What do O.J. Simpson, football player, Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Jim Baker,minister, Jimmy Swaggert, minister, Edwin Edwards, former Governor of Louisiana, Eliot Spitzer, former Governor of New York, Scooter Libby, former aide to Dick Cheney, Larry Craig, Senator from Idaho, David Vitter, Senator from Louisiana and John Gotti, boss of the criminal syndicate known as the Gambino family, have in common? They were all caught with stacks of evidence, according to authorities, indicating illegal, immoral, unethical or criminal behavior and they have denied most or all of the accusations against them. Some have had no significant punishment or negative consequences to deter repetition of bad behavior.
There is a character type, according to experts, with a set of characteristics that can be successful in the worlds of business, sports and entertainment, religion and politics as well as crime; and that’s someone with a personality disorder or evidence of a manifestation of acting out behavior that masks underlying depression. We don’t know if the individuals listed in the first paragraph could be classified as having personality disorders, but if we seek to understand what motivates great and powerful individuals to commit acts against the culture, then it is useful to look at our behaviors and theirs and see what it is that promotes the lack of guilt.
We ask ourselves in our culture what motivates people who are famous, rich, well-connected and powerful as the folks mentioned above, to disobey laws or ethical rules, steal, lie and even kill. The reasons are as complex as personality disorders once labeled psychopath or sociopath and now categorized broadly to include those who have unusual responses to guilt or innocence, who appear to lack conscience for their behaviors, have grandiose notions about status, and who believe they are above the laws and rules made for others. Often they don’t admit guilt and have little regard for the negative impact their behavior has on others. That’s a major defining feature, according to experts.
These are the characteristics of individuals with personality disorders according to the clinical handbook known as the DSMIV.
- Glibness/superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Need for stimulation, with a proneness to boredom
- Pathological lying
- Conning and manipulating behaviors
- No sense of remorse or guilt
- A very shallow emotional affect – they display emotions they don’t really feel
- A lack of empathy for others
- They are parasitic – they live off of others
- They are impulsive, and show poor control over their behaviors
- They tend to be promiscuous
- Their behavior problems start early in life
- They cannot form long-term plans that are realistic
- They are impulsive, and irresponsible
- They do not accept responsibility for their actions – another caused it
- Marital relationships are short, and many
- They display juvenile delinquency
- They violate probation often
- Their criminality is diverse
The definition goes on to relate the fact that individuals with personality disorders violate social norms and expectations without the expression of remorse or guilt so that they can continue their behaviors. An estimate of the number in the population is about 1 to 4% of the population, although mental experts observe that most are able to control it. One needn’t have all the characteristics listed above to be diagnosed as having a personality disorder, but a major leaning in many of them would likely be sufficient criteria.
Those powerful individuals cited in this article including Gotti, Blagojevich, Edwards, Vitter, Stevens, Spitzer, Craig, O.J. Simpson, Libby, Baker and Swaggert have not been classified as having this disorder, and no one should assume they have it nor take it upon themselves to make a diagnosis. The unifying feature they have relates to guilt, a characteristic found in many of us to a greater or lesser degree than these individuals. All of us have some of the features of those with personality disorders, because all behavior is on a spectrum from mild to severe. On the other hand, if the pendulum swings negatively in one direction, then a category helps to understand the underlying issues and nature of the problems, and can serve as a catalyst to look at our own behaviors and the culture that creates them.
The principal issue for those who have personality disorders is handling guilt, something many people have difficulty doing, as evidenced by the fact that it has been found that more than 95% of young people will cheat on tests or lie on employment applications, then relate that their values are quite in order. Furthermore people cheat on their taxes and don’t consider that they have committed crimes.
Anyone may find several areas on the list of personality disorder characteristics that seem to describe himself or herself or a friend. When a culture has a widespread issue surrounding guilt, then perhaps we could consider it is possible there is a cultural disorder, especially if that culture does not have guidelines that are consistently used to define guilt and teach people what that is and why it’s important.. In any case, we know what behaviors develop from a lack of guilt, and by knowing them we can begin to re-examine our own behaviors and understand what causes people to do what they do.
Wood, Derek, “What is a Psychopath,” Mental Health Matters, http://www.mental-health-matters.com/articles/article.php?artID=292
Moles, Dr. Robert N. “Psychopathy: Introduction to Basic Concepts,” http://netk.net.au/Psychology/Psychopath2.asp
Kitron, John, “Depression and Grandiosity: Clinical and Theoretical Issues in the Treatment of Narcissistic Disturbances,” Journal of Contemporary Psychology,
February 24, 2006.