Saturday, May 06, 2006

The psychopathology of the CEO

This was news a few years back, but I only recently came across reasonable essay on the topic. A Canadian psych professor, known for this research on psychopaths, claimed that many CEOs met his diagnostic criteria.

It's an interesting thesis. The people he's describing are not sociopaths; they don't hurt people for pleasure, but rather it doesn't hurt them to hurt someone else. (The Brits define sociopath and pyschopath differently by the way.) ...
Hare began his work by studying men in prison. Granted, that's still an unusually good place to look for the conscience-impaired. The average Psychopathy Checklist score for incarcerated male offenders in North America is 23.3, out of a possible 40. A score of around 20 qualifies as "moderately psychopathic." Only 1% of the general population would score 30 or above, which is "highly psychopathic," the range for the most violent offenders. Hare has said that the typical citizen would score a 3 or 4, while anything below that is "sliding into sainthood."

On the broad continuum between the ethical everyman and the predatory killer, there's plenty of room for people who are ruthless but not violent. This is where you're likely to find such people as Ebbers, Fastow, ImClone CEO Sam Waksal, and hotelier Leona Helmsley. We put several big-name CEOs through the checklist, and they scored as "moderately psychopathic"; our quiz on page 48 lets you try a similar exercise with your favorite boss.
I have yet to try the quiz. If you don't see my score in an update you won't know whether I didn't have time to do the quiz ... or whether I'm psychopath.

The ideas are interesting, but they're subtle and complex. This article really doesn't explore them well enough, and I suspect Hare's model will be found to be quite incomplete. I don't see why thrill seeking is necessarily correlated with lack of a conscience. I knew, through my brother, a number of thrill seeking mountaineers with impeccable moral character, deep compassion, and powerful conscience. The more interesting feature is the variability of conscience. This fits with game theory influenced models of human evolution -- there's a genetic advantage to lacking a conscience if you're smart and able to hide from retribution. It's easy to see how too much conscience could also be disadvantageous, even in a small society.

That said, I've known a few bright and charming people who seemed not to be much bothered by conscience. They are a lot of fun, they're not CEOs, they are definitely positive contributors to society, and they really can't be trusted. I've had a historic weakness for this type, but I've learned they make poor friends. Now I prefer to enjoy them from a distance. I think their lack of conscience is somehow part of their appeal (again, these are not nasty people, they're just charmingly ruthless) -- they float free of the burdens that most of us bear.

PS. The average citizen scores a 3 or 4 out of 40 on this instrument? Hmm. I thought humanity was nastier than that. I think some people are cheating ...

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