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10/27/09

Psychopaths I Have Known


I can count psychopaths among my acquaintances. They committed no crimes and had never been in prison, but psychopaths they were. One acquaintance was the most notable. He rose to become head of a large organization and those who worked for him suffered greatly from his callous disregard for common decency. Numerous formal complaints were lodged against him, but somehow he manipulated the perceptions of those who received the complaints so that either (1) his bosses were afraid of him or (2) they truly believed his employees simply had grudges against him.

Herman Goering, Hitler's Luftwaffe Marshal, was a psychopath. Like so many of his kind, he was likable in superficial meetings, but was vain, indifferent to others' feelings, and the super hero of his own story--so much so that he thought everybody else must admire him as much as he admired himself. Under-appreciated at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, he was shocked to discover the judges considered him a criminal. He hanged himself.

Estimates vary for male psychopaths in the population, from one out of ten to one out of a hundred to four out of a hundred . An estimate for women is one out of three hundred. The essential point is this. They are more common than people think. Your next door neighbor may be one. The statistics would include some readers of this blog.

"It is well observed that psychopaths (a.k.a. sociopaths) are found both in prison and in managerial positions. In The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout analyzed many individuals with psychopathy and most of them were not part of the offender population. I think that leadership researchers have somehow overlooked these types of "leaders" or organizational psychopaths who have inflicted pain to many but succeeded in maintaining their positions (even been promoted). More

I found a checklist by Robert Hare for psychopathy. He lists the following traits:

(1) interpersonal or affective defects (e.g., glibness or superficial charm, grandiose feelings of self-worth, conning or manipulative behavior, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affects, callousness or lack of empathy)
(2) social deviance and antisocial (irresponsibility, parasitic lifestyle, impulsivity, and unstable relationships, criminal versatility).
(3) other attributes.

Number 3 leaves the door open and such characteristics as irresponsibility describe criminals rather than those who have careers. Quoting the checklist, the writer, says he has "encountered about three or four psychopaths in organizational settings in the past. I observed they were frequently abusive, disregarding the feelings and rights of others; they caused disasters to everything they put their hands on. However, they appeared to never be found responsible for the harms they did. I always wonder how those who are neither emotionally nor socially intelligent (namely, they lack the basic leadership qualifications suggested by some researchers) operate so well, whereas nice people in the same settings are frequently reprimanded or punished."

Note "they appeared to never be found responsible for the harms they did." That was precisely my experience in observing my former acquaintance.

The writer has "tentative explanations:
1. Psychopaths know how to ingratiate themselves with people of higher status.
2. They prey on nice victims who they know are unlikely to jeopardize their positions.
3. They know how to take others' achievements as their own credits, and blame their mistakes on others.
4. They are good at using both fear and tear to menace and confuse others.

Here are excerpts I found while surfing for information on psychopaths:

  • Only 20-25% of those in prison are psychopaths.
  • When asked a question such as “What does remorse feel like?” for instance, the typical psychopath will become irritated, deflect the question, or attempt to change the subject.
  • Psychopaths “know the words but not the music.” Those that turn to crime are generally considered “unsuccessful psychopaths” due to their failure to blend into society. Those who do succeed can do so spectacularly.
  • While it may sound like a cynical joke, it’s a fact that psychopaths have a clear advantage in fields such as law, business, and politics. They have higher IQs on average than the general population. They take risks and aren’t fazed by failures. They know how to charm and manipulate. They’re ruthless.
  • It could even be argued that the criteria used by corporations to find effective managers actually select specifically for psychopathic traits: characteristics such as charisma, self-centeredness, confidence, and dominance are highly correlated with the psychopathic personality, yet also highly sought after in potential leaders. More.

  • And More. In the interest of brevity, I did not want to include this, but it eloquently captures the problem of psychopathy, so here it is:

    "The high incidence of sociopathy in human society has a profound effect on the rest of us who must live on this planet, too, even those of us who have not been clinically traumatized. The individuals who constitute this 4 percent drain our relationships, our bank accounts, our accomplishments, our self-esteem, our very peace on earth.

    Yet surprisingly, many people know nothing about this disorder, or if they do, they think only in terms of violent psychopathy - murderers, serial killers, mass murderers - people who have conspicuously broken the law many times over, and who, if caught, will be imprisoned, maybe even put to death by our legal system.

    We are not commonly aware of, nor do we usually identify, the larger number of nonviolent sociopaths among us, people who often are not blatant lawbreakers, and against whom our formal legal system provides little defense." More

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