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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

"I would like to examine Berlusconi’s behavior, but not his personality"

Author: Otto Kernberg / Sabrina Zehetner

(07/12/2017)
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What distinguishes political from economic conduct and is it possible to analyze public figures like Trump? We met the US-based professor and expert on personality disorders to discuss leadership and the fundamental difference between personality and behavior.

In your lecture, you discussed the characteristics of leadership and you also talked about foresight as a form of intelligence. What promotes this foresight and how can one obtain it? Is it formal education, or experience?

Otto Kernberg: Intelligence is a complex concept comprised of various abilities. When we refer to “intelligence”, we are talking about a sum of cognitive abilities, basically measured by the level of abstract thinking. Abstract thinking is the best indication of general intelligence, but one can obtain and integrates knowledge in multiple ways. There is an emotional intelligence, a social intelligence, a mathematical intelligence. These are different concepts. First, intelligence is genetically determinated and related to the structure of the central nervous system, particularly the cerebral cortex.


So intelligence is partly determinated…


Otto Kernberg: Partly yes, partly it depends on the cognitive experiences during the first years of life – especially on how a child develops an interest in his own thinking in an environment that strengthens it, so that the interest in emotional and mental inner life is displayed, and there is the possibility to discuss it with the parents. Thereby, intelligence is developed in multiple ways, and is essentially as important as innate abilities. It really is a combination of abilities that stem from genetics and constitution as well as from environmental influences and interpersonal relationships in the first years of life, which then further develop. The special ability to extrapolate from current behavior to future developments is a special function that can be developed and learned, and as I said yesterday, the longer the span of the influence of current developments on the future, the higher is the institutionally vital intelligence that allows for the development of leadership in organizations and politics.


Can you think of any political or economic public leading figures who possess these traits?

Otto Kernberg: I doubt that political efficiency is related to certain personality structures. However, the ability to conceptually assess the facts of an organization’s current role, and to extrapolate from these to long-term developments, is an important aspect of intelligence and crucial for institutional an organizational management. Compared to that, political leadership rather depends on the ability to identify social and ideological trends, group regressions and dispositions than on cold, mathematical data. The understanding of group psychology as well as the capacity to clearly and convincingly communicate is more important. There is a debate whether it is better to have a charismatic personality or a personality that is open and adaptable. Both are important – the charismatic ability and the possibility to make commitments. I believe that different personality structures are equally capable of conveying ideas, but in politics it is essential to be adaptable, have clear ideas and to communicate them in a manner that can be understood by the masses, because the larger the number of people that hear the message, the simpler the message has to be, and the more difficult it becomes to receive complex messages. Mass psychology reduces the cognitive level and forces leadership to sell simple and fundamental ideas instead of complex messages that may be highly intelligent but can´t be received by a large crowd. Of course, this is often exaggerated through simple slogans. Therein lies the problem of demagogic oversimplification to seduce and persuade the masses that are harmful in the long run. The ability to express oneself clearly, neither too complicated nor to simple, realistic and with adequate depth, is vital for political leadership.
 

Regarding mass psychology, and since you also discussed narcissism in your lecture – is narcissism, in your opinion, a cultural phenomenon as well, and is there an increase of pathological narcissism because of the media and the pressure to promote oneself?

Otto Kernberg: Indeed, I do believe that cultural influences affect narcissistic behavior by triggering personal ambition, the wish to be seen, to be favored and admired, thereby stimulating narcissistic satisfaction. How this is received by the audience, depends on the individual’s personality structure. The average person is influenced to a certain degree, but under normal conditions, advertisements are compared to other advertisements as well as integrated, and it doesn’t lead to the absolute and naïve acceptance of this simplified marketing principles. Media can emphasize and strengthen narcissistic personalities and behavior, but are not the cause for the development of such a personality. In many ways, the influence of media and advertising is limited. Needless to say, we are very much affected by the media regarding our customs and daily habits. That is inevitable. It is above all people with psychological problems and personality disorders who are influenced the most.


Do you think there are differences between men and women regarding narcissistic disorders?

Otto Kernberg: I believe it’s the same for both but expressed differently. Men are equally influenced by advertising. Dramatically changing fashion is a more important element for women. Men react strongly to technology, car and house decoration advertising. It´s about different topics, but the psychological temptation is essentially the same for men and women. They are equally vain, even though it expresses itself in different symptoms.


While we are on this subject, a couple of articles in the U.S. media have tried to analyze Trump on based on his behavior. In how far is it possible to analyze public figures that one doesn’t know or has analyzed personally, and is it justifiable?

Otto Kernberg: I’m critical of diagnosis about people that one hasn´t analyzed in person. In this case it is wrong to generalize as the media themselves emphasize certain aspects of a politician´s personality which, at bottom, do not correlate with the personality, but rather the image the politician seeks to convey and the media want to convey of him. I believe you could make assumptions, but I wouldn´t make a diagnosis about a person who is not my patient. It leaves too much room for error and a politician has to be judged for his behavior, not his personality. A critique on Trump has to be a critique on his behavior. It is irrelevant what motivates his behavior. Any psychologist, psychoanalyst and psychiatrist can fantasize about a president’s motivation but realistically, a politician needs to be evaluated and examined for his political actions. I was critical on the basis of perspectives on political-organizational, not a psychological diagnosis of his unconscious conflicts.


I was referring to media reports, e.g. in The New York Times.

Otto Kernberg: I know it’s tempting to do large-scale studies. There are always psychiatrists, psychoanalyst, and psychologists who are fooled into making a diagnosis. I believe this to be questionable and not to be taken too seriously. A straightforward, critical assessment makes sense, but politicians or intelligent amateurs are as capable as psychoanalysts. What stands out in Trump’s case, are contradictory observations and decisions, and quick shifts on opinion based on impulsivity. These are elements one can appreciate or criticize, but not the underlying dynamics. I would diagnose political figures with a well-known history, childhood and life, so that we can rightly state hypotheses. This mostly concerns politicians of the past whose books and documents are accessible, and whose lives are not fragmented mysteries anymore. This is not possible with politicians who are still alive. For example, we have sufficient knowledge about Hitler and Trump to draw such conclusions. I would like to examine Berlusconi’s behavior, but not his personality.


How do you deal with such a personality in an organization? Would consulting help?

Otto Kernberg: Problematic behavior in an institution could be discovered through consulting and lead to the question whether such a personality would allow for a change in behavior and actions. It is possible to make such decisions, and one can try to help the management change its behavior if there are personality problems that are part of the organization’s current issues. One can try and see if it is possible, but sometimes it’s not possible for the management to change this behavior, and then you need to ask yourself if it wouldn’t be better to find a new leadership -  that could be the best option for the leader and the organization. You can draw these tough conclusions based on the ability to change behavior, but not on the personality. These are two different issues.


If Sigmund Freud was alive and you would be able to talk to him, what topics would you discuss?

Otto Kernberg: A nice question! I would try to discuss his drive theory with him and how he would choose to fashion it given recent discoveries in the field of neurological affect theory that present fundamental motivational behavior - would it change his drive theory? That would be one of the topics. Then, I would talk to Freud about how he would systematically work out a psychoanalytic technique, and his opinion on the possible tempt to establish such an integrated, definite psychoanalytic text, and his stance on psychoanalytic therapy that could treat patients unsuitable for psychoanalysis. Would he still consider it to be copper mixed with gold or would he believe that the development of such techniques are new and important tasks for psychoanalysis? Now that he’s alive, I would also ask him if he would perhaps write more about love.


I have one more question for you. Bruno Bettelheim emphasized the importance of fairy tales in childhood – what is your favourite fairy tale?


Otto Kernberg: The Snow Queen by Hand Christian Andersen.


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