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Leader’s digest: A brief psychological profile of Adolf Hitler

Over the last few weeks I have been watching the television series The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler (here in the UK’s BBC2). Not only am I psychologically fascinated with one of the world’s most infamous dictators, but I’m also interested in the concept of ‘charisma’ (a topic on which I have actually carried out some research with Dr. Mark Shevlin, Dr. Mark Davies and Phil Banyard within academic settings – see ‘Further reading’ section below). I’ve also made reference to Hitler’s alleged sexually paraphilic behaviour in my previous blog on coprophilia (and I am going to cover this as a separate blog in the coming months).

In 2007, Dr. Frederick Coolidge (along with Felicia Davis, and Dr. Daniel Segal) published a paper in the journal Individual Differences Research examining the psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. The study was based on Davis’ Master’s thesis research and attempted to posthumously investigate Hitler’s personality. As Coolidge and his colleagues note: “The name Adolf Hitler conjures-up images of a madman in power, Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Europe, and an evil of such magnitude that millions of Jewish people and others were subjected to unimaginable torture, terror and death”. The paper also made references to previous psychological profiles of Hitler. For instance, they summarized the work of psychoanalysts Dr. Walter Langer and Dr. Henry Murray who both assessed Hitler for the US Office of Strategic Services during World War II:

“Using sources only available up until 1943, Langer diagnosed Hitler as a neurotic bordering on psychotic with a messiah complex, masochistic tendencies, strong sexual perversions, and a high likelihood of homosexuality. He also stated that Hitler had many schizophrenic tendencies and that the most plausible outcome for Hitler would be that he would commit suicide…Murray thought Hitler exhibited all the classic symptoms of schizophrenia including paranoia and hypersensitivity, panic attacks, irrational jealousy, and delusions of persecution, omnipotence, megalomania, and ‘messiahship’. Murray also thought Hitler was extremely paranoid and suffered from hysterical dissociation”.

The paper also makes reference to the work of Dr. J.D. Mayer published in a 1993 issue of the Journal of Psychhistory. Mayer proposed something he called ‘dangerous leader disorder’ and compared six world leaders (Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Bush Sr.) on three major categories:

“(1) indifference, manifested by murdering rivals, members of one’s family, citizens, and genocide, (2) intolerance, manifested by censoring the press, secret police, and condoning torture, and (3) grandiosity, manifested by seeing oneself as a ‘uniter’ of people, increases in military and overestimation of military power, identification with religion/nationalism, and promulgating a grand plan…He found, of course, that Hitler, Stalin, and Hussein all met far more of the criteria than their counterparts, although a ‘promulgating plan’ was characteristic of all six leaders”.

The study by Coolidge and colleagues used the “informant version of the Coolidge Axis II Inventory (CATI)” that assesses personality, and clinical/neuropsychological disorders. The CATI was completed by five historians (all of who were experts on Hitler – academicians who had published books or articles about Hitler were chosen to evaluate Hitler”) and the inter-rater reliability between the responses of the five of them was high. The authors’ hypothesized (before the experts filled out the CATI) that Hitler would be diagnosed with schizophrenia (paranoid type). They noted that:

“This hypothesis was based upon his frequent preoccupation with delusions of persecution (e.g., by his disapproving father, those unwilling to recognize his ‘talents’, and Jewish protagonists), and grandiosity (e.g., fantasies of unlimited success and recognition, his “prophesies”, etc.), hisearly academic / interpersonal / occupational dysfunction, [and] his extremely virulent and paranoiac delusions about Jews”.

The CATI is actually a whole battery of tests. Rather than miss anything out, the following paragraph sets out in detail everything that the authors included:

“The CATI is a 225-item self-report inventory with each item assessed on a 4-point true-false Likert scale ranging from (1) strongly false, (2) more false than true, (3) more true than false, to (4) strongly true. The CATI measures 12 personality disorders in DSM-IV and 2 personality disorders from DSM-III-R (self-defeating and sadistic). The CATI also measures selected Axis I disorders (e.g., Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Schizophrenia [with a Psychotic Thinking subscale] and Social Phobia [with a Withdrawal subscale]). The CATI also has a scale for the assessment of general neuropsychological dysfunction (with three subscales assessing Memory and Concentration Problems, Language Dysfunction, and Neurosomatic Complaints). The CATI also has an 18-item scale measuring executive function deficits of the frontal lobes (with three subscales assessing Decision-Making Difficulties, Planning Problems, and Task Completion Difficulties). There are five scales measuring personality change due to a general medical condition. They are Emotional Lability, Disinhibition, Aggression, Apathy, and Paranoia. There are three hostility scales measuring Anger, Dangerousness, and Impulsiveness. Finally, there is one non-clinical scale on the CATI measuring Introversion-Extroversion. In addition, critical items are included to assess drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual identity and orientation”.

The authors acknowledged that such clinical diagnoses should ideally be done face-to-face but given that Hitler died in 1945 this was not possible. The authors also note that the length of time since his death means that the number of people who are still alive and had social interactions with Hitler are very few. However, all of the expert informants had at least interviewed people who had known Hitler personally.

The results of the study found that on Axis I, the highest meanscores were for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Psychotic Thinking and Schizophrenia. On Axis II, the highest meanscores were Paranoid Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Sadistic Personality Disorder. In short, the hypothesis that Hitler would be classed as a schizophrenic was broadly supported (although other personality disorders scored more highly). The findings suggested there was little or no evidence for neuropsychological dysfunction. They also noted:

“It could, of course, be questioned whether someone with a schizophrenic disorder could rise to such a high position of power and control of others, given that schizophrenia is generally such a debilitating disease, particularly socially and occupationally. However, there are other documented cases of murderous schizophrenic persons who have had extraordinary influence on groups of others (e.g., Charles Manson, James Jones, etc.)”.

There are of course many limitations to the study including the reliance on expert opinion and small sample size. The authors also added that another limitation was the possibility of the five raters focusing on Hitler’s later life as opposed to his life before he became Germany’s Chancellor. Finally, the authors concluded that:

“The prediction, understanding, and control of such individuals’ behaviors could benefit generations. As Mayer (1993) has noted, there are international citizens’ groups that monitor human rights. Perhaps, an international group of mental health professionals could identify, assess, and monitor the activities of dangerous current world leaders, and the analysis of previous dangerous leaders, such as Hitler, might be a fruitful place to begin”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Coolidge, F., Davis, F. & Segal, D. (2007). Understanding Madmen: A DSM-IV Assessment of Adolf Hitler. Individual Differences Research, 5(1), 30-43.

Coolidge, F., & Segal, D. (2007). Was Saddam Hussein Like Adolf Hitler? A Personality Disorder Investigation Military Psychology, 19 (4), 289-299.

Coolidge, F., & Segal, D. (2009). Is Kim Jong‐il like Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler? A personality disorder evaluation Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1 (3), 195-202.

Langer, W.C. (1972). The Mind of Adolf Hitler. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Mayer, J.D. (1993). The emotional madness of the dangerous leader. Journal of Psychohistory, 20, 331-348.

Murray, H.A. (1943/2005). Analysis of the personality of Adolf Hitler with predictions of his future behavior and suggestions for dealing with him now and after Germany’s surrender. A report prepared for the Office of Strategic Services, October 1943. Located at: http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/library/donovan/hitler

Shevlin, M., Banyard, P., Davies, M.N.O.  & Griffiths, M.D. (2000). The validity of student evaluations in higher education: Love me, love my lectures? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 25, 397-405.

Shevlin, M., Banyard, P., Davies, M.N.O.  & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). The validity of student evaluations in higher education: Love me, love my lectures. In M. Tight (Ed.), The Routledge Falmer Reader Reader in Higher Education. pp.99-107.  London: Routledge.