The darkness of Boris Johnson: a psychologist on the prime minister’s unpalatable personality traits
In all the chaos that characterises the administration of Boris Johnson, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why the prime minister behaves the way he does. Why does he never really apologise or admit mistakes?
Most recently, Johnson continues to insist that he did not know he was breaking any rules by having parties during pandemic lockdowns. It’s just the latest example of behaviour that, I would argue, can only be understood in terms of psychological factors.
First, let me be clear: I am not attempting to diagnose the prime minister with a personality disorder. Like many psychologists nowadays, I believe it’s too simplistic to think in terms of specific conditions like narcissistic personality disorder or sociopathy. I prefer to use the concept of a “dark triad” of three personality traits that belong together – psychopathy, narcissism and machiavellianism. This makes sense because these traits almost always overlap and are difficult to distinguish from one another. The traits exist on a continuum and are more pronounced in some people than others.
Another, more wide-ranging model is called the “dark factor”. This suggests that the essence of “bad character” is a desire to ruthlessly put your own interests before other people’s, and to pursue them even when they cause harm to others. Besides psychopathy, narcissism and machiavellianism, the dark factor model includes traits of spitefulness, moral disengagement (behaving immorally without feeling bad), entitlement (believing you deserve more and are better than others), and egoism.
The actions of a ‘dark’ personality
There are many aspects of Johnson’s behaviour that make sense in terms of these models. “Dark” personalities are marked by psychopathic traits of a lack of empathy, conscience and guilt, and a failure to take responsibility. They can’t accept that they are ever at fault, so they instinctively blame other people – or other external factors – for negative events. We’ve seen Johnson deflect blame for the Downing Street parties ever since allegations about them first emerged. Now he refuses to take responsibility by offering his resignation.
We also know that Johnson has a tendency to break rules and ignore normal codes of behaviour (a signal of moral disengagement). Even before partygate, he unlawfully prorogued parliament to further his own agenda and refused to sack the home secretary even when she was found to have broken the ministerial code.
An essential feature of “dark” personalities is that they are disconnected. They are trapped inside themselves in narcissistic isolation and find it difficult to take other people’s perspectives. As a result, they lack a clear sense of how their actions will be perceived, or of what type of behaviour is acceptable.
This could help explain some of Johnson’s miscalculations. Take, for example, his attempt to change parliamentary rules rather than sanctioning former MP Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules. Johnson assumed this would be acceptable and failed to anticipate the subsequent furore. He obviously also believed that it was acceptable to smear Keir Starmer with conspiracy theories in parliament. This type of response is typical of the spitefulness of dark personalities when they feel under threat.
Machiavellianism, the third part of the dark triad, means the ruthless pursuit of power for its own sake, with the willingness to abandon integrity and morality along the way. Johnson has shown a consistent trait of prioritising his own personal interests over other factors. Why else would he make such reckless promises on the campaign trail, such as his £350 million per week for the NHS after Brexit?
A good case could clearly be made for the trait of entitlement (believing you deserve more and are better than others) in Johnson’s case, too. A consistent complaint against the prime minister is that he behaves as if rules don’t apply to him. During strict lockdown, he apparently believed it was acceptable to sidestep restrictions. He also believed that he was entitled to solicit donations from Tory donors for renovations to his Downing Street flat.
What is ‘truth’?
Johnson is often accused of dishonesty. However, it may not be so much that he intentionally lies, but that he doesn’t have a fixed notion of truth.
Since dark triad personalities are self-absorbed, they are disconnected from objective criteria of behaviour and have a strong tendency towards self-deception. They select information which supports their positive image of themselves and ignore negative information. They believe whatever suits their view of reality.
When he claims not to have broken lockdown rules or not to have misled parliament, Johnson may simply be selecting information to support his preferred version of reality. It’s likely that he has convinced himself that the events he attended really were work events, and that his attendance of them was purely inadvertent. This also relates to Johnson’s apparent inability to apologise, which would mean admitting to an imperfect image of himself.
Dark personalities are also unable to tolerate criticism, which brings a tendency to try to avoid dissenting voices. Whereas sensible prime ministers select ministers on the basis of ability, Johnson has packed senior government roles with loyalists, which has led to a lack of expertise and creativity.
Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. Motivated by a deep unconscious sense of lack, they have a strong desire for power and dominance. And their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily.
When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK.
In an ideal society, there would be measures to restrict such people’s access to power, and we would be more likely to have the kind of leaders that we deserve.