Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Snakes in Suits"

Psychopaths have been on my mind lately. It all started last summer when a sentence from a Sunday book review of The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson caught my attention:
". . . in Ronson's view, it's possible the most dangerous psychopaths aren't the ones who remorselessly kill, but the ones whose lack of conscience has allowed them to rise to positions of prominence in a society that rewards their behavior: corporate sharks, power-hunry politicians, obsessive amassers of pointless wealth." Oregonian 11/16/2011
I immediately added the book to my list of holds at the library and started to notice psychopaths everywhere.

When the book finally came in a month ago, it was fascinating - I even convinced Gary to read it. Some of Ronson's ideas and conclusions are a bit of a stretch, but the subject matter and writing style were compelling. Who hasn't seen some behaviors on the 20 - point psychopath checklist, devised by Canadian psychologist Robert Hare, in a boss or a member of Congress:

1/Glib and Superficial Charm, 2/Grandiose Self-Worth, 3/Need for Stimulation, 4/Pathological Lying, 5/Conning and Manipulativeness, 6/Lack of Remorse or Guilt, 7/Shallow Affect, 8/Callousness and Lack of Empathy, 9/Parasitic Lifestyle, 10/Poor Behavioral Controls, 11/Promiscuous Sexual Behavior, 12/Early Behavior Problems, 13/Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals, 14/Impulsivity, 15/Irresponsibility, 16/Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions, 17/Many Short-Term Marital Relationships, 18/Juvenile Delinquency, 19/Revocation of Conditional Release, 20/Criminal Versatility.
Intrigued by the idea that the 1% of the population identified as psychopaths might be running things, I decided to read a book Robert Hare wrote with Paul Babiak titled Snakes in Suits-When Psychopaths Go to Work. Hare says psychopathic characteristics such as charisma, taking charge, ability to shake things up, and to get things done quickly come across in business as impressive leadership skills. Oh my, no wonder we are in such a mess.

As if this isn't enough to scare the other 99%, Hare goes on to quote the results of a British personality inventory of senior managers and executives:
"They concluded that the prevalence of histrionic, narcissistic, and compulsive personality disorders was relatively high, and that many of the traits exhibited were consistent with psychopathy: superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity, manipulativeness, grandiosity, lack of empathy, exploitativeness, independence, rigidity, stubbornness, and dictatorial tendencies."
Ignoring the authors caution to readers about not jumping to conclusions about co-workers or family members, I've identified a few candidates for the exclusive psychopath club. Ironically, while I was writing down notes before returning "Snakes" to the library, the psychiatrist on Law and Order was ticking off several of the 20 traits as they related to a young defendant who was a rising star in medical research.

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