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Dictators and mass murders: Understanding 'malignant narcissism'
Most of us can't imagine wanting absolute control over a nation or feeling compelled to commit mass murders — so then what is it about a dictator's psychology that makes them different?
- The world over, dictators seem to share similar characteristics — a need for admiration, excessive paranoia, and ruthless brutality.
- At the same time, a relatively healthy, "normal" individual will have a great deal of difficulty putting themselves in a dictator's shoes.
- It's not enough to just chalk it up to evil: What condition could explain dictators' bizarre desires and behaviors?
On his 60th birthday, Saddam Hussein commissioned a Quran to be written using 27 liters of his own blood. Idi Amin, who was Uganda's brutal leader during the 70s, claimed he kept the decapitated heads of his political enemies in his freezer and that he had tried eating human flesh, but found it to be "too salty" for him. Francois Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971, once ordered all black dogs on the island to be put to death under the belief that a political opponent had transformed into one.
We don't need to know about these eccentric behaviors and beliefs to understand that these rulers were deeply ill in some way. Proof of their disturbed states of mind can easily be found in the mass murders and genocides they perpetrated and their vicious paranoia. It's difficult for most people to empathize with the psychology of dictators such as these. What drove them to become brutal despots?
A dysfunctional brain
Perhaps the most straightforward way to think about dictators' psychology is to say that they are psychopaths. This is a reasonable, but perhaps imperfect, descriptor. Psychopaths tend to be bold, disinhibited, and cruel, traits that appear to be linked to dysfunction in two key parts of the brain: the lower frontal lobe and the amygdala.
The frontal lobe activates when presented with moral decision-making and impulse control, and the amygdala regulates fear, rage, desire — the more animalistic aspects of our behavior — and both contribute to the brain's overall reward system. So, when these two parts of the brain are damaged or underdeveloped, it's a recipe for psychopathy. Neuroscientist James Fallon describes the outcomes of this dysfunction in a blog post for Psychology Today:
"What satisfies a normal person — such as reading a good book or watching the sunset — does nothing for someone with an underdeveloped amygdala. For some people, this means a greater tendency toward drug and alcohol addiction and severe painful withdrawal that gets progressively worse over time, leading to malignant dependent behaviors. For sadists, they become addicted to torture and killing; dictators get high on power, an insatiable drive that gets progressively worse, or malignant with time."
Image source: Franco Origlia / Getty Images
This lack of self-control and callousness toward others certainly seems like a good fit for the dictator. But one of the hallmarks of psychopathy is the psychopath's lack of regard for others, whereas many dictators seem to be excessively concerned about how they are perceived. In part, this is a method for retaining power, but it is also often the manifestation of narcissism.
Consider, for instance, Muammar Gaddafi, who believed himself to be a fashion icon, stating, "Whatever I wear becomes a fad. I wear a certain shirt and suddenly everyone is wearing it." His bodyguards consisted entirely of attractive women. He also ensured that his face could be seen in public works of art throughout Libya and that quotations from The Green Book, in which he described his political philosophy, appeared in airports, on pens, or even in pop songs. Gaddafi wanted everybody to know and love him.
This certainly seems to fit the bill for narcissism, which is defined by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. Many of us, however, know narcissists in our personal life — they might be wildly unpleasant, but they haven't committed genocide. What's the difference between a run-of-the-mill narcissist and the variety of narcissism that seems to afflict the world's dictators?
"The root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity"
Some psychologists believe that narcissism and psychopathy exist on a spectrum. Right in the middle of the two is malignant narcissism, a hypothetical syndrome that — although it hasn't been formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — may be the best framework for considering dictators' psychologies. This condition is defined by the regular symptoms of narcissism, as well as the antisocial behavior seen in many psychopaths, sadists, and paranoia folk.
Where a psychopath might try to cultivate affection and esteem from others in order to further their own goals, they don't require that affection and esteem. Where a narcissist needs the respect of others, they may not exhibit an extreme disregard for others and aggression. In between these two lies malignant narcissism, coupling both the extreme neediness of the narcissist and the psychopath's antisocial tendencies. For a condition that psychologists have referred to as "the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity," it certainly seems to coincide with the behaviors of the Hitlers, Maos, and Stalins of the world.
- A Personality Test for Tyrants, Fascists, and Authoritarians - Big Think ›
- How dictators flourish through social media - Big Think ›
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.
- A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
- Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
- Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images<p>A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, <em>speed + convenience</em>, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.</p><p>Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands. </p><p>Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/tech/greenhouse-gas-emissions-retail/index.html" target="_blank">says</a> the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."</p><p>The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."</p><p>Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need. </p><p>While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.
- Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
- One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
- "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.