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20 Mar 2020

Spook Psychology

March 20, 2020Psychology

The spy amongst us

The Psychology of a Spy – Spying continues to dominate the headlines. Twenty-Three Russian embassy staff are currently on their way home accused of espionage. Russia is expelling the same number. It’s a familiar story – indeed spying has been around throughout history. Spy novels sell in their millions.

It’s fascinating and made out to be glamorous, even sexy. But what makes a spy? What is the psychology of spying?

There are a multitude of aspects and a wide field of study for analysts and therapists. Spying is far more than just gathering intelligence material – any desk-bound clerk can do that. It’s more about getting up close and personal. It’s often about taking on an entirely different and sustained persona – living a lie and lying for a living.

It’s about constant secrecy, being able to maintain a consistent double life – hidden even from those close to you – and at the same time trying to turn others into traitors to their own country – perhaps persuading them to defect.

The psychology of a spy

So, what is the potential spy’s motivation? The espionage profession would like to think it’s patriotism or the love of a political/philosophical ideal. But is the love of country or ideology all there is?

Clearly the intelligence services attract bright and dedicated people, but also those seeking adventure and risks and there are personality types that match those requirements. The textbook sociopath – possibly psychopath – often fits the spy mould.

A sociopath is someone who is highly skilled at manipulating others to get what they want and can be cold and calculating in achieving their aims. Along with the willingness and ability to manipulate others is a tendency towards risky behaviour in all its forms and a propensity to drug and alcohol abuse. Indeed, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess – members of the so-called ‘Cambridge Five’ spy circle — were regarded by their Soviet handlers as “constantly drunk” and “not very good at keeping secrets”.


A related aspect of sociopathy is narcissism. The narcissistic personality is characterised by exaggerated self-love and self-centredness. Narcissists tend to possess a careless disregard for personal integrity and can be very unscrupulous and manipulative in pursuing their own ends. They will often exploit others emotionally and financially or in other ways that suit their aims. In the case of spies, it’s about extracting valuable information.

There is also a tendency towards fantasising, daydreaming and the creation of alternative worlds and often a need to become a loner – maybe a reason why so many ex-spies become novelists!

Linked to the idea of the ‘spy personality’ is thrill seeking and the avoidance of boredom. It could be categorised as a form of attention deficit disorder (ADD) which involves hyperactivity, impulsiveness and lack of attention. ADD – or ADHD – is a complex area and although inability to accept boredom and risk-taking are attributes, being a successful spy also involves concentrating on maintaining a secret identity, a complex web of lies and long weeks/months of patient observing, developing contacts and sustaining relationships.


Intelligence gathering can be done remotely – satellites, drones, phones and hacking (GCHQ and the NSA), but the best information comes from people willing or coerced into divulging secrets (HUMINT). The reasons why someone is willing to give away secrets are many and varied – indeed another whole area of psychological study.

It’s often about money, disaffection with an organisation or regime, revenge or perhaps an emotional relationship with the agent (‘The Spy Who Loved Me’). It gets even more complicated with the double or triple agent who must sustain the details of several personalities or risk exposure and possibly death.

The provider of secrets to a foreign, enemy power is regarded as a traitor, something that the individual has to live with. The Russian secret services (KGB and GRU), under the direction of the former KGB operative Vladimir Putin, are renowned for their long-term vengefulness. Any defector, whether in an exchange deal or not, must exist with paranoia, constantly looking over their shoulder for the stealthy assassin – a mental state that takes a terrible toll.

What is your take on ‘the psychology of a spy?