A riddle: It’s instinctual. It doesn’t think or plan or reflect. It has no conscience. It’s opportunistic and seeks and feeds upon others’ weaknesses. It quickly changes its colors to hide or blend in. It strikes faster than its prey can think or move. It’s totally selfish. It eats others. It’s cold blooded. It lives for itself only. It relishes death-dueling.
What is it? Answer: The “reptilian personality.” The highest profile examples of which are North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Vladimir Putin.
And sadly also, our Donald Trump.
Located behind and deep within the human thinking planning brain is an aeons-old primitive brain. Over aeons of time the brain evolved from being a single neuron to being a clump of them. Then over several hundred million years that clump grew and bestowed survival advantage to those whose lumps happened to be bigger than others’. They won countless struggles for survival and their bigger brains were passed on to offspring.
The bigger brain, as living tissue does, sprang random mutations and variations a few of which conferred survival advantage to its host, but most of which gave nothing or worse, disadvantage and disappeared. They lost out to the brains whose variations gave life-sustaining advantage.
Over time, and in this way, all kinds of brains developed in a widely branching tree of brain development. The most developed brains became encased in protective bone in, among other species, the hominid class, with Homo Sapiens (Wise Man — us) being the most highly technically skilled specimen in the animal kingdom.
Not limited to reptiles, the reptilian brain – as a type – is alive and well in all animals of prey whose instincts are described as above Such brains are also alive and well in a subset of Homo Sapiens, and are well represented among us today. In Russia they are the Oligarchs, in America and elsewhere gangsters and the Plutocrats – the unimaginably and scandalously criminally wealthy.
These reptilians are most comfortable with their own, and seek out common lower-order prey “whom they may devour.” For one’s own protection it’s good to know about this kind. Sadly though they are not always understood or recognized for what they are. That’s why we elected one as our president.
Consider the contrast in personalities and styles: Obama v. Trump. Obama: serene, reflective, contemplative, decorous, cool-headed, slow to action, steady, stays on course. Trump: hot-tempered, loud-mouthed, boasts of deceitfulness, inconsistent, self-contradictory, disrespectful, power-thrusting, massively embarrassingly narcissistic. Between the two, which is the better example to show the world what America is and stands for? And which example is the better to show our kids how to be and behave as grownups.
We are told that words have consequences. But far more subtle and often not easily seen is that leadership styles have consequences. We are beginning to see a crude un-civilizing taking root across America redolent of what Trump has been modeling for all to see and perhaps emulate as a mode of the rugged individualist. The ruthless “me first” attitude Trump writ large across America and the world cannot take us anywhere good. Pandora’s box of anger and just plain mean has been thrown open. Moral development research of children and adolescents reveals that the “me first” attitude is part and parcel of benignly self-centered childhood. It should be left there and give way to the more mature moral stage of humane sympathy and empathy of adulthood.
Swashbuckling hedonic it’s-all-about-me individualism should be but a transition stage in the process of maturation that hopefully moves us upward to the higher plane of altruistic, even fiduciary, concern for others. America once seemed to be moving forward in that developmental equation. Are we now going backwards? The next four years will tell an important story about that.
Brik McDill, PhD. is a retired psychologist