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Pakistan: Public posts require psychological filtering

TOP NEWS-18-01-2021

Do public offices require psychological filtering? is a question which was asked even before Donald Trump was elected President of the US in 2016 and had begun acting unconventionally. 

With no change of personality or character traits, habitually aggressive and shamelessly narcistic, Trump flouted rules and boundaries at will, which he had been doing throughout his life. And yet, he was allowed to become President of the US.

Many of his detractors have called Trump a psychopath, or at least, deranged. These are medical conditions. His 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 also detract from Biden’s agenda for his first 100 days in office. 

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

In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental the 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, but psychiatrists don’t concur. Considered one of the founders of American social psychiatry, the neurologist and psychiatrist Frederick Redlich in his 1998 work: “Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet”, said that Hitler’s paranoia and defence mechanisms would "fill a psychiatric textbook" but 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 normally." Hitler "knew what he was doing and he did it with pride and enthusiasm.” That is even worse than being mad. The collateral damage caused in World War II pales in comparison to the Holocaust. That deliberate act of mass organised murder was a real and outright atrocity consciously committed.

The border between a medical condition and a behavioural extremity are thin. Judging the culpability of a man who committed a murder or another offence, different psychiatrists employed by the defence or prosecution can come to diametrically opposed conclusions. 

Trump’s example underscores the need to subject candidates of high office to psychological tests for their sense of judgment and leadership qualities. But the basis on which these judgments should be made remains unclear. 

Assessing personality traits and character is commonplace 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 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. 

The Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi called the Chairman US Joint Chief of Staff Committee in the wake of the Capitol Building riot on January 6 requesting caution because of Trump’s behaviour given the 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 sound, reality-based decisions. Fitness for duty tests assess a person’s capacity to work without putting his or her own or others’ health and safety at risk.

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. These may have been inherited from the family or the social surroundings in which they grew up or operated. Therefore, they cannot be changed and a person found unfit for an office by such a test is unlikely to change himself later.

The latest drama in the US should initiate a thought process. Having a mentally disturbed person in an elected office may disturb the political system and law and order.

Suffering from a weak political system for decades, necessary reform in Pakistan has been delayed because an overwhelming number of politicians are unsuited for their jobs. This government is in the process of reorganising its political system and a ‘fit for office’ test for candidates who register to stand for elections could be made a precondition for taking part in the electoral race. The test would have to check the non-medical personality and character including leadership potential. 

To assess medical conditions, testing should be done by the National Testing Service (NTS), which is capable of simultaneously testing vast numbers. People are elected based on their standing within the society. Being ‘electable’ is what counts to any political party. Their character or personality is not being considered important. 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 they disburse 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 power relations would be achieved as a result.

To ensure that kleptomaniacs and/or pathological liars do not gain access to power to govern the lives of others, tests on the lines found in 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 (1) completion of sentence (2) word association (3) perception 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 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 also looked into.

CSS officers go through a more comprehensive rigorous test. There is an intelligent test, psychological test, and finally an interview with the psychologist. As for the military, (A) (1) Intelligence Test covers areas 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 information given in numbers and arrive at solutions. 

(B) Evaluating the complete personality of a candidate to include, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeability neuroticism, maturity and confidence. This test assesses leadership qualities and ability to solve problems in stressful conditions. Situation-based problems are given to evaluate the personality through solutions given by the candidates. Exposing candidates to varying problems. Group Discussions help assess the candidate’s mind through his arguments and solutions. 

(C) The 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 the civil services. Aspirants of Provincial and/or National Assembles must take this comprehensive test before standing for elections. Possible Pakistani “Trumps”, must not be eligible for public office. 

Unfortunately, this also opens a vast field for manipulation in implementing 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 results plausible and non-controversial. Computer basing may remove the human factor. Still any declaration of not being fit would result in appeals and legal processes in a democracy. 

In a democracy, the rigorous sorting that the civil service bureaucracy or the Armed Forces are practising would hardly be acceptable. It will 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, or during 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 rump has put on the greatest democracy on the earth, the US. 

(The writer is a defence and security and analyst).