Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics
Back to the USPP Homepage
Reprinted from the March 2002 issue
of Clio’s Psyche (Journal of the Psychohistory Forum)
O. J. Simpson shooting himself during the 1994 low-speed police chase on the freeways of LA. Saddam Hussein fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with his Republican Guard on the front lines in Kuwait. O. J. pleading with close friend A. C. Cowlings—in the driver’s seat of the infamous white Bronco—to shoot him if cornered.
These are some of the images that passed through my mind as I listened to talking heads on 24-hour cable news programs speculating on the whereabouts and modus operandi of America’s public enemy number one in the post-September 11 hunt for Bin Laden in the cave complexes of Afghanistan. By early December some analysts were confidently predicting that Bin Laden would be dead by Christmas.
However, from the first moment I paid serious attention to Osama bin Laden—September 11, 2001—the man did not strike me as someone likely to martyr himself. Six days after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I posted my initial impressions on the website of the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics: that the mastermind likely fit Otto Kernberg syndrome of malignant narcissism, with its core elements of pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and unconstrained aggression (see http://www.csbsju.edu/uspp/Research/MalignantLeadership.html).
More systematic analysis of biographical source materials in the ensuing months, using my standard psychodiagnostic procedure, produced a more nuanced portrait, compatible but more fine-grained than Kernberg’s syndrome. In the nomenclature of my Millonian approach (cf. Theodore Millon, Disorders of Personality: DSM‑IV and Beyond, 1996), Bin Laden emerged as a primarily Ambitious/exploitative (narcissistic), Dauntless/dissenting (antisocial) personality, with secondary Distrusting/suspicious (paranoid), Dominant/controlling (sadistic), and some Conscientious/dutiful (obsessive-compulsive) features.
Ambitious individuals are bold, competitive, and self-assured; they easily assume leadership roles, expect others to recognize their special qualities, and often act as though entitled. Dauntless individuals are bold, courageous, and tough; minimally constrained by the norms of society; routinely engage in high-risk activities; not overly concerned about the welfare of others; skilled in the art of social influence; and adept at surviving on the strength of their particular talents, ingenuity, and wits.
Bin Laden’s blend of Ambitious and Dauntless personality patterns suggests the presence of Millon’s unprincipled narcissist (or narcissistic psychopath) syndrome. This composite character complex combines the narcissist’s arrogant sense of self-worth, exploitative indifference to the welfare of others, and grandiose expectation of special recognition with the antisocial personality’s self-aggrandizement, deficient social conscience, and disregard for the rights of others (see Millon, cited above, pp. 409–410).
From the perspective of the so-called “hunt for Bin Laden,” the major implication of these findings is that, unlike hijack linchpin Mohamed Atta, Bin Laden does not fit the profile of the highly conscientious, closed-minded religious fundamentalist, nor that of the religious martyr who combines these qualities with devout, self-sacrificing features. Rather, Bin Laden’s profile suggests that he is cunningly artful in exploiting Islamic fundamentalism in the service of his own ambition and personal dreams of glory.
Theodore Millon and Roger Davis (“Ten Subtypes of Psychopathy” in Millon et al., Eds., Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior, pp. 161–170) explain that this psychopathic subtype—effectively devoid of a superego—is prevalent among society’s con artists. Akin to these charlatans and swindlers, Bin Laden likely harbors an arrogant, vengeful vindictiveness and contempt for his victims.
Far from directing operations and taking a last stand with his most loyal acolytes at Tora Bora, relationships for narcissistic psychopaths survive only as long as they have something to gain—and for these grandiose, self-enhancing personalities there is naught to be gained from martyrdom. What does, however, command their full measure of devotion is humiliating their adversaries in a high-stakes game of wit, and relishing their frustration, anger, and dismay.
In short, the extent to which U.S. intelligence and military operations against Bin Laden were framed as a hunt for a devout, dedicated religious fundamentalist might serve as a rough measure of the extent to which the failure thus far to kill or capture Bin Laden could be considered an intelligence failure.
Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Minnesota’s
St. John’s University. He authored the chapter “Personality in Political
Psychology” in the forthcoming Handbook of Psychology (John Wiley & Sons,
This paper was published in Clios Psyche (Journal of the Psychohistory Forum), vol. 8, no. 4 (March 2002), pp. 184–185.
For more information about Clios Psyche, contact Paul H. Elovitz, Editor, 627 Dakota Trail, Franklin Lakes, NJ 07417; telephone (201) 891-7486.
Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman
Last updated November 01, 2004