Psychology’s role in preventing pathocracy

Responses to Steve Taylor's cover feature from the November issue.

Steve Taylor’s analysis of pathocracy (November issue) is timely. We live in frightening times, both politically and ecologically, and historical precedents should alert us to the potential for things to develop in even more frightening directions. However, I doubt that the answer to this is for psychologists to focus their attention on developing a professional role in assessing future leaders. To make this argument publicly would open us to the charge of self-serving grandiosity. Nor would it address the underlying problems.

As I see it, the issue needs to be approached from three directions. Firstly, what are the conditions that nurture the development of people who, as Steve Taylor describes, are ‘unusually ruthless and self-centred, and lacking in conscience and empathy’? Secondly, what are the institutional conditions that allow such individuals to flourish and attain power? And thirdly, what are the conditions that feed the public support for such individuals?

I do not have the answers to these questions, but I can suggest some relevant factors. With regard to the first question, early attachment experiences are of critical importance. Regarding the second question, I can point to the public school system, a legal system that allows individuals to amass massive fortunes, and an electoral system that militates against the emergence of alternative voices in politics. Regarding the third question, political and economic conditions that fuel inequality, poverty and serious psychological problems, come into play. We have only to consider the impact of austerity in Britain.

Steve Taylor writes that he would like to start a debate about the issue of pathocracy. I suggest that these issues, and a consideration of how psychology might contribute to understanding and countering these powerful forces, would be an appropriate starting point. The need for us to act is urgent.

- Jenny Webb
Chartered Clinical Psychologist

Pathocracy can have horrifying results, but, for five reasons, I do not think psychologists should be assessing politicians.

First, not only politicians have extreme personality issues. Indeed, across my career I have encountered a small number of very successful psychologists also with such issues. Some perhaps would happily weaponise personality assessment. Second, 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? Third, people with extreme personality issues can sometimes be highly successful in socially acceptable and beneficial ways. They can be visionaries. Steve Jobs of Apple may have been one example. Although for every Steve Jobs there are dozens of ordinary and not particularly successful people equally convinced of their specialness and vision. Fourth, not all politicians, even the evidently wicked ones, have personality issues. For example, Ian Bullock’s definitive biography of Hitler is very uncertain that he was anything but ordinary, aside from his rhetorical skill. Some of the world’s worst atrocities have been perpetuated by ordinary people convinced that morality, history and God were on their side. Fifth, don’t you have to be a bit peculiar to want to be a politician? That is Jeremy Paxman’s conclusion in The Political Animal. Oddities and all, politicians are a necessary evil. Rather like psychologists. Why would anyone want to do that?

- Richard Hammersley
Practitioner Health Psychologist
Emeritus Professor of Health Psychology
University of Hull

With reference to Steve Taylor’s piece, ‘The problem with pathocracy’, Douglas Adams summed it up perfectly in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘The major problem – one of the major problems, for there are several – one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.’

- Steven Hall MBPsS
School of Education and Psychology
University of Bolton

Illustration: Tim Sanders

See also further discussion in the January 2022 issue.

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