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How country psychology interacts with national circumstance

By Jeff Schubert - posted Wednesday, 24 October 2012

David Brooks (writing in the The New York Times on 12 October) and Gillian Tett (writing in the Financial Times on 18 October) have each produced a useful article on the relationship of individual psychology (or personality) to the wider world of government policy – although the articles do it by heading in different directions from essentially the same starting point.

The Brooks article suggests that not enough attention is presently paid to the effect of individual psychology (personality) on leadership decisions – and thus on personality when choosing leaders. The Tett article relates individual psychology (personality) concepts to the whole populations of countries. Taken together, the articles act almost like a circle with the two directions eventually meeting each other and encompassing a lot of wisdom that is all too often overlooked when considering issues of public policy.

The motivation for the Brooks article seems to have been the US presidential election, while the motivation for the Tett article is the Euro-crisis and the effect of subsequent policies on the populations of countries such as Greece.


The US and Greece may seem to be almost different worlds, so it may be easier to explain what Brooks and Tett are each (in their own articles) on about – and the connection between the two – with the help of German and Russian examples in which the "leadership" and "population" issues can be more directly related to each other.

Tett wrote about the "humiliation" felt by a country's population when it feels that something very unpleasant has been "done" to it by some other party. Leaving aside the issue of how justified these feelings of humiliation are, good examples are Germany in the period after the First World War (and the Treaty of Versailles) and Russia in the 1990s when the collapse of the USSR led many to feel that Russia's economic and political chaos was the result of bad advice from the West which then turned it back and gloated at the result.

Tett's article (essentially based on the work of Prof. Dennis Smith, a "historical sociologist") suggests that the humiliation being forced on the "national psychologies" of Greece (and possibly Spain) could have quite "pathological" (read abnormal or diseased psychology) results. She does not say so, but at some level this pathology could be similar to that of Germany and Russia in the times I have mentioned.

Brooks does not go into this issue, but in situations of national pathology, the leaders that emerge are not likely to be those mostly driven by rational "cognitive" decision making on behalf of the population, but those whose own personalities will ultimately provide the best guide to the decisions that they will make. Here, we might think about Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin (although, I am not suggesting that Putin has the same degree of personal pathology as Hitler).

To some degree, the concepts covered in the Brooks and Tett articles might also be applied at the intra-country group level.

For example, the humiliation that Putin and Co. are willingly to attempt to inflict on the aspiring Russian "middle class" (for want of a better word) may result in some of the responses mentioned by Tett:


"Typically, it occurs in three steps: first there is a loss of autonomy, or control; then there is a demotion of status; and last, a partial or complete exclusion from the group. This three-step process usually triggers short-term coping mechanisms, such as flight, rebellion or disassociation. There are longer-term responses also, most notably "acceptance" – via "escape" or "conciliation", to use the jargon – or "challenge" – via "revenge" and "resistance". Or, more usually, individuals react with a blend of those responses."

But Tett also wrote that "Prof Smith believes, for example, that Ireland already has extensive cultural coping mechanisms to deal with humiliation, having lived with British dominance in decades past. This underdog habit was briefly interrupted by the credit boom, but too briefly to let the Irish forget those habits. Thus they have responded to the latest humiliation with escape (ie emigration), pragmatic conciliation (reform) and defiant compliance (laced with humour)."

Thus, the responses of the "national psychologies" of Ireland and Greece to their "humiliation" resulting from the Euro-crisis may exhibit significant differences.

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About the Author

Jeff Schubert is an economist, business consultant and writer. He is author of Dictatorial CEOs and their Lieutenants: Inside the Executive Suites of Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao. He is a regular commentator on Russian affairs and now lives in Moscow. Jeff is also the creator of The Little Pink Ant. His websites are: and The also blogs about Russia at

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