2011.10.19 The psycho next door

Written by David Green.

The psycho next door



I’m gazing out the window, looking down North Street toward the stoplight, mentally going store by store along Main Street. I’m trying to spot the psychopath.

At least one of us business owners is a psychopath, possibly two. Maybe even more; perhaps we defy the odds.

It’s the odds we’re working with here because, on the average, one in 25 business leaders is a psychopath.

Do you quickly have the answer? Does someone immediately pop into your mind as our representative to this illustrious club?

Psychologist Paul Babiak is the person responsible for this 1-in-25 figure. He says many people are able to disguise their condition by playing up their charm and by manipulating others. It’s also easier for them to hide behind their high status.

Thank goodness your local psychopath had a happy childhood. This background helps him function in the workplace instead of torturing cats or committing an occasional murder.

Earlier research has preceded Babiak’s studies. Several years ago professor Robert Hare wrote about sub-criminal psychopaths—self-serving, narcissistic schemers with “a stunning lack of empathy,” but fortunately without criminal intent.

They bully, they’re arrogant and impatient, they’re quick to blame someone else for a mistake, but they aren’t going to burn down your house. They might delight in firing you, but at least you’ll leave physically uninjured.

“Psychopaths aren’t really the kind of person you think they are,” Babiak says.

He believes about one percent of Americans are psychopathic. So Morenci has about 22; Fayette comes through with about 16. They’re everywhere.

But back to Main Street...OK, and maybe North Street. Psychopaths are found four times as often in the business district than in the neighborhood. Babiak and Hare got together with a third researcher and dug deeper into the business psychopath.

They were aware of the ample studies about psychopaths via the criminal justice system, but they knew there wasn’t much from the corporate world, largely because of the “difficulty in obtaining the active cooperation of business organizations.” 

They finally found their way in. A couple hundred professionals were selected for a management development program and the scientists were invited to attend. They got out the psychopathy checklists and went to work.

Superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative, lack of empathy, need for stimulation/proneness to boredom, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasitic lifestyle—quite a list of traits that we in the business community may have to offer.

It works out so well for us, Babiak says, because it plays to our strengths. It’s the business community, after all, where greed is good and profit-making is highly valued. That’s where a social psychopath can flourish.

A review of the issue in the Guardian newspaper mentioned this: “The survey suggests psychopaths are actually poor managerial performers but are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath, Babiak said.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? We’ve all wondered how so-and-so made it into that position when there were better people who were left out.

Journalist Jon Ronson wrote a book about psychopathy that he subtitled “A journey through the madness industry” and he found business leaders who took traits off the psycho checklists and redefined them as positives for business. Psychopathic traits make the world go round.

Ronson says he turned into a psychopath hunter, always on the lookout for madness. It about drove him crazy.

For me, I’ll never again go to a Morenci Area Chamber of Commerce meeting with the same unknowing attitude. I’ll be looking around the table with a discerning eye, maybe taking a few notes to study later. It’s sure to drive me crazy.

Hey, get that mirror out of my face!

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