Updated 07 October 2012
WWII was started by psychopaths — Hitler, Stalin, Japanese Imperialists. Particularly in times of stress, people are attracted to psychopaths, who make a career of playing on people’s insecurities. Psychopathy is insufficiently recognized and understood as a threat in today’s world, but the world is getting so chaotic that psychological denial appears to be an element contributing to our misperception. Psychopaths are happy to increase the chaos. In a time of conflict and unrest, it would be wise to understand the psychological processes at work.
Personality disorders are broadly lumped into thinking disorders, including psychotic behavior (paranoid, schizophrenic, and related behaviors), emotional disorders including anti-social and narcissistic behaviors that are indicators of psychopathy, and various mood disorders.
An initial contact with a psychopath will most likely be on the job and an impression soon develops that “This guy is crazy (psychotic),” but you will soon discover that the psychopath’s senior management does not regard him as crazy, and likely holds the psychopath in high regard. The psychopath is not psychotic, it is much worse than that. There is a limit to the damage that a psychotic person can do, but observe the damage that a psychopath, such as Adolph Hitler, can do.
Psychopathy is a complex condition that is poorly understood within the general public, and not wholly agreed upon within the professional psychological community. The professional understanding of psychopathy is under constant revision as new investigations reveal new insights into the psychopathic state. Psychopathy takes many different forms. Casey Anthony, John Wayne Gacy, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, Bernie Madoff, and Rod Blagojevich were each convicted criminals and each showed traits consistent with psychopathy.
At about one percent of the population, there are hundreds of thousands of junior-grade psychopaths out there causing turmoil and trouble, and not a few world-class psychopaths. If you have ever worked for a psychopath, there is no doubt that you are seeing something extraordinary and extraordinarily troubling. If you lost money or a job in the 2008 financial meltdown, credible psychologists have argued that psychopaths were a big factor in your losses.
This article does not pretend to be comprehensive, but attempts to present major viewpoints that contribute to an understanding of our current problems and conflicts as related to psychopathy.
Two hundred years ago, French Dr. Philippe Pinel identified a condition he termed “insane without delirium,” which is still a good short description of the psychopathic state. Within the last few decades, it has become evident that psychopathy itself is evolving as the culture, technology, and economy change and grow. Recent developments in the study of psychopathy have involved several more-or-less discrete steps.
Modern psychopathy was largely defined by Dr. Hervey Cleckley in the 1940s and 1950s, when Dr. Cleckley studied small town psychopaths who were in and out of mental hospitals and jails. Dr. Cleckley’s patients did not test positive for any psychotic condition (delirium, hallucinations), so they were released from mental hospitals, but then they went on to commit small irresponsible crimes and outrages on a recurring basis, frequently returning to jail or to a mental hospital.
Twenty years later, in the 1970s, the concept of the mass-murdering psychopath abruptly entered public awareness, with Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy as prime examples.
In the 1990s, with the increasing size and complexity of corporations, organizational psychopaths in Sunbeam Corporation (“Chainsaw” Al Dunlap), Enron, and WorldCom came to public attention while causing billions of dollars of economic losses and disruption of thousands of lives and jobs.
More recently, the focus is now on financial and political psychopaths and their role in the 2008 financial meltdown which wiped out trillions of dollars of value and savings, particularly savings of retirees.
The dominant drive of all psychopaths is the need to gain control over other persons. This is quite ironic (or not) since psychopaths have very poor control over themselves. The only exception to this general rule is a situation wherein authority figures provide external control for the psychopath; in this situation, psychopaths display rigidly correct behavior in the presence of people whom they have cause to fear, that is, anyone in a recognized position of authority (father figure). Other than that, psychopaths typically use dishonesty, threats, and bluster to control other people.
It follows that the psychopath’s need for control is not rooted in any strength of character, but originates in weakness and insecurity. The psychopath’s need for control may take the forms of physical control, financial control, political control, emotional control, or sexual control, or some combination thereof. This control may be attempted or exercised within marriages, families, offices, shop floors, corporations, and bureaucracies particularly, up to and including nations.
A second major characteristic of psychopaths is extremely limited affect: no sympathy, no empathy, no guilt, no remorse, no conscience, and no sense of humor. However, psychopaths are quite capable of faking these emotions in order to manipulate their victims. The game is exposed when a psychopath abruptly goes from a manufactured charisma to a violent temper tantrum, depending on what effect he is trying to create in his victim. A psychopath is like a hollow man who can adapt and express different personas, different value systems, different emotional states, not as an expression of his core being, but as an infinitely variable mechanism to control others. Several psychologists have noted that psychopaths are often very interested in therapy sessions, not for the purpose of making themselves well, but to gain understanding that will improve their performance as psychopaths. Therapy seldom changes the psychopath’s behavior.
By definition, all dictators and all dictator wannabes are psychopaths, given their urgent need to control others. When a dictator (Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Saddam Hussein) achieves full control, there is no limit on his irrational, destructive behavior, but few dictators reach this level; psychopathic leaders are limited in our democracy, at least until recently. Psychopaths typically have a favored, supportive group (sycophants), and any unsupportive person or group is at risk, up to and including risk of death in a dictatorship. Compliant personnel are sometimes graciously allowed to survive by the dictator or by the corporate psychopath. The converse of the dictator’s need to control others is the need of others to be controlled. An anxious, ignorant, dependent, bought-and-paid-for citizenry makes the dictator’s job much easier. Dictators are insecure, and create insecurity in others as a means of control.
The human experience is infinitely variable, but the most likely context in which a child may become a psychopath is a dysfunctional family or a broken family. A dysfunctional home environment may include abuse, neglect, or faulty discipline (too much, too little, or irregular). At least in some cases, there may be a genetic component, making psychopathy subject to hereditary influences. Physical or neural defect or injury may produce results similar to psychopathy.
Psychopath and sociopath are closely related terms, with closely related behaviors. The factors that determine these conditions appear to include genetics, dysfunctional family and community conditions, and possibly nervous system injury or defect. The expression of psychopathic and sociopathic behavior may range from lone murderers to cooperative criminal enterprises, with recent incidences found in corporations, financial institutions, and political establishments. The definitions of these terms are fluid, and the terms are often used interchangeably. “Psychopath” will be used throughout.
Some psychologists argue that psychopaths are afflicted with genetic defects and sociopaths are the product of a dysfunctional family or community. Sociopaths show loyalty to members of the tribe or family, while outsiders are designated victims. Ferocious disputes within the tribe are quite possible, even as common bonds of family ties are maintained, often in the breach. Psychopaths and sociopaths exhibit similar predatory and parasitic behaviors. The Mafia and the Chicago political machine are sociopathic, and dictators also may be considered sociopathic, though some dictators are known to have experienced extremely disturbing childhoods (Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein). There is a blurred line between psychopathy and sociopathy, and the terms are often used interchangeably.
The terms sociopath and psychopath encompass behaviors that are generally described as aggressively narcissistic (malignant narcissism) and anti-social (socially deviant lifestyle). With one percent of the population considered psychopathic by psychologists, there are some three million living Americans who were, are, or will become psychopaths, and perhaps another fifteen million Americans who exhibit sociopathic tendencies. Prognosis for the psychopathic condition is very poor.
Much of the recent psychological work in psychopathy has been done in the Anglosphere outside America, and this work has largely identified such deviant personalities as corporate, financial, and political psychopaths. Some years ago, it seems that much of the original work in American psychology was dismissed as “pop psychology,” and consequently original research in psychopathy is now more common in Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. Transactional Analysis was a descriptive (as opposed to analytical) psychological system some years ago but it is less followed now in the USA, though there are active TA research and therapeutic groups in Europe and Australia.
Organizational psychopaths actively seek positions of power and prestige, and gravitate toward fields where they can exercise their psychopathic skills profitably; politics and finance are current favored areas where psychopaths may be found. Rapid changes in technology and organizational size and complexity present opportunities for psychopaths to seize a position, take the money, and run, while the psychological community follows in identifying psychopathic evolution and the law and the plodding bureaucracy lag behind
A non-psychopath is most likely to encounter a psychopath within a work environment. Psychopaths control subordinates by bullying, lying, and various manipulative behaviors. Psychopaths control upper management by respectful, sometimes servile, behavior while expressing contempt for upper management by creating problems within the organization. Psychopaths are famous for excuse making, blaming others, and rationalizing away problems when they engage in organizational destruction.
The final major characteristic of psychopaths is failure, often self-inflicted failure. Psychopaths are likely to end up in a violent death or in prison (Rod Blagojevich, Bernie Madoff). The termination of the psychopath’s career follows much trouble and cost for his various victims and for society.
History of Psychopathy
The following psychological works are basic to understanding contemporary pychopathy:
Theophrastus, a student and successor of Aristotle, first noted what is now known as a personality disorder over two thousand years ago. The minor theft and trickery that Theophrastus documented fell short of psychopathy, but encompasses behaviors that, in more extreme form, are similar to psychopathy.
French Dr. Philippe Pinel, some two hundred years ago, led in the modern understanding of psychology. Dr. Pinel described a condition he identified as “insanity without delirium” which is a good short description of psychopathy.
Dr. Hervey Cleckley did seminal work in modern psychopathy about 1940, as described in his book, The Mask of Insanity. Dr. Cleckley dealt primarily with small-town psychopaths who were in and out of jails and mental hospitals. In hospital, they were found to be without psychoses and were released. On release, they typically created family problems and public nuisances, were jailed, and often returned to hospital for further psychiatric evaluation. This repeating but erratic sequence of events came to define the incidence of Dr. Cleckley’s small-town psychopaths. Dr. Cleckley barely acknowledged psychopathic behavior among business and professional persons and was ambiguous concerning severe criminality such as mass-murdering psychopaths.
Dr. Cleckley’s principal psychopathic characteristics:
• Extremely egocentric.
• Unable to make close associations, even with family members.
Dr. Cleckleys’s list of narcissistic and anti-social characteristic items describing psychopaths:
• Superficial charm and good “intelligence.”
• Absence of delusions and other signs of types of irrational “thinking.”
• Absence of “nervousness” or psychoneurotic manifestations.
• Untruthfulness and insincerity.
• Lack of remorse or shame.
• Inadequately motivated anti-social behavior.
• Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience.
• Pathological egocentricity and incapacity for love.
• General poverty in major affective reactions.
• Specific loss of insight.
• Unresponsive in general interpersonal relations.
• Fantastic and uninviting behavior, with drink and sometimes without.
• Suicide (threats) rarely carried out.
• Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated.
• Failure to follow any life plan.
Dr. Cleckley’s book, The Mask of Insanity, featured case histories of small-town psychopaths. The “mask” referred to a fabricated persona of the psychopath’s own construction. Psychopaths appear to have no core personality, but have flexible values and traits to fit any occasion, particularly when the psychopath needs to manipulate someone in order to achieve his selfish goals or to talk his way out of trouble.
Even though Dr. Cleckley was ambiguous concerning violence among psychopaths, in the 1970s there were repeated instances of mass murder by psychopaths, including Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
As an aside, Dr. Cleckley was also noted for his studies of multiple personalities, as described in his book, The Three Faces of Eve.
Canadian Dr. Robert Hare is a leading current psychologist who has written numerous books and has produced the leading clinical evaluation tool for psychopathic behavior.
Dr. Hare’s book, Psychopathy: Theory and Research, presents a review of personality and physiological tests related to psychopathy. These items include
• Psychometric studies (intelligence tests, Rorschach tests, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, etc.). Psychopaths tend to test high for conflict and for negative views of parents, particularly fathers.
• Electroencephalogram (EEG) studies. Psychopaths tend to display infantile brainwave patterns, among other things. Interestingly, non-psychopathic parents of psychopaths sometimes show similar infantile brainwave patterns.
• Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) studies. Physiological reactions to stress create measurable changes in the body. ANS tests include Galvanic Skin Response (GSR, a measure of electrical conductivity), breathing rates, blood pressure rates, heartbeat rates, and other measures. Psychopaths are noted for the equanimity with which they face stimuli that most other people often find highly disturbing. Psychopaths are often not satisfied with mere excitement and court danger (pointless criminal and immoral behavior) in order to satisfy an inner urge.
Dr. Hare’s Psychopathic Check List – Revised (PCL-R) has recently been revised once again, and there are many commentaries, including the Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD) Program. The current PCL-R is as follows (British spelling throughout):
Factor 1: Personality “Aggressive narcissism” (Malignant Narcissism)
• Glibness/superficial charm
• Grandiose sense of self-worth
• Pathological lying
• Lack of remorse or guilt
• Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
• Callousness; lack of empathy
• Failure to accept responsibilityfor own actions
Factor 2: Case history “Socially deviant lifestyle”.
• Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
• Parasitic lifestyle
• Poor behavioral control
• Lack of realistic long-term goals
• Juvenile delinquency
• Early behavior problems
• Revocation of conditional release
Traits not correlated with either factor
• Promiscuous sexual behavior
• Many short-term marital relationships
• Criminal versatility
• Acquired behavioural sociopathy/sociological conditioning (Item 21: a newly identified trait i.e. a person relying on sociological strategies and tricks to deceive)
Scoring the PCL-R is officially done only by a trained and qualified psychologist, and is based on extensive personal interviews and tests with suspected psychopaths. Each item on the PCL-R is scored as 0, 1, or 2, with a maximum score of 42. A total score of 30 is the nominal cut-off point, above which psychopathy is indicated. Dr. Hare urges caution with this score; a score of 30 may indicate a psychopath, but 29 does not necessarily indicate a sterling character. A high score below the psychopathy range may well indicate a personality disorder. Dr. Hare calls attention to a psychopathic score composed of all 1s and 2s, as compared to an equal score composed of only 0s and 2s; is this difference significant? Most people score quite low on the PCL-R, meaning that most people are well-adjusted and productive individuals.
Most of the items on Dr. Hare’s Check List are self-explanatory, but a few in particular deserve comment. “Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom” is an actual need of psychopaths, sometimes expressed as a preference for danger over mere excitement, such as engagement in immoral or illegal acts. Psychopaths know well they might be caught, but proceed regardless; the current need overrides possible future consequences. Following such immoral or illegal acts, the psychopath will often exercise “glibness/superficial charm” and engage in “cunning/manipulative” behavior in order to talk his way out of trouble, a task in which he often succeeds. A cultivated charisma is a condition often found in psychopaths, but the psychopath’s charisma, like his emotional behavior, is faked in order to manipulate his victims.
A limited study by Babiak, Neumann, & Hare reveals that 80% of corporate leaders score 3 or less, somewhere near sainthood, or at least indicating virtue and integrity. Four percent of corporate leaders score in the psychopathic range, much higher than the one percent of psychopaths found in the general population. Moreover, corporate psychopaths are valued for their charisma even if it is fake, and for their willingness to take innovative risks, which could pay off, or not (Bernie Madoff, Jon Corzine). Corporate psychopaths are not stupid, and they score well on “creativity, good strategic thinking and communication skills,” even as they do poorly on “responsibility and performance.”
Psychopaths do not test positive for psychosis (Dr. Pinel’s delirium) but their mental condition is such as to create wars and economic disasters, and myriad lesser troubles. Dr. Hare has suggested that the psychopathic condition might be identified and followed in order to minimize societal damage.
Many items on Dr. Hare’s Psychopathic Checklist – Revised are similar to Dr. Cleckley’s list of narcissistic and anti-social characteristics.
Dr. Hare is co-author with Dr. Paul Babiak of the book, Snakes in Suits, that gives case histories of psychopaths in organizational settings. This contrasts with Dr. Cleckley’s case histories of small town psychopaths.
Dr. Lyle H. Rossiter is author of The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness, a meticulously reasoned book describing how Leftists come to be the way they are: controlling, dishonest, manipulative, irresponsible. The United States of America was founded on the principle that citizens could control their own affairs better than any prince, potentate, dictator, or British monarch, but there is an active movement within the Democratic Party to overturn the Constitution in favor of Democratic Party control; Democrats are quite open about what they want to achieve, all for the good of the citizens, of course. The current political debate is an argument on who will control the body politic, the individuals handling their own affairs or the state handling everything to its own advantage. Leftists construct elaborate rationales to justify their elitist seizure of power, but no dictatorial regime has ever taken account of the well-being of all the citizens. The state handling everything has an abysmal historical record, from Genghis Kahn to Kim Jong Il.
Dr. Rossiter argues that “good enough” upbringing fosters mature development of an independent personality capable of cooperating with others to achieve mutually desirable goals. Insufficient or defective upbringing may include neglect or abuse and leave a void in the personality that may be filled by trying to control others. In the extreme, this is a psychopathic personality. Dr. Rossiter structures much of his book on the works of Dr. Erik Erikson.
Dr. Erik Erikson originated the phrase “identity crisis.” Dr. Erikson wrote Identity: Youth and Crisis, postulating that people grow through a series of stages. Successfully negotiating one stage leads to the opportunity to tackle the next stage. Lack of success at any stage leads to life difficulties, but recovery may be possible.
Dr. Erikson’s life stages:
• Basic trust vs. basic mistrust – The period of infancy. 0-1 year of age.
• Autonomy vs. Shame – Covers early childhood.
• Purpose – Initiative vs. Guilt – Preschool, 3–6 years.
• Competence – Industry vs. Inferiority – School-age, 6-11 years.
• Fidelity – Identity vs. Role Confusion – Adolescent, 12 – 20 years. Intimacy vs. isolation – The first stage of adult development. Generativity vs. stagnation – The second stage of adulthood, 25-64 years.
• Ego integrity vs. despair – This stage affects the age group of 65 and on.
When I first recognized the extraordinary nature of psychopaths, I just thought they were crazy. This was well before widespread public awareness of psychopathic behavior. Dr. Erikson’s book was among the first I read to answer my questions. It has taken another forty years by a wide range of psychologists to develop a workable understanding of psychopathic behavior and effects.
Psychopaths almost without exception throw violent temper tantrums with screaming, cursing, and sometimes property damage. Psychopaths often have a signature statement, repeated many times. In my first four observations of psychopaths early in my career, I was struck by the uniformity of the psychopaths’ signature statements:
• Army Captain – “I am a tough son-of-a-bitch,” or alternatively, “I am a mean son-of-a-bitch.” His career ended when he had a “nervous breakdown” after being caught in a serious operational dishonesty.
• Army Lt. Colonel – “I am a tough son-of-a-bitch.”
• Civilian plant manager – “I have a reputation as a tough little bastard.”
• Civilian logistics manager – “I have a reputation as a tough, hard-nosed son-of-a-bitch.” His career ended after many violent, destructive temper tantrums, and he was fired. He went on to at least two more jobs with decreasing rank and responsibility, from which he was fired within a matter of weeks.
• Additionally, I have an eye-witness report confirming that the real life model for Captain Queeg of the novel, The Caine Mutiny, actually did say “I am an unholy son-of-a-bitch,” as described in the novel.
• Another reported case involved a Vice-President of a well known national food services company. In spite of being an inspiring speaker, his signature statement was, “If you can work for me, you can work for any son-of-a-bitch alive.” He caused so much trouble he went through four quick demotions and was finally fired while driving a delivery truck on a remote route.
At first I was not at all sure what those signature statements meant, but it was obvious that none of these characters was tough: dishonest, destructive, with very high personnel turnover, but nothing they did was tough in the sense of achieving results. I started asking questions and found many similar examples.
There are several striking instances of high ranking politicians who pretend to be tough; the late former Senator Ted Stevens (Bridge to Nowhere), convicted former governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich, and serial screw-up Rahm Emanuel celebrate their reputations as tough sons-of-bitches.
A “son” (of-a-bitch) or a “bastard” both assert a child-like condition, but a tough child is a logical contradiction. Blagojevich is in prison, Stevens bragged about breaking the law, and if the board minutes of Freddie Mac are ever released, perhaps we will learn what Emanuel knew about the $10 billion accounting fraud while he was a member of the Board of Directors of Freddie Mac. At any rate, while maintaining a strong mask, they each got abysmal operational results. The signature statements as detailed above are consistent with the abused or spoiled child hypothesis.
British Dr. Katarina Fritzon has done research on corporate officers and distinguishes between “successful psychopaths” who may hold high-ranking and prestigious positions in the corporate world, and “unsuccessful psychopaths” who may be petty criminals or mass murderers. Socially, successful psychopaths do much more damage than the damage done by unsuccessful psychopaths.
This is a transcript of a television program featuring Dr. John Clarke of Australia. Dr. Clarke describes a presentation he was giving on criminal psychopaths, after which an audience member approached and said that his corporate boss acted just like the criminal psychopaths that Dr. Clarke had described. This incident seems to have been a seminal moment for Dr. Clarke as he realized that psychopathy went well beyond major and minor thugs and into corporate boardrooms. Comments on this site are extensive, and describe the frustration, anger, anxiety, and despair that results from having to work for a psychopath.
Dr. Clarke is author of Working with Monsters.
A summary of Dr. Hare’s presentation to Canadian policemen describing the behavior of and damages created by psychopathic business executives, including Sunbeam, WorldCom, and Enron.
Dr. Clive Boddy makes a plausible argument that “Corporate Psychopaths” seek power and that the rapid change, growth, and turnover in organizations within recent years facilitates the Corporate Psychopath’s progress in achieving power. Corporate Psychopaths, having looted their companies and substantial portions of the economy, are now in charge of advising on how to correct the damage they themselves have created.
Dr. Theresa Daniel, writing in the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) Journal described workplace bullying and cites three studies indicating that perhaps half of all workers will work for a bully boss at some point in their careers. Interestingly, Dr. Daniel reports that 80% of HR personnel have been bullied by their HR bosses, when HR is expected to deal with and correct such situations. One can only speculate that upper management sees only the positive and charming aspects of the bully boss and of the psychopath’s mask, and upper management has the final say on their subordinate managers, not realizing that the bully boss has a serious personality disorder. There is no substantive difference between HR “bully bosses” and psychologists’ “psychopathic bosses.”