Are CEOs more likely to be psychopaths than others?

20 February 2018


Is it true that CEOs are more likely to be psychopaths than other people?


Chris Smith put this question to neurocriminologist Kyle Treiber. First off, Chris asked, what is a psychopath?

Kyle - Psychopathy is a concept by which we characterise individuals who have a certain number of traits. Personally, I think it’s more interesting to focus on the traits because the disorder of psychopathy is actually not very coherent. It’s not completely reliable; it’s not, for example, identified in the law. But the traits that we tend to see in the idea of psychopathy are callous and emotionality, so a lack of feeling particularly in relation to other people in their suffering. It’s the way we tend to look at it in criminology at least.

Grandiosity and narcissism - self-interest. People who are really focussed on themselves and what they’re going to achieve and not as concerned about the emotional impact they may be having on others because they themselves may not be experiencing that emotion.

So you can see why these characteristics are potentially going to be useful for those individuals who are moving up the corporate ladder and who are able to put their interests first, and also not to be bogged down perhaps by concerns about others.

Now there’s a spectrum here. Everyone has a different capacities when it comes to emotions and when it comes to their sense of self - how much they care about themselves and how great that they think that they are. People’s success, the way that they will then manifest these into their ultimate outcomes will not depend on the environments that they’re in as much as these personality characteristics, if you will.

A lot of studies of psychopathy have actually looked at the other end of the spectrum. Adrian Raine, who’s one of the leading researchers in psychopathy, looked at temps. Because his theory was that these kind of individuals are not going to be able to have long term relationships, long term commitments because if you’re extremely callous and unemotional, extremely self interested, you’re going to use up your advantage and people, of course, are going to stop trusting you, and stop having those social relationships with you. They did find that there was a greater amount of psychopathy amongst people working in temporary jobs than you would find in the normal population.

Chris - So what you basically need is a really psychopathic CEO to get a business off the ground, and then a really altruistic CEO to keep it all running once it’s all running and keep the team happy?

Kyle - I think, ultimately, if you look at the human society and human advancements, social behaviour is clearly advantageous. There will be individual circumstances in which this kind of behaviour will be successful but, overall, because we’re social organisms we are successful and so yes, eventually it’s going to be those social dynamics that are really going to lead to the success and the stability of companies.

Matt - How common is this stuff? Can you estimate what percentage of the population might have these psychopathic type traits?

Kyle - It’s a very good question. It’s actually a very small percentage of individuals so 1 or 2 percentage points that you might find in the population. But again, it’s really a nebulous concept, it’s not one that’s really very well defined or very well accepted within the discipline. Some individuals think that it is an important disorder study, but others would argue there’s not clear, consistent neurological elements that are associated with this. In some individuals who lack these emotional capacities for example, there’s certain areas of the brain that aren’t as functional as we would see in say normal individuals. But many people who have these psychopathic type traits may have perfectly functioning emotional areas of the brain.

We also sometimes distinguish the idea of sociopathy, which is more driven by the environment the individual has than psychopathy, which we would tend to try to see as something that’s been driven more by an individual themselves than something perhaps to do with their brain. But, again, there’s a lack of consistency, there’s a lack of  really strong evidence for this so it’s something that’s still, I would say, under research.


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