Dr Steve Taylor is an expert in ‘pathocracy’. He tells our Writer at Large why frightening people are drawn to politics and how they win power at our expense

IF you’ve ever wondered whether that politician on TV might be a psychopath, well, bad luck, you’re probably right. Politics attracts some of society’s most mentally disordered people, who thirst for power and have zero empathy for the rest of us.

In fact, in terms of their psychology, they’re disturbingly similar to serial killers and cult leaders.

Spend some time in the company of Dr Steve Taylor, one of Britain’s leading experts on political psychology, and you’ll soon be looking at MPs and MSPs rather differently.

Clearly, not all politicians are dangerous. Many are perfectly decent people who want to do good and serve the public. But – and it’s a huge, terrifying “but” – politics is a magnet for highly dangerous people who couldn’t give a damn if most of us live or die.

Taylor details his findings in a powerful new book called Disconnected: The Roots Of Human Cruelty And How Connection Can Heal The World. One of his key fields of expertise is “pathocracy”. If democracy means “rule of the people”, pathocracy means “rule of the psychopath”.

At the heart of pathocracy lies the concept of “connection”, as it’s “disconnected” people who are disproportionally attracted to politics.


Steve Taylor. PLEASE CREDIT photographer Remy Steiner.

Dr Steve Taylor. Photographer: Remy Steiner



Connection, says Taylor, “is equivalent to empathy”. When someone is sad or suffering, we feel for them. Connected people “don’t want to harm others”.

“However, when you’re disconnected, you don’t have the ability to empathise. You’re capable of inflicting pain, of exploiting people, treating people brutally, cruelly. Without empathy, others are just objects you can use.”

Describing “disconnection” as “psychopathy”, however, is too crude. “Psychologists nowadays are reluctant to use the term,” Taylor says. He prefers the term “hyper-disconnected”. It encompasses “the dark triad”: psychopathy, narcissism and machiavellianism. An unpleasant cocktail.

The mix of these three traits affects how hyper-disconnected politicians behave. More narcissism in the personality, and they’ll probably inflict less suffering, as they want to be loved. More psychopathy and it’s Hitler. “Narcissists need admiration, so they’re less cruel than psychopaths,” Taylor adds.

Hyper-disconnected people “exist in a state of complete self-immersion … They’re often drawn to politics,” says Taylor. “They feel something is missing. They’re like fragments that exist in complete separation from others. They have a strong desire for power, wealth or fame. They’re trying to compensate for their incompleteness.”

They can be “brutal” as they “exist in a terribly unreal state in which they don’t feel human emotions. They can’t connect with others. They can’t feel true happiness, as genuine happiness comes from connecting with others”. At best, they experience some emotional kick from “short-term pleasure or vengeance”. They’re “empty, never fulfilled”. They must be constantly active as they can’t stand their own company. “Solitude makes them feel their emptiness,” he adds.


THE genetics behind hyper-disconnectedness remain unclear, says Taylor, who teaches at Leeds Beckett University. However, all hyper-disconnected people share one common trait: “Severely traumatic childhoods.”

Some psychologists believe British politicians sent to boarding school could suffer acute childhood trauma which shattered their empathy. It’s called “boarding school syndrome”.

Taylor adds, though, that many who experience childhood trauma become perfectly empathetic adults. Some “become more empathetic because they’ve been through trauma”.

Alcoholism, domestic violence, neglect, abuse and mental illness respect no class boundaries.

Key to hyper-disconnection is a “lack of emotional connection to parents”. This causes some to “unconsciously switch off their empathetic abilities. They build armour around themselves, they want to protect themselves from pain, they close themselves off from human emotions as a self-protective measure.

“They find other humans difficult to understand because we gain our insights into others through empathy.”

The hyper-disconnected “can learn to imitate human emotions, they pretend to have emotions, that’s one way they manipulate people. They can be quite charming”.

Most people, though, are “connected”. A person doesn’t need to experience “the perfect childhood” to become connected, they just require a decent, average loving family.

“Connection is natural, it emerges from normal human conditions. Disconnection emerges when something goes wrong. It’s an aberration.”

It’s almost impossible to “cure” hyper-disconnection. Most psychological disturbed people seek help. The hyper-disconnected, however, “believe they’re infallible, that they’re perfect. They’re never willing to admit they need help”. That’s why no psychopath has ever been “healed”.

Disconnection is a continuum, however. A child raised in a terrorist home, or crime family, is what Taylor terms “shallowly-disconnected”. Their disconnection is down to “their social environment”, not parental neglect. In other words, they’ve been “conditioned” to violence or crime. Think of a kid raised in a gangster family who stabs someone as a teen but later reforms after a prison spell.

The “shallowly-disconnected” are “fairly easily” reconnected through psychological intervention, and restorative justice programmes. Their disconnection is “superficial … They haven’t been through the deep, emotional childhood trauma which produces extreme disconnection”. The shallowly-disconnected can be taught to “empathise with their victims” unlike the hyper-disconnected. That’s why so many Nazis were successfully “deprogrammed” after the Second World War.

So it’s the irredeemable hyper-disconnected people devoid of empathy and human emotions who are dangerously attracted to politics.


Graphic abstract design of concept of being emotionally or mentally challenged. Strong, dramatic image of iconic butterfly trapped behind prison bars.




THAT’s why pathocracy, says Taylor, is humanity’s “most common form of government”. Think of all the dictatorships in recent history.

However, the hyper-disconnected are equally attracted to democracy. Taylor says we need only think of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

Politics allows the hyper-disconnected “to manipulate and exploit people to gain power”. As they’ve “no moral principles or decency, they find power easy to attain. Good people aren’t normally interested in power – they also take into account other people’s emotions and have a sense of morality, so they don’t find it easy to climb into positions of power”.

Within pathocracy, there’s a “continuum of connection”, says Taylor. “Figures like Hitler and Stalin were as disconnected as it’s possible to be, with severe psychopathic traits. Other pathocratic leaders may be less disconnected, and have mainly narcissistic rather than psychopathic traits. “They may still have a malign influence – Boris Johnson is a good example. It simply depends on a person’s degree of disconnection.”

When the hyper-disconnected take power they surround themselves with “similar people”. Hitler did that in Germany, says Taylor, and Trump did the same in America. Decent people either “fall away”, are sacked, or even executed in dictatorships.

Eventually, “you have a coterie of other people with psychopathic and narcissistic traits”.

In worst-case scenarios, like Nazi Germany, pathocracy “encourages similar people all over society to come out of the woodwork and attain powerful positions, so the whole society becomes more ruthless, brutal and disconnected”.

Across Europe, South America, Asia and Africa, pathocrats littered the 20th century. Ironically, the earlier system of kingship, although it often produced brutal rulers, “limited” the number of hyper-disconnected people who could attain power, says Taylor. It restricted who could rule to “a very small number of people”.


THE “one negative side-effect” of the shift towards democracy was that it “broke power open”. Anybody could become a leader. “The most disconnected people could ruthlessly push themselves forward,” says Taylor. Thus we get Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Pinochet.

Not all dictators take power through violence, however. Hitler’s election shows how vulnerable democracy is to the hyper-disconnected.

“It’s very easy for any disconnected person to put themselves forward as an MP or senator,” says Taylor. “Once they’re in, they can rapidly climb the ranks as they’re ruthless and charismatic. They can easily end up in cabinet, which is what happened in the UK. Once they’re in power, they have the ability and opportunity to circumvent, limit or destroy democracy.”

Democracy is anathema to the hyper-disconnected as it “restricts their power”. Thankfully, though, democracy’s checks and balances mean that while the hyper-disconnected often succeed in politics in nations like Britain and America, overthrowing the system is exceptionally difficult.

A good example, says Taylor, is how America’s constitution stopped Trump “overturning the election”.

“Democratic processes are in place to protect us from these people,” he adds. “But what democracy doesn’t do is prevent them gaining power.”

Johnson, says Taylor, was “a perfect example of a hyper-disconnected person” gaining power. The UK Government effectively became a “pathocracy”. Johnson’s narcissism meant “he’d never admit he lied. He convinced himself he hadn’t lied as it didn’t suit his picture of reality”. Johnson and Trump, to differing degrees, “exist in a state of self-delusion”. Trump “actually believes” he won the election.

“Reality is very fluid to them because they’re disconnected from reality,” says Taylor. “They believe whatever they want to believe. They’re not like normal people. There’s not one truth, one objective reality, for them. Reality is easily distorted by their wishes and beliefs. Johnson believes he never misled the nation about Downing Street parties.”

Johnson’s hyper-disconnection meant “he’d no concept of morality or decency”, says Taylor. That’s why “he tried to undermine democracy by proroguing parliament”. He also “acted in plainly unacceptable ways” during the Chris Pincher scandal. Claims that Johnson’s “let the bodies pile high” comments amid Covid are clearly devoid of empathy.


WE’RE lucky, says Taylor, that Johnson “was operating within a democracy”, and that Britain is a “fairly connected society”, as that “constrained him”.

Johnson’s hyper-disconnection is heavily influenced by his narcissism: his desire to “be liked”. This accounts for his “clownish” behaviour. This craving for attention “diminishes the danger”. Someone like Johnson “wants to be admired, so they can’t be too ruthless and brutal. The difference with someone like [current Home Secretary] Suella Braverman is that she doesn’t have that desire to be liked. She doesn’t care. She lacks that kind of narcissism.”

“Extreme right-wing” politics attracts the hyper-disconnected. Clearly, that doesn’t mean traditional, mainstream conservatives. Far-right politics displays “malevolence, and hatred of the world and other people”. That mirrors the personality disorders of hyper-disconnection. Their emptiness and frustration “manifests as hatred”, which gets directed at “vulnerable targets like refugees” or other “out groups”.

“Hyper-disconnected people have this desire for destruction. They want to inflict chaos on the world”.

Trump’s policies, Taylor notes, were “hostile to nature”. The hyper-disconnected “hate the world, they want to damage the world and other people”.


Neuro diversity, people in crowd. Pattern with doodle people




HYPER-disconnected leaders often exploit nationalism at times of crisis, says Taylor. “They see themselves as paternal, authoritarian figures at the centre of the nation.” They “project their own personality traits onto their countries”. Increasing their nation’s power increases “their own sense of power”. The more disconnected someone is, the more they crave the “group identity” of nationalism.

Clearly, the extreme left also attracts the hyper-disconnected, as Communist China and Soviet Russia prove. “When left-wing ideologies become really extreme you can’t distinguish them from fascism.”

So why, in democracies, do we vote for these people? Firstly, they’re “extremely charismatic”. As they “lack normal human emotions like fear, nervousness, embarrassment and guilt, they project a sense of confidence”.

What seems like “courage or decisiveness” is actually emotional deadness, Taylor explains.

More troubling, though, is what Taylor calls “the abdication syndrome”. This involves ordinary people viewing political leaders the way children view their parents – “incapable of harm or behaving negatively”.

He adds: “Children feel their parents will completely protect them, take responsibility for their lives. They don’t need to worry about anything as long as their parents are in control. This instinct is really powerful within people.”

Hyper-disconnected leaders therefore

– whether in dictatorships or democracies – make some citizens “revert to that childhood state where you hand over responsibility for your life. That’s what’s happening with MAGA people in America. It happened in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, ordinary people have a tendency to admire these people.”

There’s good news, though. Most of us – whether we’re capable of being hypnotised by the hyper-disconnected or not – are “fundamentally moral”. So, in democracies, we eventually tire of “hyper-disconnected leaders”, and kick them out. That’s what happened to both Trump and Johnson, Taylor says. The majority eventually rejects cruelty and chaos.


IN dictatorships, the hyper-disconnected inevitably take matters too far and their regime falls. Think Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi. Note the lack of women among dictators.

Women tend, says Taylor, to be “generally more altruistic and empathetic than men”.

That could be down to social conditioning, however, with girls encouraged to be more gentle and kind, and boys encouraged to be tough and not show emotions.

It’s also due to the fact that dictatorships often arise in fully “disconnected societies”, which are more patriarchal, and so women have little chance of power. In democracies, however, women can be disconnected too – Taylor points to Margaret Thatcher – or connected, like Angela Merkel, he says.

Significantly, Merkel’s nickname was “Mutti”, or “Mother”, making her the reverse of the patriarchal hyper-disconnected leader.

Even good, moral people who enter politics – of which there are obviously many – struggle to remain “decent” once in power. Power has “a disrupting, corrupting effect. If you’re elevated into that position, you’re disconnected [from ordinary people]. It’s not surprising some become more corrupt once they gain power”.

More primitive societies are much more “connected”. Most are small, extremely egalitarian, peaceful, and share possession, Taylor says.

There’s evidence that “warfare only became endemic 6,000 years ago” as humans shifted to farming, property, and cities ruled by “powerful alpha males”: aka the hyper-disconnected. “That’s when the era of disconnected societies began”. Hunter-gatherer societies usually “eject” alpha males as they threaten group harmony.

Although Britain’s “strong traditions” of justice and rule of law protect us against the hyper-disconnected, Taylor believes all modern democracies need tweaked to balance out the risk such people pose. “It’s absurd there’s no psychological assessment of people vying for power,” he says.

Any powerful job – policing, army, politics – should involve candidates being assessed to see if they’re fit for the role, with dangerous people screened out.


IRONICALLY, some answers may lie in very early democratic experiments like Ancient Athens, Taylor believes. Athenians “ostracised” those considered dangerous to democracy. Taylor says there’s an echo of that in the removal of Boris Johnson’s parliamentary pass. He was symbolically banished by the group.

Athenians also used a much more participatory form of democracy, where ordinary citizens were chosen by lottery to hold office and govern. It’s called “sortition democracy”. We already use sortition in juries and Citizens Assemblies.

Given most people are decent and moral, Taylor says, sortition means decent, moral government. Sortition restricts the hyper-disconnected accessing power. Experts – our existing civil service – would be there to help these citizen politicians govern.

Even if some were “malevolent”, or stupid, a large group of, say, 1,000 citizens holding office for a few years each would balance those negative factors out.

Why shouldn’t we trust ourselves, more than professional politicians, to run the country, Taylor asks. “Ordinary people are generally moral and empathetic,” he says. “We can trust ordinary people to make the right decision, whereas you can’t trust hyper-disconnected politicians. Mostly, we’re being ruled by the wrong people.

“We must protect ourselves from them.”

Taylor says wars are never really “between ordinary people but pathocratic governments and the hyper-disconnected people in power. Ordinary people don’t want conflict. We want to live in harmony”.


THE world of tech tycoons smacks of hyper-disconnection too. Just hink of Facebook’s motto “move fast and break things”, or the term “disruptor”. “There’s nothing positive about it, it’s extremely negative,” says Taylor. Some powerful CEOs and influential media figures also display signs of hyper-disconnection, as do cult leaders and online extremists. For the hyper-disconnected these are perfect “career avenues”.

Serial killers exhibit the most extreme form of hyper-disconnection. They share the same traits as “the most severe pathocrats”, Taylor says. “For both, the death of other human beings is as trivial as throwing away old clothes.”

Cult leaders are able to gain complete power over followers, unquestioning obedience and love.

“These people are deeply abnormal

– they’re an aberration – but they’ve an incredibly powerful effect because they can gain power so easily.”

But eventually “the natural connectedness of human beings – empathy – always reasserts itself”, Taylor adds.

“That’s why I’m optimistic. I believe there’s a historical trend for societies to become more connected, to increase equality, democracy and justice. The spirit of empathy is growing stronger.”

And the most important adjustment we can make to protect ourselves from the hyper-disconnected? Well, it’s making sure they don’t exist in the first place.

That means better support for parents, Taylor says.

We need to build a society where no child experiences trauma, but can grow up loved, empathic and kind.