The Perils of Putting National Leaders on the Couch

The New York Times, June 29, 2004

By Sally Satel

Sally Satel is a psychiatrist and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The temptation to psychoanalyze public figures from the safety of an armchair is a strong one, perhaps stronger for those with professional credentials.

Freud plumbed the psyche of Leonardo da Vinci, tracing the artist’s homosexuality to his erotic attachment to his mother and his father’s absence.

In 1964, a few months before the presidential election, Fact magazine, now defunct, surveyed the membership of the American Psychiatric Association about the personality traits of Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee. The psychiatrists savaged Goldwater, calling him “warped,” and a “paranoid schizophrenic” who harbored unconscious hatred of his Jewish father and endured rigid toilet training.

Such forays into applied psychoanalysis have not been immune to criticism. After the Fact survey, the psychiatric association issued the so-called Goldwater Rule, advising members that it is “unethical for psychiatrists to offer a professional opinion unless he/she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”

But the practice is still alive, as two new books demonstrate. In “Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President” (Regan Books) Dr. Justin A. Frank, a psychoanalyst, examines Mr. Bush’s early life and finds a man who “consistently exhibits an array of multiple, serious and untreated symptoms.”

Mr. Bush’s hunt for Saddam Hussein, Dr. Frank writes, reflects “the drive of an undernurtured and emotionally hobbled infant.” He concludes that “our sole treatment option — for his benefit and for ours — is to remove President Bush from office.”

Mr. Hussein himself is a focus of Dr. Jerrold M. Post’s analysis. In “Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World: The Psychology of Political Behavior” (Cornell University Press), Dr. Post, a psychiatrist who founded the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior at the Central Intelligence Agency, describes Mr. Hussein’s “traumatic” childhood as an unwanted baby born to a depressed suicidal mother. Her failure to bond with him as an infant and his stepfather’s abuse “wounded Saddam’s emerging self-esteem, impairing his capacity for empathy” and setting the stage for his subsequent brutality. Summing up, Dr. Post said, “His troubles can really be traced back to the womb.”

The problems inherent in such exercises go well beyond the dangers of using secondhand sources. The core belief of applied psychoanalysis — that certain kinds of early childhood events reliably predict adult character and pathology — is open to debate.

Early deprivation may increase the chances of becoming a troubled adult, but it by no means guarantees it. In fact, social scientists find even significant maltreatment does not influence a child’s development in a systematic or predictable way.

There are other difficulties. Earlier experiences are not more essential in shaping personality than later ones, studies suggest, and socialization through peer relationships is at least as important as what occurs at home. Moreover, the social environment is not the sole factor in how we become ourselves. Inborn temperament, largely hereditary, also plays a substantial role. Judith Rich Harris described these realities in “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do” (1998). Though many people viewed the book’s assertions as counterintuitive, the social science evidence has been replicated time and again.

Applied psychoanalysis of the type engaged in by Drs. Frank and Post also suffers from “confirmatory bias,” or the selective focus on information that confirms the observer’s expectation.

For example, Dr. Frank subscribes to Melanie Klein’s theory that the infant views the mother as gratifying (“a good breast”) or frustrating (“a bad breast”). A frustrating mother, so the theory goes, dooms her infant to a simplified world of black and white thinking. Dr. Frank focuses on details that support this theory. He emphasizes that Barbara Bush was a cold mother, a conclusion that he drew from Mrs. Bush’s writings. Thus, when Mr. Bush calls the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists evildoers, he plays into the psychodrama that Dr. Frank has already written for him.

Psychiatrists are not the only ones with a compulsion to connect the dots. Most of us share that urge. The late British psychologist Frederic C. Bartlett poignantly called it an “effort at meaning,” the impulse to make sense of feelings and circumstances.

But psychobiographers like Dr. Frank would have readers believe that, unlike the rest of us, they can overcome their biases because their techniques are objective and rigorous. In fact, they are as susceptible as anyone to the distortion called hindsight bias. Hindsight bias leads us to spin a tidy causal story only after an outcome is known. We can do this because events in the past appear comprehensible and orderly compared with future events. Not surprisingly, however, this risks oversimplifying a complex situation and the uncertainties the subject faced in dealing with it before its resolution.

For psychological insight on important political figures, we do well to turn to biographers like William Manchester on John F. Kennedy, Robert A. Caro on Lyndon B. Johnson and Lou Cannon on Ronald Reagan. They were perceptive, meticulous and humane observers. They may have brought theories to their work. But unlike clinician biographers, they did not wrap themselves in the mantle of scientific authority.