The end of Boris Johnson’s illusion

Author:Raj Persaud. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future...

Desperate, deluded PM clings to power,” reads the front page of the Guardian’s July 7, 2022, print edition. But can UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bizarre behaviour really be chalked up to some mental disorder? 

Such facile claims are all too common in today’s media environment. In Johnson’s case, it is difficult to find coverage that does not offer some kind of psychiatric diagnosis. If there is any debate, it is over what particular emotional malady he exhibits, not whether there is any other psychological explanation for his surreal antics. 

Following an unprecedented wave of ministerial resignations this week, Johnson almost had to have the keys to No. 10 Downing Street wrenched from his hands, so staunch was his refusal to accept the obvious logic of his predicament. Even in his speech finally announcing that he will resign, he blamed his ouster on a “herd instinct” among his Conservative Party colleagues, and suggested that it is rather “eccentric” to change leaders now. 

But is he “deluded”? To psychiatrists, that is a technical term with a precise meaning. Victims of delusion will cling to beliefs that are clearly false, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. But even if someone meets these criteria, that doesn’t really tell us what we need to know. We also must ask what makes the person so resistant to reasoned argument, and what accounts for his or her own serious errors in judgment. 

Leadership psychology suggests that precisely the same elements that make some leaders popular also can bring about their eventual downfall. An elected leader’s psychodrama thus often reflects a polity’s own unconscious: we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote. 

David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “Prozac leadership,” Collinson writes, “encourages leaders to believe their own narratives that everything is going well and discourages followers from raising problems or admitting mistakes.” 

In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional. A country that ends up with such leaders may be suffering and miserable, desperately in need of an artificial pick-me-up.

Collinson’s term would certainly seem to describe Johnson, a man famous for his bonhomie and relentless cheerfulness. It is worth remembering that before his political career took off, Johnson often appeared on TV comedy programmes. 

But no one is laughing now. Prozac leaders inevitably become victims of their own positivity, refusing to consider evidence that contradicts their rosy assessments. Even when everything is collapsing around them, they will focus on the positive, convincing themselves that there is still a way out of the abyss. 
Some might also categorise Donald Trump as a Prozac leader. When he clearly lost the 2020 US presidential election, he convinced his followers that they had actually won and would yet prevail. But whether Trump believed his own narrative has increasingly come into doubt. The congressional January 6 Committee has marshaled ample evidence showing that he knew full well that he had lost. 

Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public. He may genuinely believe that his chances of conquering Ukraine are better than they are, given reports that he has been receiving bad information from his own generals. 

Collinson regards performative positivity as a distinctive feature of contemporary culture. For corporate and political leaders, upbeat self-promotion has become de rigueur. To Johnson’s mind, it might seem obvious that one must project strength, power, and self-confidence. 

By contrast, in his own resignation letter, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak chastised Johnson for hiding negative truths from the public. “Our country is facing immense challenges,” Sunak writes. “We both want a low-tax, high-growth economy, and world-class public services, but this can only be responsibly delivered if we are prepared to work hard, make sacrifices, and take difficult decisions.” 

Most people know that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. It is one thing to tell the public that a better future is possible; it is quite another to claim that getting there will be easy. 

Raj Persaud is a psychiatrist.
Project Syndicate, 2022.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.