Famous musicians were sociopaths

What distinguishes the prominent artist from the stigmatized weirdo?

Eccentric personalities are judged differently: Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are considered charismatics, the behavioral neighbors we call disturbed. This unequal treatment has far-reaching consequences.

The most widely praised and admired people have one thing in common: they are very likely to suffer from a mental disorder. Anyone who thinks this is exaggerated should bear in mind that many psychopathies are not perceived as such by those affected or by outsiders. They express themselves as behavioral problems, tics or what is diplomatically referred to as "character deficits". One takes note of it with astonishment, even irritation, but does not necessarily infer a pathological cause from it.

Take, for example, this profile of an unspecified person: He is charismatic, intelligent and daring. She has visionary ideas and pursues them purposefully, radically and without considering losses. She has unshakable self-confidence, tends to have impulsive outbursts and remains socially adaptable. Under chaotic conditions, which it often causes consciously, it grows beyond itself. The description could equally apply to a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk. In connection with markers such as a lack of empathy and narcissism, it also corresponds in all essential points to the definition of a functioning psychopath.

It is well known that Jobs was a monster who humiliated and bullied his co-workers and his own children. Neither he nor Musk was officially diagnosed with psychopathy. But that doesn't matter either. Because what is really interesting is not the clinical picture itself, but the contradicting way in which psychopathy and other mental disorders are judged by the public.

Eccentric personalities like Jobs and Musk are considered to be ingenious technology prophets, while the mentally battered ordinary citizen is covered with the stigma of the nut, which can hardly be erased. Heroization on the one hand, pathologization on the other: it is this tension that makes the psychopath the most central and marginal figure in society at the same time.

The charm of success

Let's go back to the character description mentioned above. No matter how many people would like to recognize themselves in it, it is the distillate of exactly those properties that are associated with professional success. Recent studies have found that up to 20 percent of CEOs have psychopathic traits, a multiple of the social average.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see this connection: Psychopaths are power-conscious and dominant. They are also very adept at disguising their intentions through charm and manipulation. Both properties are indisputably helpful in order to be successful in complex organizations. Even if collegiality and teamwork are now in the foreground, everyday corporate life is characterized by selfish behavior, opportunism and power games.

Usually it remains with the usual collateral damage: pressure to perform, intrigue, high fluctuation. But the line to illegality is quickly crossed. White-collar criminals such as Werner K. Rey or the former Enron manager Jeff Skilling, but also Markus Braun, the recently arrested founder of the scandalous fintech company Wirecard; they were all considered great entrepreneurs until they dropped their ethics.

The phenomenon of heroism is even more pronounced in culture, which has always transfigured the marriage between genius and madness into an ideal. Strange, eccentric behavior is considered a quality feature of the artist and his art. These expectations are supported by any number of artist biographies and anecdotes: Diogenes, the tramp philosopher from the bin. The poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who, declared insane, spent 30 years in a tower. Arthur Rimbaud, the eloquent child prodigy who revolutionized French poetry in an opium frenzy and later became a gun dealer in the Horn of Africa.

Or the members of the notorious “27 Club”, which includes musicians such as Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse or Jim Morrison and the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. All were mentally unstable and put an early end to their lives. They are fates that are themselves suitable for dramatic material and have given the film industry many classics.

Good for creativity

As always, the question of causality arises here too. Are artists naturally prone to psychopathy? Or is it the artistic milieu that promotes mental illness? And what is the influence of psychopathy on artistic output? Creativity research deals intensively with this topic and comes to a clear conclusion: Psychopathy is good for creativity. This does not mean that artists inevitably suffer from a mental illness. But the accumulation is significant.

The German-British psychologist Hans Eysenck stated in the 1990s that the predisposition to psychotic behavior, but not its actual appearance, is the “decisive element in realizing creative potential”. What is meant is a series of individual character traits (aggressive, emotionally cold, self-centered, anti-social, etc.), which, depending on their characteristics and combination, can combine to form more or less severe forms of mental illness. In other words, creative success is likely for those who can control these traits without slipping into an acute disease state.

In any case, the myth of the mentally battered artist is a highly effective means of self-expression. It satisfies the widespread voyeuristic impulse to participate in human failure from a safe distance, especially when followed by a brilliant comeback. In the entertainment industry, mental trauma has been openly celebrated for some time. Kanye West regularly makes a name for itself with erratic behavior and media interruptions that are due to severe bipolar disorder. He presents himself as a sufferer who produces his strokes of genius under the greatest agony. Nevertheless (or because of that?) He just announced his presidential candidacy.

West is the dazzling top of a Hollywood elite who has been permanently treated and sedated, commuting between rehab and sanatorium and vying for audience sympathy on talk shows. The author Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre also likes to show off his self-destructive streak. In «Panikherz», his preliminary life review, drug excess, depression and bulimia play the main roles. If there was ever any doubt that a personal monument could be erected with a masochistic soul trip, Stuckrad-Barre has finally dispelled it.

Result of the «halo effect»

But why do we react differently to the psychological state of celebrities than to that of the confused homeless person in the station hall or the suicidal neighbor? The explanation lies in the so-called "halo effect". He describes the dazzling radiance of renowned personalities who bathe every flaw in the warm light of respectability. This effect is particularly pronounced in connection with mental illnesses in two respects.

On the one hand, the cliché of the unpredictable, gloomy genius, exemplified by many artists, leads to the exaggeration of pathological behavior patterns. They are interpreted as a necessary prerequisite and the actual source of inspiration and thus ennobled in perception. Some people who saw it as an invitation to an unhealthy way of life have already succumbed to the fallacy “art obliges to madness”.

On the other hand, celebrities serve as a projection surface for their own insecurities and weaknesses. Stuckrad-Barre endured his alcoholism more easily because he knew that Udo Lindenberg, whom he admired, was also a heavy drinker for a long time. By thinking of the idol as the center of an imaginary community of suffering, it also paradoxically contributes to the normalization of its precarious state of mind.

The eccentric and crazy have a magnetic attraction. We are surrounded by functioning psychopaths who fascinate, inspire and repel us in equal measure - at work, in the news, on the Internet. At the same time, harmless behavioral disorders are already being over-treated with drugs in adolescents, not to mention severe cases.

All of this happens within the framework of a social consensus that has made good humor the highest principle for a long time. A sober discussion of the subject of mental health is therefore entirely justified. But not as a vehicle for a political agenda that replaces the body cult with a psycho cult that wants to educate us to be hypersensitive beings. But as a serious attempt to make the unbearable about the lightness of being an unadorned but integrated part of society.

Simon M. Ingold is Senior Manager at a Swiss company and member of the board of the Yale Alumni Association.