Psychopaths and where to find them

Mathew Crawford points out an interesting anomaly, and asks some interesting questions.

Psychopaths are rare people who neither feel empathy toward their fellow humans, nor care about societal norms … Most people know the chilling tales of the psychopaths most talked about in Seabrook’s article—the 15 to 20 percent of males in the prison population … What most people understand less is how the same deviation of human psychology found perhaps 20 times as often among the hardest criminals coincides with perhaps similar proportions of corporate CEOs, lawyers, and media professionals.

. . .

Why would roughly 4% to 12% of CEOs be psychopaths (I’ve seen as high as 20% claimed, implying psychopaths might be statistically around 25 times as likely to become CEOs)? What is it about the human condition, or this era of civilization, that pushes the most potentially destructive people to the top of decision-making hierarchies? Is there some process inherent in the machinations of life on Earth that allows for this, and that we can deconstruct in order to prosper in a new era of happier, healthier, and less existentially dangerous living? Is there a way to decentralize power so as to limit the damage psychopaths might do, or better encourage hierarchies of competence and wisdom?

There’s more at the link.

Other researchers have noted the same thing as Mr. Crawford.  I don’t know why psychopaths would be so commonly found in the corporate world.  I’ve met enough of them in the criminal world to be very aware of how dangerous they are, precisely because they have few or none of what we would call “human feelings”.  They simply don’t care about other people, except for the extent to which they can use or manipulate or coerce them into doing what they want.

So – how about it, readers?  Can any of you suggest why psychopaths might be more commonly found among business leaders than in the general population?  Is it all about power, or are there ulterior motives?  Have at it in Comments.



  1. Read the Psychopath next door. Without empathy for even their own family they have to find some game of life to win. Also, I believe psycopaths and narcissist's are at different point of the scale, i.e. all psycopaths are also narcissists. As a CEO what's not to love, you are the lion in the jungle. You can exercise great power over your minions. Most CEOs are out to enrich themselves at the expense of their customers and their workforce. I have an MBA and have concluded it is a degree in greed and full of justification on how to screw people over. (I'm retired, but worked at enough places to notice a trend).

    My 2 cents (and I had a psychopathic neighbor who was a low performer, but I got a front row seat in how they behave. He was very good at knowing when to stop before he got sent to jail)

  2. Too much empathy hinders ones ability to command. Could you order your men to take the hill if you felt every one of their kids' anguish over the loss of their fathers?

    Business decisions will always have impacts on humans, maybe not life and death, at least normally, but too much emotion and empathy can lead to paralysis when action is needed.

    A certain amount of detachment is needed. I think you'd find psychopaths in any position that requires decisions about other humans, and the bigger the decisions, the more detachment.

    I'm not saying it's a good thing. Only that it is.


  3. Psychopaths don't care about/have the ability to envision the damage they might inflict upon others. If they are able to see this same damage happening to themselves, they will usually say: "It's not all that bad/I can find a way to work around it/I'll just punch back twice as hard," if they are able which is rare since they are unable to feel emotional pain.
    Personally, I think there is a small, varying percentage of the psychopath in all of us waiting for the appropriate trigger to become apparent.

  4. In plain words, you can't get to the top of the dung heap if you care about your fellow man. Some have figured out how to stay out of jail(CEOs) and other have not(death row inmates).

  5. I would tend to agree with Xoph. CEOs succeed because they don't care about those under them. Their ONLY goal is power/money.

  6. "I don't know why psychopaths would be so commonly found in the corporate world."

    Because Andrew Klavan's excellent cautionary treatise "A Shock To The System" starring Michael Caine has not been routinely taught to CEOs nor employees, and most people aren't accustomed to taking boardroom fights to the alley behind the parking lot, but that happy situation won't last everywhere indefinitely, and they will learn the timeless wisdom of Guido, the Killer Pimp:

    When corporate socipaths start meeting more Edward Nortons from Fight Club, and getting the baTonya Harding figure skating knee therapy, they may amend their predations. At least on their own minions.

  7. Well, if you levels of psychopathy to psychopathic numbers, it gets even more interesting.

    One can express psychopathic tendencies and not be psychopathic.

    So, yes, leaders that tend to see the goal over the people do tend to rise to the top.

    Now, look at it the other way. Where do the overly empathetic end up? And what happens when you get an overly empathetic person with some psychopathic tendencies? Can you say HR Manager? Though my experiences with HR managers tend to show them as more psychopathic than empathetic…

    1. Or lunitic; HR is the home for a lot of corporate wokism.

      I am deeply distrustful of anyone who demands or feels entitled to be over other people.

  8. My observation is that the financialization of corporate America where the only thing that matters and the only thing executives are rewarded for are quarterly results has left the field wide open for psychopaths. I've dealt with a few of them. Any business initiative that does not yield immediate results is discarded. A process improvement that will yield results over years will not be implemented. The fastest was in a corporation to get an instant cash flow return on investment is to get rid of people so that's what they always do. That's why employer-employee loyalty has gone out the window. Employees are not seen as assets, they are just seen as cost. I was in Senior leadership of the Quality organization in a major corporation you would all know and upper leadership never once asked me to improve product quality. The only thing they wanted to know was how many people I could get rid of this quarter. It's takes a psychopath to enjoy making a living that way.

  9. I worked for a psychopath for a while. I didn't have a label for him; I just knew that he didn't care about anyone except himself. For him, cruelty to others was of no consequence. I believe this man to be responsible for one death – a suicide that could have been prevented. I still blame myself for a large part of this tragedy.

    As I see it and experienced it, emotions and feelings can't be taught or explained to a psychopath. They won't understand. The best you'll be able to do is to explain that most people don't think or feel the way they do.

    In management, empathy can be a real handicap. You'll postpone decisions that adversely affect peoples' lives. You'll hire when you shouldn't, allow employees to remain employed when they should be fired, and you'll have a major problem advancing your career at someone else's expense or comfort. The psychopath doesn't even think of these things. This person is in the way, so he must be eliminated.

    And that's that.

  10. I was middle management, creating a lot of key guidance and sometimes advising our CEO on sensitive issues. This was a Fortune 100 company. The company sent me to upper management training course, taught by a prestigious business school, that had role playing scenarios. The intent was to filter out anyone who would put any anything ahead of making a buck. Anything. If you are being distracted by issues of morality, you are not upper management material.

    I retired within a year.

  11. When you reward for sociopathy, you get more of it.

    The mistaken assumption is that such actions will be consequence-free in perpetuity.

    On the contrary, the backlash tends to trend on a line from draconian, to biblical.

  12. IMHO, (as a former HR spec for the DOD for 25 years) for the 20% or so of CEOs/General Officers that are psychopaths (which according to Google isnt a whole lot different from sociopaths), it's definitely about power. How they choose to wield that power varies from individual to individual. Some want to control the industry and take out all competition, some have actual grudges against individuals or groups (like racism or political opponents), some just enjoy having people bow and scrape before them, etc. Many of them define their success by increasing rank or just accumulating loads of money. Since their goals are power and prestige, they dont really care how to achieve it.

    And I agree wholeheartedly that a person has to be able to make passionless decisions in order to lead effectively, but for the best leaders, it comes at an emotional cost. How many end up committing suicide?

    My real question, though, is what about the other 75%? They can't ALL be do-gooders, though many are. Franklin Graham is a very successful CEO and leader of one of the world's most effective charities. So what percentage of the 75% are genuinely altruistic? And what of the others? Just run-of-the-mill nice folks who believe that everything is situational? I doubt it – every one in a leadership position has to have some kind of goal or guiding force to be successful. For the Founding Fathers, it was God and Freedom. Today, not so much.

    FWIW, I believe that everyone, including CEOs of any stripe, have a hill they are willing to die on. The only difference is which hill. And why.

    I look forward to Aesop's response.

  13. HR 25 years ago is not the HR of today. Obviously, neither is the military, mores the shame.

    Needing to be distrustful/self-protective (and I share your feelings) is a real problem in politics. The folks who you can trust can't survive the attacks during a campaign. Everyone I know, myself included, does not have a spotless history. Even a parking ticket can be blown up into a major political handicap if you put the right spin on it. (eg., "she was parked outside of a gun store..! OMG!").

    Most people don't want to have to deal with that crap. The damage it can do to your family or status in the community is almost unimaginable.

    So that leaves the people who are willing to run for office.

    They are either extremely naive and true patriots, who as freshmen congresscritters will have zero influence — or they are indeed determined to be the next Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Shumer. They will tow the party line and take every advantage to fill their own coffers. They are a danger to the country in the worst possible way.

    Young, easily manipulated, dishonest and capable of being re-elected, by hook or by crook, time and time again. Most certainly Psychopaths, particularly those who couldnt make it in the corporate world a la Joe Biden.

  14. "They are either extremely naive and true patriots, who as freshmen congresscritters will have zero influence"

    That's the problem right there. How can it be a democracy or stand for equality when some of the critters have more influence than others? Totally needs to go.

  15. +1 Virgina Granny

    I would suggest the same 5-20% is true in bureaucrats and elected officials. They will say anything to be elected or promoted then, then do what is best for them when in office.
    No lie too big, there is no promise that can't be broken, no smear that will ever be retracted.
    Respect my authority you rable!
    From a school board official to state governor, director of a agency or someone who considers themselves senator for life, they stand shamelessly before us.

  16. As great a Patriot as Davy Crockett (who went to Congress thinking that he could actually make a difference) was attacked, ridiculed and generally disrespected by the Swampcritters in power. His legendary motto, "Make sure you're right, then go ahead," didnt sit well with his opponents.

    He lost his re-election bid under suspicious circumstances and famously said, "Hell with this, I'm going to Texas!"

    I'm pretty sure we all know how that worked out.

    And not much has changed, despite the different labels.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *