(Published on Oct 22, 2008. Last updated July 5, 2018)
A high level of chronic mental stress caused by pronounced inner insecurity makes a person unsuitable as a leader.
It brings about a predominance of survival centers in controlling behavior along with a suppression of prefrontal cortex, causing a low quality of mental performance including judgment-distorting defense mechanisms and, in the most pronounced case, sociopathic behavioral disturbances with ruthless egoism and absent empathy. I call it “Survival Oriented Behavior (SOB)”
A key characteristic is a predictability-seeking behavior which serves to reduce anxiety. This is achieved by promoting the sense of being in control and of rejecting or suppressing unpredictable factors in life. This brings about an urge for power, intolerance to “strange” and thus unpredictable behaviors, causing bullying of “odd people” and racistic attitudes.
This pattern is called the “Authoritarian Personality”. It was described by the eminent psychologist Adorno and his team over 50 years ago and has been confirmed by other scientists but they could not explain its cause. However, I have discovered that seeking control and predictability are the key factors causing exactly this behavior.
The key feature – emotional insecurity
The key reason for Survival-Oriented-Behavior is emotional insecurity, which colors the perception of life. It is called weak “Emotional Basic Trust” (EBT) in psychology. When a person feels basically insecure, he is prone to perceive ordinary life situations as anxiety-provoking, which triggers SOB. An emotionally insecure person is mostly in the state of SOB because anxiety is present virtually all the time consciously or often subconsciously.
Weak EBT (WEBT) develops when life conditions cause feelings of fear and insecurity in childhood. Insecure parents with the instability, irritability, and aggressiveness that is evoked by stress, are not able, even with the best intentions, to create the atmosphere of security required for developing strong EBT (as stress is very common in society, so is weak EBT). Traumas like war experiences, early loss of a parent, early separation from parents, divorce, and abuse may also cause weak EBT .
Anxiety is terrible, horrific for small children because the ability of the brain to inhibit emotional reactions gradually appears at about the age of 5-7. Therefore, an emotionally insecure child, has a strong urge to develop anxiety-reducing strategies mostly subconsciously and they become habitual, “programmed” influencing their behavior and reactions throughout life unless actively treated.
- A major anxiety-reducing strategy is the use of defense mechanisms (distorting, downplaying, suppressing, ignoring anxiety-evoking impressions). These act like filters that may considerably impair the perception of reality and thereby the judgment.
- Another major anxiety-reducing strategy is to increase the predictability of one’s situation. Predictability enhances the feeling of security while unpredictability evokes painful anxiety.
I suggest that the Authoritarian Personality pattern is mainly the expression of pronounced predictability-seeking behavior. The symptoms of such behavior concur strikingly with the Authoritarian personality pattern as described by Adorno:
Symptoms of increased need for predictability
- Control-demanding behavior, which includes a strong need to be in power, or dominant, if possible. “Being on top” increases the sense of security.
- Intolerance of dissenting opinions. When on top, there is a craving for complete submission from the subordinates, because of the strong anxiety-driven need for total control. People who don’t comply, evoke anxiety and are bullied and harassed, and if possible, dismissed by the authoritarian person.
- Need for authoritarian leadership. Submission to a strong authoritarian leader creates an increased sense of security.
- Resistance to unfamiliar or unconventional ideas. The need for predictability causes resistance to anything that can change customary conditions in society.
- Proneness for prejudices. The rigid adherence to preformed opinions is a kind of defense mechanism that helps to fend off (anxiety-provoking) unfamiliar (thereby unpredictable) ideas or views that challenge the world view that the person has established.
- Strong allegiance to traditional norms. These norms provide a framework that increases predictability so such individuals tend to obey the prevailing norms very ambitiously because this increases the chances of being widely accepted in society (or at least the group they want to identify themselves with), which increases their feeling of security. The conventionalism is associated with:
- Intolerance and aggression against unfamiliar behavior. Such behavior feels unpredictable, and therefore it evokes an uncomfortable sense of insecurity and anxiety in WEBT persons. Therefore it tends to elicit aggressive coping behavior such as rejecting, scapegoating or harassing people from other ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, and others who deviate from familiar behavior patterns and norms.
- Avoidance of ambiguity. Ambiguous and complex information enhances the sense of insecurity greatly. Therefore these people want to simplify their perception of the world so as to have few nuances, either black or white, either good or bad, either yes or no, etc
- Preference for authoritarian beliefs and ideologies. To increase the sense of security and predictability, the person prefers ideologies and creeds that provide simple and authoritative answers to world problems. Therefore they may be prone to religious dogmatism and fundamentalism, as well as political (left or right) extremism.
- Suspiciousness. This is an expression of insecurity and an expectation that others have the same aggressiveness, lack of reliability, and dishonesty that characterizes their own survival-oriented mentality. It may evoke paranoid tendencies. Paranoia is found in many of the dictators in history along with many signs of authoritarian personality disturbance.
The above list is identical to Adorno’s list of the traits of the authoritarian personality.
The authoritarian personality pattern described by Adorno can be logically derived as a consequence of anxiety-alleviating strategies, where seeking predictability, probably since an early age, is a key theme. This increases the sense of security of these people who have an especially weak Emotional Basic Trust (inner insecurity).
In my experience, even less insecure SOB people have some tendency for using such behaviors, so the authoritarian type appears to be the extreme variety on a continuous scale.
Other characteristics of very insecure persons
- Severe brain dysfunction when threatened. In this situation the suppression of prefrontal cortex is strong, resulting in a great dominance of the midbrain survival centers. Expressions like “lost one’s wits” in fearful situations describe this experience of an inability to think adequately. The behavior is irrational and violent reactions or panic are triggered by minimal stimuli. Precisely this behavior was the reason why the Swedish Airforce developed the Defense Mechanism Test. Its application eliminated crashes due to panicking entirely by deselecting insecure people. This condition is a maximization of the already present less pronounced brain dysfunction caused by their chronic stress condition.
- Pronounced emotional instability. The subcortical centers that control their behavior induce preparedness for fight and suppress cortical centers responsible for balancing the emotions. Characteristically such people can react violently to very small provocations while major provocations almost inevitably bring about reckless, destructive behavior.
- Preference for violent solutions to conflicts. Their high level of aggressiveness leads to a tendency to justify the use of violence, like the right to use personal arms for personal security. Inclined to favor wars for solving international issues.
- “Popularity-seeking behavior”. In spite of their tendency for impulsiveness, instability, and aggression, the person may make great efforts to conceal any negative behavior in order to become accepted and popular, which increases the feeling of security. So they may appear very charming and friendly and well adapted, being keen on following all norms and informal social rules required for becoming accepted. This sign is not always present (perhaps genetic factors contribute to the ability to develop this charming “talent”).
- Manipulativeness. This is a variety of “popularity-seeking” where the person, often from early childhood on, has learned to ensure acceptance and security through manipulation of the attitudes and emotions of people.
- Dishonesty, unreliability. This ties closely with the manipulativeness. Lying and unreliability “widens” the possibilities for “effective” manipulation. So it is the strong inner anxiety that brings about habitual dishonest behavior as a means for increasing social acceptance as well as for increasing the ability to achieve desired goals (at any price).
- Prominent short-sightedness. This is the result of pronounced Survival-Oriented-Behavior, and is found to some extent in SOB as well, see “Top leaders should be tested“. The person tends to act dishonestly and unreliably although knowing that there may be a risk for disclosure. This is because the future consequences of the actions are experienced as so remote that they tend to disregard them. This is because survival-orientation instinctively brings about a disregard of anything else than what helps “survive” the immediate situation. This goes along with a suppression of the activity of the prefrontal brain which is responsible for forethought and good judgment. This pattern is most pronounced in sociopaths.
- Weak or absent empathy, ruthlessness, reaches its maximum in authoritarian types, but is found more or less in SOB people as well. This is a consequence of the suppression of the forebrain regions that are responsible for empathy and compassion.
- Bullying. This is a consequence of the above-described trait elements. It is driven by the intolerance to (anxiety-provoking) unfamiliar or unconventional behavior and enabled by their aggressiveness and lack of empathy. Typically a bully attacks from the “secure” position of perfectly following all written and unwritten social norms of the group, attacking those who don’t fully comply with, or agree with, the norms or act “strangely” in some way.
- Limited work capacity – risk for stress-burnout. Physiological stress brings about a considerably increased consumption of energy, so such people cannot work with a high output for a long time.
- Stress-related health issues. Cardiovascular disorders including myocardial infarction, stroke, stomach ulcers, digestive disturbances, headaches and migraines, reduced immunity with frequent infections are among the most common stress-related problems.
- Psychopathy/sociopathy is the most pronounced form of this disturbance. All the above-described traits are well-known elements of the sociopathic pattern in which they are most prominent. Recent research indicates that about 12-15% of the population have psychopathic traits, but only a few percent of them are criminals, while the “smarter” ones can be found in any sphere of society. They tend to assume leadership positions because this increases the sense of security, and this can cause great problems in companies, see “The danger of Corporate Psychopaths“. Of course, they are a great danger to any society or nation or company who elects them as a leader.
- A considerable number of dictators have obvious psychopathic traits.
Please note that all the signs enumerated above don’t need to be present or apparent. They may be intentionally concealed.
Power may reveal the authoritarian personality
The common saying, coined by the British historian Lord Acton about 150 years ago, is that power corrupts.
However, I think it is mostly the other way around. The strong urge for power of “Authoritarian” personalities, along with their manipulative skills. dishonesty and ruthlessness makes it likely that they achieve power positions more successfully than others perhaps to a considerable extent. The number of political leaders, including presidents and ministers, who have been sentenced for criminal acts is large all over the world.
Their mind is “corrupt” from the beginning but they hide it with their manipulative skills and mastery of popularity-generating behavior until they have reached the top. Consequently, I think a more realistic wording is:
“Power reveals the corrupt mind”.
Even most disturbed persons may appear to be symptom-free
It is an experience from psychology that even the most disturbed and insecure persons may be subjectively symptom-free. If they master the “popularity seeking” strategy well, they may seem psychologically healthy and completely normal. Even experienced psychologists are often unable to “see through” these cases according to the experience from air force pilot selection (however, persons trained at detecting well-adapted psychopaths may be able to recognize them). The Swedish Airforce noted that, under stressful conditions, this weakness had devastating effects on pilot performance (making grave judgment errors, losing the mind, panicking, crashing). Therefore they developed a special selection test for the detection of pilots with such hidden disturbances (The Defense Mechanism Test, DMT).
Reality-distorting defense mechanisms are common
Most importantly, a great majority of persons without any conscious anxiety symptoms tested for combat pilot training were found to have considerable sub conscious anxiety (indicating SOB) according to this selection test, called the Defense mechanism test (DMT-Neumann). This accords with the conclusion of Abraham Maslow that a small minority in modern society is really healthy psychologically.
The suggested explanation for the appearance of defense mechanisms is that persons who have been traumatized severely early in life usually experience very painful anxiety. To quench this they tend to develop defense mechanisms to suppress it along with the above-described predictability-seeking behavior. Experience indicates that the most disturbed persons tend to be more or less unaware of their anxiety because their anxiety suppression mechanisms are especially strong.
WHY IS AN AUTHORITARIAN TYPE ESPECIALLY UNSUITABLE AS A POLITICAL OR CORPORATE LEADER?
In addition to having the disqualifying characteristics of SOB, the authoritarian personality has developed a pattern of behavior that may lead to more or less dictatorial leadership with a strong demand for submission along with a rigid resistance to new and creative solutions. Because of the strong preference for predictable subordinates, such a person will prefer people with authoritarian or SOB personality pattern for key positions.
Emotionally secure, creative and independently thinking people (SOB-free) are expelled because they tend to be unconventional and unpredictable, thereby creating anxiety. However, according to my experience, they usually leave the organization spontaneously, finding it suffocating when the ruler has established his dictatorial regime.
It is evident that an authoritarian personality type is highly unsuitable for occupying top positions in any organization including business, governments, military etc. Their inability to function properly, especially in stressful conditions that demand great flexibility, adaptability, creativity, excellent judgment and an unperturbed perception of reality could be disastrous. Moreover, they are prone to inhuman, aggressive, irresponsible, short-sighted and unethical actions.
For more about the harmful effects of such disturbances see “Why companies decline“.
The authoritarian personality pattern is the consequence of a high level of chronic mental stress brought about by pronounced inner insecurity. It causes a predominance of survival centers in controlling behavior along with a suppression of prefrontal cortex, causing a low quality of mental performance including judgement-distorting defense mechanisms and highly problematic, in the most pronounced case sociopathic, behavioral disturbances including a.o. ruthlessness, lack of empathy, unreliability, intolerance and a high level of aggressiveness.
As the rulership of such a leader could have disastrous consequences, presidential and vice presidential candidates and other top politicians, as well as people in administrative and corporate including financial top positions should be carefully tested as proposed in “The brains of presidential candidates must be tested”.
Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row (pp. 228).