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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is there a psychological explanation for John McCain’s recent behavior?

In the very brief recent period between John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate and his erratic behavior during the last few days, very serious and fundamental questions about McCain’s character, behavior and temperament have become widespread.
But observers have found difficulty in fitting McCain’s various behaviors into any single recognizable pattern. Each critique focuses on a different and apparently unrelated issue – his instability, recklessness, tolerance for mendacity and self-righteousness among others.
There is, however, one very interesting psychological framework that actually does seem to fit the broad pattern of behavior we are now seeing.
Consider the following personality profile:

1. The person is impulsive and does not think about consequences – he or she seems to embrace the philosophy – “just do it”
2, the person is a risk-taker and thrill-seeker. His or her conduct often seems reckless and blind to possible damage or harm. There is a lack of normal prudence and caution.
3. The person exhibits an attitude of “the rules don’t apply to me.” The person clearly understands the difference between right and wrong and even becomes outraged and furious when other people violate the rules. But the person simply cannot apply these rules to his or her own conduct. These individuals’ own violations are always “no big deal” or somehow justified by circumstances.
4. The person exhibits a significant degree of self-centeredness and narcissism – He or she seems to operate according to a philosophy of “it’s all about me”. These individuals have an inability to see events in a larger context than how they affect the person him or herself.

Gee. Seems pretty on the mark, doesn’t it.
Yet, in fact, the description above is actually a profile that is familiar to many people in the juvenile justice system – it is a description of the behavioral syndrome seen in many adolescents – often from stable, good families — who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system because of repeated delinquent behavior like speeding, drunk driving, promiscuity, low-level drug dealing or burglary (not for survival but “just for kicks”) and a whole panoply of other juvenile misbehavior.
Traditional psychological approaches were not very successful in developing a coherent theory to explain this behavioral syndrome. Until the mid-1980’s, in fact, the attempts to understand these different personality characteristics were usually presented in separate chapters of standard textbooks.
The revolutionary advances in cognitive neuroscience in the last 20 years, however – and particularly in CT and fMRI based brain imaging – have provided a dramatically new perspective. It has been found that, although these different personality characteristics are localized in a variety of locations within the brain, they all appear to be mediated (“densely interconnected,” in neurophysical terms) through the prefrontal cortex.
This fact, together with the discovery that the prefrontal cortex often does not completely develop until the early 20’s, has led to a tremendous rethinking of youthful delinquency. An emerging body of legal theory, in fact, considers that neural imaging of the prefrontal cortex may even provide a legal basis for a defense of diminished capacity in young adults.
But what does this possibly have to do with a 72 year old man with a long career in political life? John McCain is clearly not going to hotwire a Mustang and drive off on the beltway at 90 miles an hour.
The answer is that some individuals consistently tend toward the expression of these personality characteristics throughout their entire lifetimes. In McCain’s case simple observation also suggests two additional conclusions:

1. That the above noted, seemingly unrelated personality characteristics which McCain is exhibiting are actually part of a single, coherent behavioral syndrome.
2. That, for whatever reason, the expression of these characteristics in John McCain’s behavior has dramatically increased in recent months.

A number of years ago I observed as a leading expert in delinquent behavior delivered the news to the distraught parents of a young man that there was no easy answer or quick fix for their son’s behavior. The expert concluded:

“You just have to wait and trust that time will help to reduce his problematic conduct. In the meantime, just use common sense – don’t go out of town and leave him alone in the house, and –whatever you do – don’t give him the keys to the car.”

Gee, that sure sounds like good advice to me, doesn’t it.

4 comments on “Is there a psychological explanation for John McCain’s recent behavior?

  1. Jrzybob on

    As a 65-year old who I am told acts younger than my age, I still don’t see anyone over 60 as President.
    The stress is just too much for someone at that age, and we also don’t need someone “at the wheel” capable of a “senior moment”. Peple (myself included) tend to have less patience as they get older, due to many things (see below) and I think we will really need someone in charge with a ton of that comodity.
    As Vietnam vet who saw quite a bit of combat, I would say that being captured, then tortured and released back into society without extensive therapy was/is not such a good idea. Thus, having seen McCain recently, I would concur that PTSD is a good likelyhood.

  2. JPK on

    A practicing clinical psychologist with a PhD in cognitive psychology told me this regarding your interesting psychological analysis:
    “Without having done a true evaluation, I can only make a guess in response to the assessment posted on “The Daily Strategist.” Here it is:
    “My psychological profile of McCain is a bit simpler and less menacing but still very troubling.
    “I don’t think he ever got treatment for his combat trauma and time as a POW. He likely has full-blown PTSD. I would imagine that he also has neuropsychological damage from the torture he endured.
    “So, I think he is a traumatized and brain-damaged man who also happens to be 72 and may have some mild dementia on top of it.>”

  3. sue on

    I remember reading a while back that, besides not being fully formed in under-25-year-olds, the prefrontal cortex also starts to deteriorate in people over 70. Since this region of the brain is considered the seat of judgment, that would explain a lot about McCain’s recent behavior.

  4. Jim in NC on

    Could it be that McCain’s erratic behavior is more a function of his Navy air combat training than mental illness (alone)? Granted, he was LOW in his class, but think about what lessons he was exposed to in the Air Force Academy and Viet Nam: In a dogfight, fly aggressively and all over the place in order to confuse your enemy; in an offensive, launch decoy attacks (diversions) and open multiple fronts to cause panic and confusion.
    Every time he doesn’t like the way the chess game is going, he bumps the bottom of the table to scramble all the pieces.


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