The Psychology of Dictatorship: Why Gaddafi Clings to Power

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REUTERS/Libyan TV via Reuters TV

Muammar Gaddafi gestures as he speaks at a Tripoli hotel in this still image from a video by Libyan TV released May 11, 2011

Muammar Gaddafi continues to hold tightly to power even as NATO bombs rain down on Tripoli. Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 1,000 of his own people in an effort to quash protests. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has refused to step down despite months of unrest that has intensified into near civil war this week. The question is, why do all these guys fight so hard to keep power? Why not decamp to Saudi Arabia or Venezuela and live out their lives in luxury before being killed or held for trial like Hosni Mubarak?

Any attempt to diagnose a defining psychological feature of dictatorship would be facile. But in the public record available on many of them — Stalin and Mao, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi himself — one can begin to see patterns that shape a dictatorial personality. At least since the Office of Strategic Services (now known as the Central Intelligence Agency) commissioned a secret profile called “A Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler,” which was issued in 1943, psychologists have sought an explanation for the authoritarian mind. New research has brought us closer than ever to understanding how leaders become despots.

There are at least three explanations for dictatorial behavior:

1. Dictators are psychopaths.

This is the simplest and most seductive psychological explanation of dictatorship. It’s also the least helpful. Psychopathy is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders under the rather antiseptic term “antisocial personality disorder.” Its features are, among others, “repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest,” deceitfulness, impulsivity and lack of remorse.

It’s difficult to think of a dictator who hasn’t exhibited these traits. For instance, dictators not only lie to others as a matter of course but also lie to themselves. “If ever [Stalin] called somebody a traitor, it was not only the minds of others he was manipulating,” writes Oxford historian Robert Service in his biography of the dictator. Similarly, Gaddafi truly seems to believe not only that opposition to his regime equals opposition to the very existence of Libya but that, as he has said shortly after the uprising began, “All my people are with me. They will die to protect me.”

But true psychopaths — think of serial killer John Wayne Gacy — are not only liars and remorseless killers, but they seem to lack any feelings whatsoever. Gacy used various tools to torture his victims over hours — reviving them after they passed out — before finally showing the mercy of murder. Most dictators don’t carry out such brutalities, at least not in person.

Scott Atran is a University of Michigan psychologist who has studied strongmen around the world for two decades. He has spoken with Khaled Meshaal of Hamas; Abubakar Ba’asyir, erstwhile emir of the Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah; Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group that operates from Pakistan; and William Pierce, the late leader of the white-supremacist movement in the U.S. None of these stateless men can accurately be described as dictators, but all have led organizations that valorize a muscular and often brutal leadership style.

Atran’s main conclusion is that an impulse toward morality, not sadism or greed, drives the strongman personality. Hitler, he points out, refused the contemporary equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in payoffs to reclassify a small group of Jewish Austrians as non-Jews. Similarly, Atran and his team have recently published papers mounting evidence that the Iranian regime ignores substantial offers of aid to end its nuclear program out of a “sacred value” of independence that trumps the practical concerns of its people.

2. Dictators are paranoid narcissists.

Most non-dictatorial leaders employ subordinates who are empowered to question them. Dictators arrange their lives so that no one can play this role. “What strikes me is not so much the instrinsic psychopathy of some of these leaders but, rather, how absolute power changed them over time,” said Frank Dikotter in an e-mail. Dikotter is a professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe. “Mao was in power for a long time, and abuses got worse and worse. In the end, he lived in his own cocoon.”

Dictators also lose their ability to see themselves and their relationships to others realistically. In a 2003 paper in the journal Psychological Review, three researchers led by Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, looked at how elevated power changes the psychological makeup of those who have it. They found that powerful people become more willing to take credit for accomplishments they didn’t achieve. They also begin to see the world around them in “more automatic, simplistic ways.”

But there is a neurological cost to ignoring the realities around us. Like any neurological region, the paralimbic cortex, where our emotions are processed and where our sense of self-control lies, can stop functioning properly if it’s not regularly used. Gaddafi deployed hundreds or thousands of agents who identified threats to his power and eliminate them. In this he is similar to Stalin, whose security commissariat, the NKVD, moved against whole swaths of Soviet society that might oppose him, particularly pre-revolutionary elites. By muzzling any truthful criticism opposition, dictators begin to inhibit their own paralimbic systems, which is one reason they start to sound so crazy in their latter years.

Saddam Hussein is a good example, according to Renana Brooks, a Washington psychologist who specializes in power and domination. Hussein refused to stop lying about whether he had weapons of mass destruction even as bombers readied their approach to Baghdad. “Dictators are willing to create a fantasy of their personal power,” says Brooks. “They see themselves as heroic.” When that sense of heroism is challenged, they become paranoid.

3. Dictators are more or less normal people who develop mental disorders in the extraordinary circumstance of holding absolute power.

Zimbabwe’s despot, Robert Mugabe, was apparently a polite ascetic as a young man. As Peter Godwin points out in his definitive 2010 book The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, former aides say that when Mugabe was younger, he wasn’t a wild-eyed tyrant but a careful listener who rose early, did his push-ups and never drank.
How does such a man become a monster? At this point, it’s tempting to invoke Lord Acton and say that absolute power corrupted Mugabe. But how, exactly? What is the mechanism by which power corrupts?

In a new paper called “How Power Corrupts,” a Columbia University team of psychologists suggest that power doesn’t change the psychology of powerful people but, rather, their physiology. Lead author Dana Carney and her team hypothesize that because power eases so many daily stressors — dictators never have to worry about driving a car or paying a mortgage — powerful people show persistently lower levels of cortisol, a hormone closely associated with stress.

Typically, immoral behavior — even routine sins like lying — is stressful. “A lie-teller must actively inhibit and suppress many things including: the truth, internal monitoring of [his or her] moral compass, social norms, fear of consequence, and consideration of others’ interests,” Carney and her colleagues write. “This suppression leads to negative emotions, decrements in mental function, and physiological stress.”

But because they have lower levels of cortisol, “the powerful have an abundance of emotional and cognitive resources available to use when navigating stressors as they arise.” In this way, dictators may become immune to regret. When the Columbia team tested their hypothesis in a lab setting, they found that study participants who were placed in large offices and informed they were managers made difficult decisions much more easily than those given the role of subordinates. Not only did the high-power group score lower on psychological measures of stress; they also had lower levels of cortisol in saliva samples.

None of this means we can excuse dictators for their crimes. But our brains simply weren’t designed to wield absolute power. Dictators may fight to the end because they don’t understand that any end is possible. Gaddafi should stand down before he loses everything; Mubarak should have left Egypt weeks before he resigned; Hitler could have brokered for peace; Saddam Hussein could bargained for his life. But dictators are too strong militarily and too weak psychologically to bargain. That’s why they invite annihilation.

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