James Bond is a psychopath

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

14 thoughts on “James Bond is a psychopath”

  1. The above ties back to a previous discussion:

    The only principle successful politicians live by is doing what it takes to win and maintain power (whether in democratic systems or in others where power is allocated differently).

    It’s akin to ‘fitness’ in an evolutionary context. Sure, organisms can devote themselves to purposes that do not increase their reproductive success, but they will soon be crowded out by another organisms who act as though their eye is unwaveringly on that target.

    In short, we cannot expect politicians to be genuinely principled – only to put on such a show of being principled as will impress the most voters.

    It is interesting to question whether politicians who are not ruthless are fundamentally ineffective at changing how the world works. If so, the Machiavellian perspective on how to be amoral but effective might have more validity than a liberal perspective of well-meaning politicians advancing the common interest.

  2. You have given me a new way of looking at the term psychopath.

    for me is is important to believe that our politicians are moral. as politicians we even hold them to higher standards of morality. In our democratic society with a questioning press, they live under a microscope.

  3. In our democratic society with a questioning press, they live under a microscope.

    All the more reason to suspect they might be psychopaths. An ordinary person forced to say different things to different groups of people at different times might not be able to handle it.

    A psychopath, on the other hand, could prosper for a long time. That seems especially likely in situations where the media doesn’t track the positions you take too closely, or isn’t quick to point out how you have reversed yourself.

  4. Unless you say something truly absurd, that is:

    “After decades of embracing the liberal-media moniker “maverick,” for his frequent derision of the conservative wing of the Republican party, McCain has now abandoned the label. He told Newsweek magazine earlier this month: “I never considered myself a maverick.” But countless YouTube videos show McCain and vice-presidential running mate Sarah Palin invoking the “M” word.”

  5. I think that many politicians may well be “psychopaths” although in my opinion, the word means something else. However, the type of person that you describe is certainly not uncommon. If you are interested in encountering an example in recent and acclaimed fiction, read Ian McEwan’s “Solar.” You may find it more interesting as the “hero” is a Nobel prize winner and a main theme in it is alternative energy.

  6. This talk is also very interesting.

    It describes how cognitive dissonance helps explain hazing and volunteer work:

    Hazing is cognitive dissonance at work. Fraternities and med schools and other organizations haze people. What they do is when people enter the group they humiliate them, they cause them pain, they cause them various forms of torture and unpleasantness. Why? Well, because it’s very successful at getting somebody to like the group. If I join a fraternity–it is also by the way illegal so – but if I were to join a fraternity and they say, “Welcome to the fraternity, Dr. Bloom. Here. Have a mint,” and then we have a good time and everything. I’m thinking “okay, sounds like a fun idea.” But if I join a fraternity and they pour cow poop on my head and make me stand in the rain for a month wearing pantyhose while they throw rocks at me [laughter] I then think–after it I think “God, I went through a lot of stuff to get into this fraternity. It must be really good.” And in fact, hazing through cognitive dissonance draws the inference that this is really, really valuable and this is why it exists.

    It also describes how we over-attribute the choices people make to what we believe their character to be, without paying enough attention to the situation.

    It also demonstrates how we are easily tricked about how much intelligence of knowledge someone has, if that person has an opportunity to demonstrate some of the (possibly few and trivial) things they do know:

    The best study to show this is a quiz show study, which is you take two people and you flip a coin. And one of them is the quiz master and the quiz master gets to ask questions, any question he or she wants. And the other person has to answer the questions. And if they play seriously, the quiz master’s going to destroy the other person. “What was my dog’s name?” [laughter] “Well, I don’t know.” “What’s the capital of the city in which I was born?” “Well, I don’t know.” And then you’d expect a third person watching this to say, “Who cares? It’s just–They’re just doing this because of the coin they flipped.” But in fact, when the person watching this has to assess their intelligence they give the quiz asker a higher intelligence rating than the other person. After all, “He seemed to know a lot of answers. The other person didn’t get much right.”

    Undoubtedly, this is all useful and practical information, even if it is a bit depressing for those who hope that human beings will generally behave in rational ways.

  7. “According to the survey, the students at the top of the social hierarchy—they were the most “powerful” and respected—were also the most considerate and outgoing, and scored highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion. In other words, the nice guys finished first.

    This result isn’t unique to Berkeley undergrads. Other studies have found similar results in the military, corporations and politics. “People give authority to people that they genuinely like,” says Mr. Keltner.

    “It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

    Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.”

  8. “Deceptive bosses, it transpires, tend to make more references to general knowledge (“as you know…”), and refer less to shareholder value (perhaps to minimise the risk of a lawsuit, the authors hypothesise). They also use fewer “non-extreme positive emotion words”. That is, instead of describing something as “good”, they call it “fantastic”. The aim is to “sound more persuasive” while talking horsefeathers.

    When they are lying, bosses avoid the word “I”, opting instead for the third person. They use fewer “hesitation words”, such as “um” and “er”, suggesting that they may have been coached in their deception. As with Mr Skilling’s “asshole”, more frequent use of swear words indicates deception. These results were significant, and arguably would have been even stronger had the authors been able to distinguish between executives who knowingly misled and those who did so unwittingly. They had to assume that every restatement was the result of deliberate deception; but the psychological traits they tested for would only appear in a person who knew he was lying. “

  9. “Students who admitted to cheating, or who were caught, ranked high on what psychologists call the “dark triad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. But it was in psychopathy that they scored highest.

    The mental disorder is often characterized by four factors: erratic behaviour, manipulation, callousness and anti-social tendencies. It’s also connected to a range of misconduct, from bullying to criminal behaviour.

    No, this doesn’t mean there are murderous psychopaths lurking in university halls – the psychopathy measured here is considered “sub-clinical” or “non-offender.”

    “We’re not talking about disordered people. After all, they’re at challenging universities,” says psychology professor Delroy Paulhus, the study’s author. “But they do show the profile of these disorders.”

    In particular, he says, they show a tendency to be impulsive. “They too easily get into that temptation. They are also callous and they don’t care that they are taking advantage.”

    The researchers asked cheaters about their motivations for cheating. In the more psychopathic ones, they found an “unrestrained achievement motivation” – or fierce ambition – often paired with a lack of moral inhibition. Fear of punishment played no role.

  10. Psychopathy
    Socially challenging
    Psychopathy seems to be caused by specific mental deficiencies

    Nov 11th 2010 | from PRINT EDITION

    WHAT makes people psychopaths is not an idle question. Prisons are packed with them. So, according to some, are boardrooms. The combination of a propensity for impulsive risk-taking with a lack of guilt and shame (the two main characteristics of psychopathy) may lead, according to circumstances, to a criminal career or a business one. That has provoked a debate about whether the phenomenon is an aberration, or whether natural selection favours it, at least when it is rare in a population. The boardroom, after all, is a desirable place to be—and before the invention of prisons, even crime might often have paid.

    To shed some light on this question Elsa Ermer and Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, decided to probe psychopaths’ moral sensibilities and their attitude to risk a little further. Their results do not prove that psychopathy is adaptive, but they do suggest that it depends on specific mechanisms (or, rather, a specific lack of them). Such specificity is often the result of evolution.

    Past work has established that psychopaths have normal levels of intelligence (they are only rarely Hannibal Lecter-like geniuses). Nor does their lack of guilt and shame seem to spring from a deficient grasp of right and wrong. Ask a psychopath what he is supposed to do in a particular situation, and he can usually give you what non-psychopaths would regard as the correct answer. It is just that he does not seem bound to act on that knowledge.

  11. The most famous psychopath, of course, is James Bond who is a perfect psychopath in every regard as played by him also by Sean Connery. The Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton characters were not psychopaths. I could give a whole course on that.

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