“It rubs lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it’s told.” The camera pans wide, and tilts up to Buffalo Bill as he speaks to his latest victim. He is perched over the ledge of the pit where he holds her captive, calmly petting his aggravated dog. This scene from the five-Academy Award-winning horror-thriller film, The Silence of the Lambs, has become one of the most popular depictions of psychopaths in modern times. Buffalo Bill’s character, played by Ted Levine, is a serial killer who kidnaps, murders, and skins his female victims in order to dress himself as a woman. Although Buffalo Bill’s erratic behavior and violent impulses can be listed as symptoms of psychopathy, the more common, ‘day-to-day’ psychopath is able to blend into society. Americans were shocked to see that the notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy, looked like an ordinary man. Today, the image of an ‘everyday’ psychopath is actually closer to a briefcase wielding businessman than even the “handsome and charismatic” Ted Bundy. Psychopaths make up only 1% of the overall population, but psychologists estimate that 3.5% of senior executives are psychopaths (Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers). Christopher Bayer, a Wall Street therapist, believes that in the financial services industry this number is greater than 10% (DeCovny 34). The myth that psychopaths are the “other”, the monster in the night, versus the neighbor or co-worker is an impediment to any cultural examination of the factors that allow them to thrive in positions of power, increasing the long term consequences of psychopathy in society.
One of the reasons why psychopaths continue to be regarded as outsiders is because there is a lack of understanding of what exactly a psychopath is are and why they behave the way they do. Psychopathy is often categorized as a subset of anti-social personality disorder, but psychologists are still debating the exact definitions and listed characteristics of different types of psychopathy (Tankersley 349). The consensus of leading researchers such as Robert Hare, Boddy Clive, and many more is that psychopaths are usually extremely callous, incapable of showing remorse, intelligent, unable to empathize with others, manipulative, and typically view people as means to an end. Traditional explanations for psychopathy point to environmental stressors that often lead to stunted emotional growth and, ultimately, to possible future psychopathy. Anti-social personality stressors, in particular, are linked to early childhood relationships with maternal figures, parental alcoholism, infrequent discipline, and lack of supervision (Furnham 465).
Recent scholarship, on the other hand, examines biological factors, such as genetic abnormalities in the brain, as the primary causes for psychopathy. Brain scan data shows that there is “a reduction in prefrontal gray matter volume, gray matter loss in the right superior temporal gyrus, and amygdala volume loss” in people who exhibit psychopathic traits (Weber 10-12). These findings suggest a direct link between psychopathy and anomalies in the brain that regulate emotional, social, and other learning processes (Weber 12-13). Tankersley argues that “the inability of the psychopath to experience certain negative emotions (e.g., remorse or guilt), prevent him from learning associations between distress cues of others and the behaviors that cause such aversive states . . . The inability to form associations between negative affective cues and the actions that cause them disrupts acquisition of normal social behavior” (Tankersley 351). Increased scientific study into the biological factors of psychopathy is necessary to overcome the stigma that psychopathy is outside the realm of understanding, and increasing popular understanding will help mitigate the problems, such as corporate psychopathy, directly caused by those suffering from similar types of anti-social personality disorders.
Robert Hare, a pioneering researcher in the field of criminal psychology, studied psychopaths and asserted psychopathy should be analyzed using a two-factored spectrum. Factor 1 deals with interpersonal traits of psychopathy, often the characteristics most closely observed by clinicians. Examples are “egocentricity, manipulativeness, callousness, and lack of remorse” (Hare 30). Factor 2, on the other hand, reflects lifestyle traits such as impulsiveness, anti-social behavior, unstable habits, and/or deviant impulses (Hare 30). Hare’s psychopathy checklist, first developed in 1980, and later revised in 1985, remains the only way to formally diagnose a psychopath. It is a 20-item clinical rating scale that can only be administered by a licensed psychiatrist. Each item is scored on a 3-point scale, and the total score ranges from 0-40. While a score of 30 generally indicates the test-taker is a psychopath, most psychologists diagnose scores of 25 or higher as psychopaths.
Not everyone who scores high on this list will necessarily exhibit the behaviors (factor 2 psychopathic traits) popularly attributed to psychopathy as a result of depictions in films like The Silence of the Lambs, and there are people who pass just below the threshold of 25 yet exhibit the worrisome characteristics of psychopathy. The checklist isn’t perfect. One of the reasons why the prevalence of psychopathy as a condition continues to be understated is because the detection process relies on test-takers to self-report behaviors, behaviors that society looks down on. People might not be willing to admit they lead parasitic lifestyles, which in turn, leads to under-reporting of psychopathic behavior. Another challenge posed by the identifying process is that the checklist itself is biased regarding the socially-drawn gendered characteristics of psychopathy. There is evidence that female psychopathy manifests itself in different defining traits, but Hare’s checklist is based on the expected behavior of a white cis-male. Gender differences are usually taken into account when conducting personality and behavioral assessments and are adjusted accordingly to insure a higher level of accuracy. Not doing so may lead to incorrect evaluations. Nicole Caceres, a gender and psychopathy researcher, states there are three key differences in the traits of psychopathy between genders: behaviors, differences in the level of the disorder, and traditional norms that may affect the assessment of some psychopathic qualities in males and females. She argues that manipulative women are reportedly viewed as flirtatious instead of dangerous, but manipulative men are more likely to be viewed as swindlers. Caceres further explains that female impulsivity includes behaviors such as running away from home, self-injurious acts, and theft or fraud, whereas male impulsivity is characterized by violence (Caceres 13). Female incarceration increased by 386% between 1980-1994 while male incarceration rates increased by 214%, showing there needs to be a greater understanding of female criminal psychology and psychopathy (Caceres 15). As the number of women leading the business and financial industries grow, it will be increasingly important to be able to recognize the traits of a female executive psychopath.
The root of the problem with lack of popular knowledge of psychopathy goes beyond assessment methods. An absence of nuance and diversity in the revised psychopathy checklist does contribute to making psychopaths the “other”, but it is a byproduct of the larger issue: a lack of institutional and social treatment of psychopathy as a mental health disorder. There is, instead, a push to treat psychopaths as complete unknowns, monsters formed in the darkest corners of society. Ever since the field of psychopathy broke through mainstream consciousness in 1941 with Harvey Cleckley’s book, The Mask of Sanity, psychologists have debated over definition in various circles, leaving a wide range of interpretation of what psychopathy is. This is dangerous as it further exacerbates misinformation of psychopathy in the mental health field, which might discourage those who are seeking treatment (Furnham 466).Even if they were seeking help, minimal institutionalization of psychopathy hinders effective development of treatment methods which can be classified as either physical or pharmacological. Common medications prescribed are neuroleptics, which are used to tranquilize violent behavior, lithium, a medication that helps reduce impulsiveness and other emotionally unstable actions, psychostimulants, and anticonvulsants (Furnham 465). These prescriptions are usually paired with behavioral, cognitive, individual, and group psychotherapy. Many of these behavioral correction techniques target specific issues such as anger management and dealing with authority figures while teaching new ways of thinking around irrational thoughts (Furnham 465). Still, there is currently no known way to ‘fix’ psychopathy, none of these methods have been shown to work with psychopaths (Hare 41).
A study reported that psychopaths with a score on the checklist of 25 or more received little to no benefit from therapy. Further examination between therapy and recidivism rates found that, “[for] nonpsychopaths, the violent recidivism rate was 22% for treated patients and 39% for untreated patients. However, the violent recidivism rate for treated psychopaths was higher (77%) than was that for untreated psychopaths (55%)” (Hare 42). Robert Hare surmises that group therapy and perception-oriented programs help psychopaths develop more effective ways to manipulate, deceive, and use people. An FBI study found that half of law enforcement officers who died on active duty were killed by people who fit the profile of a psychopath (Hare 38). This alarming fact shows that it is detrimental for psychologists to institutionalize psychopathy as a mental disorder, which in turn could allow for more effective treatment to be tested. Higher rates of recidivism in psychopaths shows that it is their nature to follow their criminal impulses, so understanding how they operate could save lives.
Corporate psychopaths are high-functioning factor 2 psychopaths (sub-clinical) who score 75% or more on the checklist (Boddy “Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace.”369). They are probably drawn to business and financial sectors because they are attracted to the great possibilities of wealth, power, and prestige—especially the perks that come with being senior executives ( Boddy “Corporate Psychopaths, Conflict, Employee Affective Well-Being and Counterproductive Work Behaviour” 108). Boddy found that the higher the position of corporate psychopaths, the greater the effects in the workplace. These effects can be categorized as heightened levels of conflict, lower levels of social responsibility, higher levels of organizational difficulties, unstable workloads, and lower job satisfaction of employees who work directly under them. An example of a consequence of having psychopaths in the workplace is that they steal successful work from other employees and claim it as their own (Boddy “Corporate Psychopaths, Conflict, Employee Affective Well-Being and Counterproductive Work Behaviour” 109). All of these symptoms eventually lead to higher employee turnover rates which, in turn, costs businesses a lot of money (“Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers.”).
Corporate psychopaths are not just a verifiable cost to the businesses they work for, they also have far-reaching consequences in everyday life. As organizational psychopathy increases, perception that the company acts ethically decreases (Boddy, Clive, et al. 9). While exact data does not exist, this closely corresponds with recent financial scandals. The 2007 Global Financial Crisis forced many organizational researchers to examine the leaders of financial institutions; they found that large corporations have been destroyed due to the actions of senior directors and managers (Boddy “The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis.” 255). Research by psychologists in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia found evidence that psychopaths are more prevalent at senior levels of organizations than subordinate ranks (257). It can be extrapolated from this data that corporate psychopaths are just as deadly with their computers as Buffalo Bill was with his knife. When the housing bubble popped and hundreds of thousands of people lost their incomes and their jobs, the people responsible were not criminally prosecuted. They were able to walk away, making millions while the world suffered. Psychopaths are able to escape without repercussions because most people still believe they lurk in the shadows at truck stops instead of the reality that they operate in the open, in places of power. Cultural values surrounding leadership and individualism, coupled with the massive disinformation about psychopaths, have allowed them to grasp power. Leadership potential is assessed superficially. It’s easy to “look good on paper,” because businesses hire people who are confident, charming, and interview well (Cohn, Jeffrey., and Jay. Moran 4). Although these traits are desirable, a person in a position of responsibility must be more than a suave speaker. Corporate culture of winner-takes-all gives license to psychopathic behavior to do whatever it takes to come out on top. This attitude goes beyond the financial world and is evident in political leadership as well. Integrity becomes an afterthought in the presence of campaign donations and lobbying.
The greatest threat to society was never psychopaths and their deviant behavior, but the belief that there exists anything that is truly “other.” Our unwillingness to face cultural culpability in placing psychopaths in positions of power is fueled by the notion that they are isolated incidents. Psychopathy does not occur in a vacuum. Unless there is a direct threat to our friends and families by psychopaths, however, we remain willfully ignorant of how they affect others, choosing to selfishly perpetuate a culture of individualism over the greater good. When we reject promoting the greater good, such as holding companies accountable for their actions, we all exhibit some psychopathic traits. Our selfishness only gives them power, increasing the long-term consequences of psychopathy in society.
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Kelechi Emetuche is currently studying Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
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