Psychopaths: Closer than you Think

Hear the word ‘psychopath’ and it will invariably evoke an image of Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene in Psycho or a shudder-inducing Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. But what about the other psychopaths, the ones who aren’t foreshadowed by a haunting violin sequence or bloodcurdling screams, the ones who could be inhabiting an office near you?

Psychopathy is a personality disorder consisting of a cluster of characteristics, the most chilling of which is a complete absence of conscience. Psychopaths have no sense of guilt, remorse or shame, and they appear to be incapable of experiencing anything but a shallow level of the emotions that are commonplace for others. Hervey Cleckley, a pioneering American psychiatrist in the field of psychopathy, described a psychopath he had observed in the following terms: ‘Beauty and ugliness, except in a very superficial sense, goodness, evil, love, horror, and humour, have no actual meaning, no power to move him … It is as though he were colourblind, despite his sharp intelligence, to the emotional aspect of human existence.’

Indeed, brain imaging experiments conducted by Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist, have shown that psychopaths do not have the same pattern of responses to emotive material as the general population. If a non-psychopathic individual is shown a distressing image or word, activity will flare in the limbic regions of the brain associated with processing emotion. Not so for a psychopath. Evocative images or words instead lead to activation in the areas of the brain involved in the understanding and production of language, as if a psychopath analyses the material in detached, linguistic terms.

The popular perception of a psychopath might still be the knife-wielding maniac, but Hare has challenged this view with his study of corporate psychopathy. Using a measurement tool for identifying psychopaths, known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, Hare and others estimate that psychopaths make up around 1% of the overall population. Disturbingly, this number rises to around 3.9% among corporate professionals. That’s 1 in 25 people in your office. In the words of Hare: ‘Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the boardroom.’

Christian Bale’s character, Patrick Bateman, in American Psycho

Furthermore, psychopaths are particularly prevalent among CEOs and in professions such as finance and law. The difficulty is that you won’t spot them readily. While they are outwardly charismatic and charming, they are master manipulators who conceal their true selves behind a façade – referred to by Hare and others as the ‘psychopathic fiction’ and by Cleckley as the ‘mask of sanity’. The psychopath uses this false image to construct a persona designed to appeal to whoever he or she wishes to target. For this reason, one person will often have a quite different perception of the psychopath from another. What you see is most definitely not what you get.

Corporations can be attractive to psychopaths because they provide the opportunity for wealth accumulation, not to mention power and status. Psychopaths often do very well in them, rising quickly to the top. They are adept at acting covertly, playing lip service to the rules while finding the loopholes for evading them. Moreover, they are not averse to employing a barrage of unethical strategies, such as blackmail, rumour-mongering and outright lying, to bring down colleagues, and promote themselves. Imagine, for a moment, how easy it would be to get ahead if you had no conscience to restrain you – no hint of guilt or remorse no matter what duplicity you employed – and if, far from having a sense of responsibility, you regarded those who respected the system as contemptible fools.

Corporations can be attractive to psychopaths because they provide the opportunity for wealth accumulation, not to mention power and status.

Can a psychopath ever benefit society? Psychologist Kevin Dutton believes so. He relates a thought experiment, known as the ‘trolley dilemma’, in which subjects are asked whether they would be willing to push a man to his death from a bridge if his falling body would be guaranteed to halt the progress of an approaching railway trolley, and thus protect five victims bound to the track. While a non-psychopathic individual would baulk at the suggestion, despite the obvious benefit in saving more lives, a psychopath would not hesitate. This fearlessness and utilitarianism, Dutton says, might be an asset in certain situations – a beneficial quality, perhaps, for the likes of surgeons, soldiers and spies. The logic is clear – who would want their surgeon to perform an incision with a trembling hand? Or an army to drop their weapons in nervous fear? But Hare disagrees. In his view, the potential upside is not outweighed by the downside occasioned by the emotional destruction a psychopath wreaks.

So, we know corporations may exude a magnetic attraction for psychopaths, but a more sinister consideration is whether big business plays along – and encourages them. Can the very structure of a corporation cause psychopathic behaviour? In modern society, the corporation has emerged as the planet’s dominant institution, rivalling governments with their far-reaching control and influence. Corporations are now a pervasive part of our daily lives: it’s near impossible to step outside without having an interaction that doesn’t involve one, whether it’s the clothes you wear, the groceries you buy or the car you drive. How did corporations come to have so much power?

Piccadilly Circus in London

The early English corporations, including the formidable East India Company, were established and controlled by Royal Charter, primarily to exploit maritime trade routes. The East India Company was successful not only in launching the British Empire but also in returning exotic cargoes of silk, indigo dye, spices, tea and opium for the pleasure of the ruling classes. But by the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was underway, replacing simple cottage industries with steam powered ‘manufactories’. With it came pressure for legal reform to facilitate business progress. Restrictions were gradually lifted on ordinary people incorporating companies. Then, in 1855, legislation was enacted, allowing investors to limit their liability to the amount they had invested in the company. This was the basis for the limited liability companies we are so familiar with today.

The most groundbreaking change of all was still to come. In the wake of Civil War in the United States, the 14th amendment to the constitution was ratified on 4 July 1868. The amendment aimed to uphold the rights of newly freed African-American slaves, guaranteeing the privileges of citizenship to ‘any and all persons born or naturalised in the United States.’ While the law was designed to protect the most vulnerable, the upper echelons of society and their corporate lawyers considered how to turn it to their own advantage. In 1886, that’s exactly what they succeeded in doing, when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court declared that a private corporation is a natural person under the Constitution, with all of the associated rights and freedoms. In 1897, the English House of Lords followed suit, ruling that a company has a separate personality in law.

These decisions were trailblazing. They allowed private corporations to claim rights that had previously been the preserve of living and breathing human beings – while at the same time not holding them to have an equivalent degree of moral culpability. While an individual is responsible in full for his or her actions, a corporation has only a limited obligation.

While an individual is responsible in full for his or her actions, a corporation has only a limited obligation.

President Rutherford-Hayes, writing in an 1888 diary extract, expressed his concerns thus: ‘The real difficulty is with the vast wealth and power in the hands of the few and the unscrupulous who represent or control capital … This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations and for corporations.’

The documentary film, The Corporation, posed an intriguing question: if a corporation is a person, then what kind of person is it? Applying the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy, the film concluded that the corporation – driven, as it is, by the pursuit of profit above all else – is an archetypal psychopath, devoid of moral conscience and marked by a callous disregard for others.

Certainly, examples abound of sharp corporate practice, some of them breathtaking in their audacity. In 2001, the energy giant, Enron, collapsed. As its bewildered employees gathered outside the company’s headquarters, clutching boxes of their belongings, the extent of the scandal was only just coming to light. Not only had Enron executives fabricated the books to hide burgeoning debts, they had attempted to address the company’s losses by manipulating the stock markets. Tape recordings of Enron’s traders evidenced that secret deals had been struck with power plants to shut down supply to California – causing widespread blackouts – in order to drive up energy prices. The traders made nearly USD 2 billion for Enron by betting that the prices would go up. ‘Burn, baby, burn! That’s a beautiful thing,’ said one of Enron’s traders as a power line caught fire, pushing prices still higher.

More recently, in 2015, Volkswagen was found to have deliberately installed software – known as ‘defeat devices’ – in up to 11 million of its diesel cars, in order to cheat nitrous oxide emissions tests. The software could sense when the cars were being tested and switched them into a low emission mode that did not normally apply. Before the scandal broke, Volkswagen had launched an aggressive marketing campaign, highlighting its environmentally friendly values, even topping the Dow Jones Sustainability Index as the most sustainable car maker.

There is no doubt that these examples show a lack of moral conscience. And that’s not the only similarity with psychopathy. Clever branding could be seen as synonymous with the psychopathic façade, creating a ‘personality’ for the corporation that projects only the positive attributes the corporation believes its consumer ‘victims’ will want to see. This does not mean, however, that every corporation is psychopathic, perhaps only that a corporation’s structure and profit-making goals encourage psychopathic traits. And ultimately, if the monster is fuelled by revenue streams, then it’s up to the consumer to buy elsewhere and temper the beast.

Is there a difference between a corporation causing destruction, even death, for profit, and the violent psychopath? Well, yes. The corporation is more insidious for a start. And damage can be wrought on a much broader scale. But the net result might not be so different. So next time you are walking down a dark alley, glancing nervously over your shoulder, remember that you might do well to feel apprehensive as you step into your office the next morning, or do your online shopping. The psycho might be closer than you think, might be sitting next to you every day.

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