Hubris Syndrome: When Power Changes Personality

Hubris Syndrome was first described by ex-politician David Owen and psychiatrist Jonathan Davidson. It is associated with excessive power, and symptoms usually subside when the person ceases to hold that power.
Hubris Syndrome: When Power Changes Personality

People who suffer from hubris syndrome change their personalities when they find themselves in leadership positions. This can happen in business, politics, or any other area where hierarchies exist.

In fact, people with Hubris Syndrome display extreme pride, overconfidence, and total disdain for others. These character traits lead to impulsive and often destructive behaviors.

No evidence suggests a neuroscientific explanation of hubris syndrome. In other words, the brain of a person with Hubris Syndrome shows no physiological changes.

Hubris syndrome is not a disorder in and of itself, nor is it a subtype of narcissistic personality disorder. Instead, it manifests itself in positions of excessive power and does not develop in the same way as a personality disorder.

People with Hubris Syndrome exhibit extreme pride, overconfidence, and total disdain for others.

The hubris syndrome and power

The term hubris or hubris (ὕβρις, hýbris) is a Greek concept that means “excess”. It’s the opposite of sobriety and moderation. The Greeks described a hybrid person as overly proud and as someone who treated others with insolence and contempt. The person thus enjoys using their strength in this way.

David Owen, James Callaghan’s Labor Minister, and psychiatrist Jonathan Davidson have studied hubris syndrome. Owen argues that people often view hubris syndrome as a natural (or at least expected) extension of confidence and ambition that anyone seeking power should have. While many believe that arrogance is often an unfortunate trait in executives, they also believe that a certain level of arrogance is simply the price a great leader has to pay.

Power is a powerful drug. But not all managers have a character that is strong enough to counteract this. This requires a combination of common sense, humor, propriety, and skepticism. Cynicism is also important because it helps them see power for what it is: a privileged opportunity to influence, and often determine, the outcome of the situations that happen around them.

Owen described Hubris Syndrome as a unique and acquired personality disorder that does not develop until an executive is in power for a period of time. We would like to point out at this point that the disorder is only applicable if no psychiatric illnesses have occurred in the past.

The symptoms of hubris syndrome

Below is a selection of some of the symptoms of Hubris Syndrome (14 symptoms in total) that we took from David Owens’ list:

  • The use of power for self-glorification
  • An almost compulsive focus on personal self-image
  • Excessive self-confidence accompanied by disdain for advice or criticism from others
  • Loss of contact with reality
  • Speak as the Messiah
  • Reckless and impulsive actions
  • Hybrid incompetence, in which the greatest overconfidence leads to inattention to details

When Owen and Davison examined these symptoms, they found that they often overlapped with those of other personality disorders, particularly narcissistic personality disorders.

Seven of the 14 symptoms are also symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. In addition, hubris syndrome shares two symptoms with dissocial personality disorder and theatrical personality disorder.

Famous cases

Owen and Davidson analyzed the psychological profiles of UK Prime Ministers and US Presidents over the past 100 years to find examples of hybrid traits.

They found that seven U.S. presidents showed clear signs of arrogance:

  • Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • Richard Nixon
  • George W. Bush

However, the only president they believed had this syndrome was George W. Bush.

Among the UK Prime Ministers, Owen and Davidson believe the following indicate excessive pride and arrogance:

  • Herbert Asquith
  • David Lloyd George
  • Neville Chamberlain
  • Winston Churchill
  • Anthony Eden
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Tony Blair

For Owen and Davidson, however, only David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair meet all of the criteria for hubris syndrome.

David Lloyd George had all the criteria for hubris syndrome.

Not only politicians suffer from hubris syndrome

Prime ministers and presidents were easy to study because of the extensive biographical information available about them. Hubris Syndrome does not exclusively affect politicians, however. In fact, it’s about power. As a result, anyone in a position of power, such as a CEO of a large corporation, can suffer from this syndrome as well.

Bertrand Russell wrote about the phenomenon and what happened to an individual’s mental stability when they were in a position of power. He described the causal link between power and deviant behavior and called it “the intoxication of power”.

This leads to the idea that honorable, moral people can become corrupt after years of accumulation of power. This is why it is so important for developed societies to keep these people under control by using systems that limit the power a person can have.

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