HealthThe Psychology of Dictators: Power, Fear, and Anxiety

The Psychology of Dictators: Power, Fear, and Anxiety

They have a deep sense of entitlement and see themselves as exceptional individuals who deserve admiration, making it difficult for them to empathise with the feelings and needs of others. Dictators often display a consistent pattern of grandiosity, coupled with a vindictive nature commonly associated with narcissistic personality disorder.

The names of Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong (or Tse-tung), Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot resonate in our collective consciousness. These figures were undoubtedly totalitarian dictators who used extreme measures to maintain absolute control over their governments and populations. Their methods included systematic acts of murder and imprisonment against any opposition.

The terror they unleashed enabled them to maintain power for long periods of time, leaving an indelible mark on history. Each of these individuals is responsible for the deaths of over a million people, while even those who survived their rule lived in constant fear of death, forced labour or torture.

These dictatorial leaders exemplify the ultimate potential of human evil. Paradoxically, despite their seemingly limitless power within their domains, they often struggled with heightened anxiety, rooted primarily in paranoid fears of insurrection or assassination. For example:

  • Saddam Hussein’s paranoia reached such extreme levels that he had multiple meals prepared in different locations throughout Iraq to ensure his whereabouts remained unknown. He even resorted to using surgically altered body doubles.
  • Kim Jong-il, the former leader of North Korea and father of the current leader Kim Jong-un, displayed an excessive fear of assassination when travelling by air. To mitigate this, he travelled exclusively by armoured train, even on long journeys such as to Moscow.
  • Burmese dictator Than Shwe had serious concerns about the fragility of his rule. In an extreme measure advised by his personal astrologer, he moved the capital of Burma to a remote jungle location without basic amenities such as running water and electricity.

The Nexus of Power and Fear

Dictatorial figures throughout history have displayed a paradoxical blend of dominance and fear, revealing a deep-seated anxiety about their own precarious fate. This perplexing behaviour seems at odds with the archetype of dictators who wield immense real power and foster an environment of inflated self-importance.

Saddam Hussein saw himself as the liberator of the Iraqi people, Muammar Gaddafi boldly proclaimed himself the “king of kings” of Africa, and the North Korean Kim dynasty elevated their status to near-deity status. But in the midst of such self-confident dominance, why are these leaders so anxious?

One plausible explanation lies in the ever-present specter of assassination that hangs over these despots. A former bodyguard of Fidel Castro, for example, revealed knowledge of no fewer than 638 separate plots against the Cuban leader’s life, including some orchestrated by the CIA.

Mao Zedong narrowly escaped an assassination plot orchestrated by senior military officers within his own ranks, while Saddam Hussein’s own sons-in-law once plotted to eliminate his eldest son. Faced with credible threats, even from trusted confidants, it is natural for a degree of paranoia to set in.

However, the extent of dictators’ fears requires a deeper investigation. An additional perspective may lie in the unique fabric of their individual personalities. In colloquial terms, “personality” often refers to the charm and magnetism one exudes, both within and beyond one’s sphere of influence. In psychological discourse, however, personality encompasses enduring patterns of cognition and behaviour that distinguish an individual from others. By studying common traits and how they interact, psychologists seek to unravel the mysteries of human behaviour over time.

A consistent trait of narcissism

In the context of dictators, one consistent trait emerges as particularly relevant: narcissism. Narcissistic individuals have an inflated sense of their own importance and are consumed by their personal achievements and abilities. They perceive themselves as exceptional beings worthy of admiration, and often find it difficult to empathise with the feelings and needs of others.

When narcissism reaches an extreme level, characterised by its interference with daily life, deviation from social norms, or its pervasive presence across multiple domains, it may warrant a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. This psychological condition is characterised by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, an insatiable need for admiration and a marked lack of empathy.

People with this disorder indulge in fantasies of boundless success and power. They see themselves as unique and only associate with others of similar status. They also demand excessive adulation to maintain their sense of satisfaction, have a strong sense of entitlement, exploit others for personal gain and are often envious of their peers.

The veil of vindictiveness

The similarity between the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder and the behaviour of dictators is striking. Dictators not only exhibit a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, but also a vindictiveness often associated with narcissistic personality disorder. In particular, well-known psychological experiments have shown that highly narcissistic individuals tend to seek retribution against those who provide negative evaluations of their work, even to the point of administering painful electric shocks.

In addition, recent studies suggest that narcissistic individuals show increased aggression following negative evaluations, even towards unrelated individuals. These findings shed light on the aggressive behaviour of dictators, who are notorious for retaliating against unfavourable criticism.

Interestingly, narcissism may also shed light on the anxious behaviour of dictators. Researchers have identified two forms of narcissism: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. While grandiose narcissism includes the expected traits of grandiosity and aggression, vulnerable narcissism is characterised by an “insecure grandiosity” that fosters deep defensiveness and feelings of inadequacy. People with vulnerable narcissism are often described as worrying, emotional, defensive, anxious, bitter, tense and prone to complaining.

In some cases, the intensity of these components can be so extreme that Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder, a condition associated with heightened anxiety.

The combination of intense emotional experiences resulting from narcissism, coupled with real threats and dangers, can produce remarkable levels of anxiety, worry and insecurity. This can manifest itself in extreme behaviour, such as moving an entire capital city to the heart of a jungle on the advice of an astrologer.

Predicting potential dictators

Can the prevalence of narcissistic traits among dictators be used to predict individuals who may aspire to power? Answering this question is a considerable challenge. Not all dictators rise to power in the same way or under the same circumstances. Hitler, for example, used an intense propaganda campaign and orchestrated a climate of fear and violence through the Nazi Party to secure his authority.

Mao Zedong, on the other hand, emerged as a dictator following his successful military leadership during a protracted civil war. Saddam Hussein manoeuvred his way up the Iraqi political ladder through years of political manoeuvring until he seized control by force. Even Kim Jong-un has displayed dictatorial traits, despite his privileged upbringing in a Western environment.

Furthermore, the origins of narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic behaviour remain a subject of uncertainty among researchers. While it is known that the majority of diagnosed cases occur in males, the specific genetic and parenting influences that contribute to the development of the disorder are still under investigation. Further research is needed to determine the causal factors behind narcissistic personality disorder.

Taken together, these complexities make it extremely difficult to predict which leaders will exhibit dictatorial tendencies. A complete understanding of the cultural, environmental and political influences that foster the rise of dictators eludes us. However, this does not mean that research in these areas is futile.

By deepening our understanding of the socio-political contexts that enable dictators to gain and maintain power, and by further exploring the role of personality, we may one day be able to proactively identify and mitigate the emergence of dictatorial leadership before its often disastrous actions begin. This quest has the potential to save countless lives and shorten years of oppression in numerous nations.


  • Chang, J., & Halliday, J. (2005). Mao: the unknown story (Vol. 39). London.
  • Evans, R. J. (2006). The Third Reich in Power: Penguin Publishing Group.
  • Khlevniuk, О. В. (2004). The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror: Yale University Press.
  • Locard, H. (2005). State violence in Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979) and retribution (1979–2004). European Review of History—Revue européenne d’Histoire, 12(1), 121-143.
  • Efron, S., & Rotella, S. (2002, October 12). Inside the Mind of a Dictator. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from
  • Laurence, J., & Mee-Young, C. (2011, May 20). North Korean leader makes surprise visit to China-media. Reuters. Retrieved from
  • BBC News: World Edition (2002, August 20). Kim Jong-il Rolls into Russia. Retrieved from
  • Pollard, S. (2011, December 29). From Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez: with great power comes truly great paranoia. The Telegraph. Retrieved from
  • Time (2011, February 23). Libyan leader’s delusions of African grandeur. Retrieved from,28804,2045328_2045333_2053164,00.html
  • Williamson, L. (2011, December 27). Delving into North Korea’s mystical cult of personality. BBC News. Retrieved from
  • Uhalley, S., & Qiu, J. (1993). The Lin Biao Incident: More Than Twenty Years Later. Pacific Affairs, 66(3), 386-398. doi:1. Retrieved from doi:1
  • Okami, P. (2013). Psychology: Contemporary Perspectives (Book Including the Bonus Chapter): Oxford University Press.
  • Oltmanns, T. F., & Emery, R. E. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall.
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  • Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: does self-love or self-hate lead to violence?. Journal of personality and social psychology,75(1), 219.
  • Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2003). “Isn’t it fun to get the respect that we’re going to deserve?” Narcissism, social rejection, and aggression.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin29(2), 261-272.
  • Reidy, D. E., Zeichner, A., Miller, J. D., & Martinez, M. A. (2007). Psychopathy and aggression: Examining the role of psychopathy factors in predicting laboratory aggression under hostile and instrumental conditions. Journal of Research in Personality41(6), 1244-1251.
  • Stal, M. (2013). Psychopathology of Joseph Stalin. Psychology4(09), 1.
  • Wink, P. (1991). Two faces of narcissism. Journal of personality and social psychology61(4), 590.
  • Miller, J. D., Hoffman, B. J., Gaughan, E. T., Gentile, B., Maples, J., & Keith Campbell, W. (2011). Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism: A nomological network analysis. Journal of personality79(5), 1013-1042.
  • Evans, R. J. (2004). The Coming of the Third Reich: Penguin Press.
  • Li, X. (2012). China at War: An Encyclopedia: ABC-CLIO.
  • Fang, B. (2004, July 11). When Saddam ruled the day. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from
  • Harden, B. (2009, June 3). Son named heir to North Korea’s Kim studied in Sqitzerland, reportedly loves NBA. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
Associate Professor, School of Medicine at Wayne State University

Seth D. Norrholm, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine, specializing in trauma, anxiety, and related disorders. He has published over 100 research articles and focuses on developing clinical methodologies for therapeutic intervention. His most recent work analyzes fear and anxiety in society, considering media and environmental influences. Dr. Norrholm has been featured in various media and is recognized as an expert on anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Program Analyst, U.S. Department of Agriculture at Emory University

Sam Hunley holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Emory University. He pursued his Bachelor's degree in psychology from Furman University and a master's from Emory. Sam's research, alongside Dr. Stella Lourenco, focuses on human perception of the space surrounding the body, exploring the impact of anxiety and phobias on this perception. Together, they contribute to articles. Post-graduation, Sam became a Presidential Management Fellow.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Subscribe Today


Expert content on a wide variety of health topics. Always stay up to date!

* About our Privacy Policy

Exclusive content

- Get Help -Newspaper WordPress Theme

More article