When political madness works

Image of Gillian Tett

As the political fight heats up in America, there has been endless debate about the character of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But does anyone know what drives their inner psychology or neurology? And should we care?

That is the question that has been bubbling in my mind this week, after I attended an event organised by David Owen, the British politician. Inside the UK, Owen is best known as a former foreign minister, who later co-founded the Social Democratic Party. However, before entering politics, Owen trained as a physician and psychiatrist. And since he left the political stage, he has poured some of his formidable energy into analysing the mental state of senior American and British politicians – see, for example, his book In Sickness and In Power or his 2009 neurology paper “Hubris Syndrome”, which discusses the behaviour of prime ministers and US presidents over the past 100 years.

But now Owen has taken this research further, and assembled a network of neuroscientists, financiers, politicians and psychologists to explore “hubris”. This week they held their first public brainstorming session under the aegis of the British Royal Society of Medicine and Daedalus Trust (of which, in the interest of disclosure, I am a trustee).

The interaction was fascinating, not simply because it comes amid the US race, but also because it shows what interdisciplinary debate can achieve. In the course of the discussions, for example, John Coates, a banker turned neuroscientist, explained how human biology and hormone levels influence how financial traders (mis-)behave. This has such big implications for risk taking, that it is now being studied by the military. Ricardo Blaug, a psychiatric social worker, described how power can isolate modern political leaders and Paul Fletcher, a neuroscientist, used pictures of rats’ brains to discuss whether political hubris has parallels with substance addiction.

John Alderdice, a psychoanalyst who also happens to be a senior politician in Northern Ireland, talked about how fantasy is central to the dynamic of a modern politician. As he observed: “You need to have illusion to get into power today … The problem is that politicians have to live with that illusion.” And on that note, a group of neurologists is now conducting linguistic analysis on British parliamentary debates. This shows that the levels of verbal hubris – and narcissistic illusion – vary significantly among prime ministers. Apparently the UK is unusually good for this analysis because the Hansard parliamentary records provide a large body of unscripted debate.

But one of the most provocative pieces of research comes from Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University. Last year, Ghaemi published a book, A First-Rate Madness, which evaluates a dozen world leaders, and concludes that many were not mentally “normal”. On the contrary, Ghaemi says, men such as John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill all suffered various types of depression, bipolar syndrome or hyperactive manias.

But instead of being a handicap, these “problems”, when kept under some control, helped them in crises: mania is associated with energy and creativity, and depression instils empathy and more realism. Or, to put it another way, people who are entirely normal – or “homoclitic” to use the psychological jargon – do not make great leaders. “Mental health – sanity – does not ensure good leadership; in fact, it often entails the reverse,” Ghaemi argues, citing Neville Chamberlain, the former British leader, as a man who was too mentally “balanced” to be effective in a crisis, unlike the depressive Churchill.

So where does that leave the current American political debate? Since the mental health records of the candidates are still confidential, Ghaemi himself is wary of saying too much. But if nothing else, these analyses suggest that voters should not be too worried about the fact that a psychologist could spot hints of mild depression in Obama’s biography; nor should they be so thrilled that Romney keeps presenting himself as an extremely balanced and sane man. Excessive hubris, in other words, is dangerous. But excessive normalcy can also be damaging (even if – ironically – the voters now seem to require their leaders to provide a display of such “normalcy” to win office).

Either way, it is clear that it would be beneficial to have a bit more debate about the physical and physiological conditions of power, not just in politics but in finance and business too. Not everyone would necessarily go as far as Coates, who suggests it would be helpful to test the hormonal levels of financial traders and other risk takers in a regular way (although testing the hormones of politicians might certainly be intriguing). But history suggests it is essential to watch whether leaders are becoming too isolated for their own good; so is having an honest debate about how leaders emerge, and placing checks and balances to prevent them spinning out of control. Sadly, however, a campaign trail is probably the last place this debate will occur – least of all when every political move by Romney and Obama is now carefully scripted for 24-hour television.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.