What can we say about President Putin?
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
Likely as the result of a continuing brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a search for answers about the mental status of President Putin. Last week, I read 3 media articles on the subject, all before President Biden’s speech last Saturday, which was the subject of our column yesterday.
One of them on March 23rd was Chicago Tribune article by Edwin Fisher on “The Psychology of Vladimir Putin.”1 Fisher is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of North Caroline, as well as—like myself—a chapter writer for “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.” What Fisher focuses on the most is Putin’s presumed paranoia.
In the online daily publication, The Conversation, also on March 23rd, was the article “Putin: the psychology behind his destructive leadership—and how best to tackle it according to science,”2 authored by the Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Lund University, Magnus Linden, and coauthor George Wilkes. They preface their analysis with the caution that they cannot “diagnose” political leaders without asking them to take a personality test, but still can use behavioral observations. Actually, personality tests seem to be a neglected diagnostic tool, but can even be suspect since some people lie in them. I would add the same caution for live interviews. They focus on his “strong man” attitude and worrisome “dark personality traits,” especially antisocial ones. For example, when first meeting the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, Putin brought a large dog, knowing what she was afraid of dogs.
Then, on March 25th, Alexandra Alter put together an article for the Economic Times on “What is Driving Vladimir Putin?”3 In it, the Russian American journalist Masha Gessen recommends several books on Putin and the forces that shaped him, including her own 2012 biography, “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” and the new millennia autobiography by Putin himself, “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russian’s President.” His self-analysis also focuses on his fights, where he loses his temper, gets quiet, and then fights again harder. Are we in that sort of pause now in the war? If so, then this might be a time to put into place Linden’s suggestion of honest, but not humiliating, feedback to Putin.
As may be clear, none of these is written by a psychiatrist, likely because of the Goldwater Rule. Yet, the composite picture of all these others is consistent, if not superficial. They all circle around Putin’s presumed antisocial and narcissistic trains, and colloquially what Putin himself terms a “thug.”
The silence of psychiatrists about Putin is deafening as thundering rockets are traumatizing millions. As April Fool’s Day approaches, will this silence turn out to seem to be wise or foolish?
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.
1. Fisher E. The psychology of Vladimir Putin. Chicago Tribune. March 21, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2022. https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-opinion-vladimir-putin-russia-ukraine-personality-20220321-7rlrzfvdvvcsrit2vmmej7o63i-story.html
2. Linden M, Wilkes GR. Putin: the psychology behind his destructive leadership – and how best to tackle it according to science. The Conversation. March 23, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2022. https://theconversation.com/putin-the-psychology-behind-his-destructive-leadership-and-how-best-to-tackle-it-according-to-science-179823
3. Alter A. What is driving Vladimir Putin? The Economic Times. Updated March 26, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2022. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/what-is-driving-vladimir-putin/articleshow/90465632.cms