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Jewish World Review May 13, 2005/ 4 Iyar, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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John Bolton and his discontents: What does psychobabble have to do with it? | The most irresponsible argument in the debate over John Bolton as the U.S. representative to the United Nations — and there are many— was the op-ed essay in The New York Times suggesting that his brisk management style demonstrates a criminal pathology and a psychopathic personality.

The piece, by a clinical psychologist who identifies herself as a consultant on "organizational psychology," was couched in the psychobabble of psychological expertise, based on one small, flabby survey, anecdotes and case studies built on innuendo drawn from "research" that illustrates what Shakespeare meant when he wrote about "the sound and the fury signifying nothing." Nevertheless, this psychobabbling received dramatic accompaniment in a bold cartoon of a man's head filled with "columny."

After reciting a string of unpleasant adjectives uttered by John Bolton's political opponents characterizing him as "dogmatic, abusive to his subordinates and a bully," Belinda Board, a British professor, embraces the all-inclusive theory that "these are the same characteristics that make someone successful in business or government." Not satisfied with tarring successful businessmen and government executives, she breathlessly leaps to link such men to criminal behavior.

"What's more astonishing is that those characteristics when exaggerated are the same ones often found in criminals," she writes. "There has been anecdotal and case-study evidence suggesting that successful business executives share personality characteristics with psychopaths."

Even more astonishing is that these characteristics, when exaggerated, are the same characteristics found in the makeup of clinical psychologists and consultants on organizational psychology. (How else could they get published on the op-ed page of The New York Times?)

Although Board acknowledges that her sample was small, a mere 39 high-ranking executives (out of many thousands), she announces it to be definitive because when she compared answers on clinical personality-disorder diagnostic questionnaires, and interviewed the executives, the criminals and assorted psychiatric patients showed similar levels of personality disorders and psychopathology.

"In fact, the business population was as likely as the prison and psychiatric populations to demonstrate the traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder: grandiosity, lack of empathy, exploitativeness and independence," she writes. "They were also as likely to have traits associated with compulsive personality disorder: stubbornness, dictatorial tendencies, perfectionism and an excessive devotion to work."

Would it be too much to ask if Belinda Board thought of extending her analysis to successful newspaper editors, artists, writers, doctors, lawyers, astronauts, generals and admirals? Or administrators of psychiatric institutions? It certainly wouldn't be difficult to gather similar adjectives and diagnoses from wives and lady friends of successful men in a variety of professional occupations.

We're reassured that "each characteristic by itself isn't necessarily a bad thing." (What a relief.) Board's witches brew includes "a smattering of egocentricity, a soupcon of grandiosity, a smidgen of manipulativeness and lack of empathy, and you have someone who can climb the corporate ladder and stay on the right side of the law."

You just don't want to work for him. But when a cluster of such characteristics are lumped together, no matter how successful they make the man, he's only a slippery slide away from becoming a man "who ends up behind bars." Maybe that's what Mark Twain meant when he said, "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

Of course, Mark Twain was dealing in humor and hyperbole, chuckling along the way (and joined by the occasional congressman with a sense of humor). Belinda Board is deadly serious, hoping that Congress can find out on which side of the personality "configuration" John Bolton is on. The readout for her tirade spells out the psychological dilemma: "Felon or diplomat? It's all in the mix." It should have read "political animosity or psychological stupidity? It's business as usual in Washington."

I edited a magazine for mental health professionals for eight years and I was forever amazed at how so many studies and surveys drawn out of hot air were pushed by so-called professionals simply to get their names into print, and to make a point to fit a theory that ignored common sense. Psychoanalyzing public personalities has always been dangerous; several leading psychiatrists infamously exposed their own brand of paranoia by slandering Barry Goldwater as a paranoid in the 1964 presidential campaign.

It's fun for those in the writing trade to use psychological methods to interpret our fellow men, but when a clinical psychologist achieves prominence on an op-ed page, elevating bogus clinical analysis to make a point about politics, we have merely added to man's frustrations, civilization and its discontents. Time to return to the Delphic oracle for instruction: Know Thyself, lady.

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