New research has discovered a new personality trait called “need for chaos.” They just want to watch the world burn and they’re happy to help democracy end in flames. We must understand them.
A few years ago, after I had just appeared on television, I received one of my favorite hate e-mails of all time.
“Dear Brain,” it began. Already, I could tell, we were on a winning trajectory. He thinks I’m smart. Then, alas, it took a turn for the worse:
“You are a hate-filled poorly educated Nazi clown. A leftist cancer on humanity. You are EVIL.”
It concluded as follows.
Well, at least he was polite. These kinds of e-mails appear regularly in the inbox of anyone who writes about American politics or comments on it on television. They get particularly vitriolic if you’re critical of Trump, as I have been for years, and they’re much worse if you’re a woman. I’ve heard horror stories.
Every so often, there are death threats. (Thankfully, for me, there’s usually an ocean between me and the people issuing them, and I’d place a fairly large bet on them not having an up-to-date passport, nor a penchant for the delightful cultural curosity that draws one to international travel).
But here’s the thing: ignore the disturbing nature of these e-mails for a moment, and consider them as a sociological phenomenon. What did Max hope to achieve from this e-mail? Did he think that he would deliver the crushing blow with his biting prose that would make me reconsider my political viewpoints? “Maybe I really am a Nazi clown?” I would wonder, as I cried myself to sleep, clutching the Panzer tank I had made in balloon form.
Or, was Max not trying to achieve anything, but was rather lashing out in anger, flinging word salad into the internet ether as he flailed about in frustration?
A few months ago, researchers provided a new answer to those questions. They’ve identified a personality trait that was best captured by Alfred, Batman’s confidant, in the film The Dark Knight. His character explains why some people have an impulse to destroy, to lash out, to cause mayhem—not for any instrumental reason, but for fun and for status.
“Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
These people, according to the new research, share a desire to “unleash chaos to ‘burn down’ the entire political order in the hope they gain status in the process.” This trait now has a name — and an established psychological profile.
It’s called the “Need for Chaos.” Understanding it provides an important insight into the destructive world of modern politics, in which the trolls have taken over, and politicians are no longer problem solvers, but are rather political influencers. It’s not about making the world better. It’s about burning down the world of people they hate.
So, how does it work — and how can we spot these traits?
Pay this old fart to find out.