A new study has found that British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and the late Lady Thatcher used hubristic language during their respective periods in office.

It has been suggested that a number of Prime Ministers may have developed a personality disorder known as Hubris syndrome while in power. Researchers at St George’s, University of London have discovered that this personality change was reflected in both Blair’s and Thatcher’s use of language.

Hubris is commonly associated with a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence, accomplishments or capabilities. It is characterised by a pattern of exuberant self-confidence, recklessness and contempt for others, and is most particularly recognised in subjects holding positions of significant power.

Fourteen clinical symptoms of Hubris syndrome have been described*. Subjects demonstrating at least three of these could be diagnosed with the disorder.

Researchers at St George’s, University of London searched for evidence of some of these clinical features in the language used by three British Prime Ministers – Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and John Major – by examining transcribed samples of spoken language taken from Prime Minister’s Questions. They thought that frequent use of certain words or phrases, such as ‘sure’, ‘certain’ and ‘confident’, the first person pronouns ‘I’ or ‘me’, references to God or history, might show up during ‘hubristic’ periods.

They found that ‘I’ and ‘me’ and the word ‘sure’ were among the strongest positive correlations over time in Tony Blair’s speech. Blair's use of the word 'important' also increased with time. Words and phrases that became more frequent with time in the speeches of Lady Thatcher and Tony Blair also included the phrase ‘we shall’, while phrases that included the word ‘duties’ diminished. The authors also found that language became more complex and less predictable during hubristic periods.

For example, Lady Thatcher’s language becomes more complex at the end of her term of office, when her decisions and judgements were opening deep divisions within her own party. The same happened to Tony Blair’s speech during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

These linguistic patterns were not reflected in the language of John Major. The relative frequency of the word ‘we’ compared to ‘I’ was in fact higher throughout the terms of office of both Thatcher and Blair than at any point of Major’s premiership.

Additionally, the changes over time in words and phrases adopted by both Thatcher and Blair appeared to mirror the time course of hubristic behaviour.

The research is published in the journal Cortex.

Dr Peter Garrard, the lead researcher, from St George’s, University of London, said:

“Hubris syndrome represents a radical change in a person’s outlook, style and attitude after they acquire positions of power or great influence. They become obsessed with their self-image, excessively confident in their own judgement and dismissive of others, often leading to rash, ill thought-out decisions. In other words, the acquisition of power can bring about a change in personality: it is as if power, almost literally ‘goes to their head’.

“This work shows us that language can reflect this highly characteristic personality change.  Spontaneous language production is an automatic process: to some extent we can influence how we come across in our choice of words, but most of the time we don't. The way we use language reflects the cultural and social environment, but biological factors, including personality, are also important.

“Hubristic behaviour is widespread, and not confined to politics: hubristic overconfidence in the financial sector almost certainly contributed to the recent banking crisis.

“We need to refine these language based measures and apply them more widely using other sets of digital samples from the past, with a view to detecting hubris and preventing its potentially catastrophic consequences.”  

Dr Garrard’s next research will analyse language studies using recordings or transcripts of bank annual general meetings (AGMs) in the years leading up to the financial crisis.

*Proposed criteria for Hubris Syndrome; abbreviations indicate overlap with features of personality disorder listed in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIV):

  1. A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory; NPD 6
  2. A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light i.e. in order to enhance image; NPD 1
  3. A disproportionate concern with image and presentation; NPD 3
  4. A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation; NPD 2
  5. An identification with the nation or organisation to the extent that the individual regards his/her outlook and interests as identical; (unique)
  6. A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’; (unique)
  7. Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others; NPD 9
  8. Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve; NPD 1 and 2 combined
  9. A belief that, rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History or God; NPD 3
  10. An unshakeable belief that in that court they will be vindicated; (unique)
  11. Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation; APD 2 and 5
  12. Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness; (unique)
  13. A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’ about the moral rectitude of a proposed course to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes; (unique)
  14. Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy; HPD 5

 

APD = Antisocial Personality Disorder; HPD = Histrionic Personality Disorder; NPD =

Narcissistic Personality Disorder