Neuroscience of despotism

Last month, there was a suspected coup to overthrow Zimbabwe’s President Robert  Mugabe, who has held a powerful, poverty-spurning grip on the country since the 1980s.  But can neuroscience shed light on the brain processes of despotism, and how we might avoid it in future?

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

The 19th Century American writer and poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich once famously said, ‘The possession of unlimited power will make a despot of almost any man.  There is a possible Nero in the gentlest human creature that walks.’ Nero was the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Adopted by his great-uncle Claudius, Nero became a leader with lavish, extravagant tastes, ending his life by committing suicide when he found that he had been condemned to death as public enemy number one. We should take heed of his story, because with unlimited access to power and influence, it can be easy to let go of the reins of sensible thinking and behaviour, in favour of dangerously pandering to one’s desires at the expense of others.  Giving up control in light of self-indulgence is a common human condition that can lead us down a perilous road. But neuroscience can help us to understand the basis of the desire for power, and how to curb despotism, for individual benefit and for society at large.

Despotism is a form of government that exerts absolute power, often at the expense of its people.  This is often achieved by an individual – and a group of loyal followers – who use charm and the suggestion of influence to promote the enjoyment of both indulgence and wielding of control of others. Despotic personality characteristics are reflected in brain activity often housed in a hot-head (in other words, a person prone to arousal and anxiety, especially if not getting their own way, like a child). A despot derives pleasure, but also a stubborn sense of safety and reduction of anxiety, from hoarding the spoils, at the same time as gaining pleasure from denying the same benefits to others, who are regarded as ‘lesser mortals’. It is when common personality traits are left unchecked in our minds, or if they are unchallenged by others, that they can become personality disorders and habits that are difficult to break.

Traditionally in psychology textbooks, personality traits are grouped into “The Big Five”, namely neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.  Taking one step further in neuroscience, we tend to refer to the current version of the formal psychiatric guidelines – known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual version 5 – for categorising personality disorders into 4 clusters, that have origins in brain dysfunction. Cluster A represent odd traits, including paranoia (worried about persecution) and schizophrenia (delusional ideas about reality).  Cluster B are dramatic traits reflecting anti-social behaviour (starting of wars, arms deals, illegal drugs trade, human trafficking) and narcissism (extreme self-absorption and expecting idolatry from others). Cluster C are anxious traits such as avoidant (reclusive leaders who do not address their people’s concerns), dependent (leaders who rely on criminal organisations) and obsessive-compulsive (habits that continue over years). The final cluster is less well defined, but includes haltlose (charming pleasure-seekers with future goals that are vague) and psychopathic personality disorders (not seeming to care about the suffering of others).  It is easy to align the despots we hear about today with many of these traits!

So, what then, are the brain patterns that might contribute to the development and maintenance of despotic individuals who were once virtuous?  Most folk who become tyrannical (it is a matter for debate whether tyrants are born or made!) adhere to the acronym AGE – arrogant, greedy and egotistical – and these are traits that can easily be mapped in the brain.  Arrogance - having an inflated sense of self-importance, especially over others – likely involves activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and reduced activation in the error-detection network involving the anterior cingulate cortex (despots rarely feel that their behaviour is wrong!).  Greed is easier to spot in the brain, and relates to excessive activation of the wanting and liking area of the reward centre, known as the nucleus accumbens – and this likely gives a despot a strong sense of entitlement, and the want for more!  Finally, egoism is a term originating from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory – referring to a sense of being self-absorbed (“navel gazing”) with a lack of empathy for others. Modern neuropsychoanalysis – a combination of Freudian theory and neuroscience -  has been able to map self-absorption to prefrontal cortex networks too.  For example, the psychopathic personality traits often found in despotic leaders have at their root self-interest, impulsivity, an absence of guilt and superficial charm, which relates to a clear pattern of reduced executive control network in regions of the prefrontal cortex that regulate behaviour and emotions.  Combined with this, psychopaths and despots also have increased reward activation in the striatum area of the mid-brain due to the prefrontal cortex not being able to control it properly, which allows for risk-taking, impulsivity and a disregard for the feelings of others.

With all this information about the brain processes of despots in mind, how can we avoid it in ourselves and others in future?  And since we always seem to have despots in our midst – remember back to Nero – do these personality traits perhaps even have some beneficial value for the survival of humankind?  While it could be that many despots begin with good intentions - to be strong, world-changing leaders who rally people together - more severe personality traits such as paranoia, fear and arrogance may be allowed to develop if power and influence is left unchecked, and even inflated by loyal followers who would like a taste of power for themselves. But in South Africa, the sovereign, democratic constitution is founded on the values of human dignity, achievement of equality, advancement of human rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism, and supremacy of the rule of law. And this means that despotism, no matter how good the intentions of its leaders are at the start, will not be allowed to run amok for long.

Dr Samantha Brooks is a neuroscientist at the UCT Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, specialising in the neural correlates of impulse control from eating disorders to addiction.  For more information on neuroscience at UCT and to contact Samantha, see

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.