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The psychology of dictators

by Jess Davis | @JESSKATEDAVIS

It’s February 2011 in Damascus. Bashar al-Assad’s face is beaming down at the people. On the billboard signs and car posters he wears suit and tie, his face embedded on the background of the Syrian flag. The mukhabarat, a general term for Assad’s many branches of secret police and intelligence agencies, lay lurking on every street corner.

As the anti-Assad demonstrations increase, so too does Assad’s image and his propaganda around the city. Assad’s picture takes on a stern and fatherly attitude, no more smiles from the ‘beloved’ President, and he is always in military uniform. Mass pro-government demonstrations are enabled by the creation of a public holiday and enforced participation.

The increasing propaganda is slowly accompanied by desperate and deadly measures to keep the Syrian people in there place and to keep Assad in his position of power.

Psychopath versus sociopath

“Assad has proven to be ruthless, but he had to learn to be ruthless…”

As individuals we all posses unique personalities and traits, some which leave us predisposed to becoming a psychopathic dictator. So says James Fallon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at the University of California, who studies dictators both past and present. He says their personalities and traits are often similar. “They are charming and charismatic and have a grandiose sense of self.” Professor Fallon’s list of traits also includes manipulative and cunning behaviour, excellent memory, lack of empathy, lack of remorse and pathological lying.

Professor Fallon uses brain-scans, genetic tests and behavioural reports for his research. He began by studying brain scans of psychopathic serial killers and found when the brain’s lower frontal lobe – the orbital cortex – was diminished people were predisposed to impulsive or psychopathic behaviour. His research has since moved on to search for genetic predispositions to psychopathic behaviour.

Not all dictators are psychopaths, however, and Professor Fallon distinguishes between psychopathic and sociopathic dictators. He  says a dictator like Uganda’s Idi Amin was a primary psychopath and a sadist. But Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, “a shepherd getting even with the world”, was a sociopath.

“Many dictators are sociopaths who are getting even. They’re pissed off and they feel like losers and this is a way for them to get even with the world. Like a lot of guys now joining al-Qaeda or IS,” Fallon says.

In Professor Fallon’s schema, Bashar al-Assad does not exhibit the traits of a primary psychopath.

“Assad has proven to be ruthless, but he had to learn to be ruthless, it wasn’t natural for him, for a primary psychopath all these actions are natural,” says Professor Fallon. He also says an ego is vital to being an effective dictator. “Assad has a weak ego, that’s why he has proven to be a weak dictator.”

While Assad may not have the genetics of a true psychopath, Professor Fallon says his upbringing engendered dictatorial attributes. And even traits which are genetic develop according to circumstance and surrounding environments.

However these are not the only factors contributing to how a dictator comes to and remains in power.

A dictator in all of us

Image - Wikipedia Commons
Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin Image – Wikipedia Commons

“There is never a lack of potential dictators.”

Fathali Moghaddam, Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University says research on dictators focuses too much on the traits of an individual. Moghaddan says Professor Fallon’s research into leaders’ psychology is unhelpful in understanding dictatorships.

“I think there is no doubt that people who become dictators, like Hitler in the classic sense and Stalin, and the modern dictators, do have personalities that are suitable for dictatorship but we have to keep in mind that there are millions of other people around the world that have the same personalities and who have similar genetic predispositions,” he says.

Professor Moghaddam says research tends to concentrate on the leader because it’s easier to focus on the symbol of a regime than the context in which it exists. But there are potential dictators in every human group. He believes the key to preventing dictatorships is to study the circumstances from which they arise.

“There is never a lack of potential dictators. And we know this from our own personal experiences, even from our own family and friends,” Professor Moghaddam says.

The differences between the two methodologies are apparent in their analysis of Assad. Professor Moghaddam focuses on the institutional and social context in which everybody is expecting Assad to act like his father. He says the power of a dynasty in human relations shouldn’t be underestimated.

“He [Assad] has a tradition of his family, his father being the leader and in that part of the world in particular that matters a lot.”
Professor Fallon’s methodology, however, focuses on Assad’s childhood and social disorders. Assad’s older brother Basel was originally destined  to take over from their father Hafez, but died in a car accident. Professor Fallon says Assad felt inferior because he wasn’t the chosen one. “He was sort of thrown into it and doesn’t have some of those traits that other dictators have.” Professor Fallon also says Bashar was bullied by his older brother Basel and has “intermittent explosive disorder”. “Assad does not have factor one traits, he’s not a born psychopath. He has factor two traits, anti-social personality disorder.”

The System

Image - Wikipedia Commons
Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi Image – Wikipedia Commons

In return the sycophants benefit from the dictator’s favour, further reinforcing the system.

Despite the contrasting focuses of Professors Fallon and Moghaddam, they are on common ground in some regards. In particular, their views on the role of the group surrounding a dictator.

The people who benefit from dictatorship and corruption are often what holds the system together. The grandiose sense of self Professor Fallon describes as a common trait of all dictators is created and reinforced by the sycophantic group around the dictator. Professor Moghaddam says over a century of psychological research has shown it’s easy to get individuals to think of themselves as having special talents, when everybody else treats them as if they do. “When you put somebody in a position where you’re treating them as special, as different they will start acting in that way. So it’s not just the leader having a particular belief, it’s other people supporting him to think he has that belief.”

In return the sycophants benefit from the dictator’s favour, further reinforcing the system. Those benefiting from dictatorship are reluctant to see a change in leader because they will suffer. And even if a dictator does fall, there is a tendency for leadership to continue in the same style. Changing the form of leadership can take a long time, says Professor Moghaddam. “So in 1917 we had the Russian revolution and the Tsar fell, but that didn’t end the leadership of the Tsar because his style of leadership has continued. When in China the Emperors fell that didn’t end the style of leadership, Mao continued that style. And in Iran when the Shah fell, that style of dictatorial leadership didn’t just end, it continued.”

Deflection of responsibility is another trait Professor Fallon says is common to most dictators. “As a leader, as a dictator you have to lack remorse or guilt, you can do this by deflecting responsibility.” Professor Moghaddam says the situation in Syria right now is perfect for Assad to legitimise his actions. “Because the opposition right now is represented by IS [Islamic State], Assad can justify whatever he does. Whether it’s using chemical weapons or mass killings.”

The Fear

To replace a dictator with a better system is a slow and painful process.

Professor Moghaddam believes another failure of Western academia is it often considers ideology as playing the most important role in maintaining a dictatorship. This focus means the role of brute force is often forgotten because it’s not something Western societies face. Professor Moghaddam argues it is this brute force which actually keeps people from rising up, even if they’re aware of the corruption of the regime they’re living under. “It takes a lot to rise up against a dictator who has got guns pointed at you. I certainly learnt this living in Iran. What happens is the government institutions are all trained against you and not just you but your family and friends.”

Ahmad Kamal understands the stifling threat of brute force. Growing up in Syria, Kamal was a truck driver who joined the Free Syrian Army after the uprising and later fled because his family was threatened. Before the uprising Kamal describes the fear propagated by the regime. “People learn very carefully not to talk about politics, not to talk about Assad, not to talk about anything,” Kamal says. “It’s stupid to do something against these people because otherwise you’ll disappear. And if somebody disappears because of politics you can’t do anything, if you say anything you will disappear as well.”

Assad’s mukhabarrat was critical to the maintenance of his power and the regime had eyes and ears everywhere.  Not knowing who was a spy effectively prevented people from speaking out because they couldn’t trust anybody, Kamal says.“You feel like people just became hopeless, and they gave up doing anything against him [Assad]. Everybody knew it was impossible and everybody knew he was building an army just to keep his chair.”

To replace a dictator with a better system is a slow and painful process. Kamal says people didn’t really think Bashar was as bad as his father, until he started killing people attending demonstrations. “So after people started being brave, because everybody had lost someone, everybody had something they could relate to.”

The power of a dictator lies in their ability to create a society of fear, to use their own superiority and manipulative prowess. It takes a unique kind of person with a specific skill set and the right circumstance. Assad still clings to power, his country torn apart by the brute force that once held it together.

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