The Psychology of Dictators and their Followers

In her essay titled ‘Trump: A Fable’ Eve Ensler describes the emergence of the strongman or authoritarian leadership and anti-democratic sentiments (particularly in the context of America) as a ‘virus’. An important question she raises in her essay is this: Was the man with orange hair the origin of the virus or simply the manifestation of it? If this man in question were the originator of the virus, then it would simply have been a sick individual contaminating the public, and if and when he were eliminated, the virus would, in theory, be gone as well. But we know this didn’t happen. So how did this “orange man” become one of the major hosts of the virus? I will try to examine this question from a psychological perspective.

There are a number of theories or psychological approaches to examining authoritarian leadership. The Freudian approach talks about how a human being’s personality is divided into the id, ego, and superego, and as we get older and more educated we are able to suppress the id, and control our ego. There are also several personality traits that have been traditionally associated with authoritarian leaders: narcissism, manipulation, prejudice and rigid thinking, ethnocentrism and a culture of fear, etc. The problem with the traditional approach is that it is often reductionist in nature. Many individuals can score high on narcissism – and some probably score even higher than known dictators – and yet they never get the opportunity to spring to power and become dictators. For this reason, I will be focusing on the implicit processes, guided by evolution, that not only seek to explain the psychological wiring of dictators and their followers, but also implicit processes embedded in our culture and society that enable a dictator to spring to power.  The origins of this approach can be found in the works of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed that ‘community’ plays an important role in meaning-making. He developed a socio-cultural approach to cognitive development and believed that individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Context creates the springboard, and the availability of the potential dictator who takes advantage of the situation to spring to power completes the shift to or continues the dictatorship.

‘Categorization’ is a universal cognitive process that leads humans to group social and non-social phenomena. We categorize things, events, people… it would be almost impossible for us to function without using categorization to process information. There is a type of continuity in our cultures – certain perceptions of other races or ethnic groups have come down for generations. To explain this stubborn continuity, it is useful to consider the role of varieties of carriers or narratives that construct, sustain, and propagate meaning. Carriers can be physical objects such as national flags, statues, and uniforms, but they can also be psychological constructs, such as stereotypes. For example, skin color is a physical attribute that has served as a carrier, such as when most Black people in the United States were slaves and being Black was synonymous with slavery. But long after slavery ended in the United States, stereotypes based on skin color continued to function as carriers. Similarly, it is the carriers that sustain a dictator that are most important, not the dictator himself.

If we look at how succession took place in Russia during four crucial transfers of power – from Stalin (1953), from Khrushchev (1964), from Gorbachev to Yel’tsin (1991), and finally to Putin (1999) – we find that the system of power succession in place in Russia has always encouraged plots and political maneuvering within an elite group of rulers, distant from the masses. This system of power is associated with continuity in leadership style. For this reason, despite what seems to be fundamental political, economic, and social changes, these revolutions often result in little actual change in the most important areas of power-sharing and genuine political choice for the masses, thus representing a paradox central to revolutions in dictatorial societies.  Which brings us to the question: why have so many revolutions failed to break people free from dictatorship? Why is the Arab Spring proving to be such a struggle for those who support open societies in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where dictators have fallen yet new forms of dictatorship are on the rise under new guises?  Why did the collapse of the Soviet Union and the move toward democracy in Russia, Ukraine, and some other Eastern Bloc countries lead back to Putin and other “democratic dictators”?

Change can only be understood in relation to constancy; so let’s examine the role of narratives and normative systems that are already out there before each individual comes into the world and continue unchanged in important respects even after each individual leaves the stage. In every society, behavior is regulated by 2 sets of rules and norms. The first is informal – what people think is correct behavior; the second is formal law – what the authorities state is correct behavior (related to black letter law). Changes in black letter law can come about without necessarily accompanying changes in the informal normative system. It is useful to distinguish between three levels of systems: a first-order system is where both formal law and informal normative system endorse group-based injustices – e.g. slavery in the southern states of the US, and the apartheid in South Africa. In the second-order system, the formal law has been reformed to support group-based justice, but the informal normative system has not changed in the same direction and to the same degree. For example, even though on paper racial discrimination has ended in the US and in South Africa, I think we can all agree that in practice racial prejudice continues in some ways in some areas in both countries. A third order system is one in which both formal law and the informal normative system support justice and equality – this is an ideal not achieved by any major society so far.

Change within each of these levels, within-system change, is far easier to achieve than change from one level to another., between-systems change. I will use an example from Prof. Fathali Moghaddam’s book, The Psychology of Dictatorship, to illustrate the difference between the two. Imagine you are having a nightmare in which you are swimming in a crocodile-infested river. You swim as fast as you can, terrified of the crocodiles gliding toward you. You finally get to the river bank and scramble to safety. This is within-system change: you are still dreaming but now you feel safer because you escaped from the crocodile-infested river. Between-systems change takes place when you dream you are swimming in the crocodile-infested river and are so frightened that you suddenly wake up. The change from sleeping to being awake is a change from one system to another. Macro-level change can be brought about quickly by political revolution. But this micro-level between-systems change – involving values, attitudes, motivations, needs, and relationship patterns between people, how they solve problems, and interact at the everyday level, how they think and act in relation to authority figures as well as those with lower status than themselves – is extremely difficult to achieve for societies, even through violent revolutions.

This relatively slower pace of change at the micro social and psychological level is particularly important in the highly sensitive period immediately after a revolution, when a dictatorship has just collapsed. There is usually a brief period of jubilation and opportunity; the chains of dictatorial control have been broken and it is possible to move toward a more open society. The door seems to be open for a change of systems. All major revolutions have a brief window, an ‘opportunity bubble’, during which this change from one system to another is feasible. But a between-system change can only come about when certain pre-requisites are met.

There must be leadership in support of movement toward actualized democracy. Leaders such as George Washington and Nelson Mandela are exceptions because they voluntarily stepped aside from power, rather than monopolizing power all of their lives, as in the case of Stalin, Mao, Khomeini, and other dictators. In terms of personality characteristics, the kind of leader who is able to win power and control through and after a major revolution is typically not likely to reach out to opposition groups and attempt to develop dialogue and compromise. Unfortunately, in terms of personality characteristics, the kinds of leaders who are ruthless enough to come to power through revolution, and who often have the charisma and ability to mobilize the masses, are less inclined to share power and democratize decision-making after they have come to leadership positions.

But far more importantly, we, the general population have to acquire in a timely manner, the social and psychological skills needed to become democratic citizens. In order to give rise to a democratic leader, we must first learn to be democratic citizens. This change has to take place at two levels: first at the collective level and second at the individual level. Unfortunately, this condition is very difficult to achieve because of the slow pace of change in styles of cognition and action. One can change governments overnight, but changing the way people think and act takes far longer. This proves to be a huge stumbling block confronting pro-democracy movements, immediately after they have toppled dictatorship.

Now that we’ve talked about the problems, it’s only fair that we also discuss some solutions. In a 2016 essay titled ‘The Psychology of Democracy’, Prof. Fathali Moghaddam, Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, identified ten key characteristics that a citizen needs to have in order to be capable of fully supporting and participating in a democracy. He recommends that these characteristics be the focus of socialization in families and schools. In particular, civic education should focus on these characteristics:

  1. Have self-doubt: The first step of having self-doubt is leaving open the possibility that “I could be wrong”. This doesn’t mean that the person is crippled with doubt and unable to take positive action. It means that the person moves forward, always ready to incorporate and adopt better information, ideas, and directions.
  2. Be ready to question sacred beliefs: Not only question your own assumptions but also be willing to question the sacred beliefs of your own society. This can be difficult, especially if it involves going against the norms of your own family, community, or nation. But such questioning opens the path for constructive growth.
  3. Have flexibility of opinions in light of evidence: Develop high tolerance for ambiguity and openness to change. Democratic citizens seek and are guided by new information, and are capable of changing their opinions. They are less likely to be guided by dogma and irrational factors.
  4. Understand those who are different from us: Human groups tend to be insular and see their way of life as ‘natural’ and ‘better’. This is more in line with closed rather than open societies, dictatorships rather than democracies. Democracy requires us to seek out and be inclusive towards those who are different from us.
  5. Learn from those who are different: We must not only be open towards others who are different from us, but be motivated to learn what we can from them.
  6. Seek information and opinions from different sources: This is not difficult to achieve when it is carried out systematically, and becomes central to the educational mission from the start of schooling. When carried out correctly, teaching the young to seek out diverse sources of information will also feed back into the family, helping parents become more open-minded.
  7. Be open to new experiences: Actively seek out new experiences with those outside your ingroups. Openness is motivated by the ever-present question: what can I learn from other people?
  8. Create new experiences for others: This is a difficult skill to learn, because sharing ingroup experiences with outsiders can feel threatening. Opening up to others often feels challenging because it means allowing outgroup members to enter as trusted partners into the life of the ingroup. Omniculturalism leads us to give priority to our similarities and what we share with other humans, rather than first attending to how we are different.
  9. Adopt principles of right and wrong: Growth toward democratic citizenship is based on principles of right and wrong, as reflected in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other such foundational documents. Similarly, democratic governance is based on universal principles that guarantee basic freedoms and just treatment.
  10. Seek experiences of higher value, reject less valuable experiences.

So far, we have talked about two important pre-requisites for between-system change: psychology of the leader, and psychology of the democratic citizen. A major challenge is that psychological characteristics cannot be acquired quickly; they are acquired far more slowly than the time it takes to topple a government or write a new constitution. However, a third pre-requisite is political opportunity for change, and I will now request my colleague William Staniland to address the larger issues with democracy, modern democratic society, and political opportunity that face between-systems change.

By Rukmini Banerjee, President of HasNa



Ensler, Eve. ‘Trump: A Fable’. ed. Vijay Prashad. Strongmen. Leftword Books, New Delhi, April 2018.

Moghaddam, Fathali, M.  The Psychology of Dictatorship. American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C, 2013.
Moghaddam, Fathali M. ‘The Psychology of Democracy’. The Journal of Oriental Studies, Vol. 26, 2016. URL:



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