Another interesting observation from the Paul Bloom psychology course I have been following concerns this fictional character, as well as real-life individuals who share some of his features:
They’re typically male. They are defined as selfish, callous, impulsive, they’re sexually promiscuous. They seem to lack love, loyalty, normal feelings of affiliation and compassion, and they get into all sorts of trouble because they’re easily bored and they seek out stimulation. Now, when you hear this, you’ve got to realize that this sort of person is not necessarily an unattractive person to imagine or think about or even under some circumstances to encounter. You have to avoid the temptation when you think about psychopath to think about a guy like this, to think about Hannibal Lecter. The most famous psychopath, of course, is James Bond who is a perfect psychopath in every regard as played… by Sean Connery.
Bloom elaborates in talking about real-life individuals, and whether psychopathy is an illness:
[P]sychologists study psychopaths but the psychopaths that they study are by definition unsuccessful psychopaths. And what some people have argued is the real psychopaths, the successful ones, are the ones that run the world, that excel in every field because they are successful enough that they don’t look like psychopaths. They have no conscience, no compassion, love, loyalty. They are cold-blooded and ambitious but they don’t go around making this so obvious that we throw them in prison. And so, it’s an interesting and subtle and complicated case.
It does seem inherently plausible that the kind of people who can attain positions of great power have these tendencies, and also have the ability to conceal them from others. This is where the wisdom behind Douglas Adams’ insightful perspective on politicians: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
What lessons can we draw from this? Perhaps it tells us something about the nature of authority and power dynamics in human societies. Perhaps it should inform us to some extent about what to expect from elected officials, as well as those who attain power by other means (such as leaders of coups). It may be even more applicable to the world of business or the military than to democratic politics. In those cases, the number of people who you need to impress with your competence is smaller, and the people who you are impressing are likely to be more tolerant of ruthlessness and a lack of empathy.