CREDIT: Governor Christie’s Office/Tim Larsen
“Is it wrong that I’m smiling?” one Chris Christie staffer asked another after closing a major bridge to a punish town whose Mayor didn’t endorse the New Jersey Governor’s reelection bid. “No,” the other aide wrote back. This is what passes for a “traffic study” in the Christie administration, apparently.
If the aides’ discussion strikes you as a horrifying way to talk about a decision that hurts thousands of people, you’re not alone: that’s one of the reasons this scandal seems to be so devastating for Chris Christie’s political future. It plays into the House of Cards stereotype about politicians and political operatives, that they care about power above all else, including the welfare of their constituents.
As it turns out, this stereotype has some basis in fact. According to solid psychological research and theory, politicians often end up possessing qualities common in sociopaths — or simply are sociopaths themselves. And while it’s not possible to identify the psychology behind the actions of Christie or his staff, the sheer callousness of their rhetoric presents a good opportunity to examine whether political leaders and operatives more broadly have an empathy problem. The answer appears to be yes.
Sociopathy, a term that’s generally interchangeable with psychopathy, is not a form of insanity. It’s a spectrum of personality types classically centering on narcissistic self-importance, a willingness to manipulate others and the charm to do it effectively, and a perpetual habit of deflecting blame when their self-interested actions cause harm to others. This all stems from a basic lack of conscience, the defining trait of the sociopath.
The typical profile of a sociopath certainly suggests they’d flourish in politics. “Robert Hare, perhaps the leading expert on the disorder and the person who developed the most commonly used test for diagnosing psychopathy, has noted that psychopaths generally have a heightened need for power and prestige,” James Silver reported in the Atlantic, “exactly the type of urges that make politics an attractive calling.” Silver also notes that other typical sociopath traits, including fearlessness and strong competitive drives, make sociopaths likely to not only enter politics, but succeed in it.
The “politicians are sociopaths” theory is obviously hard to test. It’s not like political leaders are lining up outside psychologists’ offices and, even if they were, they wouldn’t hand their evaluations over to the New York Times. But there’s some suggestive evidence that people on the psychopath spectrum do well in public office. In 2012, a group of psychologists evaluated every President from Washington to Bush II using “psychopathy trait estimates derived from personality data completed by historical experts on each president.” They found that presidents tended to have the psychopath’s characteristic fearlessness and low anxiety levels — traits that appear to help Presidents, but also might cause them to make reckless decisions that hurt other people’s lives.
Luckily, presidents don’t appear to share the sociopath’s penchant for “impulsive antisocial behavior.” But that doesn’t get politicians in general off the hook: the general view among psychologists appear to be that sociopaths are over-represented in politics.
“Politicians are more likely than people in the general population to be sociopaths,” Dr. Martha Stout, an eminent sociopathy researcher formerly of Harvard Medical School, told the Huffington Post. “I think you would find no expert in the field of sociopathy/psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder who would dispute this.”
So the Onion’s coverage of the 2012 presidential debates — “Nation Tunes In To See Which Sociopath More Likable This Time” — may well have some basis in fact. If so, then it shouldn’t be a surprise when some politicians and political operatives abuse their power to help themselves. That’s what people like them do.
Now, one possible response to this diagnosis is to shrink the power that politicians have. The smaller the government, the refrain goes, the fewer the opportunities the sociopaths have to abuse their power.
This reaction is silly for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, the fact that politicians are more likely to be sociopaths than the ordinary citizen does not mean that all, or even a large minority, of politicians are sociopaths. For another, the fact that some politicians have a particular personality disorder doesn’t answer any of the most important questions about whether government programs on-balance do good. Sociopathy has little to do with whether, for instance, food stamps effectively reduce poverty or public health care saves more lives than private insurance.
But perhaps the simplest reason small government won’t solve the psychopath problem (at least, as it relates to economic governance) is that the private sector is worse. The state’s role in the economy, to a certain degree, trades off with private enterprise’s: if New Jersey didn’t control the George Washington Bridge, the George Washington Corporation would.
And sociopaths love corporate life, particularly at the management levels. One paper examining a sizable sample of business folk found that percentage of sociopaths in the corporate world is 3.5 times higher than in the general population. Another study of 346 white-collar workers found that the percentage of corporate sociopaths increased as you go up the corporate ladder. That’s consistent with the reasons why politicians tend to be sociopaths: corporate leaders have lots of power over others and arguably even less need for empathy and conscience than politicians. “A smart sociopath can avoid prison and find other, less conspicuous ways to satisfy his or her lust for dominating and controlling others, and what better way than through politics and big business?” Dr. Stout asks rhetorically.
Privatizing major parts of the economy like the management of roads, then, wouldn’t eliminate the pathways for sociopathic abuse. Rather, it merely concentrates power in the private sector, where the public has even less control than it does over the government it elects.
And that’s the real lesson here: One of the best cures to bad leaders may very well be political democracy. In the midst of the bridge scandal, Chris Christie is facing a hostile press, forced to answer for his actions and the actions of his staff. Any sociopathic would-be politicians watching at home would have shuddered at the spectacle; while they may not care about how their actions harm other people, they very much do care about being able to hold on to their positions of power. A system that actually holds people accountable to the broader conscience of society may be one of the best ways to keep conscienceless people in check.