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A 21 year old president does not have a fully developed brain

April 29, 2015

On 22 May, Ireland will vote in a referendum on a proposal to reduce the minimum age of a president to 21. This is not a good idea because the human brain’s frontal lobes – critical for good judgment – are not fully wired to the rest of the brain until the mid twenties on average. This is why insurance premiums for young drivers are so high. Presidents have to have good judgment. Most 21 year olds don’t yet have it. 

Putin’s Contempt for the West

February 24, 2015


In June 2005, Vladimir Putin saw a diamond-studded Super Bowl ring on the finger of Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. Kraft was in St Petersberg for a gathering of business leaders, and the ring was worth $25,000. Putin asked to see it, tried it on, and said: “I could kill someone with this.” Then, allegedly, he put it in his pocket, drew his security guards around him, and left the room.

What does this incident tell us about the psychology of the man who rules Russia? On the day that both government troops and Russian-backed rebels are supposed to begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the fron tline in eastern Ukraine as part of the Minsk agreement, this question is of special importance.

In democracies which have checks on leader’s power, psychology may not play a crucial role in statecraft. But Putin’s control over the Russian media, judicial system and business world means that his personal psychology plays a much more important role in state policies than is the case for other countries.

We don’t know exactly how much control Putin has over the rebels, but it is likely to be considerable, despite their protestations. Putin’s troops operate in Ukraine, and we know he believes himself to be the true leader of Russian-speakers in former Soviet satellites from Ukraine to Lithuania. Just read his speech to the Russia parliament on April 25, 2005:

“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century… Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”

Three months after the incident with Robert Kraft’s ring, while visiting the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Putin was shown a glass replica of a Kalashnikov gun filled with vodka. According to one biographer, Masha Gessen, Putin nodded to one of his guards, who, to the astonishment of all present, simply pocketed the piece.

Such incidents give us a first, important clue about his personality: Putin does not feel bound by the ordinary rules of civility. This, in turn, suggests that he may not be inclined to respect bigger rules – for instance those of the Minsk agreement.

To be fair, Putin almost certainly believes that the West has breached much bigger understandings with Russia regarding the integrity of the empire he formally served. The sight of NATO fighters patrolling Russian borders in what was formally Soviet territory is galling for him. Similarly, the flirting of former colonies such as Georgia and Ukraine with NATO membership is likely infuriating. From this distorted perspective, he feels justified in breaching more trivial rules of personal property in what he regards as a weak, decadent West.

A second key aspect of his personality is contempt. At a joint German-Russian cabinet meeting in Siberia in 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel chided Putin that he should treat his cabinet ministers with respect rather than contempt. Contempt is the emotion reserved for those we regard as inferiors, and it is likely that Putin regards the West – particularly Western Europe – as inferior in many ways, not least militarily.

Yet contempt is a very problematic emotion because it abolishes empathy. Empathy is the crucial ingredient of negotiation: compromises and trust arise when people begin to see things from the other point of view. But contempt negates the other perspective and the object of contempt is just that – an object. Objects do not have a point of view.

There is a third factor underlying Putin’s psychology: fear. A small, thin-skinned man who grew up in poverty in a Leningrad haunted by memories of starvation and death, he was personally witness to what was for him another catastrophe – the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Undoubtedly he suffers the torment of all autocrats – the fear of losing power and the consequences which follow. This is no abstract fear. He fended off a KGB agent’s nightmare when hordes of rebellious East Germans besieged his compound in Dresden in 1989. As a result, he can all too easily envisage such a collapse in his own country should his iron grip loosen.

Putin almost certainly craved respect from the West in the past, but many perceived humiliations – senior US figures describing his country described as “Upper Volta with missiles” for instance – may have pushed this humiliation-sensitive man to a position of existential, Cold War-like opposition to the West, if indeed he ever held any other view.

This is a major problem because it means that we cannot be sure that President Putin will behave entirely predictably according to some logical notion of cost and benefit. Too much power, for too long, has changed his brain to a point where his ego and country are one.

People go to enormous and sometimes self-destructive length in order to protect their egos. This is why humiliating put-downs of Putin and Russia should be ruled out of diplomatic discourse. People behave less defensively, and hence less self-destructively, when their egos are not threatened and their good points emphasized.

But no amount of praise for Russia will dissolve its president’s contempt for the West. Eliminating humiliation can only reduce the chance of some disastrous act of ego-defensive self-destructiveness on the part of Putin.

In the end the only thing which will deter him from trying to save his lamented Russian-speaking diaspora from the clutches of the West is firmness and deterrence on the part of Europe and the USA. Putting those grim, Cold-War sounding words into action is going to be expensive.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 24th February 2015

Retirement: Be Careful What you Wish For.

January 25, 2015

Retirement photo







The lower the average retirement age of a country, the poorer peoples’ memory. In this short video, I talk about the perils of thinking of yourself as “retired”

Three Upsides of Getting Older

January 25, 2015

We hear a lot about the bad effects of ageing – memory, forgetfulness, speed etc – but here are three upsides of aging which I explain in a video from the brilliant Hello Brain campaign run by my colleague Sabina Brennan.


The upsides of ageing

Euthanasia or Execution? – A Struggle for Control.

January 6, 2015







This Sunday, Belgium is, to all intents and purposes, going to carry out an execution. Capital punishment, outlawed in the EU, is effectively going to make a return to the Continent when Frank Van Den Bleeken, a sex offender, is killed at his own request. Ostensibly this is because he cannot bear the thought of spending the rest of life in jail or control his violent sexual urges – so he has asked to be euthanised. Astonishingly, the Belgian state has agreed.

In the early hours of January 1 1989, Van Den Bleeken, who was himself raped when he was 15, raped and killed a 19-year-old girl as she came home from a New Year’s Eve party. He was subsequently deemed insane and not criminally responsible and, after seven years on a prison psychiatric ward, released. Within weeks he attacked three more victims aged 11, 17, and 29 years old.

He first applied for euthanasia in 2011, saying that he had not been offered appropriate therapy. Since then a specialist centre has opened in Belgium, but he renewed his application for euthanasia none the less. Imagine a mentally ill cancer patient who asked for euthanasia while refusing a potentially effective treatment. All but the most ardent euthanasia advocates would demur in such a case. Yet Belgium has acquiesced.
There are three main problems with this. First, treatments for sexual offenders can be successful. Cognitive behavioural treatment is the most effective, and surgical and hormonal treatments also work well with a proportion of offenders.

Secondly, Van Den Bleeken has spent 30 years in jail. His desire to be killed, however, is only three years old. That means that for 27 years he wished to live – and his request to be given effective treatment in a Dutch centre supports this. The desire to die is never carved in stone – it changes with circumstances, with frame of mind, with mood. Nowhere is this more clear than in people who have demonstrated their absolute commitment to dying by jumping from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. In a follow-up study – 26 years later – of these unwilling survivors, 90 per cent were either alive or had died of natural causes. These people had wanted to die as devoutly as Van Den Bleeken does but, having tried it once, did not try to get it right a second time.

But the third issue is the most important, and has to do with the nature of justice, which Van Den Bleeken is successfully seeking to pervert.

His  crimes have blighted the lives of scores of people, and ended the life of one innocent girl. Her family does not want him to be killed – they wish to see him suffer in prison, and that is entirely their right.

But by ignoring their wishes and killing a physically healthy, relatively young man, there is a strong possibility that the Belgian state is playing into the killer’s hands. For the publicity and notoriety of this case has transformed it from being about Van Den Bleeken’s uncontrollable sexual urges into a battle for control between him and the authorities. It is entirely conceivable that he now sees himself as a sort of hero in combat with institutions who he feels have denied him proper treatment.

This struggle, peculiarly enough, may give his sad life some meaning, even if only for a few more days. His life’s last act will be played to his direction. We know well how people will do self-destructive things to give their life meaning, including killing themselves in suicide bombings. Strangely enough, some suicide bombers are motivated by what they, in their distorted perceptions, feel to be altruistic motives.

But part of the point of punishment is the denial of such control. It is for the state to decide Van Den Bleeken’s punishment, and yet it seems to be he who is pulling the strings. Since when did killers choose their own sentence?

If this dismal case changes course, however, both sides will end up losers. If Van Den Bleeken backs down and withdraws his request, it will represent a defeat for him. Such a defeat may be impossible for him to contemplate because the prospect of Sunday’s Pyrrhic victory represents the last residue of self-respect in a ruined life.

But Belgium also has put itself in a corner. It is important not to forget that Van Den Bleeken was previously declared insane – but clearly not insane enough for the authorities to regard him as incapable of making an informed decision about his own life and death. We do not know whether Belgian doctors have changed their diagnosis that he is insane, but if they have not, the ethical implications involved in killing him are devastating.

In most civilised countries, people who are suicidal can be detained in psychiatric hospital against their will because their suicidal impulses are not regarded as being rational choices. That Belgium can contemplate this bizarre course of action, and that the country’s doctors can contemplate executing it, is grotesque.

So the worries of both parties should be ignored. This case has now become a circus sideshow of the justice system. It should be prevented from reaching its appalling denouement.

If Belgium wishes to execute Van Den Bleeken, it should initiate the legislation to do so. If it does not, it should refuse to cave in to his battle for control over the shreds of his life, and ensure the public is protected while the best form of therapy is attempted.


This article was first published in the London Daily Telegraph on 6th January 2015

Scottish Independence: It’s the Psychology, Stupid.

September 16, 2014

Scottish flag

Bill Clinton’s famous “It’s the economy, stupid” doesn’t seem to apply in thinking about the remarkable social movement which is the Scottish “Yes” campaign.

A Scotsman who has not lived in Scotland for nearly a quarter of a century, I can only look on astonished at a social movement in which young, working-class men, are unusually prominent.

I am amazed because such young men across the western world have suffered a collapse in status, employment and self-esteem. The crisis in male identity is reflected in huge educational underachievement, burgeoning alcohol and drug problems and high suicide rates. Millions of young working class men have lost many if not most of their of traditional roles in work – heavy industry and mining for instance – and at home, where female-led, single-parent households are exceptionally common.

From the perspective of a psychologist, I can only look on with admiration to see the energy and empowerment of people some of whom do not normally feel particularly good about themselves. In a class-conscious society – and Scotland is only marginally less class-conscious than England – those in the lower socio-economic echelons get more sick and die younger for reasons purely to do with their status, independent of any dietary and other factors which additionally contribute to mortality differences.

So, if I had a vote, the psychologist in me would be saying, without doubt, vote Yes. I think that there is a reasonable chance that, other factors set aside, there would be a lengthening of lives and a boosting of mental health for tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands.

But I am not just a psychologist. I am a resident of a country – Ireland – which suffered a catastrophic economic shock, equivalent to Iceland’s, in 2008. I saw people suffering huge personal stress and suffering because of crippling, un-payable debt and unemployment. I saw my own take-home income slashed by at least 25-35% due to a combination of pay cuts and additional taxes and levies.

Ireland’s economic crisis was caused by a number of things – and the most important were a property bubble, a gargantuan banking sector and runaway public spending. I worry because I see risks that these three factors may play out in an independent Scotland.

The property bubble arose mainly because European interest rates were set low to satisfy a sluggish German economy: at a time when Ireland needed higher interest rates to cool its economy, the opposite was happening in the form of cheap European money – the property bubble was an inevitable consequence and it broke the lives of tens of thousands of people when it burst.

It may already be happening once more, because the Irish economy is again growing, but interest rates are set for a moribund European economy. This is in spite of the fact that Ireland is no longer master of its own economy. In 2011 the German Bundestag famously saw an Irish budget before the Irish parliament did. The same will be true for a sterling-zone Scottish economy – London will call the economic shots which may not suit the Scottish economy at all.I am not sure that these young working class men of Scotland quite realise this – I, with all my educational privileges, had no idea about these economic factors until I lived through them.

The Scottish banking sector is even bigger than the Irish one was and the question of who underwrites this is certainly not a theoretical one. But for sure, the Irish experience with the European Central Bank is that he who pays the piper, calls the tune. Independence will be far from complete with sterling as the Scottish currency.

Finally, the runaway public spending in Ireland happened because of a strong social-democratic drive to share the spoils of the Celtic Tiger and at the same time, buy votes to stay in office. Even had the banking crash not happened, Irish public spending grossly outstripped its income and had to be slashed: Irish universities have had their funding slashed by over 40% over ten years, for instance.

The social movement for Scottish independence is based on an emotional drive towards strong, egalitarian, public-spending-heavy, social-democratic policies. In Ireland, more than half my income goes in taxes and levies; a visit to the GP costs 60 euro, with prescriptions paid for at commercial prices. All this, taken with the new water and property charges, will ensure that I take home a much diminished minority of the euros in my headline salary.

Small, public-spending-heavy countries do not come cheap. Of course, Ireland does not have the oil and the risks for a small, open Scottish economy may therefore be less than those for the small, open, Irish one. But the risks are still there – small may be beautiful, but it is also vulnerable in a crowd.

All this being said, I love living in Ireland. It is much easier to feel part of, and connected with, a small country than a large one. Psychologically speaking, I have no regrets about the financial penalties I have incurred for these psychological benefits.

The Irish people tolerated one of the biggest economic crashes in a developed country ever seen with a remarkable resilience and uncomplaining good humour. They endured the cuts to wages, increased taxes, slashed public spending and diminished pensions with grit because they knew there had been a party and they knew they had to sit out the hangover.

But here is what I am not sure of: how would the people of Scotland handle an equivalent set of spending cuts and tax increases in an independent country? If the answer is – with the uncomplaining resilience of the Irish – then I say, vote Yes. If, on the other hand, such pain cannot be contemplated, then voting No is the more sensible, if not the most psychologically appealing, option.

This article was first published in the London Telegraph:



Savagery Explained: 5 Reasons Humans Become Inhuman

August 18, 2014

As Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria butcher thousands of “infidels” and carry off their women and children into slavery, many in the West are inclined to see this as an unique outcrop of Islamic fundamentalism. Yet after over-running a Bosnian town on 11th July 1995, Bosnian Serb – ostensibly Christian – forces, cold-bloodedly massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. Hutu genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda, Khmer Rouge mass-murder of Cambodian city-dwellers, Nazi genocide of Jews, Gypsies and the disabled….the list of savagery is as long as it is profoundly depressing.

Isis Execution








Savagery begets Savagery

What, then are the origins of savagery, if they cannot be ascribed to a single religion or ideology? The first part of an answer may be horribly simple: savagery begets savagery. Callousness, aggression and lack of empathy are common responses by people who have been harshly treated themselves. In the Nazi concentration camps, for instance, many of the cruelest guards were themselves prisoners – the notorious “kapos”. Sexually abused children – particularly males – are more likely to go on to become sexual abusers themselves as adults, although the majority do not. Victims, in other words, often respond to trauma by themselves becoming victimizers.

Concentration Camp









The “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad and subsequent invasion in 2003 triggered an explosion of violence and a total break down of law and order in the country. Few Iraqis escaped the effects of savagery – marketplace car bombs and sectarian assassination squads included – and a very conservative estimate is that between 2003 and 2011, over 114,000 of them were killed and many hundreds of thousands more maimed. So a minority of these, overwhelmingly male, victims of violence are now themselves propagating savagery through Mosul and its environs.

Submersion in the Group

But victim becoming victimizer is not the only explanation for savagery. When the State breaks down, and with it law and order and civic society, there is only one recourse for survival – the group. Whether defined by religion, racial, political, tribal or clan – or for that matter by the brute dominance of a gang-leader – survival depends on the mutual security offered by the group.

War bonds people together in their groups and this bonding assuages some of the terrific fear and distress the individual feels when the state breaks down. It also offers self-esteem to people who feel humiliated by their loss of place and status in a relatively ordered society. To the extent that this happens, then individual and group identities partially merge and the person’s actions become as much a manifestation of the group as of the individual will. When this happens, people can do terrible things they would never have imagined doing otherwise: individual conscience has little place in an embattled, warring group, because the individual and group selves are one so long as the external threat continues. It is groups which are capable of savagery, much more than any individual alone.

You can see it in the faces of the young male Islamic State militants as they race by on their trucks, black flags waving, broad smiles on their faces, clenched fists aloft, fresh from the slaughter of infidels who would not convert to Islam. What you can see is a biochemical high from a combination of the bonding hormone oxytocin and the dominance hormone testosterone. Much more than cocaine or alcohol, these natural drugs lift mood, induce optimism and energize aggressive action on the part of the group. And because the individual identity has been submerged largely into the group identity, the individual will be much more willing to sacrifice himself in battle – or suicide bombing, for that matter. Why? – Because if I am submerged in the group, I live on in the group even if the individual “me”, dies.

Isis Tank Syria







When people bond together, oxytocin levels rise in their blood, but a consequence of this is a greater tendency to demonize and de-humanize the out-group. That is the paradox of selfless giving to your in-group – it makes it easier for you to anaesthetize your empathy for the out-group and to see them as objects. And doing terrible things to objects is fine because they are not human.

The out-group as objects

But here is one daunting fact as we contemplate the Sunni-Shia carnage in Iraq and Syria: in-group tribalism is strengthened – and loathing for the out-group correspondingly increased – where religion defines the groups. Even when aggression against the other group is self-destructive – as we can see so tragically across the Middle East – religiously-based groups advocated a degree of aggression against their opponents which was absent in non-religiously defined groups.

Destroyed Mosque









Finally, revenge, which is a strong value in Arab culture, may play a part in perpetuating the savagery. Of course vengeful retaliation for savagery begets more savagery in a never-ending cycle. But more, while revenge is a powerful motivator, it is also a deceiver, because the evidence is that taking revenge on someone, far from quelling the distress and anger which drives it, actually perpetuates and magnifies it.

ISIS gun to head









Finally, people will do savage things if their leaders tell them it is acceptable to do so, particularly if they have given their selves to the group self. The Rwandan genocide was switched on by a series of radio broadcasts by a small group of leaders to a population who, by that instruction, were turned into savage murderers of once friends and neighbours who were in the out-group. The Soviet army committed mass rape as they invaded Germany in 1945 because senior commanders had advocated it. Islamic State fighters are slaughtering unarmed Christians and Yezidis because their leaders and – presumably – imams have told them that this is the right thing to do.

Isis Leader








Leaders at many levels from the tribe to the country, are responsible for this savagery, and so leaders can eventually stop it – just as they chose to do in Rwanda, after international pressure. But the trouble is, it is in the interests of powerful forces on several sides to keep the current Iraqui and Syrian conflicts going for their own strategic reasons. They will always ensure they have their local leaders in place to pursue their own interests. And so long as that happens, the savagery will go on.

I expand on this in my book The Winner Effect

I first published this piece in the London Telegraph.






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