Neuroscientist James Fallon on how the West can avert nuclear war
Four months into the war, the Russian aggression against Ukraine is approaching a turning point as the Ukrainian government announces the counteroffensive of its Armed Forces and HIMARS missiles strike critical assets of the occupant army. Experts are concerned with an increased risk of a nuclear escalation: if Ukraine indeed were to turn the tables on the battlefield and the Kremlin faced a real threat of losing both Kherson and Crimea, would Putin be prepared to engage his nuclear arsenal? In this context, the matter of the Russian dictator’s mental health is of no small importance. American neuroscientist and University of California professor James Fallon, who specializes in psychopathic disorders, has little doubt that Putin is a typical psychopath – and he is about to lose self-control. The professor is confident that Putin is extremely dangerous at this stage and is well capable of using nuclear weapons. His advice to the West, therefore, is to avoid showing weakness, but refrain from big moves at the same time.
We have looked at him for a number of years, trying to study and recreate his brain from his behaviors. I’ve talked to the former heads of state in Ukraine and the leaders of Russia, Chechnya, Belarus, and Germany. I’ve read as much as I could about Putin’s upbringing. You can’t just look at somebody on TV and say, «this is a psychopath”, but he does have the important background experience consistent with the development of “Cluster B” (most dangerous) personality disorders such as psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder.
What is psychopathy? I’m using the Clecklian definition of psychopathy. Hervey Cleckley says in his “The Mask of Sanity” (1941) that a psychopath looks normal and does everything to look normal. But if you look at the center, the core traits, they’re all low in emotional empathy. They’re very manipulative, they’re very predatorial, they’re very aggressive. They all tend to be fearless at least for a while, they are ruthless, they have no remorse or guilt. They’re callous and they have a grandiose sense of self.
Psychopaths can be primary and secondary. They have similar toxic behaviors, but the causes and biological psychiatry of them are quite different. A primary psychopath is created between birth and two or three years of age through a genetic process called “epigenetic marking” where the regulation of key genes are near permanently changed because of trauma and the effect of stress hormones like cortisol on the genetic regulators of stress genes and thus hormones in the frontal and temporal lobes. Meanwhile, secondary psychopaths, i.e. “sociopaths”, may be less permanently altered by a trauma such as severe emotional physical, sexual abuse, or bullying due to a less susceptible genetic makeup. Being a sociopath and psychopath are different things. A sociopath understands that what they’re doing is immoral, or wrong, or evil but does it anyway, whereas a psychopath thinks what he is doing is really okay. They believe this. It is a part of the story of your own inherent personality, as a true psychopath: you really believe your own stuff. It is not a ruse in the usual sense for normal people acting badly. Putin appears to have these traits.
In the case of all types of Cluster B “predatory” personality disorders, psychopaths, like bullies are always looking for weakness in their human prey. They are talented at reading the minds of the person or the group they are going to prey on. And so, to psychopaths, they’re a sort of intraspecies predator, that is, a human predator of other humans. Their main stimulus is weakness, like for any bully. America was quite weak at that moment. The present White House, they come out as pacifists, right? And everybody seemed very anti-war except for a few people apparently. But to be completely pacifist, incapable of fighting back – well, that’s what a psychopath would look for. This is what psychopaths do best. They are very good at reading the emotions and intentions of other people even though they don’t feel anything themselves. In other words, they lack emotional empathy. But they typically have excellent cognitive empathy, so they know what you are feeling, your fears, your emotional triggers and desires, and they manipulate these to get what they want from their prey: a physical response, money, sex – or just for the joy of “owning someone”.
Psychopaths are very good at reading other people’s emotions and intentions, even though they don’t feel anything themselves
So, they understand what you’re feeling. That’s their existence, reading other people in that way. And if you are a normal person with that trait, you would often try to help a person under stress. If you are a psychopath, what you should do is use that weakness to go after them at an opportune moment of isolation and weakness. Putin’s key technique is to not wait until somebody else is strong but to strike them at their weakest. The best and self-trained psychopaths have the patience to wait for months, years, or a decade to strike when his prey is weak.
Putin has all of those qualities that would qualify him not only as a Clecklian psychopath, but also as a malignant narcissist on top of it. He’s also sadistic, he’s been showing these tendencies. We don’t know how much, but that does put him in the Dark Triad. It doesn’t get worse than that. But if you’re smart you can make yourself seem normal.
So, his key early life events, being abandoned by his mother who was forced to give young Putin up to be raised in Saint-Petersburg in a very abusive street environment. But the keys in his adult life were first the breakup of the Soviet Union, leading to the establishment of the modern independent sovereign State of Ukraine in 1991. This was like the adult trauma to young Hitler when he believed Germany was betrayed by the early leaders of Weimar Republic in 1918 at the end of WW1. In both cases Hitler and Putin swore to avenge this great insult to his specific people of the Aryan German Race, and Slavic Rus, respectively. And both Hitler and Putin, began their long wait for the right weak moment of their perceived weakened foes to pounce. Another key trigger is Putin’s modern interpretation and rational to “retake” Ukraine is the second adult trauma in 2011 when Putin played along with the West in the overthrow of Kaddafi in Libya, which was a violent regime change – something Putin himself deeply fears. What was not obvious became obvious in the past few years, especially in the few weeks before the 24th of February. Putin, like Hitler, came out of the closet. And he’s really acting more like the psychopath certainly, as opposed to the sociopath or someone who’s just negatively quirky.
One of the key events that triggered Putin’s psychopathy was the breakup of the Soviet Union
Philosopher Joseph De Maistre pointed out that dictatorial leaders, whether left- or right-wing or based in religious jihad or crusades, always refer to the past to justify their actions. The key for de Maistre is to always refer back to the ancient, opaque, vague history of your mythical people. And so, Putin seems to be following that sort of narrative about thinking in deep dark past historical terms: it could be the Vikings, the Baltics, all the way to the Donbas, the Kyivan Rus that ruled the river systems from the Baltics to Crimea and used them for trade. Such references to a mythical past became key in Putin’s “reconquista” of the Donbas and Crimea.
The deterioration of mental capacity
Putin acts a bit like he has severe brain fog. There is no guessing what caused it. Anything could have, from tertiary syphilis to brain tumor or some degenerative brain disorder, but considering that he shifted from being histrionic and narcissistic to paranoid, very negative, very compulsive, and very turbulent, a part of his brain may be further degenerating. For instance, a part of his inferior prefrontal cortex interior and anterior temporal lobe might be going through some degeneration. He would never show impulsiveness before, but today his cool KGB agent and great poker player is gone. Something fundamental has happened, and the suggestion about a neurological degeneration certainly would fit with that.
An illusion of rationality
If you think of the logic of a terrorist, or a Stalinist, they can always conjure up “logical” reasons. For them, everything they do is rational, justified, and good. Every psychopath does that. That is called «blame externalization». Anything they do wrong they blame on others. And they really feel that they own people. If you are not up to their snuff, if you are not a good combatant, if you are a lesser, weaker person, they completely disrespect you. This is true for bullies, psychopaths, and dictators who are sociopathic or psychopathic. And this behavior is rational, in Putin’s mind.
You see, there is no pure definition of what morality is to many people. There were years, centuries of French humanism and also the Enlightenment saying that everything is due to the environment: the so-called tabula rasa, blank slate mind at birth idea. We know now in the past fifteen years of behavioral and genetic neuroscience that it is not true. The majority of basic personality traits are determined genetically, but a significant change can be made to the expression of these genes, susceptibility genes, due to epigenetic changes that occur in a very young child. For instance, in a child who was abandoned by his parents and who was abused from birth to two or three years of age. Such an experience may epigenetically trigger the development of psychopathic traits. Psychopaths believe what they’re doing is moral and good in their own personal world. With them, you can’t use morality as an argument because to them the good is self-defined, and quite different from the morality accepted by their broader culture.
Psychopaths believe what they’re doing is moral and good in their own personal world. With them, you can’t use morality as an argument
And in terms of being rational, he used to be cool and calm and calculated. That was his public image for twenty years. But now he doesn’t seem under control and is therefore really acutely dangerous. Before, you could predict what he was doing because you knew that he was going to be predictably the same as before. But now he seems to be losing control. He has overplayed his game, so he may become desperate – towards anybody who fights back, for example. When he knew that the Ukrainian people were fighting back, he seemed to get desperate. All psychopaths and bullies don’t know what to do if you fight back. They usually run, but Putin can’t run. So he is a bit of a trapped animal as long as the Ukrainians fight back. He thought he could get away with it. And that’s what bullies and psychopaths do all the time.
He thought he could get away with it. And that’s what bullies and psychopaths do all the time
He is showing all of his emotions on his face: his anger and rage. That’s not him, the old cool glib dominant narcissist in complete control. He seems to be a caged animal at this point, and is therefore quite dangerous. He was dangerous before, but he had a persona, a certain look of coolness, and that coolness is gone.
Hitler with a nuke
Putin has the same ideas as Hitler, but he’s got nukes. He is extremely dangerous at this very moment. In such circumstances, a sane and courageous general inside could take care of business, like they tried to do in Nazi Germany. We cannot know for sure if there are people in the chain of command who can pull Putin’s finger off the button.
Psychopaths are not crazy, they’re not psychotic, but they have no limits at all. They will do anything progressively to get what they want. I would ask the question now: “Ok, starting a nuclear war is what everybody would consider completely unacceptable, but what’s the next best thing?” He’s using the next thing, which are the thermobarics. When they are used to blow up military bunkers in the field, they’re considered legal, but their use in cities to destroy people is a war crime. So he’s willing to use what people of the world consider a war crime. That’s the next step back from the tactical nukes.
Psychopaths are not crazy, they’re not psychotic, but they have no limits at all
One thing about people with real psychopathy is that they don’t get stressed easily. They can take a lot, but once they’re ultimately cornered, they fall apart. So, you don’t know until they feel at that point. But when it comes, they either run or take everything down, going all the way.
I think he understands the implications, and that’s why he’s isolated himself to a large degree. It did seem like irrational behavior, but he’s just testing limits, drip by drip, like a bully testing somebody. As though saying, let’s try, but if it doesn’t work, we pull back and say: “Oh no, all we wanted all along was the Donbas.”
Constant pressure without huge moves
Both psychopaths and sociopaths can be divided into distempered and charismatic. He’s clearly a charismatic primary psychopath; he’s not one of those overtly angry ones. They are predators looking for triggers like weakness, but if you give them a steady push back, they’ll pull back. However, it’s dangerous to do a fast push, because if they’re completely cornered, they’ll fight with everything they have. If you really go after him, he’ll explode.
For one, after the failure of the Kyiv assault, he shifted more and more into a distempered-type psychopath mode and would be in hypervigilant predator mode, more pounce disposition than stealth. In this case, any quick “prey” movement will initiate an action.
So if you put constant pressure on Putin, he’s bound to make a mistake. In my opinion, this is the best way to work with a psychopath. You keep the pressure on without any huge moves. It’s especially important if you want to win without precipitating a nuclear war. So that he doesn’t say: “If I’m going to lose, I’m going to take it all with me.” Like Hitler did in his last days, according to some witnesses: “You’re my people, but if we lose, I hope you all die because you are worthy of annihilation.”
If you put constant pressure on Putin, he’s bound to make a mistake
This is where it could go with Putin. For now, Ukrainians are resisting and buying us time and resolve and confidence that the war could be stopped. Any fast radical movements are probably not good; I would avoid a sucker punch at him. When you sucker-punch a bully, he’s gone but in that moment, he can kill you. Putin is waiting for the Ukrainians to make a mistake and give him full license and support from most Russians to do anything. But this is not about launching missiles into a missile unit 12 km inside Russia. If you launch missiles back into Russia at field missile units – that’s one thing. But if it escalates above that then it gives him a reason… It’s either bombing a civilian area or increasing the size of the target.
There’s no way a psychopath can win this war, because the longer it goes on, the more Western weapons and technology are coming in and the more local support wanes. Keeping the pressure on lengthens the amount of time and creates a gap for other players to come and say «you can’t do that». For instance, the generals around him could say: «Look, this has to stop now.» That means the pressure is going to be on for several weeks and months.
From what I know about military psychology, I would say that the West should demonstrate to Putin that you are willing to go full on. You want to build an alliance that is strong and cautious and that is saying to Putin: “You are pushing us to a point now when we can wipe you out. And we don’t want to but we can.