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Psychopaths May Be Overrepresented In Big Business, Given Smarts And Manipulation Skills

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Why are rates of supposed psychopathy three times higher among high-ranking managers than the general population? Ludovic Bertron, CC BY 2.0

The bible of psychiatric disorders, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, known more colloquially as DSM-5, doesn’t include “psychopath” in any of its near-1,000 pages. It lists the collection of symptoms normally included in the moniker instead as “antisocial personality disorder.” And businesspeople may be more prone to having it.

Researchers from the University of Huddersfield recently conducted a study that found an ability to mask galvanic skin responses among high-IQ individuals could indicate the presence of antisocial personality disorder, referred to in the language of this particular research as psychopathy. It’s believed a combination of cunning smarts and a knack for social manipulation could help explain why psychopathic behavior is found more often in business than in the general population.

"I thought that intelligence could be an explanation for this, and it could be a problem if there are increased numbers of psychopaths at a high level in business,” said lead researcher and psychological scientist Carolyn Bate in a statement.

Bate’s research draws upon prior findings that showed out of 203 corporate professionals, roughly three percent scored high enough on two tests of psychopathic traits to qualify as embodying psychopathy — although no formal diagnoses were made. This three percent was the fuel for Bates’ study because it stands in contrast to the general population’s rate of only one percent. Why, she wanted to know, were business people three times more likely to embody this behavior?

Her team’s study recruited 50 people to answer the question. First, each person took a standard IQ test. Then they took a second test, called the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, to assess whether they had either Factor One or Factor Two psychopathic tendencies. Factor One tendencies include boldness and extreme assertiveness. Factor Two tendencies include poor impulse control and exploitative tendencies.

The meat of the study came next: Bate hooked each participant up to a machine that read galvanic skin response (GSR). She showed them either neutral images or ones intended to shock the average person, and she recorded how people with each set of psychopathic tendencies reacted to the shocking images. Her hypothesis, that people with higher IQ scores and psychopathic tendencies were more likely not to register a GSR, was confirmed.

The upshot, she says, isn’t all that clear. The findings may point in one direction, namely that people with psychopathic tendencies are usually smarter, but whether businesses need to change their practices to accommodate the research is debatable. On the one hand, she concedes “this could have a detrimental effect on our everyday lives,” but she also acknowledges that business has been run the same way for many years; the necessary changes could be systemic.

"Perhaps businesses do need people who have the same characteristics as psychopaths, such as ruthlessness,” she said. “But I suspect that some form of screening does need to take place, mainly so businesses are aware of what sort of people they are hiring.”

In other words, of course businesses would rather higher bulldogs. But the net effect of high-ranking managers who would just as quickly step on someone’s throat to get where they’re going certainly seems like a negative outside the office. They might not actually kill anyone to get a promotion, but, to revert back to the language of the DSM, their antisocial tendencies may kill with kindness. Or at least what looks like kindness.

Source: Bate C, Boduszek D, Dhingra K, Bale C. Psychopathy, intelligence and emotional responding in a non-forensic sample: an experimental investigation. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology. 2014.

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