The Psychology of Dictatorship: Kim Jong-Il
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.
For more insight into the psychopathology of Kim Jung Il’s North Korea, see ggt’s post, How Gullible Are North Koreans?