less what we have. It doesn't prove that evil leaders never suffer of brain damage but the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane or evil in the way comics or movie characters are described. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). That syndrome describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability of finding followers and becoming popular. So, it may be that the NPD syndrome is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader.

There lies the problem: even in a democracy, a politician's first priority is being elected and that's a very different skill than that needed for leading a country. An NPD affected ruler may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. It happens not just in politics, but also in business. I could also cite the names of some scientists who seem to be affected by NPD. They are often incompetents, but they may achieve a certain degree of success by means of their social skills that allow them to accumulate research grants and attract smart collaborators. (Fortunately, they can't jail and torture their opponents!)

The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD affected individuals aim at obtaining high level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent." The kind of disaster that can result may be illustrated, again, by Mussolini's case. During the Greek campaign the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order. But what would happen if a similar order were given today by a leader who can control atomic weapons?


  1. I have also been thinking about this at length, and as a german, I also started on our infamous examples.

    The Frankfurt School was the first institute to tackle this in earnest, and I think that the results of the research into the "autoritarian personality" is
    still one of the premium ressources to find ansers to that question.

    I personally would add the following, not as a general explanation, but something to think about. In my experience, people that grow up with a feeling of entitlement because of their social class, their gender and or their "birthright" tend to be empathically handicapped.

    Consider the assumption that women are "more intuitive" than men. This is a very widespread prejudice, even though it is scientifically untenable. But, growing up as a women in a highly patriarchic environment forces women to read mood swings and intentions of the men that are in the more dominant position in the families power relations.

    Men in any such environment on the other hand, grow up with the unquestionable entitlement that provides them with power and superiority over women, and never have to face any repercussions by failing to read mood swings of their sisters or other women.

    This suggests that the prejudice that ascribes women an higher intuition may hint on the fact, that kids growing up in a arbitrary position of power, may develop into emphathically handicapped adults.

    Often these men never ever had to question them self or reflect on their own behavior, because what ever they did was fine. You can basically get away with murder, if you grow up as a "prince" and never develop a healthy capacity for empathy and remorse.

    I am exagerating to make my point, but there is ample scientific evidence that being a rich and powerfull, white, male makes you much more likely to be a psychopath than the average person. i.e. : Link

    1. There is very interseting continuation of the Frankfurt school study by Bob Altemeyer here:

    2. I immediatly got the free ePub and allready read it. Its a brilliant and fascinating book, that made me understand how the Trump follower ticks. I can also recommend it to anyone looking to make sense at a time where making sense does not seem to count anymore.

  2. I would add that women actively select men likely to become leaders (a biological preference to improve chances of reproductive success,i guess).
    In societies where there is no survival pressure (i.e. where incompetent and stupid have little chance of meeting an early death) the NPD trait is a winning one.
    It is only during times of life threatening crises that the NPD trait becomes disadvantegeous. For example during wars officers with NPD can be shot by their own soldiers (not in the back: these officers send their men to die while staying behind).
    The human species has survived 10 millions years of continuous crises that kept NPD in check.. but industrial society has made it rampant and so powerful that is leading the biosphere into extinction

  3. I think even more interesting is WHY such people become popular and get into power despite their NPD traits. What does that say about humanity?

  4. Orders from the top have to be carried out if they are to take effect - otherwise they are mere puffs of despotic whim - and that means underlings must demonstrate uncritical allegiance to the one at the top. Perhaps the focus of this inquiry should be on the psychology of the layer of control that exists just beneath the leader i.e. the layer that facilitated and still today facilitates the greatest horrors. What is in the mind of such sycophants? Surely they number in orders of magnitude relative to the one 'mad' 'demonic' leader issuing decrees or executive orders?

  5. A successful psychopathic narcissist is well known to me.

    Here's a brief profile: outwardly fairly humble and unassuming, with a most charming smile, they have, according to reliable information I have gathered over the years, been involved in theft, forgery, and even multiple('political') murders, and the abandonment of children, one of whom committed suicide at 16 in consequence - all crimes quite impossible to prove in court, alas, for lack of evidence that would stand up.

    They are adored by their family, even though the selfish personality traits are very clear and the involvement in murder obvious when one puts all the publicly-known circumstances together -although my information is more direct than that.

    Their partner declares themselves to be 'utterly in love' after 30 years of marriage. To their children (those not abandoned)they are a hero of revolutionary class struggle and a genius. Their element of self-belief is attractive to many, and is not seen as psychopathological.

    The smoke screen behind which they hide is radical Left politics, -the 'sufferings of the workers' bring tears to their eyes and an affectingly emotional tone of voice - and the personality of an eccentric artist, which is their ostensible profession.

    Having this living example in front of me, fit for a novel, I can well see how the most destructive and selfish personality traits can lead to success, and even attract adoring supporters, most notably women.

    People will also accept a lot under the cover of an ideology they support, as is well evidenced from history. It also helps that most people are not too bright, and cannot see what is under their nose. When it is obvious they will not see it if they do not wish to.

    But I would emphasise ideology: if certain people or groups are held to be 'good' and others 'evil', it is possible to get away with rather a lot posing as one of the 'good guys'. See the history of the 20th century......

    I am confident that such personality traits would not flourish in a small band of hunter-gatherers, or a farming commune. Our crowded cities full of half-educated, ideologically indoctrinated and self-unaware people are ripe ground for such types.

    Quiet obviously, being white, male and middle-class has nothing to do with any of this!

    1. Yes - read the Psychopath Test - a smart, amusing and informative book on the subject:

  6. While we are doing this creative and highly original analysis let's not forget to include also the "good guys" and Nobel Peace Prize winners like Obama. The inclusion of his "case study" in the overall conceptual-theoretical framework I am sure would make it not only "more inclusive" and capacious but also more robust and "ultimately valid". The further inclusion of additional related cases such as George Soros who never became a formal leader and preferred to work from behind the scenes would make the framework even "stronger together" and better. Finally, the book "the wisdom of psychopaths what saints, spies and serial killers can teach us about success" by Kevin Dutton provides additional case material to help in the preparation of the theoretical framework

    1. Hello,

      I'm sorry, but you can't say that Obama had a NPD. He had strong conviction, he liked to be seen... but that is not enough to be an NDP. NDP couldn't achieve all what he did with Iran, Cuba... because NDP can't negociate, they just can throw bombs.


    2. I see no evidence that Obama is a narcissist. While in power, he displayed great negotiating skills, a willingness to make use of others' expertise and experience, very little demand for attention and admiration, and I think his affection for his wife was and is genuine.

      What I do see a lot of evidence for is this: when those on the right of the political spectrum learn a new word that they understand to mean "bad person", they then immediately use it as a new political insult without regard to its meaning. Perhaps they don't quite understand its meaning. More likely they just don't care.

      Do people on the left use the word that way? Well, I do see the occasional cock-eyed theory about the "elite" all being psychopaths and selectively breeding to create more psychopaths, but fortunately that's rare.

  7. @-"Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward, exploiting what's available."

    It may not have a 'brain', but it does have an 'Ecology'. This appears to select charismatic authoritarians (who may be un-empathic idiots) in direct proportion to the degree of 'crisis' that the society perceives. Given the long human history of societies with this trait it is likely it has some survival value, or at least is successful enough not to be eliminated from the 'ecological' response.

    Crisis may select out the powerful leader, or at least those with the potential to become one. Causation is problematic in this area. Power corrupts....

  8. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has some fascinating things to say here about how some decisions are made:

    If we put his comments on poor reasoning together with Ugo's on NPD-affected politicians, we might get a picture like this: a person who has a one-way, attack-only mentality and is in a hurry.

    Being in a hurry to achieve the unachievable is a sure way to disaster for everybody.

  9. another trait of people with NPD is that they are the anti-scientists: from very few facts (or none) and a lot of preconceptions they think they understand reality. When reality does not conform to their (misguided) model they do everything in their power to force it to conform. This applies especially to persons (collegues, groups, loved ones , memes like climate change or ideologies) as physics can be stubbornly resistant to their adamant will.

    1. My own personal experience with narcissists is that they don't like competent people, period. They may just prefer people they think can't or won't see through them, or it may be jealousy, but in any case they don't work with or associate with competent, skilled experts.

  10. ...
    "Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;"

    ~ Ozymandias



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)