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Publicizing The Threat of Personality Disorders Among Those in Positions of Power

December 11th, 2008 by Howard Ditkoff

As some of you may know, I often rail about the abundance of sociopaths and people with Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder in positions of power in our culture. There has been ample evidence of this problem in the news recently. Yet rarely do analyses of these cases go beyond charges of corruption to asking the crucial question of whether they involve an actual psychological disorder.

In the wake of the recent scandal involving Detroit’s ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, one of our major local papers finally directly raised this issue in an article entitled “Politics & personality: Psychologists weigh in on behaviors of the former Detroit mayor”.

But, in general, coverage of this issue, so central to the destructiveness of our times, is dangerously and tellingly lacking.

So I was thrilled yesterday, in the wake of the scandal involving Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, to see Rachel Maddow do a very direct story on this issue, available below.

I was further heartened when CNN also focused on the story in a piece, available below, that includes interviews with psychologists who suggest that Blagojevich “probably does suffer from some form of psychopathology, some form of psychiatric disturbance, which…is best captured by a diagnosis called Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”

This is one of the most important issues of our time. Keeping individuals with these disorders, which deeply affect empathy and conscience, out of positions of power - whether that position be governor, CEO or parent - is one of the key things we can do to protect ourselves and our world from the abuses that are inevitable when they are given such platforms from which to operate. Yet, individuals with these disorders are notoriously able to charm and persuade people. Therefore, only by becoming highly attuned to the existence of these disorders and how they operate can we immunize ourselves to being fooled into continuing to place such destructive people in positions from which they can do enormous harm.

The public desperately needs to become educated on how to better spot these personality disorders and to become skeptical, rather than gullible, in the face of those charmers that psychopath-expert Robert Hare has called Snakes in Suits.

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    Included in: The BoBo Carnival of Politics - December 14, 2008 Edition

    15 Responses to “Publicizing The Threat of Personality Disorders Among Those in Positions of Power”

    1. Randi Kreger Says:

      I agree with many of your statements. I am very disappointed, though, that the coverage was so stigmatizing of mental disorders. And I can’t believe it never occurred to the media to have a mental professional on the air to suggest some other diagnosis than “He’s nuts.”

      Randi Kreger
      The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder

    2. SystemsThinker Says:


      I agree that some of the coverage has been stigmatizing. The CNN clip though, which I added after you left your comment, does interview mental health professionals. Also, the article I link to involving Detroit’s ex-mayor quotes local mental health professionals. And they do bring up specific diagnoses, especially NPD.

      I think it’s inevitable that with these disorders involving conscience, people who have been hurt by someone with the disorder, who shows no remorse (as a result of the disorder), are likely to feel outraged and often vindictive. It’s only with education about the disorders that people can understand the very tricky concept of empathizing with someone who is unable to empathize back and who even shows predatory behavior. It’s foreign for people to be both in empathy mode and self-protection mode against a predatory person at the same time. But it’s a tightrope we need to learn to walk.

    3. The BoBo Carnival of Politics - December 14, 2008 Edition | The BoBo Files Says:

      […] Ditkoff presents Publicizing The Threat of Personality Disorders Among Those in Positions of Power posted at Blog, saying, “Recent political scandals - including those […]

    4. Randi Kreger Says:

      My wild guess would be that there is more going on with the govenor other than Narcissistic Perdonality Disorder. Here is info about another PD: Antisocial Personality Disorder. People can have more than one PD at the same time.

      Antisocial Personality: People with an antisocial personality (previously called psychopathic or sociopathic personality), most of whom are male, show callous disregard for the rights and feelings of others. Dishonesty and deceit permeate their relationships. They exploit others for material gain or personal gratification (unlike narcissistic people, who exploit others because they think their superiority justifies it).

      Characteristically, people with an antisocial personality act out their conflicts impulsively and irresponsibly. They tolerate frustration poorly, and sometimes they are hostile or violent. Often they do not anticipate the negative consequences of their antisocial behaviors and, despite the problems or harm they cause others, do not feel remorse or guilt. Rather, they glibly rationalize their behavior or blame it on others. Frustration and punishment do not motivate them to modify their behaviors or improve their judgment and foresight but, rather, usually confirm their harshly unsentimental view of the world.


      It is quite harder having empathy for people to have empathy for people with APD vs Borderline Personality Disorder or even NPD.

      Randi Kreger
      The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder

    5. SystemsThinker Says:


      Yes, in the article and in the Rachel Maddow clip, the possibility of sociopathy is raised explicitly. In this particular case, it may be that. My main point in the article is to raise the common thread between these disorders which is that, in various forms and for various reasons, all of them include periods of lack of conscience and empathy and so all of them can be a major problem among those in positions of power. I think that when someone is on the receiving end of one of those periods of lack of conscience or empathy, it can be hard for them to have empathy in return regardless of which of the disorders underlies it. But I agree, those with APD may be the hardest to have empathy for in the long run.

    6. dlw Says:

      I think it would be interesting if we required candidates for Senate/House of Reps/Governor/President to undergo a SPECT scan like what is used by Daniel Amen in his book, “Change Your Brain: Change Your Life”.

      having said that, I go no ideas about how to alter our institutions to take that sort of info into account without being too invasive.

    7. SystemsThinker Says:


      It’s definitely a tough issue. The one thing we do know for sure will be helpful all around is better public education on the issue. And a lot of that education has to do with critical thinking about people in or attempting to obtain positions of power that are notably charming. This talent for charm can certainly be genuine and reflect admirable qualities, but can also be illusory and be used for manipulation. At the very least, it would help if the public became more skeptical of such a trait, especially when they see it in someone that seems to share their worldview and philosophy.

    8. dlw Says:

      If we can mitigate the import of winner-takes-all elections by election reform, it’ll change the sort of politician that advances in the political machine. The next step is to tax political contributions and keep on restricting tv ads. If a host of local third parties, voting quasi-strategically in major single-member elections, become decisive then more superficial characteristics that only work well on low-information voters will be less important.


    9. SystemsThinker Says:


      All may be true, but my point is that even in making those changes you run up against people with serious personality disorders who have a vested interest in opposing such changes and are often willing to do anything, including lie through their teeth, to turn the public against such measures. We have a system right now that often serves those with such disorders well. In order to change that system, we will have to be aware of that influence pushing to keep the status quo.

    10. dlw Says:

      We also have a system that makes water run down hill.

      I believe in the import of utopic thinking that self-consciously chooses not to over-focus on the aspects of what is that prevent change and focuses more on the importance of overcoming evil w. self-sacrificial acts of love w.o. hypocripsy.


    11. The Quisani League » Blog Archive Says:

      […] Ditkoff presents Publicizing The Threat of Personality Disorders Among Those in Positions of Power posted at Blog, saying, “Recent political scandals - including those […]

    12. Clark Says:

      I am convinced that some degree of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a prerequisite for running for higher office. Who else would put themselves through hell in order to have a short term job that often comes with public exposure to criticism and ridicule?

    13. SystemsThinker Says:

      Clark, a few things:

      1) While many running for office may display higher levels of narcissism as a trait than the general population (though I have no solid evidence of that, it’s certainly worth considering), that is different than crossing the line into Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

      2) I believe there are still plenty of examples of people in office at various levels that don’t seem to have a personality disorder. So I don’t think it’s quite true that you have to have such a condition to run. There really are still at least some people, I think, that feel strongly enough to go through the ringer for what they believe in.

      3) However, your comment raises what I think is an important point and that is that we really have a system that seems to reward and encourage Machiavellian traits in a lot of ways. That’s why we see anyone who maintains integrity through the process as almost a hero. It’s very hard to do. The path of least resistance often seems, at least in the short-run, to favor those with these types of disorders. And that’s really one of the main points we need to consider: how are we incentivizing this type of behavior and how, if at all, can we try to incentivize the opposite. I think the first step is through simply becoming aware of the issue and the terminology involved.

      Thanks for your comment.

    14. free2bme Says:

      Hi Howard,

      I have been reading much of your website and blog with great interest.

      I wanted to run something by you, considering your background & good introspection which you demonstrate in your writing.

      I have become involved in an ongoing bizarre interactions with a doctor of mine. We has a very good instant rapport a the beginning. I also suspected he may have been somewhat attracted to me. It was not a big deal though. About a year into it, I had to have an office visit following the death of family member. He knew about it. He chose that day to barely discuss why I was there &instead preceded to cross a boundary with me & to let me know in round about way that he noticed me. In my grief, I agreed that I did notice. Well, following that episode about a month later, all hell broke loose. I returned to the office and he started using covert NLP seduction techniques on me.
      ( which took me several months to discover/ uncover) I started to get really drawn to him even though I was not literally physically attracted to him , it felt like I was.

      The next visit he was to preform a a procedure on me and he used NLP to put me into a trace state. It worked amazingly. It went completely pain free during & after. He did not inform me though. I felt like i was in a trance or hypnotized so I researched it online and that is how I came to find out about NLP. Following that visit , the next visit, he raged at me during a procedure ! He was apparently unhappy that I had decided to not follow something we had discussed. I have come across Narcissistic Personalty Disorder and it seems from many of his inappropriately controlling behaviors , the he has NPD.

      The verbal attack from when he raged at me sent me into a traumatic reaction following this over the next few days. ( I suspect he NLP went so deeply to my subconscious that it brought up some specific repressed trauma) I am trying to wrap it up with him . Just would appreciate your input an especially any info on the NLP that you can provide. How do I deprogram it and avoid him using it on me going forward?

    15. SystemsThinker Says:

      A relationship like this with your doctor is totally inappropriate. If this is what happened, then I would advise to find a new doctor who respects appropriate boundaries. You should not return to see a doctor who crosses lines like this and rages at you. That is absurdly inappropriate behavior for a doctor toward a patient. Find a different doctor asap. If you have traumatic issues from the first doctor, then you should find another professional who can also help you work through that.

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