David Ludden Ph.D., Guest
The Psych Club at my college was hosting a colloquium on “The Psychology of Superheroes,” and they asked me if I’d join the panel discussion, posing as my favorite comic book character.
“I don’t know anything about superheroes,” I told them. And it’s true. I never read comic books as a kid, and I have no interest in the superhero action movies that Hollywood endlessly rolls out.
“Then what about a supervillain?” one of them asked.
“Yeah, you look just like Lex Luthor,” said another, pointing at my shiny pate.
Supervillain? Now that sounded tempting. And I’d just finished reading an article on “successful psychopaths” that I could reference in the discussion. So I said I’d do it.
According to Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues, a psychopath displays a paradoxical personality type. They’re charming, articulate, and fearless, yet at the same time they’re self-centered and they show no sense of empathy or remorse as they repeatedly violate the rights of others. The serial killer is perhaps the prototypical psychopath, and, to be sure, plenty of psychopaths end up behind bars serving long sentences. Lilienfeld and colleagues dub these “unsuccessful psychopaths.”
When psychopathy is mixed with a high degree of intelligence and a strong ability to delay gratification, the result is a ruthless, Machiavellian type whose path to power is paved with the dashed dreams and broken bodies of countless others. Yet “successful psychopaths” are too clever to ever get punished for their crimes. On the contrary, they often reach the highest echelons of business, government, military and law enforcement, even professional sports.
Banana republic dictators are certainly all successful psychopaths, because they live in lawless, unstructured societies where only the ruthless flourish. The wolves of Wall Street, who regularly push our financial system to the brink of collapse for their own personal gain, are undoubtedly successful psychopaths as well.
You might well think there’d be safeguards against psychopaths rising to power in a constitutional democracy such as ours, but you’d be mistaken. Lilienfeld and his coauthors report on a personality analysis of the first 42 presidents, which found that success in the White House was strongly correlated with the traits of the successful psychopath. These traits can also be found among current contenders for the presidency, especially those high in the polls.
Lilienfeld and his colleagues point out that the research on successful psychopathy is scant. In part this is because many in the field consider the concept an oxymoron. How can you be successful and pathological at the same time? Research instead has focused on the unsuccessful psychopath, in particular those convicted of heinous crimes. To a certain degree, this is due to a legitimate desire to better understand criminality and its causes. They’re also easy to find, since there are plenty to be studied in any given prison.
Studies of successful psychopathy typically recruit research participants through newspaper ads. One such notice advertised for people who were “charming, aggressive, carefree people who are impulsively irresponsible but are good at handling people and looking out for number one.” Apparently, successful psychopaths know who they are and don’t wish to hide their true identity, because plenty respond. Subsequent tests confirm high levels of traits associated with antisocial personality disorder but also of positive traits such as extraversion and conscientiousness.
For the superhero panel discussion, I thought Lex Luthor would be a good candidate for a diagnosis of successful psychopath, but I had to do some more research. (Really, all I knew about him was that he was Superman’s arch-nemesis and that he had a bald head.) I expected a brief Wikipedia stub, but what I found was a detailed and well written article on Lex Luthor that was even longer than the encyclopedia entry for our current president! (12994 words for Luthor, 11476 words for Obama. By comparison, presidential contender and Lex Luthor impersonator Donald Trump only gets 8850 words in Wikipedia—not so huge!)
References in the Wikipedia article included, among others, the DC Comics website, an online Encyclopedia of Superman, a Superman Homepage, and a comic book wiki. I felt as though I’d tumbled from my ivory tower into an alternate universe of comic book scholarship. Here’s just a snippet of the DC Comics website entry on Lex Luthor:
“A self-made man whose immeasurable intellect is always in conflict with his equally immeasurable ego, Lex Luthor is one of the world’s most brilliant minds and most famous villains. From a young age, Lex utilized his almost unparalleled acumen to build himself a financial empire through hard work and dedication—but mainly through the strategic use of intimidation, bribery and murder. Sacrificing other people became simply a means to an end on the path to success, but Luthor always made sure none of his deplorable acts could be traced back to him. Instead, his climb to power and rise in status made him someone to look up to, someone people wanted to emulate—and he relished in the adoration.”
This description fits the profile of the successful psychopath to a T.
I also learned that, in the DC Universe, Lex Luthor even made a successful bid for President of the United States. Which leads me back to the title of this blog post. Might we actually elect a psychopath for president? We may have done it before. But I do hope that this time we, as a nation, can see through the guile of this year’s bumper crop of presidential hopefuls and elect a person who has the best interests of the nation at heart.
Update: Just before posting this entry, I learned that the “Psychology of Superheroes” colloquium had been canceled. Superman was a no-show. He must have found out about my stash of kryptonite. Curses, foiled again!
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).
Lilienfeld, S., Watts, A. L., & Smith, S. F. (2015). Successful psychopathy: A scientific status report. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 298-303.
Lex Luthor. DC Comics. Retrieved from http://www.dccomics.com/characters/lex-luthor on October 24, 2015.
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