The idiot's lantern, march of hierarchy and a 'necessary evil'?
I read Taylor’s very brilliant piece on ‘The Problem of Pathocracy’ (The Psychologist, November 2021) and it raised a number of very important and relevant issues not only relevant to contemporary politics but also over the last five decades.
While it is important to understand the symptoms of Pathocracy at the individual level (of those who seek to gain power at any cost), it is equally important not to ignore the wider social and cultural factors which may, or may not, contribute to the rise of pathocracy.
What does not get mentioned is the role of the media, both traditional and modern, and this is essential to our understanding to how those with ‘dark triads’ not only get close to power but even gain power in the first place.
After the Second World War, the Age of Television began to emerge. While many politicians embraced the medium, the post war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee disliked it, describing it as ‘an idiot’s lantern’ and he wanted as little to do with it as possible. What this may suggest is that Attlee foresaw what the consequences of the Television age would bring. This may have been based on what other leaders around the world used the big screen for previously, such as in the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, when Goebbels used it for Nazi Propaganda (Sigman, 2007). He (Attlee) would now be turning in his grave.
Since then, more and more politicians have used Television and in more recent times, Social Media, for their election campaigns and for mass appeal. Examples include Thatcher’s 1979 Election campaign videos showing her purchasing fruit and vegetables and doing light housework in kitchen, a bit of gardening and even using a feather duster during a speech to the Tory Party Conference, Boris Johnson riding on a Zipwire carrying two Union Jack flags, along with many other publicity stunts, such as pretending to do work in the community, Bill Clinton playing the Saxophone and drilling a hole in a wall during his Presidential Election Campaigns, David Cameron’s famous ‘Hugging Huskies’ (and he was an expert at PR, having worked in PR for Carlton Television). Other publicity stunts politicians use to galvanise support include visiting factories and workplaces and getting close to and even interacting with the workforce, but more for political gain than for any meaningful purpose. Taylor rightly mentions Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ and along with ‘Get Brexit Done’ and ‘Take Back Control’ in the UK; this shows how ‘sloganising’ is a symptom as well as a cause of pathocractic government. Also, the increasing emergence of soundbite culture and the increasing use of soundbites plays to ever shortening attention spans, something which Television was frequently criticised for and playing to people’s emotions and not their intellect.
This shows that as Psychologists, we need to be very concerned about the culpability of much of the media in helping such leaders get into power in the first place, given the amount of influence the media has on public opinion and it has become progressively easier to manipulate the public into going against their own best interests through Social Media as well as more conventional media.
But as Frances (2017) rightly mentions, by blaming the likes of Trump, Brexit, Johnson, Thatcher et al, it overlooks the underlying societal sickness which resulted in their triumphs in the first place. The ascent of such leaders shows a societies in significant distress: it is important not to overlook what the causes of societal distress is as well as its symptoms. The increasingly hostile and toxic media culture in the UK has done much to cause societal distress, preferring to cover and promote a celebrity obsessed culture and a culture of shallowness and spouting opinions, playing to emotions and sentiment instead of intellect, instead of giving thoughtful news analysis and allowing citizens to make their own minds up on the issues that are reported.
All Political Systems, whether Communist, Capitalist, Socialist, Liberal etc, are susceptible in one way or another to Pathocracy, and as Taylor points out, the checks and balances which are meant to be there to keep a check on ruthless and amoral people, do little, if anything to prevent such people attaining it to begin with. In terms of the causes of the ruthlessness of our own political leaders in the UK, the boarding schools among many things have a lot to answer for and extensive research been done by Schaverian (2015), Duffell (2014) and Renton (2018) found that those who went to such schools suffered great Psychological Trauma, even though some of those who went there prefer to repress it, with implications for later adult life and occupational settings.
It is also important to understand the role Social and Cultural Conditions in a country play in whether or not a Pathocracy develops, because without understanding the role of Social and Cultural Conditions in this, it will become harder to reduce the risk of a Pathocracy developing in the first place.
Daniel MacInerney BSc(Hons) MSc MBPsS
Working in management in a logistics company
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I am sure that many of us have, like Steve Taylor, been deeply troubled by the rise of apparently malevolent dictators in recent years and wondered what could be done about it. But I am extremely uneasy about the suggestion that we resort to psychological assessment. I fear that such thoughtways perpetuate the very hierarchical structures that are the “cause” of the problem (See eg Raven, 2008).
What is more, I fear that the figures Taylor cites re the prevalence of the problem within organisations greatly underestimate the true situation. I suspect that Hogan’s (1990) estimate that 70% of us have found ourselves working for “an impossible boss” provides a better index of the extent of the problem posed by ‘snakes in suits’.
Furthermore, I fear that our social services, “educational” services, and police employ a huge number of people who behave in autocratic and destructive fashions which destroy the lives and livelihoods of many of those they are intended to serve (witness the film 'I, Daniel Blake'.)
Beyond that, our society seems pervaded by a form of fascism wherein many people believe that they have a right to impose, by force if necessary, what they believe to be good on right on others regardless of the wishes of those others or the long-term effects on society.
Conversely, huge numbers of people seem willing, almost instantly, to genuflect to (only partly apocryphal) leaders who ride up on white horses, kick out the king of the castle, and announce that they will now be our leader. Thousands then commit to following that leader to the end of time.
In short, given the (apparently pervasive) disposition to behave in 'dark triad' type ways on the one hand and applaud such behaviour on the other, it does not seem to me that a way forward is to be found via assessment.
Instead, we have to ask ourselves what are the social forces which promote what Bookchin (2005) has called the “inexorable onward march of hierarchy”. Such an enquiry suggests that we need to dismantle our hierarchical management structures and replace them by what are best termed “organic” arrangements. These, as in the internal management of organisms, depend on multiple feedback loops and sensors gaining feedback from the environment (see e.g. Raven, 1995). Such arrangements largely eliminate the need for the cadre of people we currently refer to as politicians.
We would not be the first to have addressed our minds to this question. Adam Smith was appalled by what he viewed as errors (necessarily) committed by the “committees of ignoramuses” constituting centralised government. He suggested that these could be ameliorated by embracing the self-organising properties of the “marketplace”. This way, one could create a society which would innovate and learn without central direction (hierarchy). Smith’s solution does not, and cannot, work. Yet his question is vitally important. And it is surely up to organisational psychologists to come up with an alternative answer. It is vital to the survival of our species and it would certainly provide an alternative way of ameliorating the problems highlighted by Taylor.
Bookchin, M. (2005 [1971; 1991]). The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Hogan, R., Raskin, R., & Fazzini, D. (1990). The dark side of charisma. In K. E. Clark and M. B. Clark (Eds.), Measures of Leadership. West Orange, NJ: Leadership Library of America.
Raven, J. (1995). The New Wealth of Nations: A New Enquiry into the Nature and Origins of the Wealth of Nations and the Societal Learning Arrangements Needed for a Sustainable Society. Unionville, New York: Royal Fireworks Press.
Raven, J. (2008). Intelligence, engineered invisibility, and the destruction of life on earth. Chapter 19, in J. Raven & J. Raven (Eds.) Uses and Abuses of Intelligence: Studies Advancing Spearman and Raven’s Quest for Non-Arbitrary Metrics. Unionville, New York: Royal Fireworks Press.
I appreciate the responses to my article ‘The Problem of Pathocracy’ in the letters section of the December edition of The Psychologist. I also received many responses from other psychologists via email. Whilst everyone seems to agree that pathocracy is a major problem – as has been borne out by recent political events in the UK, which have again exposed the amorality of many of our leaders – there is some disagreement about whether psychologists should have a role in assessing candidates for power.
In her response, Jenny Hill writes that ‘To make this argument publicly would open us to the charge of self-serving grandiosity. Nor would it address the underlying problems.’ I don’t see why psychologists who use their professional expertise in the political sphere should be seen as grandiose. In the US, over 70,000 mental health professionals signed a petition stating that Donald Trump suffers from a ‘serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.’ After the Second World War, psychologists played an important role in the ‘denazification’ initiative of the allies, assessing ex-members of the Nazi party and high-level Nazis such as Rudolph Hess. There were also attempts to understand the mass psychology of Hitler’s and the Nazis’ appeal, in the hope of ensuring that mass fascist movements wouldn’t re-emerge. In addition, psychologists studied German opponents of Nazism, to try to understand the psychological factors that made some people resistant to fascist ideology and authoritarian leaders. As one psychologist who undertook such assessments, David M. Levy, noted, ‘If it is possible, by the present means at our disposal, to determine those factors in the personality which are resistant to the influences that make for aggressive wars in Germany, we shall be in possession of a weapon of prevention.’
These examples show that psychologists can have an important political role, without being grandiose. One could even argue that psychologists have a moral duty to use their professional expertise in such ways. There is very little public knowledge about personality disorders, and psychopathic and narcissistic traits, including how people with such traits are attracted to positions of power. Given the damage caused by politicians with dark triad personalities, surely we have a responsibility to perform both informative and regulatory roles?
Hill is right to suggest that the ‘underlying problems’ need to be addressed. There is a good deal of evidence that, as she writes, ‘dark triad’ personality traits stem from ‘early attachment experiences.’ Research suggests that a lack of parental attachment and affection during early childhood (and episodes of abuse and trauma) is associated with psychopathic and narcissistic traits. This relates to Hill’s second point about the British private school system. In particular, I would argue that the British boarding school system – where children are separated from their parents at a young age and immersed in a hostile environment – is a major source of childhood trauma, which may manifest itself in dark triad traits. Along with the sense of privilege and entitlement that public schools may engender, it is surely no coincidence that many of our leading politicians stem from such a background.
So while I fully agree that these underlying problems need to be addressed, I believe that the problem pathocracy needs to be addressed directly too. In a practical level, whilst dark triad personalities hold power, they are likely to resist any measures to address the underlying issues. Surely a board of psychologists could be at least consulted about candidates for political power and offer their recommendations?
Richard Hammersley makes a number of other points. He suggests that some psychologists have dark triad traits too, which is no doubt true. Any profession with a hierarchical structure will attract dark triad personalities with a strong impulse to gain power and prestige. However, I believe that such people are probably less common in psychology that other professions, such as business or politics. Dark triad personalities crave for power and wealth due to their desire to dominate others. They crave positions where they can attract attention and exercise authority. But psychology is not an ideal arena to express these urges – after all, how many wealthy psychologists do you know? And how many psychologists do you know who occupy leaderships roles at the top of a hierarchy, controlling other people and making major decisions?
More dubiously, Hammersley invokes the evolutionary psychological assumption that if a trait exists in present day human beings, it must have conferred some evolutionary advantage in our prehistoric past. As he writes, ‘Extreme personality issues may be socially functional in extreme conditions such as war or revolution and can lead to reproductive success as in the case of Ghenghis Khan. If they were entirely dysfunctional then why do they remain parts of human diversity?’ As stated above, whilst there may be some genetic influence, the main basis of dark triad traits seems to be environmental, due to early childhood experiences. Even more importantly, one could argue that throughout history ‘extreme conditions such as war’ have themselves been created by dark triad personalities. Naturally, such people thrive in the conditions that they have created, but that doesn’t mean that there is anything beneficial about the traits. What could evolutionary beneficial about traits which generate brutality, oppression and mass murder?
Hammersley rightly notes that ‘people with extreme personality issues can sometimes be highly successful in socially acceptable and beneficial ways.’ He gives the example of Steve Jobs. However, there is a wide variety of extreme personality issues, which should not be conflated. For example, there is no doubt that a condition such as Asperger’s Syndrome can be beneficial and lead to social success. But clearly, psychopathy is a completely distinct condition, with very different consequences. People with psychopathic traits are often highly successful too, but they are also highly malevolent and destructive.
This relates to the argument – not put forward by Hammerlsey himself – that dark triad personalities make good leaders. According to this view, they are confident and decisive and so get things done quickly. Because of the rigidity of their beliefs, they establish goals and stick to them tenaciously. Their lack of empathy promotes a single-mindedness which can sometimes lead to real achievement. On the basis of such assertions, the psychologist Kevin Dutton has even suggested the notion of a ‘good psychopath’ who possesses valuable leadership qualities such coolness under pressure, fearlessness, ruthlessness, impulsivity, and so on.
However, I would argue that such traits could only possibly seem positive in the context of a society which is unhealthily competitive and hierarchical, and so perversely values such negative traits. There is no such thing as a ‘good psychopath’ or a good psychopathic leader. I would argue that a massive proportion of the suffering, cruelty, destruction and murder that has blighted the human race’s existence over recent centuries has been directly caused by the dark triad personalities in positions of power.
Hammersley is also right to note that ‘not all politicians, even the evidently wicked ones, have personality issues.’ He gives the example of Hitler, citing Alan Bullock’s biography. However, Bullock’s view is very much a minority one. Even during his lifetime, psychologists were convinced that Hitler was psychologically disordered. In 1943, the American psychoanalyst Walter Langer described Hitler as a neurotic-psychotic, with masochistic and schizophrenic tendencies. Later psychologists have suggested severe traits of psychopathy, narcissism and paranoia. For example, Betty Glad (2002) suggested a combination of psychopathic, narcissistic and paranoid tendencies. (She reached a similar conclusion about Stalin.) Like many other dictators – such as Stalin, Mussolini and Saddam Hussein – Hitler’s disorder was probably linked to a traumatic and abusive childhood, with a violent alcoholic father and a mother who was traumatised by the loss of three previous children.
Nevertheless, Hammersley’s point holds true. I certainly don’t think that all politicians have dark triad personalities. Some people enter politics out of genuine desire to alleviate injustice and improve social conditions. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is clearly a sizeable proportion of politicians with dark triad traits. As I suggested in my article, once such people gain power, they attract other people with similar traits, and pathocracies take root quickly and easily. I believe that the present UK government is an example of this.
Hammersley ends by suggesting that politicians are a ‘necessary evil.’ I don’t see why this should be the case. Why shouldn’t we have decent, responsible people as our leaders? As I wrote in my article, many hunter-gatherer societies take measures to ensure this, as did the citizens of ancient Athens. So there is no reason why we shouldn’t do so – including calling on the expertise of psychologists.
Steve Taylor PhD
Senior lecturer in psychology, Leeds Beckett University
Illustration: Tim Sanders
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