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Psychopaths are not nice people. But unfortunately they have an attractive side, and so they often do surprisingly well in a society that values what they are able to provide. In fact, they may rise to the very top and become leaders of powerful nations, as was notoriously but by no means uniquely the case with Stalin. Their total lack of empathy gives them an advantage when it comes to managing people. Decisions that would be tough for normal people with restraints imposed by conscience, psychopaths take without a second thought. They appear 'strong', 'decisive', and mix easily on a social level. A wonderful description of a psychopath can be found in Dostoevsky's The Possessed. Peter Verkhovensky, the leader of a small group of revolutionaries, arrives and 'became acquainted almost instantly with the whole town', including the highest society the community had to offer. He has the psychopath's easy charm, their guilt-free decisiveness which so many people admire. And Verkhovensky is capable of the coldest crimes, for example ordering the little group to murder one of their number, so they will all be bound together more firmly in guilt.
Norman Dixon, in Our Own Worst Enemy, explains the attraction that many feel for psychopaths in these terms: 'Because they behave quite shamelessly, in ways that others would love to emulate but are afraid to imitate, even their most ruthless and flamboyant acts may become objects of envy and admiration'.
It would be ridiculous to claim that all leaders are psychopaths: what is clear is that psychopathic traits are no bar to high office, but are on the contrary a help. Ask almost anyone the characteristics they would like to see in a leader, and they do not mention the need for wisdom, but instead will insist on a vaguely defined 'charisma', and 'the ability to take decisions' - in other words, the very forte of the psychopath. Maybe that is why so many psychopaths have achieved great power. Hermann Goering and Idi Amin are fairly uncontroversial examples, but others not so physically intimidating occur, such as Hitler and Pol Pot. Some psychopaths end up in prison, but others have succeeded socially far beyond their deserts.
Dixon remarks that psychopaths are notoriously bad at foreseeing the consequences of their own actions, and take enormous risks. Does this remind you of anyone?
'The qualities that have been cited to prove that Blair is a psychopath are his charm, insincerity and talent for drama,' argues Allan Beveridge in the latest issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (Guardian report, 1st December). But he does go on to say that an alternative explanation is that Blair is a lawyer, with 'a lawyer's ability to defend positions without necessarily believing in them'. 'Is the prime minister mad? Without more information, the psychiatrist's answer has to be 'I don't know'.' (A leader who publicly predicts before engaging in a war that he promotes, that 'we' will have to pay a 'blood price', is suspiciously unempathetic.) King Claudius, worried about stepson Hamlet's erratic behaviour, says, 'Madness in great ones must not unwatched go'. What was true in olden times in Denmark is even truer in today's nuclear world.