How psychopaths end up in government

Boarding schools have long been considered ‘psychopath factories’ in which abuse and humiliation are a fixture of daily life. Yet it is from these very institutions that many of our rulers have been selected.

Students at Eton dressed for the Fourth of June celebrations in 1932.
Students at Eton dressed for the Fourth of June celebrations in 1932.

Early childhood determines the kind of people we become. During our early years, we learn empathy, humility, social boundaries and we develop an ability to form meaningful and healthy relationships. But what becomes of those who are deprived of positive and constructive early experiences?

Leading psychologists, such as Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare, have drawn parallels between psychopathy and leadership; the evidence is compelling. Those who are particularly impulsive, fearless, charismatic, driven and cool under pressure are often in possession of psychopathic traits. Such individuals tend to follow one of two paths: that which leads them to positions of power and influence, or the other which leads to addiction and crime.

Though a child may exhibit psychopathic traits, positive parenting can direct a juvenile’s energies into academic study, and as a result of the child’s drive, propel them on to great things. Conversely, socio-economic factors, as well as absence of positive role models, or lack of one or more positive parental relationships, can all be detrimental to a child’s prospects.

One theory explores the impact of boarding schools on childhood development. With some children sent to board as young as six years of age, Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) can occur. This hinders the development of the limbic system – commonly referred to as the ‘emotional brain’.

An infant Rhesus macaque monkey in a cage during an animal experiment.
An infant Rhesus macaque monkey in a cage during an animal experiment.

Studies into the development of the limbic system and into depression and isolation are apparent in studies such as those of Harry Harlow’s ‘Pit of despair’. In the 1970s, Harlow’s notorious, and often distressing, experiments explored the effect of separation between female macaque monkeys and their offspring. Infants raised in total isolation exhibited clear signs of disturbance and were unable to interact normally with other monkeys.

As time passed, Harlow decided to test the parenting abilities of the female monkeys as they reached maturity. They were so maladjusted that not only were they unable to socialise, they were also unable to mate. These experiments were conducted in the days before artificial insemination was pioneered and consequently, females were tied to ‘rape racks’ in order to be impregnated.

Harlow later exclaimed, “Not even in our most devious dreams could we have designed a surrogate as evil as these real monkey mothers were.”

One mother was observed restraining her baby by holding its face to the floor. She proceeded to chew off its feet and fingers. Another crushed her baby’s head. Many simply ignored their offspring due to a lifetime lacking in social interaction.

Of course, these experiments raise obvious ethical issues but we must consider what can be learned about ourselves from them. Naturally, isolation and instances of abuse and cruelty will influence an individual’s outlook. And, as many of our country’s ruling elite attended boarding institutions, we might wonder what bearing this has had on them. It would certainly not be a surprise to find that many of them exhibit certain emotional blind spots as a result.

Prince John, 1913.
Prince John, 1913.

The archaic sensibilities of ‘the old boys’ network’, borne of Victorian boys-only public schools, often demonstrate a mistrust of females and a disdain for the poor and weak. No more evident were such attitudes than in the case of Prince John, son of George V, hidden from the public eye due to his disabilities and frequently referred to as the ‘dud’ child.

Those responsible for some of the more callous and cruel legislation we see (recent Conservative welfare reforms are alleged to have significantly raised suicide figures among the impoverished and disabled) may be unaware of the consequences suffered by ordinary people. Indeed, their life experiences may even have imbued them with a certain glibness.

One must wonder from whence their lack of empathy originates — their disregard for life, their failure to recognise suffering and their lack of social understanding. One must also question the priorities which put profiteering before the quality of human existence.

Neuroscientist Tara Swart explains that psychopathy is “usually related to some form of abuse – physical, emotional or sexual.”

Ashdown House, which schooled Boris Johnson, recently hit the headlines due to a sex abuse scandal involving two former teachers in the 1970s. An email was circulated to ex-pupils providing details of the planned lawsuit:

“To make matters worse it is now apparent the school was aware of these events, albeit not fully, but chose not to do anything about it […] The abuse that occurred continues to have a dramatic effect on a number of lives, with regards to ongoing relationships, career and treatment for dealing with the psychological damage it has caused. Therefore we are seeking compensation with regards to a civil case against the school.”

Ashdown House (also known as Ashdown Park) is a 17th-century country house in Oxfordshire.
Ashdown House (also known as Ashdown Park) is a 17th-century country house in Oxfordshire.

Nick Clegg was joint Head Boy at Caldicott Boys’ School. In 2013, he expressed his disbelief when his ex-Head Teacher, Roland Peter White, was sentenced for historic child sex abuse. Another former teacher, who was due to be sentenced alongside White, threw himself under a train, seemingly in an attempt to escape the impending court case.

Journalist and writer Francis Wheen, stated: “At my prep school, Copthorne, […] I was sexually molested by a gym master called Charles Napier, who was always putting his hand down boys’ gym shorts. He eventually attained the giddy heights of a treasurer of the Paedophile Information Exchange.”

Early traumas can have a devastating effect on personality disorders such as psychopathy. And it seems that abuse was so utterly ingrained in the system that many, even to this day, fail to condemn it as they ought to. Richard Dawkins claimed that “mild paedophilia”, which he encountered during his time at boarding school, was of its time:

“I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

Many seemed to consider such experiences as “the making of you”; if you survived a stint at boarding school, you could survive anything.

Indeed, it would appear that some of these children grew up so confused that the abused would often become the abuser; older boys seeking out the younger ones for sexual favours. There have been accounts of some ex-boarders warning their younger siblings of their own personal experiences upon starting school; offering cautionary advice never to attend the toilets alone or to allow an older boy to call them away from a group.

An illustration of 'The fagging system'.
An illustration of ‘The fagging system’.

Up until the 1970s and 1980s, many boarding school pupils would have to endure the tradition of ‘fagging’. In this practice, a younger boy would fulfil the role of general dogsbody to a senior boy, carrying out menial (and it is rumoured sometimes sexual) duties. The punishments for unsatisfactory completion of these tasks could be harsh. In return, the older pupil would be responsible for the conduct and protection of the ‘fag’.

Many pupils and parents would reason that living through such ordeals was ‘worth it’ as an education from one of these prestigious boarding schools often led to the top jobs, via establishments such as Eton, Oxford, Cambridge and Rugby.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has called for class to be given the same priority as gender and ethnicity. Despite this, data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows a drop year on year in places at Oxbridge given to students from disadvantaged backgrounds (possibly owing to a rise in tuition fees). In its defence, Oxford University stated that it followed a different definition of ‘disadvantaged students’ thereby yielding a different data set which indicated a slight improvement.

However, according to Government advisers, ex-boarders and ex-public school pupils still dominate politics, the judiciary and the media to this day and are massively over-represented in comparison to their less privileged counterparts.

Typical conduct observed in the House of Commons demonstrates the stunted development of many of our politicians. Their lessons from boarding school of fear and consequent bullying leaves their diplomacy skills wanting. An inability to skilfully collaborate and compromise for the greater good highlights the weaknesses in boarding school culture.

We must ask ourselves: how do the life experiences of our rulers provide them with an insight into our lives? And, are we always to kowtow to our ‘betters’ and accept their way of doing things without question?

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Lyndsey Jameson

Lyndsey is an active member of the Labour Party, in the north of England. She is also an artist and currently works as a teacher.