Brooks and Tett on policy psychology · 22 October 2012
David Brooks (writing in the “The New York Times” on 12 October) and Gillian Tett (writing in the “Financial Times” on 18 October) have each produced a useful article on the relationship of individual psychology (or personality) to the wider world of government policy – although the articles do it by heading in different directions from essentially the same starting point.
The Brooks article suggests that not enough attention is presently paid to the effect of individual psychology (personality) on leadership decisions – and thus on personality when choosing leaders. The Tett article relates individual psychology (personality) concepts to the whole populations of countries. Taken together, the articles act almost like a circle with the two directions eventually meeting each other and encompassing a lot of wisdom that is all too often overlooked when considering issues of public policy.
The motivation for the Brooks article seems to have been the US presidential election, while the motivation for the Tett article is the Euro-crisis and the effect of subsequent policies on the populations of countries such as Greece.
The US and Greece may seem to be almost different worlds, so it may be easier to explain what Brooks and Tett are each (in their own articles) on about – and the connection between the two – with the help of German and Russian examples in which the “leadership” and “population” issues can be more directly related to each other.
Tett wrote about the “humiliation” felt by a country’s population when it feels that something very unpleasant has been “done” to it by some other party. Leaving aside the issue of how justified these feelings of humiliation are, good examples are Germany in the period after the First World War (and the Treaty of Versailles) and Russia in the 1990s when the collapse of the USSR led many to feel that Russia’s economic and political chaos was the result of bad advice from the West which then turned it back and gloated at the result.
Tett’s article (essentially based on the work of Prof. Dennis Smith, a “historical sociologist”) suggests that the humiliation being forced on the “national psychologies” of Greece (and possibly Spain) could have quite “pathological” (read abnormal or diseased psychology) results. She does not say so, but at some level this pathology could be similar to that of Germany and Russia in the times I have mentioned.
Brooks does not go into this issue, but in situations of national pathology, the leaders that emerge are not likely to be those mostly driven by rational “cognitive” decision making on behalf of the population, but those whose own personalities will ultimately provide the best guide to the decisions that they will make. Here, we might think about Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin (although, I am not suggesting that Putin has the same degree of personal pathology as Hitler).
To some degree, the concepts covered in the Brooks and Tett articles might also be applied at the intra-country group level.
For example, the humiliation that Putin and Co. are willingly to attempt to inflict on the aspiring Russian “middle class” (for want of a better word) may result in some of the responses mentioned by Tett:
“Typically, it occurs in three steps: first there is a loss of autonomy, or control; then there is a demotion of status; and last, a partial or complete exclusion from the group. This three-step process usually triggers short-term coping mechanisms, such as flight, rebellion or disassociation. There are longer-term responses also, most notably “acceptance” – via “escape” or “conciliation”, to use the jargon – or “challenge” – via “revenge” and “resistance”. Or, more usually, individuals react with a blend of those responses.”
But Tett also wrote that “Prof Smith believes, for example, that Ireland already has extensive cultural coping mechanisms to deal with humiliation, having lived with British dominance in decades past. This underdog habit was briefly interrupted by the credit boom, but too briefly to let the Irish forget those habits. Thus they have responded to the latest humiliation with escape (ie emigration), pragmatic conciliation (reform) and defiant compliance (laced with humour).”
Thus, the responses of the “national psychologies” of Ireland and Greece to their “humiliation” resulting from the Euro-crisis may exhibit significant differences.
The Russian “middle class” is certainly using Irish-style escape, pragmatic conciliation and defiant compliance to cope with its humiliation—- but in the longer term the coping mechanism could become more “pathological”. If this were to happen, I suspect Putin’s response would largely be determined by his personality.
The full Brooks article (which quotes psychoanalysts such as Karen Horney) and the full Tett article can be read below.
“Merkel & Co should look at the ‘H’ factor” by Gillian Tett
This month, the guessing game is intensifying in Spain. But the issue is not just the size of the Spanish banks’ bad loans; the key uncertainty for investors is the mindset of the government of Mariano Rajoy. Will Madrid buckle under external pressure, and seek a bailout? Or will the domestic backlash be too great? In other words, what level of humiliation can the Spanish government, and people, bear?
For Dennis Smith, a prominent British historical sociologist, the question is a significant one across the eurozone. As he explained at a recent sociology conference, one way for policy makers and investors to make sense of the eurozone’s trajectory is to look at how “humiliation” operates in a psychological and cultural sense. After all, Prof Smith argues, one defining feature of the postwar European experience was that the union “always presented itself as a post-humiliation regime”. It was forged to heal the wounds of the second world war and thus, “liberty and equality [were] highly valued as well as the spirit of fraternity”. But since the financial crisis erupted, “humiliation has returned to Europe on a large scale”.
Inside nations, weak groups have suffered economic pain, and across the eurozone, weaker countries are being humiliated in a way that was taboo in the postwar post-humiliation period. Even more striking than this turnabout, Prof Smith argues, is the variety of responses from countries such as Greece and Ireland, as they reel from that humbling.
To understand this, it is worth noting that psychologists believe the process of “humiliation” has specific attributes, when it arises in people. Unlike shame, humiliation is not a phenomenon which is internally driven, that is, something that a person feels when they transgress a moral norm. Instead, the hallmark of humiliation is that it is done by somebody to someone else.
Typically, it occurs in three steps: first there is a loss of autonomy, or control; then there is a demotion of status; and last, a partial or complete exclusion from the group. This three-step process usually triggers short-term coping mechanisms, such as flight, rebellion or disassociation. There are longer-term responses also, most notably “acceptance” – via “escape” or “conciliation”, to use the jargon – or “challenge” – via “revenge” and “resistance”. Or, more usually, individuals react with a blend of those responses.
Such psychology jargon may sound irritatingly abstract. But, just as investors can sometimes make sense of market crises by thinking about the five-stage cycle for processing human grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), looking at the psychology of humiliation can be revealing for the eurozone. Those periphery countries, after all, have experienced a loss of control, a demotion in relative status and exclusion from decision making processes (if not the actual euro, or not yet). And there are echoes of the classic humiliation coping strategies in the eurozone tale today.
National stereotypes are, of course controversial and dangerous. But Prof Smith believes, for example, that Ireland already has extensive cultural coping mechanisms to deal with humiliation, having lived with British dominance in decades past. This underdog habit was briefly interrupted by the credit boom, but too briefly to let the Irish forget those habits. Thus they have responded to the latest humiliation with escape (ie emigration), pragmatic conciliation (reform) and defiant compliance (laced with humour).
“This tactic parades the supposedly demeaning identity as a kind of banner, with amusement or contempt, showing that carrying this label is quite bearable,” says Prof Smith. For example, he says, Irish fans about to fly off to the European football championship in June 2012 displayed an Irish flag with the words: “Angela Merkel Thinks We’re At Work”. However, Greece has historically been marked by a high level of national pride. “During 25 years of prosperity, many Greek citizens had been rescued by the expansion of the public sector … they had buried the painful past in forgetfulness and become used to the more comfortable present (now the recent past),” Prof Smith argues. Thus, the current humiliation, and squeeze on the public sector, has been a profound shock. Instead of pragmatic conciliation, “a desire for revenge is a much more prominent response than in Ireland”, he says, noting that “politicians are physically attacked in the streets. Major public buildings are set on fire. German politicians are caricatured as Nazis in the press … the radical right and the radical left are both resurgent.” Prof Smith’s research has not attempted to place Spain on the coach. But I suspect the nation is nearer to Greece in its instincts than Ireland; humiliation is not something Spain has had much experience of “coping” with in the past.
Whether the Spanish agree with this assessment or not, the key issue is this: if Angela Merkel or the other strong eurozone leaders want to forge a workable solution to the crisis, they need to start thinking harder about that “H” word. Otherwise, the national psychologies could yet turn more pathogical.
“The Personality Problem” by David Brooks
In the 19th century, sermons were a big deal. They’d be reprinted in newspapers. In the 20th century, psychoanalysts were a big deal. There were a number of best-selling authors spinning theories about the psyche, which had a large impact on how people saw the world and themselves. This includes not only Freud and Jung, but also people like Erick Erikson, Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Viktor Frankl and Philip Rieff. Today we’re more into cognition and the brain. Over the years, attention has shifted from the soul to the personality to decision-making. Preoccupations have migrated from salvation to psychic security to success.
When it comes to treating mental illness, I guess I’m glad we’ve made this shift. I put more faith in medications and cognitive therapies than in Freudian or Jungian analysis. But something has been lost as well as gained. We’re less adept at talking about personalities and neuroses than we were when psychoanalysts held center stage.
For example, in the middle of the 20th century, a woman named Karen Horney (pronounced HOR-nigh) crafted a series of influential theories about personality. Like many authors of these intellectually ambitious theories, she was raised in Europe and migrated to the United States before World War II.
More than most of her male counterparts, Horney felt that people were driven by anxiety and the desire for security. People who have been seriously damaged, she argued, tend to react in one of three ways.
Some people respond to their wounds by moving against others. These domineering types seek to establish security by conquering and outperforming other people. They deny their own weaknesses. They are rarely plagued by self-doubt. They fear dependence and helplessness. They use their children and spouses as tools to win prestige for themselves. These people are often excessively proud of their street smarts. They deeply resent criticism and seek the vindictive triumph — the reversal of fortunes in which they can lord their excellence over those who scorned them. These people can’t face their need for affection, so they seek to cover it by earning admiration and deference.
Other people respond to anxiety by moving toward others. These dependent types try to win people’s affections by being compliant. They avoid conflict. They become absorbed by their relationships, surrendering their individual opinions. They regard everyone else as essentially good, even people who have been cruel. They praise themselves for their long-suffering forbearance, their willingness to live for others, even though in reality they are just too scared to assert themselves. They think they are behaving selflessly, but they are really using others for whatever drips of affection they can provide.
Other people move away from others. These detached types try to isolate themselves and adopt an onlooker’s attitude toward life. As Terry D. Cooper summarizes the category in his book, “Sin, Pride and Self-Acceptance,” “To guarantee peace, it is necessary to leave the battleground of interpersonal relationships, where there is constant threat of being captured.” These detached people may put on a charming veneer to keep people away. They tamp down desire, avoid ambition and minimize conflict and risk. They want to avoid the feeling of needing someone. They seek to live tranquilly in the moment.
The domineering person believes that, if he wins life’s battles, nothing can hurt him. The dependent person believes that, if he shuns private gain and conforms to the wishes of others, then the world will treat him nicely. The detached person believes that, if he asks nothing of the world, the world will ask nothing of him.
These are ideal types, obviously, conceptual categories. They join a profusion of personality types that were churned out by various writers in the mid-20th century: the inner directed, the outer directed, the Organization Man, the anal retentive, the narcissist, the outsider.
The books that explained these theories were good bad books. The good bad book (I’m deriving the category from a phrase from Orwell) makes sweeping claims, and lumps people into big groups. Sometimes these claims are not really defensible intellectually. But they are thought-provoking and useful. They provide categories and handles the rest of us can use to understand the people around us, seeing where the category fits and thinking more precisely about where it doesn’t.
We’re probably poorer now that people like Horney have sunk to near oblivion — less adept at analyzing personality. We probably have less practice analyzing personalities, whether it’s the people around us or even, say, presidential candidates.
More than that, the vocabulary you use shapes what you pay attention to. If you learn about the cognitive skills that lead to success, you’ll think a lot about success. If you learn a lot about personality, you’ll think a lot about personality.
Which is more important?