Op-ed: Public posts require psychological filtering

Pakistani defence analyst and security expert argues and states the importance of why public posts such as the army, civil services, etc., require psychological filtering for recruitment.

This question was asked even before Donald Trump was elected President of the US in 2016 and begun acting unconventionally throughout his term of office. With no change of personality or character traits, habitually aggressive and shamelessly narcissistic, Trump flouted rules and boundaries at will, what he had been doing throughout his life. Many of his distractors have even called Trump a psychopath, at best deranged.

These are medical conditions but is that fair or even true? A fierce denial of the Presidential election results and his provocative speech to his supporters resulted in the violent storming of the Capitol. Trump has been impeached by the US House of Representatives, but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that a trial in the Senate will not be possible in the short time span available. Trump’s trial will detract from Biden’s agenda of his first 100 days in office.

In recent years psychologists have increasingly used the tools and concepts of psychological science to shed light on notable lives. Research shows that people’s temperament, their characteristic motivations and goals, and their internal conceptions of themselves are powerful predictors of what they will feel, think, and do in the future, and powerful aids in explaining why.

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In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past US Presidents. Defining mental disorder, the Encyclopaedia of mental disorders cautions that only a qualified professional with an advanced degree should conduct a personal examination or draw any actionable conclusions.

Laymen might consider Adolf Hitler a psychopath, psychiatrists don’t concur. Considered one of the founders of American social psychiatry, the neurologist and psychiatrist Frederick Redlich in his 1998 published work, “Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet”, said that Hitler’s paranoia and defense mechanisms would “fill a psychiatric textbook”, but that he was probably not mentally disturbed. Hitler’s paranoid delusions “could be seen as symptoms of a mental disorder, but the largest part of the personality worked normal.”

Hitler “knew what he was doing and he did it with pride and enthusiasm.” That is even worse than being mad, the collateral damage because of horrors inflicted in World War 2 pales in comparison to the Holocaust, that deliberate act of mass organised murder was a real and outright atrocity.

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The border between a medical condition and just a behavioural extreme is slippery, it has to be established by a psychiatrist, not by a journalist or a political forum. Judging the culpability of a man who committed a murder or another offence different psychiatrist employed by the defence or prosecution can come to detrimentally opposed results. Trump’s example underscores psychology, judgment, and leadership qualities of candidates for the highest public officers must count.

The basis on which these judgments should be made remains unclear. Recent experience confirms why assessing personality traits and character is common place in most countries, all US military personnel must pass a fitness for duty exam before they can serve, those handling nuclear weapons undergo an especially rigorous screening process updated every year. That the US President as United States Commander-in-Chief is not put to the same test, before allowing him control involving the use of nuclear weapons seems to be a serious omission.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the Chairman US Joint Chief of Staff Committee in the wake of the Capitol Building riot on Jan 6 requesting caution being applied because of Trump’s behaviour given Presidential access to nuclear codes and the authority to use nuclear weapons.  Gen Miller later sent out an unambiguous cautionary “obey the Constitution” message to all soldiers.  A US President must have the ability to take in proper information and advice, to process that information and to think about consequences before making the sound, reality-based decisions. Fitness for duty tests also assesses a person’s capacity to work without putting their own or others’ health and safety at risk.

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Psychological incapacity for a job is not the same as mental illness, it is not a medical condition that can be treated. Traits of character and personality are innate in a person, having developed in the course of the person’s life since early childhood.  They may be inherited within the family and depend on the social surrounding under which a person grew up and has been operating. Therefore, they cannot be changed and a person found unfit for an office by such a test is unlike to change himself later.

The latest drama in the US should initiate a thought process, having a mentally disturbed person in elected office may disturb the political system and law and order in a state. Suffering from a weak political system for decades and necessary reform in Pakistan has been delayed because an overwhelming number of politicians are unsuited for the job. This government is in the process of reorganising its political system and a ‘fit for office’ test for candidates who register to stand for election could be made a precondition for taking up the electoral race.

The test would have to check the non-medical personality and character including leadership potential in the first place. To assess medical conditions, testing by the National Testing Service (NTS), capable of simultaneously testing vast numbers, would repeat tests periodically after the candidate gets elected. People are elected based on their standing within society in the first place, being ‘electable’ is what counts to any political party, their character or personality not being considered important.

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Religious leaders inherit their standing from the support of their followers as do tribal maliks from their tribesmen, rich persons and big landowners earn it from biradri connections and the amount of money all of them disperse for the purpose. If the next of kin would not pass the test of a family, there were always brothers, sisters, nephews to take the place of the family/sect/tribal monopoly. Therefore, while certainly such a test could have some merit, no fundamental change in the power relations would be achieved as a result.

To ensure that kleptomaniacs and/or pathological liars do not gain access to power governing the lives of others, tests on the lines as for the Armed Forces, CSS, etc are a necessity. The Physiological Assessment-Selection process for the Armed Forces provides criteria that can be adjusted. The Inter Services Selection Board (ISSB) puts candidates through an IQ test on a computer.

Two separate sessions with the Psychologist for a very superficial assessment consists of a time barred written test comprising of (1) Completion of sentence (2) Word Association test (3) Perception test with pictures and sentences to be converted into Short Stories (4) A short note in which candidate spells out his strengths and weakness. The psychologist using the bio-data and available input of the previous session then probes into the complete personality of the candidate. Given the requirements of the military, focus is on integrity and courage, while leadership, will power, maturity, etc are seen.

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CSS Officers also go through a similar more comprehensive rigorous regime, an intelligent test, psychological test, and finally an interview with a psychologist. As for the military viz, (A) Intelligence Test covers areas (1) Aiming to test the abstract ability of the candidate to identify relationships between patterns, logic, rules to find solutions (2) measuring the candidate’s verbal ability to understand and communicate (3) measuring the candidate’s numerical ability to absorb the information given in numerical and arrive at solutions. (B) Evaluating complete personality of the candidate to include, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeability neuroticism, maturity and confidence.

This test assesses the leadership and ability to solve problems in stressful conditions (3) situation-based problems are given to evaluate the personality through the solutions given by the candidates (4) Exposing candidates to varying problems, Group Discussions help need candidates mind through his arguments and solutions. (C) Psychologist then carries out a detailed interview of the candidate to probe deeper into his mind. Any serious negative approach or psychological disorder is identified to prevent him from entering civil services. Aspirants of Provincial and/or National Assemblies must take this comprehensive before standing for elections. Possible Pakistani “Trumps”, must not be eligible for public office across the broad political and public spectrum.

Unfortunately, this also opens a vast field for manipulation in the implementing of such tests. Members of the panel appointed to assess the fitness for office of a candidate must not only be honest but politically impartial to make the test result plausible and uncontroversial. Computer basing may remove the human factor.

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Still any declaration of not being fit would result in appeals and legal process in a democracy. In a democracy the rigorous sorting that the civil service bureaucracy or the Armed Forces are practising would hardly be acceptable and create turmoil that would run counter to the purpose. Neither the CSS nor the Armed Forces Tests are suitable for evaluating potential “electables”. Given the huge numbers, Psychologists can focus on doubtful cases. Suitable adjustment based on these models is a dire necessity.

We are in dire straits because Pakistan has more than a fair share of pathological liars, outright crooks, etc, incidentally, all become medically unfit on being indicted, before, during the trial or after conviction. They are then even walking around Hyde Park, when will our judiciary ever learn?   It is not the wording of the law but the moral spirit of rendering justice that matters! Let us draw a lesson from the debilitating travails Trump has put greater democracy on Earth, the US, into (the writer is a defence and security and analyst).

Ikram Sehgal, author of “Escape from Oblivion”, is Pakistani defence analyst and security expert. He is a regular contributor of articles in newspapers that include: The News and the Urdu daily Jang. The article was first published in Daily Times and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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