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The Psychology of Dictatorship: Kim Jong-Il

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As long as there have been political dictators, psychologists have been fascinated with them. While many psychologists try to understand what happens in normal, rational people that leads them to follow such clearly dangerous leaders, some psychologists have been more interested in characterizing the personality profiles of dictators themselves. After all, who hasn’t attempted an armchair psychiatric diagnosis of a famous personality?

In 1939, Carl Jung met Hitler and Mussolini in Berlin and observed their interactions. Personality psychologists Coolidge and Segal from the University of Colorado write that “Jung said Hitler never laughed, and it appeared as if Hitler was sulking and in a bad mood. Jung viewed him as sexless and inhuman, with a singleness of purpose: to establish the Third Reich, a mystical all-powerful German nation, which would overcome all of Hitler’s perceived threats and previous insults in Germany’s history.” Hitler inspired in Jung only fear. By contrast, Mussolini apparently came off to Jung as an “original man,” who had “warmth and energy.”

With the possible exception of Jung, it is exceedingly difficult for most people to get any one-on-one time with political dictators, and essentially impossible for psychologists or psychiatrists to conduct a face-to-face clinical assessment. Therefore, most investigations into the personality profiles of such leaders have used “informant reports.” While certainly less than ideal, such reports have nevertheless yielded tremendous insight into the mental lives of some of the worlds most notorious dictators. One study (PDF) revealed that informant reports are generally in “modest agreement” with self reports, and also that informants tend to agree with each other. Even among standard run-of-the-mill personality disorder patients, informant reports end up being quite useful to clinicians. Informant reports are especially important when symptoms of personality disorders may lead patients to provide clinicians with inaccurate information.

In 2007, Coolidge and Segal rounded up five experts on Hitler, and asked them to evaluate him on the basis of DSM-IV psychopathological syndromes and personality disorders. The consensus among the experts was that Hitler had highly elevated scores on the following personality disorder scales: paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, and sadistic. Hitler’s derived personality profile also suggested that he probably had schizophrenic tendencies, including excessive grandiosity and aberrant thinking.

In another 2007 study, Coolidge and Segal gave the same treatment to Saddam Hussein. Just as with Hitler, they derived a consensus personality profile for Hussein based on informant reports from eleven Iraqi adults who “knew Hussein intimately” for a median of 24 years. The study revealed that Hussein had high scores on the same personality disorder scales: paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, and sadistic, though sadistic features were stronger in Hussein than in Hitler. Like Hitler, the Hussein study revealed probable schizophrenic symptoms as well. There was a relatively high correlation (.79) between the derived personality profiles for the two men.

Combining the results from both studies, Coolidge and Segal hypothesized a “big six” constellation of personality disorders that may commonly reflect the personalities of dictators more generally: sadistic, antisocial, paranoid, narcissistic, schizoid, and schizotypal.

Then, in 2009, Coolidge and Segal extended their research to include the recently deceased dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. Through professional colleagues, Coolidge and Segal were introduced to a South Korean academic psychologist who had “advanced psychological training and intimate and established knowledge of Kim Jong-il.” The anonymous psychologist agreed to provide an informant report on the psychological profile of Kim Jong-il.

The personality profile of Kim Jong-il showed the same “big six” constellation of personality disorders: sadistic, antisocial, paranoid, narcissistic, schizoid, and schizotypal.

The table below shows each dictator’s score for each of the fourteen DSM-IV personality disorders as well as for schizophrenia and psychotic thinking (click to enlarge). The disorders are ranked according to how strong they were scored on each disorder’s scale: each of the three dictators shared the same top six personality disorders (in slightly different orders), and all show high scores for schizophrenia and psychotic thinking.

Further comparisons among the dictators revealed that Kim Jong-il had more in common with Saddam Hussein (their profiles had a correlation of .67) than with Hitler (their profiles had a correlation of .20). Indeed, both Jong-il and Hussein had sadistic personality disorder as their highest rated item, and their scores were nearly identical – more than three standard deviations above the population average!

The nagging question is: how could an individual with such extreme personality disorders – especially ones that have a “spectrum relationship” to psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia – attain and hold such high positions of power and control over others? Schizophrenia is, after all, highly debilitating. Coolidge and Segal point out, however, that there are other well-known cases of “murderous schizophrenic persons” who had likewise held tremendous power over others, such as Charles Manson and Jim Jones, though admittedly on a smaller scale.

They continue (emphasis added):

Furthermore, the current DSM-IV-TR criteria for schizophrenia, paranoid type, include symptoms such as preoccupation with one or more persecutory or grandiose delusions usually organized around a coherent theme. Associated features include anxiety, anger, aloofness and argumentativeness. The DSM-IV-TR also states that persecutory themes and grandiose delusions may predispose schizophrenic individuals to violence, that such individuals may have a superior or patronizing manner in interpersonal interactions, and that such individuals may display little or no cognitive impairment and have a good prognosis in the areas of occupational functioning and independent living.

There are three important caveats here.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is that correlation is not causation. While understanding the “big six” personality disorders may be useful in future international relations efforts when they involve political dictators, there are plenty of people with some or all of those personality disorders who never become dictators, murderers, or terrorists. And there are probably dictators that have a different constellation of psychiatric and personality disorders. Mental illness does not exist in a vacuum, but occurs both in a time and in a place.

Second, to what extent could cultural biases have played in developing these psychiatric diagnoses? It is fairly well-established that certain diagnoses are cross-cultural and universal, such as schizophrenia, but the symptoms thereof can vary both in importance and in significance across cultures. While psychiatric diagnoses all reflect underlying biological dysfunctions, those diagnoses are determined by people. And those people may be subtly biased, even despite tremendous efforts at objectivity and scientific rigorousness. To a similar end, the questionnaires that were filled out by the informants for each of the three dictators were validated according to an American sample. As psychiatric diagnoses are typically defined by statistical rarity, this could be problematic. For example, the mean response for a given item on a questionnaire may be higher or lower in North Korean culture.

Third, of the three studies, only the informants in the Hussein example had explicit personal relationships with the subject of the questionnaires. Therefore, an additional set of biases may have been at play in both the Hitler and Kim Jong-il studies. To that end, the ethical implications of those studies may call into play a principle adopted by the American Psychological Association known as the Goldwater rule, which states that mental health professionals “are forbidden to give a professional opinion about any individual without directly examining that person and getting permission to comment from the patient or other legal guardian.” However, the Goldwater rule is explicitly concerned with the way in which mental health professionals interact with the media, and may therefore not apply in these cases.

Ultimately, we may never know just how well this particular psychological profile of Kim Jong-il would have matched with his actual personality. However, the strong correlation among the personalities of Hitler, Hussein, and Kim Jong-il is hard to ignore.

Elsewhere on Scientific American:
Anatomy of a Megalomaniac: Psychological Analysis of Kim Jong-il from Afar by Gary Stix

For more on mental illness:
What is Mental Illness? A Peek Through the Murk – guest post by me on David Dobbs‘s blog at WIRED Science
What is Mental Illness? – At BPS Research Digest

For more on the ethics of diagnosing-from-a-distance:
The Goldwater Rule page at Wikipedia
Michael Jackson and the rise of the celebrity psychologist – by Martin Robbins at The Guardian
Charlie Sheen, Drew Pinsky, and the Barry Goldwater rule. – by Paul Raeburn at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker

References
Coolidge, F., & Segal, D. (2009). Is Kim Jong‐il like Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler? A personality disorder evaluation Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1 (3), 195-202 DOI: 10.1080/19434470903017664

Coolidge, F., & Segal, D. (2007). Was Saddam Hussein Like Adolf Hitler? A Personality Disorder Investigation Military Psychology, 19 (4), 289-299 DOI: 10.1080/08.995600701548221

Frederick L. Coolidge, Felicia L. Davis, & Daniel L. Segal (2007). Understanding Madmen: A DSM-IV Assessment of Adolf Hitler Individual Differences Research, 5 (1), 30-43 (link to PDF)

Images: Kim Jong Il via Wikimedia/Kremlin.ru; Hitler via Wikimedia/Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S33882. Hussein via Wikimedia/Public Domain.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Cogitari 11:21 am 12/19/2011

    This is not exactly a double-blind study. I wonder how much of the psychoanalysis is due to them being “evil overlords” as opposed to due to their actual behavior. I wonder what the results would be if the early-career behavior of these people were described anonymously as “person x”, “person y”, “person z” and mixed in with similar descriptions of leaders considered heroic by many people, such as Churchill, Gandhi and some US presidents. My guess is that they might not be as different as we want to believe. It may very well be our system’s ability to depose leaders before they get too far out of touch with reality that makes the difference.

    Link to this
  2. 2. acarlquist 12:23 pm 12/19/2011

    Excellent article! One comment:
    These “profiles” smack of the prototypical problem with profiling: throwing shtuff against a wall and seeing what sticks, which lacks parsimony. The author accidentally points this out himself: …”how could an individual with such extreme personality disorders – especially ones that have a “spectrum relationship” to psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia – attain and hold such high positions of power and control over others?” An excellent question!

    Straight from the DSM-IV-TR:
    B. Social/occupational dysfunction: For a significant portion of the time since the onset of the disturbance, one or more major areas of functioning such as work, interpersonal relations, or self-care are markedly below the level achieved prior to the onset (or when the onset is in childhood or adolescence, failure to achieve expected level of interpersonal, academic, or occupational achievement).

    The *decline* in functioning is a NECESSARY component of schizophrenia, per the DSM. There is a notable “premorbid” functioning, followed by the onset of the illness. These fine gentlemen, as noted, do not display this. While the DSM does note that a person with paranoid schizophrenia may show little cognitive impairment, what is meant is that their neuropsych test scores may be within normal range, not that they are exempt from the “decline in function” criterion.

    Without the decline in function criterion being met, none of these people are diagnosable, as it were, with schizophrenia. While it’s fun and pop-psych to use terms like “schizophrenic tendencies,” you either have schizophrenia or you don’t, that’s the rule. Whether or not that rule is a good one is a different discussion.

    What *does* stick is the disordered personalities. That’s all you need. Every symptom is accounted for by a severe borderline personality: the unstable relationships, the paranoid thinking, narcissistic tendencies, and even transient psychotic episodes, if ever present.

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  3. 3. Evets 12:45 pm 12/19/2011

    I have spoken to three people who have never heard of the author of this article and each assures me that he is a narcissistic schizophrenic with an obsessive craving for waffles and ice cream. The “studies” of dictators that are cited in this article are based on absolutely no evidence and hardly rise to the level of pseudoscience.

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  4. 4. Olde Gramps 7:53 pm 12/19/2011

    This professional dissertation and analysis is certainly most appreciated…
    However on the very “face of it”…the “problem is”…they were all damn, politicians…!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Bonnie Nordby 2:59 am 12/20/2011

    I think the factor of charisma or charismatic personality could be key. Charisma can appear harmless and attractive but underneath the narcissitic vacumn is what may feed charisma. So I have learned the hard way to take a step back when I feel the charismatic pull in the presence of someone. When harnessed in a stable mind, charisma can be powerfully forceful in bringing people together in creative pursuits. Their work can be very positive and yet their is a level of manipulation of others is a reminder to beware. Another warning sign is attraction to chaos and promotion of political and personal intrigue. Charismatics can often be classified as Crazymakers* in that they love to implement crazy demands of fealty and obediance. Anyone who stands up to them may come under attack from followers. Charismatics may utilize practices to disrupt peoples mental models and replace it with their own philosophy thus gaining more control. So I have a little of the charismatic thing in myself which thankfully scares me. A warning to be aware the dictator could be closer than next door.
    *”The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron.

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  6. 6. Dynastius 3:27 am 12/20/2011

    The most interesting thing about this to me is that Hitler came out being the least mentally ill. He was rated lower on pretty much every personality disorder.

    But I really think these kinds of studies, while interesting, are of very limited value except (as pointed out by the author) as a sort of “guidance” for dealing with troublesome dictators of the future.

    Link to this
  7. 7. JPSanDiego 5:59 pm 12/20/2011

    Interesting study; clearly it “proves” nothing but may (as pointed out above) provide some useful guidance.

    However, I would find it MUCH more interesting and relevant to apply the same type of study to:
    Presidential candidates,
    CEOs,
    leaders of special-interest groups,
    and so forth.
    It seems to be a no-brainer to associate the avid pursuit of fame, influence or power with some pretty nasty personality traits and it would be a rare piece of good news to have that association (unlikely as it may seem to some of us) shown to be an exaggeration.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Dredd 6:06 pm 12/20/2011

    The psychology of dictatorship is downstream from the observations of history that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Those observations can now be supported by recent discoveries in microbiology.

    http://powertoxins.blogspot.com/2011/12/hypothesis-microbes-generate-toxins-of_14.html

    Link to this
  9. 9. sciencegoddess 8:55 pm 12/21/2011

    Great article, Jason.

    My book reviewing “hobby” began by reviewing “Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend ” by Barbara Oakley which looked at this from a genetic perspective. http://www.amazon.com/Evil-Genes-Hitler-Mothers-Boyfriend/dp/159102580X

    Very fascinating!
    I look forward to seeing you again this year at #scio12. I will be in much better spirits and with much more energy than last!

    Link to this
  10. 10. CitizenWhy 7:48 pm 12/22/2011

    Eliminate the sadistic and you are profiling about one fifth of work supervisors in the USA.

    Link to this
  11. 11. electric38 2:02 am 12/23/2011

    Good analogy. Doesn’t the same thing happen in America when billions of dollars or key positions are inherited by psychotics? Inherited dollars go to someone’s children who avoided through (mostly by ‘donations’ to our politicians) a system of “fixed” inheritance laws. Now these psychotic personalities are contributing to the powers that be, and continue molding laws that slant our economy towards suiting their needs. Might be that we as a society do not move forward in a timely or normal manner in our quality of life as long as these personalities control the politics, key educational and military systems of the day. The status quo will remain in place as they see fit. Even when they don’t get their way, they gum up progress in order to hold their inherited sadistic and monopolistic power.

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  12. 12. Mommat 4:17 pm 12/23/2011

    I am afraid that the real issue wasn’t correctly addressed: Why such individuals were acclaimed and accepted by all hierarchies (Armed Forces, Scientists, Philosophers, common people, etc.) as their sole commander? What kind of empowering did they really possess or acquired to be considered almost a god? To be narcissistic & schizophrenic is a sure shot of any dictator wherever disobeyed: it’s like a rain torment to the ocean.

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  13. 13. kassoy 12:26 am 12/24/2011

    These folks are nothing more than than a subset of the self-appointed prophets who have afflicted mankind for more than 5000 years of human history. They come to us with knowledge from a superior being offering a path to salvation based on their version of moral behavior. They come in the cloak of religion (Moses and Hebrews, Jesus and his resident populations, Mohammed and the Arab tribes, the Buddha, Joseph Smith, William Miller, Aimee Semple McPherson, James Jones, David Koresh, Oral Roberts… need I name more?) and as secular folks but with the same absolute zeal ( Hitler and the Germans, Stalin and the Russians, Franco and the Spaniards, Salazar and the Portugese, Mao and the Chinese, Hussein and the Iraqis, …..surely you get the picture!
    A few have facilitated outcomes beneficial to their flock, but most have created catastrophic situations. All come at times of social and/or economic societal stress, in the absence of effective political leadership, when the folk are desperate for leaders who offer a better future.
    There are lessons to be learned from a study of these self appointed prophets. In the 1930′s the Germans had three serious problems:
    1. Loss of power and influence due to the outcome of WWI,
    2. Terrible economic situation,
    3. Hatred and fear of “others”.
    We know that the Germans elected Hitler and rode with him until the day he committed suicide, regardless of the consequences of his vision. We in America have analagous problems now. Will we seek a similar savior to lead us to salvation, or chose a more pragmatic approach to problem solving? The choice is YOURS!

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