News has been circulating over the past few weeks about a 2008 study commissioned by the Pentagon that concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin has Asperger’s Syndrome. Some have claimed that this theory makes perfect sense in explaining his actions, but is it really believable?
I see a few major flaws with this theory. Putin spent 16 years in the KGB, ascending to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before leaving the service. After trading espionage for politics, he rose to the top of the food chain in the complex web of alliances and betrayal that is the corrupt, oligarchical Russian political system. Do I think it is at all likely that he managed to do this with a cognitive wiring that would, among other things, significantly reduce his ability to pick up on social cues and remove from him the kind of social intuition that helps us predict the beliefs and intentions of other people?
Perhaps the people who are positing this theory mean to suggest that picking up on social cues, possessing razor-sharp social instincts, and understanding what makes people tick are not, in fact, necessary skills to survive in the dangerous worlds of spying and Russian politics. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
Putin spent five years of his KGB service working undercover to recruit foreign students studying at the Dresden University of Technology to spy for the KGB. That is a job that requires a tremendous amount of guile, cunning, and social savvy. You need to be incredibly perceptive and you need extraordinarily keen social instincts. Putin could not have done it if he had Asperger’s.
I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. I am not trained to identify and analyze various mental states. All I am is a philosophy major with a head on my shoulders that occasionally works. What I am trained to do is examine arguments and think critically. It is because of this training that I can assure you that the “Putin has Asperger’s” argument has some serious flaws. It may be fun to believe, but it’s not very clever to pick up this idea and run with it just because Putin is the latest world leader that the media is telling you that you are supposed to hate.
Maybe I’m wrong. After all, I’m not the one being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to write up psychological profiles on world leaders based on analyzing how they move (and, as we all know, the government would never spend large amounts of money on anything that didn’t merit it). Yet, I can’t help but smell a really bad argument here, one so egregious I would feel remiss if I did not call it into question.
If Putin really had Asperger’s, his career would have ended years ago with a bullet to the back of the skull, delivered on the orders of someone he had mistakenly trusted. I have no doubt that the people who made this diagnosis will continue to enjoy successful careers for years to come. I’ll leave you to decide what conclusion to draw from that.