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Welcome to another episode of Conversations with Coleman and welcome to the first episode of the New Year. First things first, I want to thank all of you for the enormous support you gave me in twenty twenty. Because of your support, I'll be able to ramp up both the quality and quantity of my output in twenty twenty one two notes before I introduce today's guest. Many of you have been asking me about the status of my attempted conversation with Eber, Max Kennedy, especially those of you who donated to charity to make that happen.
There have been very interesting developments on that front, but I think I'll put them all in a solo episode, which I'll release very soon. And secondly, I should say something about the absolute dumpster fire that is American politics right now. The first thing to do is to blame the people directly responsible without caveat and without immediately changing the subject. In this case, I'm talking about the president of the United States claiming that he won an election. He did not, in fact, win.
Pressuring officials to find missing votes that don't exist, persuading millions of people who hang on his every word to behave as if an American election was just stolen. And saying, we love you, you're very special to people who perpetrated an act of domestic terror on his behalf. Irresponsible does not even begin to describe this behavior. Impeachable gets much closer. During the presidential debates, I tweeted that Trump's failure to give a simple yes to the question, will you concede if you lose should have been disqualifying.
This is why I said that. Now, once you've blamed the people directly responsible, it makes sense to move on to the narrative surrounding the event. So let's start with race and policing. As the news of domestic terrorists storming the Capitol broke, I saw people on Twitter saying if these protesters were black, the police would have killed them alongside videos of cops being suspiciously lenient with these hooligans.
And there's no doubt some truth to this if a group of black rioters stormed the Capitol. I can't imagine seeing videos of lenient cops. This point is not as profound as it might seem. First off, the knowledge that a white Trump supporting woman was killed should take some of the steam out of this point, in addition to the fact that the cops used tear gas and pepper spray on these people. But still, there are the videos of the lenient cops, and we have to wonder why those exist, what accounts for their lenience?
If it's only race, then how do you account for the cops treatment of all white antifa rioters? I think there are clearly two other variables that account for their lenience. One could be political sympathy. The knowledge that these rioters are generally ProComp may have led the police to have more sympathy than they otherwise would. And then there's the freak show element. When you see a guy with horns and chest pain, it doesn't exactly inspire fear, inspires laughter and cringe.
None of this is to deny that racial bias is a real thing or to justify the lenience of the cops, it's only to apply some common sense to the racism reflex that pervades social media. The final thing I want to touch on before I introduce my guest today is Twitter banning Trump. Let me start by saying that nothing here should be construed as a defense of Trump himself, Trump should be impeached and removed immediately. Even at this late stage, it's worth it to remove him both so that he can't run again and to set the precedent that a president can't try to steal an election with no consequences.
But removing him from Twitter is a mistake. I have no problem with removing a sitting president from Twitter if he actually violates the terms of service. But he didn't violate the relevant policy on glorifying violence. And the twisted logic that Twitter used to explain how his tweets violated policy was laughable and not to mention a scary exercise in censorship. And yes, they have every right to do it as a private company, and you have every right as a consumer to choose a different company like Parler, so long as you can stomach its reputation for being a hotbed of conspiracy theory, white supremacy and kuhnen.
Except, of course, that you can't download parler either because they've been removed from the App Store. You don't need to be a Trump supporter to see that this is not the free market operating as it should, this is Monopoly one on one. Personally, I'm happy to see Trump off Twitter, and I'll be even happier when he leaves office, but we should be very wary of the precedent we set by applauding Twitter for banning someone who didn't actually violate a policy.
You either trust the discretion of the people who run Twitter, which you shouldn't. Or you want to have a policy that's enforced even handedly. So that's my two cents. Onto today's guest. Christopher J. Ferguson is an American psychologist who serves as a professor and chair of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He previously served as an associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M National University. In twenty fourteen, he was named a fellow of the APA.
Christopher and I talked about the definition of mental illness, prescribing Adderall to children, link between creativity and mental illness, how mental illness affected historical figures like Alexander the Great Hitler and Stalin. And finally, I asked Christopher to assess the mental state of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. So without further ado, Christopher Ferguson. OK, Christopher Ferguson, thank you so much for coming on the show. Well, thanks for having me on today. It's a real honor.
So you've just written a book about madness and insanity as it pertains to political leaders. And that's going to be the focus of most of our conversation today. You've also written then intervened in the public debate about video games and their alleged link to violence. And I want to touch on that as well. But we were speaking the day after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, egged on by Trump's claims that the election was stolen over the past two months.
So the question of madness and insanity as it pertains to political leaders, I think is especially pressing right now. And we will we'll get to the impolite questions about Trump's mental state at some point in this podcast. I don't want to lead with that. I'd like to sort of set the groundwork of your book first. But before we do that, can you talk a little bit about your own background, where you're from and how you came to be interested in the question of madness as it pertains to political leaders?
Yeah, absolutely. So I'm a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Stetson University. And I think, you know, like a lot of people that get involved in psychology, I really was interested in kind of these salacious stories of like serial murder and mass homicide and all of that kind of stuff. And my dissertation work was initially working with inmates and in a jail, for instance, looking at mental health issues related to violence and that sort of stuff. And the whole thing about the video games that I got involved was really kind of a diversion off of that.
And it kind of stemmed from this whole debate about video games and mass shootings and sort of the things that can lead people into doing horrible, horrible things. But there's always been this kind of like weird parallel path. You know, if I is one of these, if I could live my life over again, what would I do? Instead of being an academic, I would be another academic, which would be like a historian. So I've always been kind of interested in this idea of how psychology and history interact with each other.
And, you know, this kind of been this idea that's been around in a lot of books recently that have kind of portrayed history as being mostly at the mercy of things like plagues and geography and sort of circumstance, if you will, and took people out of it to a large degree. It is kind of this idea that the great person argument is wrong somehow. And certainly, obviously, we're living through a plague right now, a pandemic. Certainly we would understand that these things are important.
But I think there's a lot of historical and psychological evidence to suggest that people do matter, that an individual can step in to a crisis point. You know, societies do have crisis points and individual leaders can matter. And if we're lucky, we have someone who is the right person, has the cognitive and personality talents to lead us through a crisis point. But it's also interesting to consider what happens if we get somebody different, if we get someone who is.
Psychologically or cognitively impaired in such a way that they lead us into a more negative path to disaster, calamity, whatever we want to call it. And so the book is really a lot more about that side, which kind of probably reflects my own interest, my own nature to some extent. I really kind of wanted to write a book that would be fun to read, particularly for a history book. A lot of history books are not really fun.
I really wanted to write one that people would want to read, and I tend to be kind of drawn to these sort of salacious stories myself. So it's a lot about just how these individual stepped into history and to a large degree made things worse, or the people that were in their nation, in their culture and so on and so forth. But there's a lot of talk about psychology itself. It's about how people make the decisions, how we understand mental illness.
And I try to throw a few things in there to kind of talk about when we are in these crisis points, what can we do to try to make things better and how can we learn from history so not repeat these kind of mistakes that we've seen in the past?
Yeah, so I said I wouldn't talk about Trump at the beginning, but it's too much on my mind given what you just said. So you said a lot of interesting things. One was about the great man theory of history, and this is something I've heard talked about in the past as a way of accounting for causation in history, why events happen that places a great deal of weight on the decisions of individuals, usually men. And that way of thinking about history, I think, has fallen out of fashion.
But like most sort of academic paradigms, the truth is probably that it's it's important, but it's not everything. And it's hard to dismiss its importance. If you look at the past two months of America where you had one man, I think Donald Trump in this case chosen not to stoke conspiracy theories about the election being fraudulent. The past two months would have gone differently and a major historic event that happened yesterday in the storming of the Capitol likely would not have happened there.
There's you can bring systemic explanations into it, but that's really a case where it does seem like one man has a cult of personality and a particular weight. And the contingencies of his own psychology actually matter for society as a whole. So in any event, that's just to say to tell readers this is the sort of thing they can expect if they read your book is cases where the individual psychology of a person actually moves the needle in societies for good or for ill.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think if we can think in this particular moment, you know, alternate history, if even any other Republican nominee had been president, right now, we kind of throw in, you know, you know, Marco Rubio or even Ted Cruz. You know, we might not like these individuals necessarily, but it is hard to imagine that things today would be the same had. Almost anybody else bad president through this, even another Republican president doesn't have to think of like Hillary Clinton necessarily, if it had been Jeb Bush or something of that sort, how different things would have been today.
So, I mean, what we're experiencing right now is really unprecedented. The idea that the US capital would be attacked by a mob of rioters and such is I can't think of when something exactly like that has happened. I think either perhaps the War of 1812 might have been the last time something similar happened to the US Capitol. And so, yeah, I mean, this year was one of these points where we needed some kind of strong leadership. And I think the way things have gone this year with the pandemic, with the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests, the riots, whatever you want to call them over the summer.
And now with the election and this interregnum between Trump and Biden, we can see that the decisions of one person, what this person says, what this person does, what they decide, really do matter and can do a lot of harm in this case, I think possibly could do good, but in this case, harm. And so we do have to be perhaps a bit more alert to the personal qualities of individuals that we choose as our leaders.
Hmm. So in your book, you make a distinction between madness, on the one hand, mental illness on the other, and then third concept of insanity. So what's the difference between these things and why do the differences matter? Yeah, that's a great question.
And, you know, historically, a lot of these terms had been used kind of interchangeably. And even today in casual conversation, people will use these terms fairly interchangeably. So so mental illness is a very broad category situations and a large percentage of individuals will experience some form of mental illness there on their lives. Now, most mental illness is a fairly minor. So everything from feeling a little bit anxious to caffeine dependence is in our definitions of mental illness and such.
I'm all the way through. Yeah. So it's pretty easy to read yourself. And there's a book was called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The DSM signed its fifth edition. So the DSM five typically you hear referred to. So that kind of is people talk to us about the Bible of mental illness. Bwelle So it kind of describes all of these categories of mental illness. Most of them, again, a pretty minor, some are pretty major, like schizophrenia, where you just sort of lose reality testing.
Bipolar disorder is also quite serious. There are personality disorders in there which are kind of like long term problems with how the person perceives the world.
So most people who have mental illness, of course, are not harmful. I mean, they don't engage in bad behavior. They're not hurting society. They're not hurting anyone. They may, if anything, be more at risk themselves being taken advantage of or hurt or something of that sort with certain mental conditions. There are correlations between certain conditions and vile behavior like schizophrenia and such. So sometimes people hear that there's no correlation between mental illness and violence. That's actually not true.
There's actually considerable evidence to suggest that there is. But but it is important to point out that most people, even with schizophrenia, with serious mental illness, are not violent, criminals are not violent, and we ought to be careful about that. So that's a very broad category of individuals. On the other side, there's insanity, which is a legal definition. That's a very, very tiny category. So with insanity, you have committed a crime and a jury or perhaps a judge decides that you are not responsible for that crime because your mental condition removed from you, the ability to understand that what you did was illegal.
So if you have schizophrenia and you kill someone and you do that because the voices in your head were telling you that that other person was a diseased alien Nazi who was coming to kill you, then you're acting in self-defense in your mind, you know, not in reality, but in your mind. You were acting in self-defense. And in that case, a jury or a judge may decide that you are legally insane and thus not responsible for your your actions.
Typically, at that point, if you committed a major crime, you'd be most likely center of psychiatric hospital, a forensic hospital in between is this kind of madness. And the way that I'm referring to madness here is a sense of a person who has some kind of mental or cognitive impairment and that is doing damage. So this takes it out of most mental illness. Most mental illness doesn't do damage in a wide sense. So this person has some kind of mental condition, is doing damage to themselves or to others, and the person is persisting in it despite the obvious nature of the damage that it is doing.
So it's certain categories of mental illness that are having a broader impact either for the individual people around them or on their society at large.
Let's talk a little bit about the cultural biases or or sort of the the way in which culture can influence what's defined as a mental illness and what's not.
I think recently of the explosion in awareness and therefore medication of ADHD.
And I suppose she would be classified as a mental illness, right? Yes. So, you know, it's interesting to me that's a cultural phenomenon, right. To to describe, you know, in another era or in another culture, a person that we say has quote unquote, ADHD would just be described as having a particular personality like introversion or extroversion.
And likewise, you could imagine the culture changing to a point where introversion is described as a as a mental illness or too much extroversion is described as a mental illness. So how do you think about the way in which culture shapes our definitions of of mental illness?
Yeah, I mean, absolutely it does. And this is, of course, one of the controversies about psychiatry and about the DSM specifically, for instance, is to what extent to these categories we talk about reflect real illnesses. If you will try to put air quotes around the world, we're real as opposed to these kinds of cultural perceptions of people that are desirable or undesirable or whatever else.
And the reality is, is that mental health conditions don't exactly exist in the same way that like the flu or covid-19 or cancer does that for a lot of medical conditions. There's a blood test, there's an MRI, there's some kind of test you can take and you clearly have it. And if you have influenza, if you have the flu, you have the flu. Whether you're in the United States, you have the flu. Whether you're in Japan, doesn't matter where you are.
It's the same flu, doesn't matter what point in history or are as still the flu. It just doesn't change in the sort of cultural context where whereas mental illnesses, there's an element of that. That's not to say there isn't some kind of like biological reality behind many mental illnesses. That psychosis is still psychosis, what whatever culture or time period you happen to be in. But there is this kind of judgment call about where the boundaries of these mental illnesses are.
And, of course, probably the most famous example is the situation of homosexuality, which was a diagnosable mental health condition for decades until gradually society decided that this was not something that was problematic. So in this sense, the perceptions of mental illness sometimes can relate to morality, to some extent to people that are behaving in ways that we find undesirable, that we judge them to be ill and thus can use that to stigmatize them, put them away in a psychiatric facility or whatever we want to do with them, try to change them with some kind of therapy, a conversion therapy, homosexuality, for instance.
And there are so there are definitely these cultural kind of judgment calls about whether something really is a mental illness or not. And one of the there are a lot of controversies right now about the DSM five. But one of them, of course, in my area is whether there is a such thing as a gaming disorder. Is it possible that people can overdo gaming to the extent that it can be a mental illness? Well, of course, we're also at the point where a lot of people, but older people don't like video games.
So is it that this is a real mental disorder or is it just old people complaining about video games and finding some sort of way to institutionalize that? And that's where there's a lot of debate. Know, why do we care about video game addiction and not all the other things that people do which don't have a diagnosis for them?
Yeah, I recently got into an argument with a friend over whether. Playing video games all day was the same as playing chess all day. My instinct was I don't see how it's so different in principle in that they're both they're both addictive in the sense that you want to do them all the time. You can do them all the time now with online chess. And this person really had a strong intuition that there's something fundamentally different about playing Call of Duty all day, because chess maybe has this allure of having to be a genius to to be good at it or but to me, it's just they're both games at the end of the day.
And my sense was it's not so different. And and the stigma surrounding video games from people who don't totally understand it. And I would frankly count myself as one of those people. I don't I don't I've never it's been 10 or 15 years since I really cared or enjoyed video games. But I can see how being outside of the world, there's just so much you don't understand about it and know if you're not the proverbial 15 year old boy and you're worried about your son playing too much, it just all seems pathological where other addictions seem seem totally healthy.
Yeah, well, you can look at the sort of addictions that we talk about and they all tend to be kind of morally loaded, or at least many of them tend to be kind of morally loaded. I mean, we talk a lot about like video game addiction, gambling addiction, of course, which is an official diagnosis. We have people talk about porn addiction, sex addiction, where we don't really talk too much about, like, work addiction.
I know I know people personally who have damaged their lives, their marriages, their kids, you know, by overdoing it with work. But we really don't talk about work addictions being a thing. You know, we don't talk about religion addiction necessarily as being a thing, even though there are probably people out there that I've overdone it in various ways with religiosity. So we tend to look at things that are naughty, if you will, sort of naughty behaviors that people sometimes do overdo.
And we worry about those types of behaviors where we don't worry about it if people are doing overdoing desirable thing or socially desirable thing. So if you work a hundred hours a week, then you're just a hard worker. You know, even if your marriage falls apart and your health is declining and you're not a happy person, we just don't worry about that to the same extent, because it's kind of what you're supposed to do is work hard, right.
Morally desirable sort of thing. So, yeah. So a lot of these things do end up being situations where we are using mental health diagnoses to kind of regulate people's moral behavior. And if people are stepping outside, what we want them to do, what we expect them to do, we decide to label that a diagnosis, if you will. Now, that doesn't mean that every mental condition is like that. I mean, this is not to say there aren't real mental health conditions out.
There are people suffering from them. But it is to point out that diagnosing or coming up with these kind of classification systems for diagnosis can be very tricky. And there definitely is this sort of corruption or bias or inclusion of moral and social beliefs or customs into that process that can make things confusing and sometimes can hurt people.
So ultimately. As we've both have agreed here, the definitions change by culture, they change in the same culture over time, there's an element of.
Arbitrary social taboo that infects these criterion, but at the end of the day, there still ought to be a difference between mental illness and and it's opposite and there has to be some rational and useful principle by which to decide what things qualify as mental illness and what things don't. I think despite everything I've been saying, I still believe that. And then the question is, what is that principle?
That's that's a great question. And we really have that dividing line. We probably would have a lot less controversy, the psychology and psychiatry. I mean, I think really the way people would talk about sort of the distinction between wellness and mental illness typically kind of came down to three things. And one was the sort of sense of personal distress or how much how unhappy. You anxious? Are you sad? Are you depressed? Are you angry? And how persistent is that?
We all experience these things occasionally, but it is persisting and becoming interfering and that that might move you over the line. Is the behavior harmful? Are you persisting in it despite its harmfulness? So obviously alcoholism is a great example of that. Are you continue drinking alcohol might be fun, so you might not be having to stress, but are you having legal problems? Are you having health problems because of the drinking and are persisting in that kind of behavior?
And the third one used to be kind of this sense of just being deviant would be the way of putting it. And obviously that's one that's now being deemphasize to some extent. So in other words, was your behavior just so unusual that the average person would remark upon it and think of it as being unusual? Now, in more recent years, we've kind of been deemphasizing that criteria again, because it can be very stigmatizing of people that are fine.
They're happy, but they're just different in some respects. But but even with the other two criteria, you still get into these, obviously, yes. If you're suicidal, then you probably should have a diagnosis. If you're happy as a clam, you probably shouldn't. But where is the dividing line between the two? So one of the controversies now that was a change in the DSM five is there used to be an exclusion that if you were going through a grief process, if a loved one died in your immediate social circle and you felt persistently sad for more than two weeks, that this was kind of normal.
You know, if you're very, very close, relative dies and you feel sad for a while, that's kind of humanity. Now it's diagnosable. You can be diagnosed with a major depressive episode, even though the reason why you're depressed would probably look pretty reasonable to most individuals. And so there's a lot of controversy built around things like that. Is it to people's benefit that they should be diagnosed and thus might be able to get help or at least get insurance reimbursement for that help?
Or should we be thinking of these things as being pretty normal reactions and not over mythologizing them? So there are still a lot of debates about exactly where the dividing line is between a behavior that may be unpleasant but is kind of normative versus one that really should be thought of as being a mental illness.
So before we get into which historical figures were mad and what consequences their madness caused, sort of last question in this in this category about Adderall and other things prescribed for ADHD, especially for children. I I'm not sure if this is in your area of expertise at all, but I have taken Adderall like many people my age and college students as a study helper drug and noticed. The the side effects can be extreme enough that it really makes me reflect on the fact that we're giving this to kids often.
Kids that I would not say have a have a mental illness, but are somewhere on the personality spectrum of being able to sit still in this highly artificial environment of school that we create for them. And so I wonder, what do you know about Adderall and its long term consequences? What's the state of the research on that? And do you have any sense of what's appropriate for, say, a parent whose child has been diagnosed for ADHD to think about Adderall?
Yeah, it's a great question. So, yeah, I would say I would recommend taking it to binge study necessarily, unless it was a diagnosis. It was prescribed by a physician. I'm not myself a medical doctor. I am familiar with Adderall, but I want to make sure anybody listening I don't don't go off your medication because of anything I said. But yeah. So Adderall is a stimulant. It's amphetamine, if I remember correctly. And the idea is that with ADHD and I'll be blunt, I'll say that by today's standards I probably would be diagnosable with ADHD.
So I sort of understand a lot of this. I have a lot of attention sort of issues. But the idea is that for people with ADHD that they're particularly the frontal areas of the brain are under stimulated their board essentially. And so they engage in a lot of behaviors to try to restimulate themselves. That's that has the hyperactivity. The idea of why would you give someone who is hyperactive stimulants is it seems counterintuitive for a lot of people, but the idea is that you will stimulate those frontal areas of the brain.
They won't need to fidget anymore in order to get themselves stimulated. And then they can focus on things like their schoolwork or homework or whatever else. So they've been prescribing these types of stimulants for decades at this point. Yeah, I mean, I think these are important conversations for parents to have with their pediatrician, the child's pediatrician. There are risks involved in most medical doctors will be aware of them. They are stimulants. So they have some of the same sort of issues with potential effects on the heart and other parts of the circulatory system that could be negative.
Those rates are pretty low, as I understand them, but they're things to think about. There seem to be some issues with it can stunt growth in children. So a lot of kids will take holidays off of the medications so the growth can catch up. For most kids, they're OK on these meds. You do hear of kids using them off label, I guess we might say, in the sense of potentially abusively where they're not prescribed the medication or they're in some cases taking it in a way.
I used to work with a lot of juvenile delinquents. And for instance, one of the things that we hear about at very least, is they would talk about crushing the capsules up and snorting them, for instance, which is not something we would generally recommend. So so there are some negative sides of some of these things. A lot of the other controversy built around ADHD that kind of made this joke about myself and saying by today's standards, I would be diagnosable with ADHD.
It's also important to understand that with each iteration of the DSM, the diagnoses change a little bit. They keep tweaking diagnoses. And ADHD is one of these that have been controversial for decades now in the sense that over time they've made it easier and easier to get diagnosed with with ADHD. So there's a wider and wider group of people that could be diagnosed with this condition, could end up on psychotropic medications, could in some rare situations experience some significant side effects.
And again, this kind of this debate is the person so impaired that they really would benefit from these medications. And I think there are some kids that would. Or is this just a daydreamer that we might have thought of? The kid is just being sort of impatient or otherwise normative. Otherwise they're doing fine and just needs to be reminded to stay on task a little bit. And again, where do we draw that line? And do we get to a point where we're getting a little overeager, giving these kind of medications to anybody that is even slightly having a difficulty with schoolwork or attention or things like that?
I got a lot of people come in for testing as adults for ADHD. It was a very common concern that I would see in college students or or adults in the workplace. And in most cases, they don't have it. You know, it's not a condition that pops up when you're twenty one that is traceable back into childhood. But they are they see these commercials on television. They get into conversations with their friends and they're bored at work and can't concentrate on these repetitive, boring tasks.
And I think that's unusual. And sometimes you have to tell them, you know, your your job is just dull. You're supposed to feel this way. And it's actually quite all. And and, yes, you are right that the thing about things like Adderall and stimulus is whether you. Of ADHD or not, they will have the same impact that they will hyperfocus, you you don't have to have ADHD for these bills that have that kind of effect.
So but on the other hand, I don't know how much we want to get into the habit of relying probably shouldn't be cramming in the first place. I'm starting to sound like a professor now, but but, you know, even if you are, I don't know that, you know, taking Adderall if you don't have ADHD is is a wise plan, I guess. But like I said, I mean, these should be conversations between individuals and their physicians.
And I'm not prescribing to anybody listening on the podcast.
So I'm reminded of a scene from the TV show Louie. May rest in peace, where Louise, at a PTA conference and they're talking about why kids get sluggish and bored, their kids are probably seven years old after lunch and they all have competing theories of the latest article they read. It's the food they're eating. It's the way they're being taught.
And eventually Louie intervenes in this debate where everyone is an expert and has an opinion and reminds parents that school is boring for children and sort of implores them. Don't you guys remember like we were kids once? It was it was largely boring. And so, yeah, I mean, it is something I worry about, but let's not dwell on it the entire podcast, because there's a lot of other things to talk about. So in your book, you go through a lot of different famous political and military leaders from history.
One of the first you deal with is Alexander the Great. So can you talk a little bit about him and and what you find interesting about him relating to mental illness or madness? Yeah, absolutely.
So, I mean, he's actually probably one of the people in the book that I cover who kind of comes out best. And it's the most of the people have pretty negative. He has a fairly negative end as well. But he's interesting because, of course, at different stages, historians have looked at him more positively, more negatively. So for folks who don't remember, they don't know who he is. He was a Macedonian leader who basically took this kingdom of Macedon, which was really like a backwater of the Greek world and sort of building on his father's successes, unify, forcibly unified most of the Greek world and then conquered Persia, most of the Middle East and North Africa and all the way into India and named city after city after himself all the way.
So this gives you kind of a sense of what kind of individual he was. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant tactician and defeated these huge Persian armies. He's well financed Persian armies in a way that nobody I think I made the allusion in the book. It was it's kind of like Canada invading the US and not only taking over the US, but taking over the entire Western Hemisphere like nobody would have ever seen this coming. And it really took the sort of brilliant military tactician to to make this happen.
And I'm still waiting for this invasion from Canada happened, by the way. But so and it really. So he was a narcissist, really what it comes down to. I mean, he was it was all about the Alexander the Great show. And he had this very inflated view of his own role in history. But he had the tactical brilliance to pull it off. You know, he came from a line of ambitious people. Both his father and his mother were incredibly ambitious individuals.
So there's probably some, you know, genetics that's playing a role in there. His early involvement was a chaotic I guess we could say it was not a loving environment that it came from. So we might hypotheses that there's some environmental factors. But he also was this incredibly hard drinking individual. He pushed himself. He pushed other people. He ends up murdering one of his best friends in a drunken fight. And, you know, he basically burns out in his early thirties, but I think he's thirty two or thirty three.
He's dead. You know, nobody's exactly sure how he died, but he seems to have died from a combination of his alcoholism with an infection of some sort or another. And he really just was burning the candle at both ends. He really was this powerful personality who just shaped the Greek world, the Hellenistic world, the Middle East all the way through Persia, into India, just shaped it in his own image. We still have cities that are named after him, Alexandria, in Europe, Kandahar and in Afghanistan still basically bear his name.
So he just was a remarkable individual. But to be around him, I kind of make this comment in the book that you really wouldn't want to have him at, like your Thanksgiving Day meal, because he was an incredibly intense personality.
He wanted praise. He wanted adoration from others. He was smart about it and in a way that other people in history have not been. But he did want this kind of adulation and he was willing to make other people pay a significant price for his success. He paid a pretty high price himself in the end for his success. But he really is a sort of image of the sort of classic narcissist who in his case does have a lot of talent, whether we judge him as being positive or negative, historically, like I said, is people's impressions of waxed and waned over the years.
And he used to be thought of as kind of the hero of of history. Now people kind of think like he killed a lot. People for not really a great reason to go back a little bit more negative about it, although that's kind of what people did back then and in general, he was hardly the only one. So now he's a fascinating character. And there is this sort of sense that I think we can learn from him that sometimes society can, as I call it, roll big, that if you're in a crisis point, you can take a big role on a chancy individual and you might get someone like Alexander the Great who, you know, really blew up Macedonia.
I mean, really kind of made Macedonia this world empire when it was nothing beforehand. But more likely you're going to end up with disaster is the reality of it. So Alexander the Great is one of these sort of rare examples of this extreme personality of a mad individual, if you will, who I guess arguably, if we kind of ignore hundreds of thousands of people who died as a cause of his conquests, we kind of ignore that tiny detail that he nonetheless propped up his culture, his nation, and made them great, I guess sort of a dangerous word today.
But he really was very, very successful for the time that he lived in. But that is a big roll of the dice.
And like I said, with these types of personalities, they don't always come with tactical brilliance and you're more likely to end up with disaster than you are some kind of a history setting precedent of strategic brilliance like you do with Alexander the Great, Alexander the Great Czech Next Hitler.
Oh, wow. Yeah, you can't really end up talking about madness without getting into the Hitler. So Hitler is a fascinating individual. It's interesting to read there are a bunch of medical reports written about Hitler. So Hitler is this kind of classic example of an individual stepping into this kind of a crisis point of Germany during the Weimar Republic, which was already kind of collapsing and turning into a kind of an authoritarian regime before Hitler got involved in it. So it was really kind of mash between an individual and the circumstances of the culture in which he is living.
Hitler kind of comes across as an individual who's.
Backroom has was harsh, but not necessarily unusually so, particularly with his father at a very distant and perhaps abusive relationship with his father, but nothing else really kind of strikes out it as him being super, super unusual in his background. But even in his early days, these sort of accounts from colleagues of his during World War One sort of paint him as his very socially aloof individual. The kind of comes out of World War One, you know, a fair amount of positive accolades as a soldier.
But his comrades kind of viewed him as being distant, unlikable, hard to get to know and all that kind of stuff. And from there, he really develops into this. First off, he's a failed artist, which is interesting. So he tried to paint and you can still find his paintings online. If you're not, they're not very good. You can see why he was a failed artist. But are you going to give that a try?
And so, again, this is the sort of interesting alternative reality where there's like Hitler, the artist, and what would have happened if he had been successful and not become a politician. But he ends up sort of twisting off into the sort of paranoid world. So he's got these qualities of narcissism, but he's adding in a very paranoid view, the sort of sense of violence is an acceptable way for nations to address their problems. He gets deeply involved in anti-Semitism, which we all know, of course, leads to the Holocaust.
And and nobody's really exactly sure why Hitler became an anti-Semite other than that was very common at that time in Europe. But there doesn't seem to be any real situations where he had like a bad interaction with someone who was Jewish or something of that sort. So it's not really quite clear where he came up with that that worldview, but in a way that is kind of similar to Alexander. There is a sense of everything really in the end revolving around Hitler himself.
So Germany, the country, the Vermont, the the army are all extensions of him and his very bizarre, paranoid dreams about what he wants to see happen. Or Germany has this really strange idea about seizing land in the Ukraine and Russia and moving Germans onto that territory with land that Germany did not need. So why he thought this was a goal that was worth fighting over is not really super clear. He develops a lot of psychosomatic problems. He has a lot of health issues, particularly with his stomach.
He ends up developing an addiction to amphetamines and just famously spirals out of control by the end of World War Two. So there again, we have an individual. So the question is, would World War two have happened if only Hitler hadn't been born? These are all these kind of like college student, like time travel, baby Hitler, things that people kind of get into. If I could only travel back in time and kill baby Hitler, you know, would that be worth doing or taking off Adderall?
Yeah, yeah. Once a game of Baghdad or all the stimulus. But the stimulus did not help people say that in his in his situation. So World War Two probably still would have happened. You know, there are a lot of structural issues built around the treaty Baci and World War One and how that ended up for Germany that probably made World War some kind of war with Germany and its neighboring countries, at very least close to inevitable. But it probably would have taken a very different shape if Hitler had not seized control of the German Republic in the early nineteen thirties.
And definitely he put his own personal stamp on how things move forward with there have been a holocaust. Would the war have been as brutal as it had been? I suspect probably not.
But of course that's all speculative history and we can never really, really be be sure. But yeah, I mean, Hitler is the classic example of a very disturbed individual, very mad individual. It had been kind of common for a while for people to think of the Nazis as being very normal. And that may be true for some mid-level functionaries within the Nazi regime, of course. But in terms of the people that were in control and specifically Hitler, it is certainly not the case that Hitler was psychologically normal.
And so we have an individual who was mad and unfortunately took his culture, his society down with it and did a lot of damage to the world, to a lot of innocent individuals, and in the end largely destroyed his own culture. But unfortunately, it's been built back up, is a very different country today. But, yeah, so it's a real fascinating story about how much impact one individual can have. And yeah, it's kind of hard to write a book like this one without at least talking about it a little bit.
So how about Joseph Stalin? Yeah.
So the greatest hits of mad people in history, Joseph Stalin also came from a difficult background, difficult family background. Again, with this, I guess you see a lot of these people that fathers are not doing what fathers come across. I was very poorly and the background of these individuals, so, again, very difficult relationship with his father, in many ways his life is this kind of mirror image to to Hiller's. And one of the best biographies I actually read about either man is one that is written by both of them contemporaneously, Hitler and Stalin together because their life course was so interwoven with each other.
But again, a very hard individual, very narcissistic individual, very paranoid individual. With some of these leaders, you see this kind of combination of the narcissistic personality traits, the antisocial personality traits with this kind of paranoid ideology that there the world is divided very neatly into good and evil. And increasingly the good is only me and a small number of individuals who are around me in my social circle and growing smaller by the minute often.
Yes, absolutely becoming a trainer. That's exactly what happened. The Soviet regime, if you look at the history, it started off with the Bolsheviks, with a kind of wide group of individuals. And one I mean, the brilliance of Stalin is that one by one, he kills off all of his colleagues, basically, and it ends up being he's the last one standing or at least the other people that are around him are so frightened of him that they're too afraid to in any way questioned or disobey his, his or his order.
So Stalin was a very smart man.
I think in some ways he's not given enough credit for that, that he's oftentimes overshadowed by Lenin is being more brilliant. And Lenin certainly, certainly was more erudite. But Stalin was strategically brilliant in the way that he managed to cross out all of his rivals or erstwhile allies within the Bolshevik regime and putting himself in charge totally basically becoming a totalitarian leader. That was not the case early in the Bolshevik regime and really was never again the case for the Soviet Union after Stalin.
And the consequences for that. If you look at me, we talk about Hitler and the damage Hitler did, arguably far more people were killed by Stalin than were Hitler. I don't know if this is the kind of contest we really want to have, you know, in terms of who can kill more people in such a way that who becomes the baddest person as a consequence, they're both horrible individuals. But Stalin was responsible for far more deaths, the difference being, as most of them were, than the Soviet Union itself.
So he was responsible for many more deaths of his own people, as opposed to Hitler, who tended to extend most of his homicidal urges outward to other groups of non Germans, Russians, Poles, Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, other individuals that were considered undesirable. So that's kind of the big differences. I think people sometimes don't have as much awareness of how much damage Stalin did because a lot of that was an internal to the Soviet Union as opposed to external, as was the case with Nazi Germany.
OK, next, was Jesus mad? That's a loaded question. Oh, Jesus. I think about I wasn't ready for that one. I can't think of a good answer for Jesus. OK, so here's what I will say that I do kind of references. I think I make some comments about this without referencing Christ specifically. Who knows? OK, we'll put it that way. Maybe he really is the son of God come to lead us all out of sin.
But what I what I will say is that we do find a lot of these cases of individuals that have a particular psychotic disorder called delusional disorder, where they have some sort of psychosis about the world, magical thinking, the belief that they are touched by God, they can heal the sick, whatever, and are nonetheless coherent. So that's a little bit different. A schizophrenic schizophrenic people with schizophrenia typically are have difficulty communicating. They're not as coherent with delusional disorder.
People are able to maintain a kind of basic coherence. And as a consequence, you can communicate these delusions to other people and you may find other people who are willing to accept them because their own life circumstances. So certainly we can look at contemporaneous examples of cult leaders like David Koresh, for instance, who were coherent enough to convince some dozens or hundreds of other individuals to follow them and to some to what most of us would seem like some sort of bizarro cult like world view, you know, but they have charisma, they have coherence, they have an authoritative personality, and they're able to lead people in that sense.
So certainly lots of well, lots of religious leaders probably have delusional disorder. Some might have outright antisocial personality. And they're just lying. They just are they're full of crap about what they're saying. But you do get some of these individuals who really do seem to believe what they're talking about. And if they're coherent enough, you can end up creating a religion or at least a cult of some sort. Now, I'm saying that's what happened with Christ I.
I will say definitively, but it is something that happens certainly that many cults and perhaps religions do form from individuals who may be experiencing visions that are delusions, not real. So that is certainly possible.
And in the case of someone like David Koresh, his motive seems so opaque and unintelligible to a normal person. For the most part, except when you're looking at, for instance, the is his taking the burden of sex away from the other male colleagues by doing them the favor of having sex with their wives for them, all of a sudden that seems all too human and motivation. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
And I also have a difficult time deciding to what extent David Koresh really thought his is garbage, essentially. So there was that aspect. You know, this is kind of this millennialist called the idea that he's going to lead people through Armageddon if only they obey him unquestioningly, including, as you said, the turning over of wives to him and at some of the females involved was alleged were under age, is important to point out as well. You know, on the other hand, he died for this.
And even when he had the opportunity to back down during the siege of the Waco compound, he dies from getting shot in the head, make sure he shot himself or if one of his followers shot him or whatever else. But he persisted in it to the very end. Now, is that just an antisocial individual that got caught in their own scam and didn't have a way out? Or is it really someone who's delusional and really believes this stuff that they're trying to sell other individuals?
Of course, these two things are not mutually exclusive. You can be delusional and antisocial at the same time is it's hard to say, but it's also fascinating to consider the circumstances of individuals who who by this who sort of buy into this system. One of his closest followers was someone who turned over his own wife to him, and that individual followed him to death, basically, and trying to think of like, why would you do this? It doesn't make any kind of sense.
And that's really an amazing thing is as well.
But yeah. So are there benefits to madness or insanity and. I can think of a few potential examples, one is, you know, some people have made the point that in foreign policy, the leader viewed as the least sane, often ends up getting the most of what he wants because. The very fact that he's unpredictable. Makes him a very effective negotiator, the leader whose mind you understand that, you know, is a rational actor that you know, is likely to back down from the brink, is is less effective as getting what he wants than the leader who you're actually afraid might hit the nuclear button on a whim because he's psycho.
So another example that's talked about is the alleged link between creativity and madness. Connor famously said during one of his mental mental breakdowns that you guys want insane art, but you want it from sane people alleging that often the very things that make him break through as a as a creative person are the same things that make him classify him as having bipolar, for instance. So are there benefits to madness? How do you think about that question?
Yeah, depends on how the social capital is kind of built around. That's actually why you were saying that. I was also kind of thinking about sort of like public discourse right now and the extent to which more extreme views are given more capital and more modest views to some extent. So that kind of thing can play some role in how successful people are as well. But to your examples, yes, I think to the first one being as mad as possible as a negotiator, that can work to some extent.
And the thing we find with like aggression in general is that you generally want to sort of evolutionarily speaking, not morally speaking, but evolutionarily speaking, being somewhere in the moderate range of aggressiveness seems to be what works best. There is this sense of you don't want to be a pushover, you don't want to be someone that they know you can take advantage of or that they can take advantage of you. On the other hand, if you're just a complete lunatic.
Eventually people start to think they need to take you out before you do some real harm. So you want to be there is some advantage to that sense of being unpredictable, too, to a certain extent. You can get away with that for a little bit. And again, we're kind of going back to the example of Hitler. I mean, this is kind of where Hitler's early success was was exactly doing this, the degree to which he was successful diplomatically with other European countries.
A lot of that came from the sense of him leveraging the potential for another world war over particularly Britain and France, and at the same time being aware that the leaders of Britain and France had no stomach for this war. So they were willing to give him a lot of concessions, usually some other countries expense like Czechoslovakia, in order to avoid this kind of conflict. And that worked to an extent. And then it stopped working. And then we ended up with World War Two.
So you can push it to a certain degree, but eventually people figure out that you're just a wild cannon and and eventually they'll they'll react accordingly. So it's a dangerous negotiating strategy. I think that actually was one of the if I remember correctly, that was actually early on in the Trump administration that Trump himself a kind of raised that that he was this kind of wild negotiator and that was going to be an advantage. And maybe sometimes it was. But I don't know that on balance, that it has worked off terribly well for us necessarily.
I think with art is important to point out that most people that have mental illness, most people who are mad, who use that term, are not particularly creative. There's not you're not guaranteed. So if you're kind of thinking like, oh, I wish I could do better, maybe I ought to go off my antidepressants. No, no. There's no guarantee that that's going to bring you any kind of creative insights. What we tend to see sometimes is with perhaps with Kanye West, perhaps with Vincent Van Gogh or some other people historically, is that when you're going through significant mental illnesses like psychosis and stuff, you end up being less restrained.
And so that can help you sometimes break through social taboos.
We're talking about social taboos earlier and in some cases. You can end up with some artistic brilliance again, I think that the risk of this is we tend to engage in confirmation bias, so we tend to look for all the cases that were successful. So I think what a lot of cases of madness you about ninety nine percent of the time ending up with garbage and one percent of the time ending up with something really brilliant. And we only really remember the one percent of people who are really, really brilliant.
And for that kind of leaves us with this idea. This is kind of this correlation between madness and greater brilliance that can't happen sometimes, but it can work out for most individuals who have significant mental health problems.
All right. So I'm going to finish up by asking two extremely rude, impolite, uncouth questions. That are shameful questions that nobody should ever ask, but hundreds of millions of Americans have asked themselves over the past several months, the first one is, is Trump mentally ill? Or does he have a personality disorder? He I would say they're going to throw my typical psychology caveat. I have not diagnosed him. I have not had a evaluation with him.
Judging from his public behavior, my professional opinion is that he probably qualifies for what would we would call typically a vulnerable or fragile narcissist, so we would have something of a narcissistic personality disorder. Now, that's not uncommon among politicians. Narcissism in the political realm is very, very common. And we might even say it's kind of necessary to some extent to have like a super, super high level of self esteem to be able to function. And that sort of arment, the thing what we call vulnerable narcissists or fragile narcissists is they tend to have a boastfulness, hides a certain lack of esteem that is underneath the surface.
So they tend to overreact to slights in ways that most narcissists don't wish to make them more of these kind of wild cannons. And so they become a lot more impulsive, a lot more predictable, unpredictable, and they tend to lash out against people they think are insulted and offended them, humiliated them in ways that are very, very damaging both to themselves and to other individuals. And I mean, I think we've seen this all the way through the Trump administration after the first three years of the Trump administration.
I usually described as kind of a clown show. I mean, there really weren't any major crises. There really weren't any major policy initiatives. To some extent you could look back at George W. Bush and say that George W. Bush did more damage to the world than Donald Trump did. But then we had 20, 20, and we ended with the pandemic. We ended up with the death of Jorge Floyd and all the ramifications of that. And then we ended up with this election process.
And all of this needed a death to leader someone who was able to swallow their own pride, particularly with the election and losing the election and lead us together as a community through this. And a vulnerable narcissist is not the person that we want in charge while we're going through this. So I would say definitively that the way he behaves, at least in his public persona as a politician, is consistent with the sort of fragile or vulnerable narcissist that's a very dangerous person to have in charge.
Does he have a more significant mental illness? I don't see any evidence he has anything like schizophrenia or psychosis necessarily. The other kind of argument people have been having is about sort of dementia. Now, people been having that about both Trump and Joe Biden. Of course, that was actually that was my second rude question.
OK, OK, hold on for a second then. Maybe, but but I think most of what we're seeing is related to this really, really virulent form of narcissism that Trump is exhibiting that made him a great reality TV star. It makes him a very, very poor president. And especially I mean, you can compare him. I've seen other people compare him to Al Gore, for instance. You had to get in front of Congress and preside over the Electoral College voting that confirmed that he lost and he did so with dignity.
And you can contrast that with the behavior of Trump, which has there's no way to say other than it has caused a lot of damage for our for our nation. Oh, yeah. I mean, I think that he is mad to use the language of the book and that madness is destructive for him is going to be destructive for his legacy. I have a real difficult time how historically his presidency will be viewed positively. And it is very bad for us as a culture now.
Our problems are crisis points predate him. He is not the source of all of our problems, but he certainly has made things worse over the last four years. And I can only hope the next four years will find a way to work together to make things more positive. All right.
So final rude question with the opposite partisan valence. Is Joe Biden suffering from the early stages of dementia?
We don't know definitively is really that there is a non-trivial possibility that he is. So there's my mother, who's about the same age as he is and who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, jokes fairly regularly that she should have run for president if this is the level that she probably could have done it just as well as either of these two gentlemen were. One thing we can say definitively is that as people age, the odds of developing at least mild cognitive impairment as well as dementia go up and they go up significantly.
So I have calculated an article that I'd written for Psychology Today and I calculated that whoever we voted in as president in this current election, whether it was Trump or Biden, just statistically speaking, there was a 50 percent chance that one of whoever we voted in was going to have at least mild cognitive impairment. We can put it that way. So just statistically speaking, there is at least a 50 percent chance. That we're going to have a president who has at least mild cognitive impairment, we don't know that he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
There are some intriguing programs out there, statistical programs that can analyze voice. And I would be kind of curious to see if any scholars in the near future analyzed Biden's voice patterns because people that are in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease do begin to speak differently than other older adults who are not experiencing dementia. That's one of the ways we increasingly speculate that Reagan probably may very likely have had early Alzheimer's during the last years of his presidency is due to some of these that.
So I'll be kind of curious to see if anything comes out suggesting that Biden may have early dementia, but I really hope not. We're pretty dependent upon him getting us through the next four years and we're in a pretty tough spot. So I'm hoping that he is the guy I would hope whoever was elected. So there's not a Democrat or Republican thing. Whoever we got, old young Democrat or Republican, I'm hoping the person we have in office is going to be able to lead us forward as a nation to a much better place in four years than we've been for the last certainly four and probably closer to 10.
On that note, I cannot agree more. And it was a pleasure to speak with you. Can you point listeners to where they can find more of your work? Do you have a website or at least a Twitter handle or something like that?
Yeah, absolutely. My I have a website which is not very imaginative. It's just my name, which is Christopher J. Ferguson Dotcom. And you can also follow me on Twitter at S.J Ferguson. One one, one one.
All right. Thank you so much. Christopher was a pleasure.
That was great being on today. I appreciate it.