BC legislature
© Stephen Hui
The referendum on electoral reform could change the way British Columbians elect MLAs to the legislature.
One of the first feature stories I ever did for the Georgia Straight was about a UBC researcher and psychology professor named Robert Hare.

At the time, he was the world's leading authority on psychopathic behaviour, having pioneered a screening test for the disorder.

Hare said that about one in 100 people were psychopaths - and not all of them were violent criminals. Many were swindlers and con artists.

These were often charming and charismatic people who emptied seniors' bank accounts and lived parasitical lifestyles.

They seemed to lack any conscience. It was if they had a missing chip in their brain.

Hare also insisted that psychopathy was a discrete disorder.

In recent years, brain-imaging testing has reinforced this point of view. Functional MRI tests show that when psychopaths perform certain tasks, different parts of their brains light up when compared to the brains of nonpsychopaths.

As a result, psychopaths have the same reaction to emotionally loaded images as they do to neutral pictures.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study last year showed that psychopaths have reduced connections between a part of their prefrontal cortex, which is linked to empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, which is an almond-shaped part of the brain that mediates fear and anxiety.

"This is the first study to show both structural and functional differences in the brains of people diagnosed with psychopathy," University of Wisconson School of Medicine and Public Health assistant professor of psychiatry Michael Koenigs said in a news release. "Those two structures in the brain, which are believed to regulate emotion and social behavior, seem to not be communicating as they should."

Psychopaths are often glib and superficial, callous, and emotionally shallow types. Nowadays, the public is well aware of this personality type - the so-called snakes in suits, as Hare referred to them in one of his books.

One thing has stayed with me from that early interview with Hare.

I asked him which occupations psychopaths tend to gravitate toward.

He replied that they like working in areas where they can take advantage of people with a relatively low risk of consequences.

As for actual jobs, he mentioned stock promotion, psychiatry, the law, real-estate sales, professional wrestling, and politics as examples.

So if one in 100 in the public is a psychopath, it's conceivable that fewer than one in 100 in these lines of work would have this discrete disorder.

There were 338 MPs elected to Parliament in 2015, including 42 from B.C. There are 105 Senate seats in Canada, including six for B.C. There are 87 MLAs elected in B.C.

Odds are that there will be at least one or two of those B.C. representatives who would meet the test of being a psychopath, based on their prevalence in the general population.

Months before Donald Trump was elected as U.S. president, I wrote a column suggesting that psychopathic politicians could be exposed before their names ever appeared on a ballot.


Comment: A not so subtle hint of what the author thinks of Trump.


Nowadays, the science exists to determine if someone is one of these manipulative, purely self-interested, social-climbing predators.

But it's unlikely that any legislators would bring forth a law to require screening tests as a condition of running for office. It might even be unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, the risk of electing psychopathic politicians has not been raised during the current referendum on electoral reform in B.C.

There's been a lot of talk about electing extremists and neo-Nazis-and which system is best for weeding them out. But when it comes to psychopathy, nada.

As someone with a long-standing amateur interest in this area, I think this subject should be put on the table for public discussion.

Here's my take.

Under first-past-the-post, psychopaths have an inherent advantage because they are likely better at raising the necessary money to win nominations and coming across as charismatic candidates in individual constituencies.

They also have an advantage in party leadership races for the same reason.

Lawyers and real-estate agents, in particular, tend to do well in securing nominations because they can set aside the time to campaign while still making a decent living.

And as Hare noted, psychopaths are sometimes attracted to the legal profession and the real-estate industry for some of the same reasons they like getting involved in politics.

Nominations also must be won under some forms of proportional representation, including dual-member (DMP), which is on the menu in the B.C. referendum.

But there are also risks of psychopaths getting elected under mixed-member proportional representation.

Here, voters have two votes - one for a party and one for the candidate.

Parties prepare lists, which can be closed or open.

Whichever committee is creating the list can be swayed by a psychopath, particularly if its members don't know what to look for. Or a psychopath could get on the committee and influence the selection of the party lists.

Under an open-list system, voters can choose individual candidates. Perhaps this can increase the opportunity to prevent psychopaths from being elected if experts or voters highlight the candidate's ethical shortcomings over the course of the campaign.

This might be more difficult to prevent under a closed-list system, where the party selects those who will become legislators.

Then there's the argument that proportional representation leads to more minority governments. That could be a good thing for those who worry about a psychopath ever becoming a premier.

Under our parliamentary system, premiers wield enormous power. They can appoint and fire cabinet ministers at will. They can call elections. The only real checks on them are the courts and administrative tribunals and the voters at election time.

But in a minority government, premiers must also answer to at least one opposition party to stay in power. So in effect, proportional representation has the potential of diluting the power of the premier's office.

To some readers, this might all sound like an esoteric discussion that's far removed from the day-to-day reality of B.C. politics.

To them, I would respond this way: the world's most notorious psychopath of the 20th century, the highly charismatic Adolf Hitler, initially came to power in a democracy.

It's incumbent on all of us to try to design the best system possible to prevent demogogues without a conscience from getting into public office and wielding enormous influence over British Columbians.