Is the extreme egotism of some powerful people a mental disorder or a behavioral atavism?

I don’t know whether this guy Strauss-Kahn is guilty, but the bizarre allegations against him — according to which he emerged from his hotel room shower, was surprised to see a young chambermaid in the room, and expected her (as any king or sultan would) to immediately service him sexually — reminded me of the condition known as “acquired situational narcissism” and a question I’ve long had about it.

Acquired situational narcissism is typically seen in celebrities, CEOs and others who have “too much” power within their usual operating environment.  Their behavior, never opposed or punished by anyone externally, thus never has to be inhibited internally — so the thinking is that this inhibitory ability (which we see as a mark of maturity and civility) atrophies from disuse, and the person regresses to a childlike, intensely egotistical state.  (Ordinary pathological narcissism* looks similar, and may also contribute to a vulnerability to ASN, but is thought to stem from genetic/developmental problems.)

Acquired situational narcissism is a socially important phenomenon, among other reasons because it’s something that consumerism generally promotes (“…because I’m worth it…” “…the customer is king…” etc.).  I wonder — and this is just a wild hypothesis I’m throwing out — whether it results not from a gradual atrophying of executive function but, instead, from a more sudden shift to a new and stable behavioral state.  This new state would be (like many others in the human repertoire) evolved and available but lying unused until the situation triggers it.  It would be there for a reason; in other words, it would have evolved as a coherent behavioral state because it was sometimes needed.

By whom?  By kings!  By princes and barons and knights and chiefs — by anyone who would benefit (in a neo-Darwinian sense) from a general sense of invincibility!

Again, this may seem a flying leap of evo-psych logic, but in the right environment, narcissistic delusions could be highly adaptive, particularly for a commander of troops.  To win, it helps to believe that you can win, or even that you should or must win — so that all one need do is find a winning strategy (rather than despair over the lack of one).  Think of someone like Douglas MacArthur, or Napoleon Bonaparte.  Their stories — and even moreso, stories of fictional kings and warriors — are full of deeds that a more reasonable, humble adult would never have attempted.  And their weird insensitivity to risk may seem “brave” only from the safe vantage point of retrospect; at the time, those they put at risk  might simply have considered them foolish, even delusional.

So in this sense, someone who does what Strauss-Kahn is accused of doing might only be acting out an ancient, “noble” reflex, and might be genuinely startled when that reflex runs up against the modern world and its laws — like those knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, absurdly arrested in the end by modern police, for acts that in their world were only natural for men of adventure.


*Ordinary pathological narcissism is often seen as a coping mechanism against deep insecurities, but perhaps, like its situational cousin, it takes advantage of a latent behavioral program.