Power and hubris


Part II

“HUBRIS,” the paper by David Owen and Jonathan Davidson says, “is associated in Greek mythology with Nemesis.” I don’t need to tell you what “nemesis” is – it’s too well known already – but “hubris” is dictionary-defined as “excessive pride or self-confidence.” Therein lies the link with nemesis: the ancient Greeks posited that such arrogance shown to the gods would inevitably lead to your downfall.

Owen is the one who coined the phrase “hubris syndrome,” which he and Davidson define as “a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” (Again, they were focusing on heads of government, but in my view the same, or similar, considerations apply to people in other walks of life. I can think offhand of two businessmen in TT to whom the phrase would aptly apply.)

They say also that the syndrome “develops irrespective of whether the individual’s leadership is judged a success or failure, and it is not dependent on hard outcomes.” They then list 14 symptoms of the syndrome.

The 14 are: (1) a narcissistic tendency to self-glorification, (2) actions to enhance one’s image, (3) a disproportionate concern with image, (4) a messianic manner, (5) conflation of the individual with the nation or organisation, (6) use of the royal “we” or the third person when speaking of oneself, (7) excessive confidence in one’s judgment and contempt for the views of others, (8) exaggerated self-belief, (9) accountability only to history or God, (10) vindication only by history or God, (11) loss of contact with reality associated with progressive isolation, (12) restlessness, recklessness, impulsiveness, (13) a tendency to allow “broad vision” to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes, (14) hubristic incompetence because too much self-confidence has caused a lack of attention to the nuts and bolts of policy.

I expect you to say that you easily recognise Donald Trump as satisfying all 14 criteria. But the authors draw a distinction between the syndrome and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), by which Trump is believed to be terminally afflicted. They say that seven of the 14 “are also among the criteria for NPD…”

In addition, two others “correspond to those (symptoms) of anti-social personality (APD) and histrionic personality disorders (HPD).”

They regard the five remaining symptoms as “unique (since) they have not been classified elsewhere.” Those five are, of the above list, nos. 5, 6, 10, 11 and 13. And the authors suggest that in making a hubris syndrome diagnosis, three or more of the 14 symptoms should be present, of which at least one must be from the unique five list.

In your view, are the Owen/Davidson definitions and standards relevant to TT? If so, who in this country, politicians or not, dead or alive, fit or have fitted those definitions and standards? Do you think the symptoms are more prevalent within the political class than in other areas of endeavour? If so, what examples can you give? Could anything be done to restore at least a semblance of normalcy in such people? What? How? Or are they beyond the pale?

There is an aspect of human behaviour that runs counter to the hubristic. Psychologists call it “intellectual humility,” defined in a Vox magazine article last January as “the recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong.” This is not to be confused with a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem.

“Instead,” the article says, “it’s a method of thinking. It’s about entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others. (It) is about being actively curious about your blind spots.”

Think of how much better the quality of our governance would be if we had leaders (again, I do not confine myself to politicians) who could admit they have blind spots, who make a point of consulting and listening attentively to others with different views, who are prepared to change their minds without seeing this as a sign of weakness, who understand that invective is not good argument, and who accept that, as the article says, “cognitive reflection, ie, analytic thinking, is correlated with being better able to discern fake news stories from real ones.”

But how to achieve all that in this querulous, finger-pointing society of ours, fractured by race, class, religion, region, personality politics (and now, apparently, by hairstyle and marital status)? Intellectual humility is clearly not fashionable. Does that mean that the Donald Trump/Boris Johnson model and its less extravagant variants look set to prevail, especially where, as so often happens, hubris is already present before power arrives?


"Power and hubris"

More in this section