As many writers know from painful personal experience, a book can take a long time to write. But maybe, just maybe, books don’t allow themselves to be written until the time is right.
It has taken me over seven years to write Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy. Now that it has just been published, and with Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency plunging the US and the world into greater danger with every passing week, the most frequent response I get when I tell people the title of my book is “perfect timing!”
But this timing is not something I can claim credit for. Since I began writing it, the world has changed in ways that make the messages in the book of enormous relevance today. But its origins lie in the distant past, in my attempts to understand my childhood growing up amidst the violence in Northern Ireland. As a scientist, and as a human being, I wanted to understand how it is that demonstrably dangerous individuals can so easily gain widespread followings and lead societies towards calamity.
Disordered Minds is based on research across a range of disciplines including history, psychology, politics and human nature. Over the course of my research, each of these disciplines yielded its own vital lesson.
The lesson from history is already well known, even if it was in danger of being forgotten. The lesson is that at times of social and economic crisis, strongman leaders preaching simple solutions to complex problems can readily rise to power. These demagogues typically exhibit a rigidly narcissistic belief in their own infallibility, a paranoid fear of enemies at home and abroad, and a psychopathic ruthlessness which they apply to crush opponents and reshape the world according to their own disordered logic.
The lesson that emerged for me from psychology is that these dangerous characteristics are not evenly distributed across the population but are instead concentrated in a relatively small proportion of the populace who suffer from certain disorders, namely psychopaths and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders. Psychopaths suffer from an absence of conscience and a corresponding ability to treat others with casual brutality and disdain. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder have distortions in perception and cognition which continually reinforce their belief in their own superiority. Anyone who dares challenge their superior status will immediately become the target of their unbridled narcissistic rage. Finally, people with paranoid personality disorder have a cognitive dysfunction that makes them believe, falsely, that others are always out to harm them.
These dangerous disorders are not uncommon. Psychopaths and those with narcissistic personality disorder are thought to make up around 1-2 per cent of the population. The prevalence of paranoid personality disorder is thought to be much higher, at around four percent of the population. These numbers are such that we are likely to interact with someone with one of these disorders several times every day. In a country with the population of the United States, about 20 million people will have a dangerous personality.
The lesson for democracy that I learned while researching Disordered Minds, is that, because of their tenacity and exaggerated self-belief, people with dangerous personalities often have a greater chance of gaining power than people with normal psychology. And when they do achieve office, they are compelled to dismantle democracy from within. Democracy, after all, places constraints on the power of leaders. Individuals with dangerous personality disorders are psychologically incapable of functioning within these constraints and duly set out to demolish them.
Once in power, they undermine the rule of law and make the law whatever they say it is. They discredit opponents and suppress dissent. They subvert the integrity and effectiveness of the electoral process. They violate the human rights of minorities and those they perceive to be acting against them. They discredit the very notion of truth and then navigate the narcissistic fog of confusion they create with much greater skill than their opponents.
Finally, the lessons about human nature contained in Disordered Minds are both disturbing and encouraging. On the disturbing side is ample evidence of human gullibility and susceptibility. Individuals with dangerous personalities are in a minority. They therefore could not create the destruction they do without the active and wilful support of many of the psychologically normal majority of the population. Unfortunately, because they do not exhibit the doubts and qualms of conscience that signify normal psychological functioning, dangerous personalities strike many ordinary people as ideal leaders, especially in times of crisis. They come across as powerful and decisive. They are not afraid to say what they think. They will follow through on their agenda no matter how much opposition they face. As a result, not only do we fail to recognise individuals with these disorders, but we often willingly place power in their hands.
Thankfully, I also learned a more hopeful lesson regarding human nature. Research in psychology is increasingly suggesting that wanton violence and excessive greed are aberrations in human behaviour that arise from failures in human development. Neuroscience shows that an absence of love and meaningful interactions in infancy can result in failures in brain development that lead to a reduced capacity for empathy and reciprocal relationship. If human development goes well, however, our predominant nature, it seems, is cooperative, loving and empathic. Reining in the destructive influence of dangerous personalities, therefore, could open up the possibility of a more peaceful and humane society based on the psychology of the majority, rather than on the pathology of a minority.
So perhaps Disordered Minds took me so long to write because it really wouldn't allow itself to be written until the time was right. At this moment, as hatred is tearing the United States apart and democracy is under pressure from populist movements across Europe, the lessons learned in writing Disordered Minds really could not be more pressing. When I started writing the book, I thought it was to understand the dangerous personalities of the past. Now that I have finished it, I realise that it is really to warn about our bewildering, dangerous present.
Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy by Ian Hughes is published by Zero Books, priced €14.50. Ian will be speaking at the Kilkenomics Festival in Kilkenny on Saturday, November 10th