Ian Hughes says a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world. We talk about his ideas on psychopaths, narcissists and related disorders-- what they do and how to deal with them
This is part one of a transcript of my September 12, 2013 Interview with Ian-Hughes
In his forthcoming book Imperfect Design: How Our Psychology Threatens Our World, Ian Hughes brings together his experience in science, psychology and political science to demonstrate that a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world. His blog disorderedworld.com has just been shortlisted in the Top 10 Political Blogs in Ireland.
R.K.: This is the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township and reaching metro Philadelphia and South New Jersey, sponsored by Opednews.com. My guest for this portion of the show is Ian Hughes. I am speaking to Ian, he's in Ireland. What part of Ireland are you in, Ian?
I.H.: I'm in Dublin at the moment Rob, I'm originally from the North though.
R.K.: Okay. Ian is the author of a book in process, Imperfect Design , and he has a website, disorderedworld.com. He's a government adviser in science and technology and I'm going to talk to Ian about pathological people. The personality disorders and psychopaths because that's what his book is about. So welcome to the show.
I.H.: Thanks very much, Rob. It's an honor to be talking to you.
R.K.: Well it's a pleasure to have you on the show. Now you've got an exciting book and I'm glad that we're going to be able to talk about it. So can you give me the big picture of your approach to this and to the book and to the way you address personality disorders and psychopaths in the world?
I.H.: Well I guess the big picture, idea behind my book, Rob, is basically asking the question, are we a peaceable species or are we a war-like species? I think there's no simple answer to the question and we haven't come up with a simple answer to the question yet because it's only recently that psychology and science have discovered that there's a minority of people who live among us whose psychology is such that it almost necessitates calling them a different type of human being.
So that small proportion of people who suffer from psychologically abnormal personalities that we talk about have dominated the normal majority for most of human history and it's only in the past number of couple of hundred years, really since the industrial revolution, that the majority have begun to struggle and wrestle power from the hands of this disordered minority.
R.K: Okay and tell me about the organization of your book.
I.H.: Well the book starts off really in describing what the three personality disorders are, and so those are: psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder. So the first chapter in the book is introducing the disorders and also crucially describing how people with these disorders take over first of all, political parties say, and then go on to take over entire societies.
For the first half of the book then I look at specific examples of this. For example, at the Bolsheviks in Russia and Stalin. I look at Mao in China, and I also look at, because it's important to realize that it's not only in violent situations that people with these disorders can come to power, so I look also for example at the financial crisis and how neo-liberalism allowed people with these disorders to come to positions of power in financial institutions and also how religion can act as a means for people with these disorders to rise to positions of power.
So the first half of the book really is giving examples of different means by which and different, if you like, different propaganda, if you like the way that these people can come to power. And then in the second half of the book, I look at the means by which the normal majority have come to wrestle power and the safeguards that the majority has begun to put in place.
So these safeguards are things like the rule of law, if you have the rule of law in place the applies equally to people in power and to ordinary citizens then that's a means of keeping people with these disorders in some kind of check. Electoral democracy is a defense against them because it means that the People can choose their leaders and get rid of them after a reasonably short period of time.
Human rights legislation is also a means of defending ourselves against them and also culture. Culture is an important means of either maintaining some kind of control or allowing them to run amok, so cultures of tolerance are an important feature of, a defense mechanism, of you like, against people with these disorders.
R.K.: Okay, and how do you finish the book?
I.H.: I finish the book on a hopeful note because I think the struggle between this minority and the normal majority, in terms of human history is really a quite recent thing. That is I think from the beginning of the cultural revolution we began to discover the means because societies began to change radically.
When people I say if you go back two hundred years, 80% of the population in the world was living below what we would call the poverty line. Abject poverty where people were struggling everyday just to feed themselves so under those circumstances it's virtually impossible for people to get educated, to organize, to organize politically, to organize in civil society, to resist tyranny and so I end the book on a hopeful note by pointing to the people in the world today who are struggling and successfully struggling against tyranny and against this minority.
And I think in the long term, it is a good news story and I think particularly when we begin to realize now that we have the scientific knowledge that this minority exists, we can begin to formulate how we deal with them and how we build a more humane and a fair, more equitable, and more peaceful world.
So that's how I end the book, with quotes from various figures who are currently struggling and succeeding in the struggle against this minority.
R.K.: Okay so I'm going to kind of go in to more detail within some of the aspects of the book. As just about everybody who talks about psychopaths describes, you discuss how psychopaths don't have a conscience.
I should take a step back, you don't mention sociopaths. Why not? Why do you just, you refer to the three categories: narcissist, paranoids, and the psychopaths. But from what I understand, sociopaths are a huge additional group, described in DSM-V as the antisocial personality disorder.
I.H.: So I'm using the term psychopath and I would say Rob that there's a lot that isn't known as yet about these conditions and there's a lot about them that psychiatrists and psychologists are still trying to learn about these disorders and even in terms of the definitions there's also a lot that we don't understand and a lot of controversy and a lot of things that are still being argued about.
So for example as you mention that the sociopaths and psychopaths, sociopath is in DSM as you say, psychopath isn't. But within, I'm concentrating on psychopaths because I think the psychopaths and the absence of conscience of the psychopath is one of the most dangerous facets across all of the personality disorders and so researching psychopathy at the moment, the traditional way of looking at psychopaths and understanding psychopaths is based on Robert Hare's diagnostic which is really a part of that diagnostic is behavior of violence. A previous history of violence. So a lot of the research has been done on prison populations but there's another line of thinking now that is happening, another line of research which goes back really to the original Hervey Clerkey's original book on psychopaths which is less based on violent behavior and more based on the absence of conscience.
Regardless of whether the person engages in violence or not. So in current research in psychopath, there is this distinction that's emerging between the psychopath that we would usually talk about in terms of violent behavior and another type of so-called successful psychopath who may have no conscience but who may not be violent.
R.K.: And what was interesting my about your observation is that the, this test, the index by Robert Hare, you suggested it tends to look for people who are jailed, who has the kind of psychopathy that got them in to jail or arrested and there's this other kind that you're referring to, the successful psychopath who is different.
They're the kind that tend to get in to real big positions of power because they don't get themselves in trouble so easily. Go ahead, keep going.
I.H.: So that's exactly true but when you say that the violent ones may not get themselves into positions of power, you're talking of course of the United States or Europe or well peaceful societies but the violent psychopaths can easily get themselves into positions of power in societies where there is a war ongoing or where there is a high level of violence.
So it depends. Both of them share the same characteristic in terms of their basic personality structure. It's the same. They both have the lack of conscience that allows them to treat people as things rather than as people but the so called successful psychopath I think would have more of an in-built mechanism for self control and so they wouldn't act on their impulses for violence or maybe they don't have the impulse for violence to the same extent.
So their underlying psychology is basically the same with the difference perhaps their ability to control themselves but both could rise to positions of power. Absolutely both will rise to positions of power, but they will do so under different societal circumstances.
R.K.: Okay. Now you talk about conscience as a handicap for normals. Could you get in to that?
I.H.: I think when I say a handicap for normal people I have to be very careful about saying that because it is also what makes us human. It's absolutely the conscience and empathy and regard for other people is absolutely what makes us human. The ups with that conscience though and I think it was Martha Stout who said that if you imagine that you are a psychopath and you don't have this handicap of conscience, what are you going to do with it? And of course it's an enormous advantage over normal people. And psychopaths actually know this. They know that they have an enormous advantage.
R.K.: Well wait, let's get in to that a little more. When you say it's an enormous advantage for psychopaths over people not to have a conscience, in what way is it an advantage?
I.H.: Well let me give you an example, if you take Stalin or Mao, or others, my argument is that the history of the world has been written by these people and it has been written by violence and it has been written by people who have brutally treated the majority population that they've seized control over.
So, when you take Mao, when Mao became the leader when the communist party took over in China, the first thing Mao did, he knew that his, what he found as being not very disturbing at all, the fact that he could, in fact when he was, the first time that he took part in a raid on a village and took part in slaughtering, murder and so on, he said it was the most thrilling experience that he had ever had up until that point.
For him, killing people wasn't something that there was some revulsion towards, or something to overcome, but he realized that what he got a thrill out of, most other people find extremely frightening. So when he, the first one of the first things that Mao did whenever the communist party took over in China was he ordered public executions right across China.
There were public executions at which huge numbers of people were killed and he ordered women and children, everyone had to go and witness these executions and it was a means of Mao using his advantage of not having a conscience to cower people into submission. I think you'll find that again and again if you look at what Stalin was doing, if you look in Cambodia with Pol Pot and so forth, and what the Japanese were doing during the Second World War and throughout East Asia, the same thing comes up over and over again. They know that they have an advantage.
R.K: Now wait now, I'm not going to let you get away with this. You're giving some good examples but you're not exactly saying how it's an advantage, what the advantage is. So, what you're saying, and I like the quote that you attribute to Mao Tse Tung, "half of China may have to die."
What a horrendous way of looking at a project, but I want to challenge you on this. So you say lack of conscience is an advantage for these people. Mao Tse Tung used it to be able to kill people, what is the advantage? What are they able to do?
I.H.: They are able to frighten the majority population into submission. Part of it is frightening the majority population into submission but it's not just a matter of frightening, it's also a matter of exterminating any resistance and ruthlessly doing so. So in the first instance, in these situations we're talking about the advantage in a violent situation.
They're at an advantage because they will be the most ruthless. Again I'll give you an example from Mao. In China, relations between China and Japan at the moment, the tensions over the atrocities in the Second World War, and a lot of, one of the things we often hear about is the Rape of Nanjing and the number of people that the Japanese murdered in Nanjing.
During the Civil War between Mao and the Nationalists, Mao laid siege to a city in Northeast China and more people died in that siege in Northeast China than the Japanese killed in Nanjing. Mao's tactic during that siege, he knew he was going to win. He said, "I'm absolutely going to win here because the general on the other side is too nice a guy. He won't let everyone starve to death, I will."
R.K.: Wow. And you know, you have a line where you say it is not only the behavior pf psychopaths that is beyond the comprehension of psychologically normal people, it is their thinking too. Now, you've just given an incredible example. Could you talk a little bit more about how incomprehensible the behavior and thinking of psychopaths is?
I.H.: There's an example I'd like to give you. There's a documentary film out at the moment from Josh Oppenheimer and it's called "The Act of Killing" and your listeners may have come across it. If not, it's worth Googling and if it's in a theater nearby it's worth going to. Joshua Oppenheimer, the film is set in Indonesia and it's set during the communist purge in Indonesia when Suharto took power and he's, Oppenheimer is interviewing some of the people who took part of the mass killings at that time, this was in the mid 1960's, and he, Oppenheimer himself says that when he came up with the idea for how he would go about the documentary, when he was talking to some of these killers, and they were boasting about what they were doing.
They were taking him to see, to some of the places they committed the murders and they were saying, "oh I wish I had brought a machete with me because I could have shown you exactly how I did it." And Oppenheimer from those conversations got the idea, well in this documentary, I'm going to let them pretend they're making a film about how they went about killing these people.
And that's what "The Act of Killing" is about. It's Oppenheimer interviewing these killers and allowing them to reenact the mass murders that they committed.
I.H.: There is a a scene at the end of that film, and I'll use this as an example that psychopath isn't just a lack of conscience, it's also a disorder of thinking, and I'll give you this example; the closing scene at the end of "The Act of Killing" is one of the mass murderers, it's a scene by a waterfall and he's surrounded by lots of beautiful women who are dancing and he is almost like a god, so there is the narcissism in there, he is this god who is being surrounded by all these beautiful ladies and he has two people reenacting two of the people that he murdered and they have chicken wire around their throats because that's how he killed them, but the final scene is them taking the chicken wire up from around their necks and coming over with a gold medal and putting it round the murderer's neck and saying Thank You for setting us free.
I.H.: But this is the thinking. The thinking and Robert Hare writes about this in "Without Conscience." Psychopaths often think that their victims will be grateful to them. Robert Hare writes the example of mass rapist who was, when he was arrested and interviewed, he said what are these women complaining about? Sure didn't I get their names in the newspaper? They think their victims will actually be grateful to them.
R.K.: It's horrific. So now you talk about how it's really just more recently that people have become aware that psychopaths and these other personality disorders exist. How could that be? How could it be that for a couple thousand years people were not aware that there was this kind of psychopath? Psychotic, they're not psychotic, these monsters -
I.H.: [inaudible 19:45]
R.K.: I mean, and did they know, do you believe that people did not believe that they were monsters? That they were horrible people? How do you see their role in history before these recent times where you see that people have become aware of them?
I.H.: I think we don't have to go back into history to see this, Rob. I think it's also that it can be difficult to recognize them in the present day. The disorders themselves are low-level disorders. For the most part they can choose -- I mean it goes back to what we talked about earlier about so-called successful psychopaths who can control their behavior, other psychopaths maybe can't.
But certainly with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, those are low-level disorders that can be quite difficult to recognize. We need to be working with someone or in close proximity to someone for quite a period of time before you start noticing that some of the things that are happening cannot be described as normal -
R.K.: Let me do a station ID and then you'll tell us about what makes a person narcissistic or paranoid. This is the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM, reaching metro Philly and South Jersey, sponsored by Opednews.com. If you're jumping in in the middle of the show and you want to catch the beginning of it, you can look for my name at iTunes, Rob Kall, K A L L or go to opednews.com/podcasts with an s on the end and you can download the recording of this interview and hundreds of others free of charge.
So, I've been speaking with Ian Hughes, he's the author of a book in process, Imperfect Design about psychopaths, narcissists and paranoids. His website is disorderedworld.com and we're talking now about narcissists and paranoids and what they are. Go.
I.H.: Well narcissistic personality disorder is, people with narcissistic personality disorder see the world as belong to them and again this is both, this is a cognitive and an emotional disorder so in terms of their cognitive disorder, they really see things that, I guess the best way to describe this, I'll take a step back as they say, for most of history we've lived in societies that have been hierarchical so there have been princes and kings or high priests and so forth and it's only in relatively recent times that the idea of equality have begun to break through and I would say that's very much from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the social changes that have come about from that and most people can at least conceive of the idea of equality.
They can at least conceive of the idea that you are as entitled to something as I am and that you should be treated roughly the same and the same way as I am. People with narcissistic personality are only able to conceive of the idea of equality. For them they are always right. They are entitled more than you are and it's a fixed, as in all personality disorders, this is a fixed attitude and a fixed way of behaving so in discussions, I think narcissistic personality disorder, people will probably come across them quite frequently. And again it's a cognitive disorder also because of the way people think.
So with narcissistic personalty disorder, in a conversation, the narcissist's primary aim is to defeat you in the conversation. So if you're having a conversation or discussion with them, it isn't so important to them that they stick to a particular point, they can change their point, shift their point of view, as long as at the end of the conversation they have defeated you and proved that they are more important than you are, are more intelligent than you are.
So narcissistic personality disorders they are people who really are incapable of conceiving of the idea of equality. That has a huge implication if these people are running democracies or these people are in charge of societies or in charge of trying to you know, distributing goods and so forth. Paranoid personality disorder, in the same way that narcissists are unable to conceive of the idea of equality, people with paranoid personality disorder are only able to conceive of other people as anything other than a threat.
So in every interaction they will be looking to see what is it that you're trying to do to harm them and they'll be constantly hyper-attentitive, constantly super suspicious and if you try to persuade them otherwise then you are likely to become under suspicion yourself. So both of these disorders again if we go back to Freud and we go back to human development and personality development during the life course, both of these disorders are almost a frozen type of personality from childhood.
Now you can imagine as Freud said we all go through a narcissistic phase where we are the most important thing in the world and all of our needs should be met and so forth, most of us grew out of that. Similarly in paranoid personality disorder, that's at a very early stage, children at a very young age have what, what would psychologists call it? There's a, paranoid state of mind and a, what they call a depressive state of mind and the paranoid state of mind a baby is very hyper-attentive and very afraid of its environment. In a depressive state of mind they're more able to relax and be able to take in their surroundings.
R.K.: Okay so let me just recap a couple of things. There are a couple of things in your book that I would just like you to at least point out or go over. So what you're saying is narcissists and paranoids, at least those two personality disorders, they are p0eople who got stuck in early stages of child development and never grew up to be full people.
I.H.: That's one way of characterizing it. As I say there's a lot of research that's still going on about the causes of these disorders but it does appear that they are, certainly the conduct appears to be that it is stuck in an earlier phase of development. But as I said that the reasons for that are still being researched.
R.K.: Yeah that reminds me in the development of the embryo from the single cell to the full human being, there's a saying that there's, it kind of evolves as it develops up the phylogenetic scale and that at one point, the embryo looks like a fish. And at one point the embryo has a tail
R.K.: And the interesting, you know yesterday I interviewed Frans de Waal, he's a world renowned primatologist and he studied and documented how apes, different primates manifest kindness, caring, fairness, empathy, all these different elements and it's almost like these people, they got stuck developmentally at a point, at a level below the mammal because just about all mammals seem to have this kind of empathy and caring. It's part of the mirror neurons that produce this. It's almost like theirs are not working.
I.H.: I think also though it's important, from my point of view it's also important to recognize the environment is changing hugely. So for a lot of the time I would say, before the Industrial Revolution the environment was such that these people could thrive. You know that violence , might was right, and there was a lot of it, if the environment was in that kind of disorder, then these people can thrive.
But in modern society and the way that our civilization is evolving it's almost like the tide is going out for these people and their behavior is being seen as being less and less acceptable whereas they were setting the rules in the past. So I think it's also important to see that it's almost, from an evolutionary point of view, this minority also had an adaptive advantage in times past. That advantage may be going away.
R.K.: Now you know, I've been wanting to talk to you about this. It seems to me that in human pre-history, before there was civilization, when there was indigenous tribal culture, this kind of person wouldn't be able to get away with doing the kinds of things that they do now. It's a small tribe or a band. It's only fifty or a hundred people, everybody knows each other, they wouldn't get away with it.
It takes a bit of anonymity I think to be able to do most of this kind of stuff and in a small culture like that, these people would be thrown out or killed. And it, so it seems to me like it took civilization to enable and empower this kind of a person to be able to use their lack of compassion and their selfishness as an advantage.
I.H.: Yes. I'm not sure, I see the argument but I'm not sure and the reason I hesitate, and again I take a quote from Mao, when Mao again was going, the Red Army during the Civil War were taking over parts of China, Mao said give me two people in a village and I'll have that village.
I.H.: Meaning if you had two people who were so ruthless that they would stop at nothing they could take control of the village. So I see your argument and it's entirely possible but I would, I'm undecided.
R.K.: Yeah I hear ya. Maybe not. So you, a couple other things I just want to throw in from my notes from your book, you say that narcissists react to anyone who challenges them with active or passive aggression. I think that's an important element in looking at them . They're not just attempting to be superior, it's the way they respond. Can you talk a little bit more about how they respond when they're challenged?
I.H.: I think it's the way they respond and also I guess the motivation and the energy that they have and because they see themselves as being entitled to being in positions of power. They see themselves as being entitled to have more than everyone else they have this authority over everyone else and so their energy is absolutely directed towards being in that position.
Anything else is total failure and it's not only total failure it's an absolute injustice of the world that has to be put right. They have to be in positions of authority otherwise the world is wrong. So it's not just that they react, as you say either passively or aggressively, it's that their energy are directed in a way that most normal people's energy isn't. Their career success is one part of the element of most people's life. It's not the all consuming thing but for narcissists this would be the only way to make the world right is that they are in control.
R.K.: So how is that different from a normal person?
I.H.: I think, I thin narcissistic personality disorder is different, the psychology is different, the cognition is different,
R.K.: No I mean the energy that they apply to maintaining their sense of superiority.
I.H.: I think it is different because that they put all of their energy, it's almost I'd say, it's not just the will to succeed, it's the inability to fail. It's a compulsive and again with any personality disorder what really marks them out is the rigidity that there is no other option so you or I may have a goal and we put all of our energy into something but it begins to, as we begin to fail or we develop a different interest or so forth, but with narcissism, it's that rigid, this is the only path in life and there is no choice.
R.K.: Okay. Now, you say narcissists exert a disproportionate influence on society because the number of characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder mean they are more likely to reach positions of authority than those with normal psychology. Can you talk about that?
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