Not everyone with psychopathy becomes a criminal, and new research is revealing that among the highest tiers of the corporate world, psychopaths are more common than one might expect – indeed their psychopathic traits are probably what got them there in the first place.
Over the last three years, Dr Paul Babiak, an industrial psychologist, was hired by seven different companies to help assess whether their employees were ‘promotion material’ or not. He tested their performance and overall potential, but was also permitted to test them against the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – the psychometric test typically used to assess whether criminals have psychopathic tendencies. He suspected that high performers might have some psychopathic traits, but was shocked by the result that of the 203 people he tested, one in 25 were clinically classified as psychopaths, despite having no criminal background. Babiak said this was four times the number he would have expected to find in the general population.
The psychopath test
The Hare Psychopathy Checklist measures 20 hallmark traits of psychopathic behaviour which include superficial charm and pathological lying. Each trait on the checklist is given a score out of two, before being added up to give the individual a score out of 40. While it was thought that only high-security psychiatric hospitals would house a large number of people with scores above 30, this study revealed that there was also usually high test scores belonging to seemingly normal people in the high-achieving companies.
Dr Robert Hare, who designed the checklist and is leader in the study of psychopaths took a closer look at Babiak’s data, and uncovered an unexpected twist. After looking at the company evaluations of the individuals who scored highly against the Psychopathy Checklist, Hare found that the higher their score, the better the impression people had of them.“[But] when we measured their performance scores, by looking at how effective they were at furthering the company, they went right down as their checklist scores went up. In fact, when you get up at the high levels of the psychopathy scale, their performance was generally unacceptable. They should have been fired, but they weren’t because they were viewed differently by the people – they were great at managing impressions,” Hare said.
According to the analysis, the same psychopathic characteristics that had led some to kill without empathy had allowed others to claw their way past their peers and achieve highly in the business world. What then is the difference between a corporate psychopath and a criminal psychopath?
Although it’s not clear what makes one psychopath a criminal and another a CEO, Hare said serial murderers have brain responses that are ‘very unusual’ and ‘very rare’. “We don’t know why one person with many psychopathic characteristics will become a serial murderer and a thousand others won’t. It could be opportunity, chance, flukes, experimentation. We just don’t know,” Hare said.
No fear and it’s usefulness in business
Dr Essi Viding, a developmental psychologist at University College London, said business can capitalise on the fact that psychopaths tend to have lower levels of anxiety, are confident and goal-oriented. “There are advantages of having some psychopathic traits; not in the extreme and not very many of them, but a fairly low to moderate dose might be very advantageous to many businesses. I wish I had a few more of them myself,” Viding said.