Psychopathy 101 – A Practical Guide
There are not many psychopaths out there, perhaps one percent of the population according to psychologists, but they sometimes have enormous influence, all bad. The spectrum of psychopathy is quite wide, from Adolph Hitler through Bernie Madoff, Rod Blagojevich, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, John Wayne Gacy, and Casey Anthony, all of whom have been professionally assessed as psychopaths, though Hitler seems to be an exceptional case with multiple pathologies. There are criminals out there, and then there are psychopaths. By far, the most economic and social damage is caused by psychopaths, including corporate and political psychopaths in the United States of America.
My interest in psychopathy began early in my career when I worked for two senior military officers and then for two professional corporate managers, all within a ten-year period. I did not know they were psychopaths at the time, I just thought they were crazy: dishonest, abusive, erratic, and having high personnel turnover, though their own managers thought them quite good or at least acceptable. One Army captain and one logistics manager went through personality and career collapse while I knew them. At that time, the concept of psychopathy was not a condition widely recognized by the general population, and the definition of psychopathy has been developed and refined in the intervening years by professional psychologists.
Psychopathy is a complex, multi-dimensional subject, still poorly understood within the general population and not wholly agreed upon among professional psychologists. A sociopath has some similarities to a psychopath, the terms are often used interchangeably, and the definitions vary depending on who is doing the defining. Much of the original .thinking about psychopathy is now being done within the Anglosphere outside the United States. Canadian, British, and Australian psychologists use the term psychopath almost exclusively, and I will follow that practice.
The four psychopaths I worked for each had a signature statement that made an indelible impression and set me off into my lifelong interest in psychopathy and management malfunctions:
Army Captain – “I am a tough son-of-a-bitch” or alternatively, “I am a mean son-of-a-bitch.” He threw temper tantrums and was a pathological liar, but only around subordinates. He had a “nervous breakdown” when the Brigade Commander caught him in a serious operational dishonesty.
Army Lt. Colonel – “I am a tough son-of-a-bitch.” He seriously mishandled a personnel problem, and a good young Lieutenant was sent back to the States, apparently with total amnesia.
Plant Manager – “I have a reputation as a tough little bastard.” Soon after I was hired as Assistant Plant Manager in charge of construction of a new 30,000 SF manufacturing facility, I tried to talk to home office management about problems the Plant Manager was creating. I was told that one of the reasons I was hired was to “keep an eye on” my Plant Manager, who was on serious prescription drugs.
Logistics Manager – His first formal statement to me after I was hired was “I have a reputation as a tough, hard-nosed son-of-a-bitch.” He had a reputation for a violent temper and frequently destroyed property, on one occasion tearing a bolted-on bookcase off the wall of a construction trailer. He had a broken nose, plausibly reported to be from when his father slammed a door in his face when he was six years old. A new senior manager came in and promptly fired the Logistics Manager because of all the problems in the unit.
My interest thoroughly aroused, I began asking questions, and I now have literally many dozens of written and oral reports of managers who talk in this manner, including high-ranking politicians. There appears to be a positive correlation between the “tough SOB” statement and a psychopathic personality. There are professional psychometric gauges of psychopathy, such as Canadian Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Check List – Revised (PCL-R), but the “tough SOB” statement is common among confirmed psychopaths.
“I am a tough son-of-a-bitch” is a strange and perverse thing for anyone to say. A son is a child, and there is no such thing as a tough child. Nor do psychopaths get tough results, sometimes causing millions or billions of dollars of damages (Enron, WorldCom, Sunbeam Corporation). A record of childhood abuse is often noted in a psychopathic personality, and calling oneself a son-of-a-bitch shows a profound disrespect for the psychopath’s parent, consistent with having an abusing parent. Psychopaths often have a sycophantic relationship with senior management (father figures) while creating huge dollar losses and massive personnel disruption and turnover within their organizations. The psychopath sometimes appears to walk a fine line between keeping good relations with his superiors, while systematically destroying the company. This continues until it is stopped, usually quite abruptly; a psychopath may be transferred or fired outright. I have seen both outcomes.
If psychopathy was not well-known when I first encountered it, professional psychologists are now actively engaged, and are constantly advancing and refining psychological knowledge. Dr. Hare’s PCL-R lists twenty-one items, each graded 0, 1, or 2. A score of 30 or more is in the psychopathic range. Most people score quite low in a rating of psychopathy, that is, most people are normal and may become, quite unsuspectingly, a victim of a psychopath.
The two principal components of psychopathy measured by the PCL-R are narcissism and anti-social behavior. Both factors are of ancient and classical lineage. Narcissus, according to the primary legend, was a very handsome hunter. Nemesis tempted Narcissus to see his reflection in a pool of water, and Narcissus fell in love with his own image. Narcissus was so enthralled with himself that he stayed by the pool gazing at himself until he starved to death. There have been many artistic depictions of Narcissus, some dating to 4000 years ago.
In psychological terms, a narcissist personality is self-absorbed, selfish, and short-sighted. When combined with anti-social behavior, these two factors are the basis for a psychopathic personality. Like Narcissus, psychopaths always fail, usually ending in prison (Bernie Madoff) or dead (Saddam Hussein). But they may cause much trouble and destruction before they fail.
The first recorded instance of anti-social personality disorders dates to the time of Aristotle. Theophrastus was a student and successor of Aristotle. Theophrastus wrote The Characters, a description of thirty trouble-causing personality types, some of whom are now recognized in modern psychology as having personality disorders. Among the types Theophrastus described was a person who borrowed money and refused to pay it back and a person who committed minor theft. We are much advanced in the practice of psychopathy since Theophrastus’ time, and anti-social acts now include mass murder and mass financial fraud. Australian Dr. Clive Boddy has written a plausible article identifying psychopaths as a factor in the 2008 worldwide financial fraud and collapse.
Concurrent with the increase in the understanding of psychopathy, there was an evolutionary increase in the size and scope of organizations driven by the increase of technology and communications. Bigger and more complicated organizations promoted expression of more complex psychopathic traits. Technology and communications fed both the increase of organizational size and the understanding of the psychopathic traits that resulted from the changes and growth of organizations.
Psychopaths have always been with us, of course, and good and evil have always been universally recognized based on ancient cultural wisdom. It is only recently that understanding of psychology and physiology have identified markers related to psychopathy and other behaviors. For example, infants have immature brain wave patterns, a rapid saw-tooth waveform. Unusually, psychopaths may display a similar pattern. Moreover, parents of psychopaths sometimes display the same pattern, even though the parent exhibits little evidence of psychopathy.
Years ago, I was in a position to present local seminars on the subject based on my experiences early in my career. The only real advice I could give to my audiences was, “If you find yourself working for an SOB, run like hell.” That seemed not to be a positive message, and while I had some extremely interesting conversations, I soon had an opportunity to go back into engineering. Just within the last few years, Dr. Hare co-authored a book, Snakes in Suits, giving case histories of psychopaths causing massive damage to their own organizations. One chapter of Snakes in Suits was devoted to dealing with psychopaths on the job, and Dr. Hare’s ultimate advice, in so many words, was “Run like hell.”
In summary, psychopaths are having a devastating effect on our Republic, its citizens, and their economy. There are psychological tests for psychopathy, but there is insufficient awareness of the factors by which psychopathy is determined, principally narcissistic and ant-social behaviors. Labor unrest and high personnel turnover are frequently indicators of psychopathic management. The “tough SOB” statement is an almost certain practical indicator of psychopathy, but many psychopaths do not make this statement, just as different psychopaths display different behaviors.