A little while ago I introduced you to Andrzej Łobaczewski (1921-2007), a Polish psychologist who spent much of his adult life under communism before emigrating to the USA in 1977.
I thought you might like to explore with me the observations and ideas that Łobaczewski formulated under oppressive circumstances and at the hand of evil men. This exploration would be in the spirit of gleaning wisdom for our own struggle with oppressive circumstances (as opposed to a mere fascination for a dark time of history) and to understand what Łobaczewski terms political ponerology - the study of evil in the political realm. I don’t always agree with Łobaczewski on some aspects of the neurological/psychological side of psychopathologythat leads to evil, but I have almost 40 years of new data and insight on the brain that Łobaczewski didn’t have in 1984 and before. Nevertheless, he had the lived experience - something of immense value for the purposes of insight.
These are strange and dark days. During the height of the so called pandemic media was saturated with lies, but you could, with some effort of discernment and no small amount of personal research, work out who was lying and why (maybe the ‘why’ was fuzzy, but the lies became obvious). But since the beginning of the Ukraine/Russian war the propaganda from every side has been pushed into overdrive. Multiple and wildly differing perspectives, all convinced that they alone see the truth, are spewed out in a free-for-all cacophony over the airwaves. Just when you think you’ve put together the bits of information that amount to some semblance of truth, along comes another revelation that makes you doubt your mosaic-like version of reality. We intuit that the world has gone completely bonkers but putting your finger on exactly who’s crazy and why is complex. Time, for me at least, to go to those who have been in these circumstances before and to see what they can offer.
PONEROLOGY: (poneros = evil) the study of evil
PONEROGENESIS: the genesis of evil
In efforts to understand the nature of evilŁobaczewski performed psychological testing on 384 adults (out of a pool of 5,000 psychotic, neurotic and healthy patients) who had seriously hurt someone, as well as their detailed case histories. 14-16% of this cohort did not exhibit any psychopathology, at least as far as could be discerned with the information given. Unsurprisingly then, pathological features play a significant role in the ponerogenic process (i.e. you’re crazy if you are seriously and willingly hurting people). It should be noted that some of the greatest ponerogenic activity, like that seen by totalitarian leaders, may not be considered pathological in that social environment. However, from a moralistic interpretation of the acts of such leaders, free from the propaganda facade (and usually separated by time), the acts of evil and the underlying psychopathology become obvious.
We all develop, as children, in certain psychological atmospheres that shape our personalities and perceptions of the world. There can be a complexity of pathological factors, moral weaknesses, misunderstandings, lies, hurts and fears that distort an individuals psychological development. I might also add genetic factors whereby injuries of past generations can influence subsequent ones. Throw in the fact that we are complex non-linear systems, and you have a myriad of causal factors that could lead to ponerogenesis.
The first deviation from healthy psychological development Łobaczewski highlights is that of brain lesions (damage to some part of the brain) in childhood by either trauma or infection. Such damage to the developing brain can cause epilepsy, personality changes, and all manner of cognitive, emotional, or motor abnormalities. Characteropathies, negative deformation of character, stand out to Łobaczewski as representing pathological ponerogenic factors. To illustrate such a characteropath, Łobaczewski points to the German emperor Wilhelm II, who was subject to brain trauma at birth. Wilhelm suffered physical and psychological handicaps including left sided deformity, learning difficulties and a lace of emotional control.
In the three decades of his reign, Wilhelm II repeatedly found himself at the centre of political scandals, caused by impulsiveness, erratic politics, inflammatory speeches and ham-fisted appearances on the international stage. Together with his personal eccentricities, the Kaiser’s political blunders caused many contemporaries to wonder what was going on in the mind of the head of the German state.
The rule of the Kaiser had an overall negative effect on the psychological, moral, and political realities for the general public at a time when a wave of hysteria was growing throughout Europe, according to Łobaczewski. In this histrionicatmosphere Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Europe deteriorated into war and as they say, the rest is history.
Łobaczewski doesn’t attribute WWI to the Kaiser alone and his mental ineptitude as an emperor. But he does suggest a people under such a mind made a significant social shift toward such collective madness. Similarly, in hindsight, people wonder how a psychopath like Hitler could have held so many in his sway.
I acknowledge that certain organic brain injuries may produce mental conditions conducive to the propagation of evil. Especially in the case of right hemisphere damage leaving the left hemisphere to have dominance (I introduce this topic here). But I think such circumstances are small, and an even smaller chance that such people would find themselves in places of great political power. The next deviation that Łobaczewski cites is that of paranoid character disorders
It is characteristic of paranoid behavior for people to be capable of relatively correct reasoning and discussion as long as the conversation involves minor differences of opinion. This stops abruptly when the partner’s arguments begin to undermine their overvalued ideas, crush their long-held stereotypes of reasoning, or forces them to accept a conclusion they had subconsciously rejected before. Such a stimulus unleashes upon the partner a torrent of pseudo-logical, largely paramoralistic, often insulting utterances which always contain some degree of suggestion.
Utterances like these inspire aversion among cultivated and logical people, who then tend to avoid the paranoid types. However, the power of the paranoid lies in the fact that they easily enslave less critical minds, e.g. people with other kinds of psychological deficiencies, who have been victims of the egotistical influence of individuals with character disorders, and, in particular, a large segment of young people. (Łobaczewski, p. 76)
Łobaczewski posits that this paranoid character comes from either a brain lesion or, more commonly, being brought up by people with paranoid characteristics and psychological terror during childhood. Today we have good evidence that early childhood trauma and genetic predispositions can lead to paranoid traits in an individual.
Lenin is showcased by Łobaczewski as the premier kind of paranoid personality type. Vassily Grosmandescribes Lenin in these terms…
Lenin was always tactful, gentle, and polite, but simultaneously characterised by an excessively sharp, ruthless, and brutal attitude to political opponents. He never allowed any possibility that they might be even minimally right, nor that he might be even minimally wrong. He would often call his opponents hucksters, lackeys, servant-boys, mercenaries, agents, or Judases bribed for thirty pieces of silver. He made no attempt to persuade his opponents during a dispute. He communicated not with them, but rather with those witnessing the dispute, in order to ridicule and compromise his adversaries. Sometimes such witnesses were just a few people, sometimes thousands of delegates to a congress, sometimes millions worth throngs of newspaper readers.
The next possible deviation from mental health into a psychopathology, according to Łobaczewski, is frontal characteropathy. By this he means damage to the very front of the brain, or what we call the prefrontal cortex. I won’t expound on this very much as I don’t find the arguments at all convincing (that evil men in high places have suffered prefrontal cortical trauma). But the gist of this deviation is that damage to the frontal part of the brain cause the non-damaged parts to overdevelop, and produce people who are “belligerent, risk-happy, and brutal in both word and deed.” This gives them a spellbinding influence over others while bypassing common sense and feeding an overinflated ego.
What I think Łobaczewski might be getting at here is a sociopath (although he does address this type of personality disorder later on) but the neurological underpinnings (damage to the prefrontal cortex) do not necessarily correlate. As I’ve been explaining in posts about the lateralisation of the brain, the damage to a particular hemisphere makes critical differences to the sorts of symptoms one might suffer. Łobaczewski throws Stalin into this category and suggests his personality characteristics are a result of “perinatal damage to his brain’s prefrontal fields.” Some of these characteristics included being “brutal, charismatic, snake-charming; issuing of irrevocable decisions; inhuman ruthlessness, pathological revengefulness directed at anyone who got in his way; and egotistical belief in his own genius on the part of a person whose mind was, in fact, only average.”
There is no doubt that Stalin was a sociopath/psychopath of the highest degree, but it’s uncertain how much of his personality was due to early brain trauma. A troubled upbringing, the onset of depression, bouts of paranoia, and alcohol abuse are also strong variables that may have contributedto what may have been paranoid personality disorder and even antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy).
Łobaczewski then suggests that drug-induced characteropathies are also responsible for ponerogenesis. Indeed pharmaceuticals with serious side effects can have detrimental effects on the nervous system as can recreational drugs. If you’ve ever seen a “before and after” brain scan of a meth addict you can appreciate the devastating effects drugs can have on a brain. Methamphetamines can literally put holes in your brain! But I’ve been with some of these people and there is no way they would, or could, be in any position of leadership to influence the masses.
Łobaczewski also cites various virus and bacterial assaults on the nervous system as contributing to brain disorders that could lead to evil leadership. But again, I wonder just how many evil leaders are so because of a viral induced injury as the primary causal factor? One interesting, and now compelling, argument for mass psychological divergence is that of vaccine injury and the correlation with ASD, ADHD, and autoimmune disorders. I find there is a much more convincing argument that broad spread, multi-generational vaccine injuries to our central nervous systems have shifted our IQ down, our right brain functions down (and all that it implies) among massive numbers of people. And so statistically these sorts of wide spread psychological deviations are going to find themselves in places of political power.
Moving onto “inherited deviations” Łobaczewski considers genetic factors that could contribute to the origins of evil in people. I’ll skip much of what he says (he introduces some basic concepts of genetic inheritance) and cut to the chase - many mental illnesses (including the types of personality pathologies most commonly associated with evil) have hereditary correlations. We also know that there are many ‘propensities’ that increase the likelihood of certain genetic expressions, given the right (or the unfortunate) environmental conditions for those traits to be ‘expressed’. This is the whole field of epigenetics (epi=above). So it may be that someone could carry the potential to develop in a sociopathic trajectory, but for that potential to be realised certain environmental conditions would have to be met. Maybe its early childhood trauma, or being brought up by a sociopathic parent, it could be environmental toxins, or any number of events that could cause the activation or deactivation of certain traits locked away in the genome. Such epigenetic traits might involve neural migration in the early developing brain to deviate in a certain direction to form a neural network that is more adaptive for the world the child is expecting (genetically of course, not consciously).
Łobaczewski concerns himself primarily with psychopathy, and rightly so, as a primary disorder of personality that can lead to evil motivations. (As we explore more in future posts I’ll attempt to fill in the contemporary understanding of such psychopathologies) What he emphasises is that there are only a very small minority of people who manifest such pathological phenomena within society, but can work their way into hierarchies of influence, and network in such a way that they can have a dangerous influence over the masses. Thus the frustrating observation of “How did so many crazy people get into places of authority?” Structures within culture, like the “winner/loser” paradigm of political and corporate worlds, nurture and reward psychopathic traits while crushing the empathic.
One of the most disturbing things about psychopaths that normal people must deal with is the fact that they very early learn how their personalities can have traumatizing effects on the personalities of those normal people, and how to take advantage of this root of terror for purposes of reaching their goals. This dichotomy of worlds is permanent and does not disappear even if they succeed in realizing their youthful dream of gaining power over the society of normal people. This strongly suggests that the separation is biologically conditioned.
In the psychopath, a dream emerges like some Utopia of a “happy” world and a social system which does not reject them or force them to submit to laws and customs whose meaning is incomprehensible to them. They dream of a world in which their simple and radical way of experiencing and perceiving reality would dominate; where they would, of course, be assured safety and prosperity. In this Utopian dream, they imagine that those “others”, different, but also more technically skilful than they are, should be put to work to achieve this goal for the psychopaths and others of their kin. “We”, they say, “after all, will create a new government, one of justice.” They are prepared to fight and to suffer for the sake of such a brave new world, and also, of course, to inflict suffering upon others. Such a vision justifies killing people, whose suffering does not move them to compassion because “they” are not quite conspecific. They do not realize that they will consequently meet with opposition which can last for generations. (Łobaczewski, 2013, p. 95-96)
Written during the mid 20th Century, you’d be mistaken for thinking Łobaczewski was profiling some of todays corporate, political and social leaders. I bet a few faces popped into your mind as you read this description above!
Stay tuned - I’ll continue this journey with Łobaczewski in future posts and hopefully make a little more sense about much of the nonsense that is going on today.
And now, a short musical interlude…
And the YouTube censored version is just as funny.
Andrzej Łobaczewski (2013). Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes (2nd Ed.), Quantum Future Group, Inc. Originally published in Poland as Ponerologia Polityczna (1984)
Where I don’t agree, or Łobaczewski is just wrong given the past 40 or so years of neuroscience research since his writing, I will either make a comment, footnote, or just skip that part of his narrative. Like many psychologists in the 20th Century, strong assertions were made on flimsy evidence that just do not hold up in light of recent research.
Łobaczewski was highly motivated to understand the origins of evil given his circumstances under communist rule. But he had little former research to use as an early psychology ponerologist - a field rather ignored by psychology as it had been primarily the domain of theology. So he did much of the groundwork himself, but unfortunately the early work was lost - 2 early drafts with much statistical data was lost and the current manuscript is by memory. “I threw the first manuscript into a central-heating furnace, having been warned just in time about an official search, which took place minutes later. I sent the second draft to a Church dignitary at the Vatican by means of an American tourist and was absolutely unable to obtain any kind of information about the fate of the parcel once it was left with him.”
It is said that Wilhelm II had a traumatic birth, was delivered with forceps, and his left arm was damaged. He probably also suffered from hypoxia during the difficult birth which may have damaged his brain, but without CT scans at the time it’s impossible to know. In an attempt to fix Wilhelm he was subject to all kinds of painful devices, shocked with electricity, given weekly “animal baths” (which involved putting his damaged arm inside a freshly-killed rabbit), any one of which could have severely disturbed the young boy.
Freis D. (2018). Diagnosing the Kaiser: Psychiatry, Wilhelm II and the Question of German War Guilt The William Bynum Prize Essay 2016. Medical history, 62(3), 273–294. https://doi.org/10.1017/mdh.2018.22
The final word from this particular study is thus… “The historical diagnoses of Wilhelm II may serve as another cautionary tale. At a time when European and German politics were highly personalised, polarised and in upheaval, diagnosing the Kaiser as mentally ill appeared to be a powerful and popular argument. Psychiatry offered a conceptual framework that made it possible to make sense of seemingly irrational dynamics in politics without the need for an in-depth analysis, and could be used to ward off, shift and re-allocate the political responsibility for the catastrophe of the First World War. However, psychiatric diagnoses were a rather unwieldy weapon in wartime and post-war political debates. The idea that Wilhelm was mentally ill could be used to support almost any political agenda; it could be directed against the exiled emperor, or used in his defence. As the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Arthur Kronfeld (1886–1941) reminded his colleagues in 1921, psychiatry was a normative science, but its norms were not the same as those of politics and society. Adopting psychiatric concepts of illness and health to make political arguments about the situation and the future of the German nation after the First World War was compelling, but these concepts came with a momentum of their own.”
Personality disorder characterized by excessive emotionality and attention-seeking
I can only assume that he is making reference to what we would now call PPD (Paranoid Personality Disorder): This is a DSM-5 diagnosis assigned to individuals who have a pervasive, persistent, and enduring mistrust of others, and a profoundly cynical view of others and the world. Paranoid Personality Disorder is referred to as a Cluster A personality disorder, which involve “odd or eccentric” behavior patterns. Persons with PPD are hypervigilant to physical, verbal or social attacks, and do not trust others, and therefore tend to have few if any close or intimate associates. They tend to be aloof, cold, distant, argumentative, and frequently complain. They may appear guarded and secretive, very rational, logical, and unemotional, but at times will be sarcastic, hostile, and rigid. Generally they have a difficult time getting along with others People with Paranoid Personality Disorder tend to do poorly with group activities and collaborative projects. They will be highly critical of others, but will respond to criticism of themselves with hostility or defensiveness. Paranoid Personality Disorder is a non-psychotic disorder, in that it is a discrete diagnosis involving one's dysfunctional and maladaptive personality characteristics, rather then a thought or mood disorder. Persons with Paranoid Personality Disorder may develop brief psychotic reactions under stress, but by definition, a brief psychotic episode is discrete and does not endure. Paranoid Personality Disorder is not amenable to antipsychotic medications as there are not typically gross deficits in reality testing, and the paranoid thought content and beliefs are typically-non bizarre. PPD is also not regarded as a result of trauma, as the perception of being unsafe in the world which is typical of persons with PTSD (Post -traumatic Stress Disorder) is of a different quality and etiology.
We don’t know the exact cause of PPD, but like so many of these sorts of disorders it probably involves a combination of biological and psychological factors. PPD is more common in people who have close relatives with schizophrenia, so this suggests a genetic link between the two. Early childhood experiences, including physical or emotional trauma, are also suspected to play a role in the development of PPD and multiple other associated disorders/symptoms. Organic brain injury like a trauma or lesion, as Łobaczewski talks about, is probably very rare and trauma and genetic factors are more likely causal attributes.
Vassily Grossman was a Ukrainian Jew, a Soviet citizen who became a war correspondent and saw first hand the front lines of Stalingrad and Berlin. He published the first accounts of the death camp Treblinka.
Stal, M. (2013). Psychopathology of Joseph Stalin. Psychology, 04, 1-4.
Having spent most of my 70 plus years with little interest in exploring the topic of evil, it seems now to be impossible to avoid. Somehow the activity of trying to understand evil helps me become a little less fearful. Thank you for this enlightening discussion and for all you do to make us as fearless as possible.
The penultimate paragraph sums up the present most eloquently; as, I think, Mimi noted before me.