DL Fowler's Blog

Exploring Lincoln’s Psychology

Posted in Lincoln, Lincoln Raw, Lincoln's Diary, Lincoln's Psychology, Psychopaths, PTSD, Themes by DLFowler on July 23, 2014

Was Lincoln the most successful white-collar psychopath in American history? His psychology suggests he suffered from personality “disorders” that are common to red-collar psychopaths (violent criminals.) But in his case, those same traits likely enabled his greatest contributions to American society.

While I don’t claim to be a psychologist or a expert on the subject of psychopaths, here are some observations drawn from my research into Lincoln’s psychology. There are clear suggestions that he manifested seven of nine personality traits that are common to psychopaths.

The absence of the two particular psychopathic traits and the way he managed the others may explain the difference between him and others whose behaviors turned out quite different.

  • Paranoia – he kept his friends close and his enemies closer (remember TEAM OF RIVALS), and he often expressed an awareness that he was a marked man.
  • Schizophrenia – he felt emotions deeply but didn’t usually show them, contributing to his aloofness and tendency toward being a loner
  • Schizotypal – he was clearly an eccentric, often felt like he didn’t belong, and believed he had special insights that many others couldn’t understand – the resultant isolation caused him great pain and resulted in a pattern of avoiding close personal relationships.
  • Avoidance – rather than actually avoiding difficult tasks, he either created easier means to achieve his ends (as demonstrated by his passion for technology) or he preempted his fear of embarrassment with self-effacing humor and shyness
  • Dependent – his most severe episodes of depression were triggered by an intense fear of abandonment, a fear that resulted in his submissive tolerance of abuses by his wife and others.
  • Histrionic personality disorder – there was nothing superficial about his charm and he was hardly insincere, but he was clearly egocentric and a master at manipulation.
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder – his strongest traits and emotional defenses were perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, stubbornness and dictatorial tendencies.

Here are the two personality disorders he did not seem to suffer from:

  • Antisocial – his strong sense of right or wrong governed his passionate intolerance of violations of the rights of others.
  • Narcissistic personality disorder – if anything he had a great empathy for others and defended the victimized from the exploitive behaviors of their oppressors. However, it is noteworthy that his passion for the defense of abused people and animals grew out of his own experiences as a victim of abuse.

One of the great lessons we can draw from Lincoln’s life is that severe mental illnesses can be managed, even turned into assets.

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6 Responses

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  1. Jason P. Brennar said, on August 3, 2014 at 2:48 AM

    Did you know that “Politician” is listed as a top ten occupation for psychopaths? I assume you are writing about Abe Lincoln… Considering that mainstream American historical discourse is about as fair and balanced as Fox News, I’d say it likely those last two behavioral markers you mentioned have been simply hidden from view.

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    • DLFowler said, on August 3, 2014 at 6:09 AM

      I agree with your observations about politicians and American historical discourse. To be clear, I did not intend to give the impression that Lincoln did not display tendencies toward antisocial and narcissistic behaviors, but to suggest that the source of those tendencies in his case were likely environmental, rather than pathological.

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      • Jason P. Brennar said, on August 3, 2014 at 6:18 AM

        I’m sorry…i didn’t infer that at all. I agree that such markers are likely environmentally based, as many are. In Lincoln’s case, I suspect none are actually missing, but rather misinterpreted. For example, the act of freeing the slaves could be interpreted as a benevolent and morality based act, when actually it could very well have been a self serving political tactic that just happen to benefit slaves.

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      • DLFowler said, on August 3, 2014 at 6:35 AM

        Certainly the Emancipation Proclamation was a military tactic. Even he said so. But,he did seem to have a lifelong hostility toward abuse, including slavery. This seems to have grown out of self preservation. When Lincoln was struggling with the will to live in his early 30’s, a doctor advised he’d have to throw himself into some grand cause to survive. Two decades later came the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, then the Dred Scott Decision. So came the perfect storm: a survivor of multiple life threatening traumas and childhood abuse has latent fears of reinjury triggered by external events and responds by going to war. At least that’s my theory.

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      • Jason P. Brennar said, on August 3, 2014 at 11:13 AM

        I think your theory is valid. More than likely, you’re on to something. I guess what I’m saying is that he probably exhibited a full spectrum of behaviors Where there is smoke, there is usually fire.

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  2. Lincoln’s Shame | DL Fowler's Blog said, on February 18, 2015 at 6:34 PM

    […] might have been. No one can deny that he grieved over her death. Shortly afterward, he suffered his first severe bout of adult depression. Friends and neighbors took his razor for fear he’d commit suicide. They took turns watching him […]

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