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10 March 2016

Should we subject candidates for President to psychiatric testing?

According to Frederick Burkle, "today's tyrants" exhibit a range of narcissistic and antisocial traits.

By Michael Brooks

We can snigger, frown or fret over the rise of Donald Trump, but what if we could, in fact, prevent it? According to Harvard University’s Frederick Burkle, there is a way.

Burkle contends that we should be using psychiatric diagnosis as a tool to assess the suitability of candidates for office, “as both a global security and strategic priority”. In a paper published in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, he suggests there is a “unique and poorly understood subset of the population who are driven to seek the ultimate opportunity to control, dictate, and live out their fantasies of power on the world scene”. While there are detailed profiles of the psychopathology of the likes of Hitler and Stalin, “there is little or nothing available on today’s tyrants”.

Burkle’s two main concerns are antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). A leader with ASPD thrives on continuing conflict and will never seek peace. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is on Burkle’s list of leaders who demonstrate significant antisocial behaviours. Vladimir Putin, he points out, also displays “worrisome” traits.

It’s not just politicians. Burkle, a professor of public health who has worked as a psychiatrist, an adviser to the WHO and interim minister of health in Iraq, also notes some of our “most prolific, charming, greedy and yet admired business and technology tycoons” display extreme narcissism. Trump can’t have been far from his mind.

In the past few decades, psychologists have developed assessment criteria that can reliably identify those with ASPD and NPD. We know that extreme cases can put lives in danger – we expect our governments to put measures in place to ensure that those affected are not a menace to society – making it almost ironic that those governments could be led by the most extreme cases of all. That these people are not named as having ASPD is “both concerning and curious”, Burkle says.

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A second piece of research has shown how great their influence can be on “normal” human beings. Narcissistic leaders surround themselves with underlings who act on their orders. And who are these quislings? All of us, potentially. A neuroscience study carried out by researchers at University College London and the Brussels Free University has shown why some of us follow distasteful orders without feelings of responsibility.

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We have known for decades how easy it is to coerce or cajole people into immoral or unethical acts. The new study takes things further, showing that neural processing in these situations more closely resembles that of an observer than an active individual, creating a vastly diminished sense of responsibility. Claims that it “wasn’t my fault” are not self-serving lies, but reflect a genuine subjective experience.

Responsibility and accountability are the roots of political democracy, but they are easily sidestepped. Put the neuroscience findings together with narcissistic and antisocial leaders, and we have the ingredients for geopolitical turmoil. Yet we continue to ignore the symptoms of psychiatric instability in would-be politicians.

We mandate that houses undergo an energy efficiency assessment. Businesses often put potential employees through psychological profiling. So why not put the science to work for the global good and require that aspiring leaders come to the ballot with a certification of sanity?

This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho