Do Psychopaths Run the World?
By NICK PARKINS
Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.
– John Lennon (1940-1980), English singer and songwriter
Lennon and others externalise the apparent paranoia that wells up inside us. “The world has gone mad!” More often than not we partition this voice off, content to view the world as others prescribe it. But who are these others, and what do they want?
The term psychopath is often criminally misjudged, thanks largely to unhelpful portrayals of sick, twisted and violent psycho-character types in the popular media. This has led, by way of public ignorance, to the common belief that the psychopath has no function, role or place in open society. A swift offload that allows us, the apparent sane majority, to circumvent our worst fears.
Any notion that the psychopath is incapable of functioning in open society is, according to M.E. Thomas1 – a self-confessed sociopath – flawed. The question is not the capacity to function, but rather what capacity or form that function takes. As Thomas says, psychopaths and sociopaths share an intertwined clinical history; both can function, they just do so differently. And though we are left to muse on what mask that function may take, in many social situations they excel.
Competition Wins Out
Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck was a French biologist who advocated a theory of evolution widely rebuked in establishment circles. Lamarck’s major work was published in the same year Charles Darwin was born – who would go on to supplant Lamarck’s theory 50 years later. In Lamarck’s world cooperation prevailed over Darwinian competition as the driving mechanism of evolution.
According to authors G. Greenberg and M.M. Haraway,2 it was Darwin’s view that served to reflect and sustain a Victorian society tied to free market, capitalist and imperial values. His model supported a dog-eat-dog, life is hard, code of practice; the scientific valediction of the natural world as played out on a brutal, cold and insensitive landscape. Arguably the perfect environment for the aspiring modern day psychopath, and a prevailing view that the poet Tennyson described as nature, red in tooth and claw.
Snakes & Ladders
Although diagnosing definitive psychopathy in individuals remains somewhat of a grey area, attempts have been made to categorise psychological traits that set psychopathic personalities apart. Most prominent is the diagnostic check-list devised by renowned Canadian psychologist Robert Hare that is used to determine a categorical diagnosis of clinical psychopathy, or at best a category score.
According to Hare’s list, psychopaths display superficial charm, unbridled ego, and pathological lying and cold, calculated cunning to entrance their prey. They are often impulsive and irresponsible, and exhibit an absence of empathy and remorseless lack of guilt. These and other attributes, such as criminal versatility and a marked capacity to manipulate, deceive and control, mark them out as dangerous. These are traits that enable psychopaths to move into high-ranking positions of power and influence.
“We know much less about corporate psychopathy and its implications,” explains New York psychologist Paul Babiak, “in large part because of the difficulty in obtaining the active cooperation of business organisations for our research.”3 A dilemma that Hare disclosed to Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test. “Prisoners are easy,” states Hare. “They like meeting researchers. It breaks up the monotony of their day. But CEOs, politicians…”4 According to Hare, these sharks are a different kettle of fish.
A rare study on psychopathy in the workplace conducted by Babiak, Neumann and Hare5 suggests that 1 in 25, or 4 per cent, of corporate executives display significant personality traits typical of psychopathy – an incidence four times that estimated in the general population. The study supports the claim that psychopaths can and in fact do achieve high ranking corporate status. We are left to speculate, but Hare concedes Wall Street may harbour 1 in 10 attracted to lucrative watering holes that are poorly regulated.6Factor this in and it’s not hard to see how the very lifeblood and identity of corporations and financial institutions can often run cold.
Arguably most startling, the study indicates that despite being classed as substandard managers, team players and attracting poor performance appraisals, executives that met the clinical threshold of psychopath were valued by their immediate superiors as creative and innovative, as good communicators and strategic thinkers.
In short, they may not always fly under the radar. Despite the blips, it is clear to American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley7 that psychopaths possess the communication, persuasion and interpersonal skills to override any negative impacts on their career. A finding supported by the Babiak study: “some companies viewed psychopathic executives as having leadership potential, despite negative performance reviews and low ratings on leadership and management by subordinates.”8 According to the authors, this shows a proficiency to manipulate decision makers, a point made by psychologist Dennis Doren who observed in institutions the psychopath’s unerring ability to seek out and foster relationships with those of highest authority and demonstrate tremendous skill at influencing them.9
In many instances the chameleon-like ability of the psychopath to mimic its surroundings by reading and influencing colleagues through the art of deception, be it through self promotion or subtle persuasion, allows the snake charmer to hide his true skin and pass unchecked through social customs. Studies suggest psychopathy, in body or by proxy, can entrench itself at the top, but is this phenomenon relatively isolated, or has this scenario over the course of human history always prevailed?
As Above, So Below
As vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, Darrell West analyses business and law school curricula, specifically, according to West “because business and law schools train the leaders of tomorrow.”10 In the course of his research West reviews course syllabi and conducts interviews with faculty members. He has also surveyed data on business and law school student perceptions. What he found was troubling.
“The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” states West, taking his lead from the title of a 1970 New York Times magazine article written by the highly-influential American economist and statistician, Milton Friedman. The article was unequivocal: according to Friedman, maximising shareholder value was a company’s sole responsibility.11
“Many schools do not require stand alone courses that provide broad conceptions on the purpose of the corporation in society,” says West. Of those that do, “many focus on the purpose of the corporation, with emphasis on how to maximise shareholder value, especially in law schools.”12 Instruction therefore is key, notes West, and will colour a student’s view of the world. In fact, West concludes, “business school surveys show that after completing school, students are more likely to see shareholder value as the most important goal of the corporation.”13
It was not that Friedman was a prophet. In hindsight, according to West, he helped shape the outlook of numerous business leaders, academics, and thought-leaders that ultimately served to affect America’s modern sense of purpose of the corporation. An inherent identity that helps shape the way business and law school students view their, often times, lack of responsibility to society even today.
In the real world, inevitable coldly-calculated equations play out on the one side to maximise profit and on the other to minimise loss. And like most mathematical equations they make little or no sense to the layman.
“Can you buy what you already own?” This was the equation facing all concerned when Canadian-based Nautilus Minerals Inc. purchased the licence in 2011 from the “Independent State of Papua New Guinea” (PNG) to mine deep-sea vent fields in sovereign waters off the country’s coastline. The answer, morally, of course, is no.
According to Sir Julias Chan, current Governor of New Ireland province in PNG, ethics are an intangible commodity, and unlike cold hard currency rarely stack up. “First, the state cedes exploration and production rights to foreign companies for next to nothing,” says Chan. In the case of PNG 10,000 kina, equivalent to US$4,000. “For this pittance, the foreign developer gets full control of all the wealth that can be taken from the ground.”14
“The next step is for the state to seek equity in the project, usually 30 percent in a mining project and 22.5 per cent in an oil or gas project,” explains Chan. “The state has ‘given away’ the entire resource to a foreign company, and now returns to buy what was already legally its own property, for a 30 percent interest in the project.” To PNG this meant 300 million kina, or US$118 million. “And, to do so, the state usually takes out a commercial loan rate that puts the country further into debt at high interest.”15 Today a common event whereby the state acts to castrate itself and its people to high finance.
Joel Bakan is a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, Canada. While those that run corporations are for the most part, good, moral people, says Bakan, the duty of the corporate executive is to the corporation’s business interests first and foremost. “The money they manage is not theirs,” explains Bakan. “They can no sooner use it to heal the sick… or buy a villa in Tuscany.” In the corporate world, good people are encouraged to behave badly. In fact, the sum of corporate parts are “singularly self interested and unable to feel genuine concern for others in any context. The corporation, like the psychopathic personality it resembles, is programmed to exploit others for profit.”16
Under such terms it is not difficult to envisage how a system can soon come to value and mimic its most deviant parts. Equally, how the parts over time can come to be shaped by the whole.
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It’s Behind You
According to philosopher and author Aaron James, while the psychopath feigns moral action as a tool to manipulate others, the arsehole could well be a butt of equal contention. Unlike the prototypical psychopath, says James, the arsehole “traffics in and is moved by moral justification,” which leads to an “entrenched sense of special entitlement.”17
The perfect example, according to James, is Apple founder Steve Jobs who saw his sole obligation to society as implicitly tied to producing the products his consumers desired. James notes what Jobs’s best friend, Jony Ive, once told Business Insider: “when he’s frustrated… his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and license to do that,” said Ive. “The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him.”18
Worryingly, James says, “the arsehole’s reasoning is shaped by the moral justification his surrounding culture makes available to him.”19 For instance, according to Hare, many white-collar criminals are psychopaths. “They flourish because the characteristics that define the disorder are actually valued,” asserts Hare. “When they get caught, what happens? A slap on the wrist, a six-month ban from trading, [oh] and don’t give us the $100 million back.”20
Accordingly, not only does corporate culture control net arsehole production, but the quality of butt-heads produced. And, depending on the culture, says James, “an arsehole can be better or worse behaved than a psychopath.”21 A consoling thought.
Arguably it is no more comforting to know that the psychopath you had fingered all along is really an arsehole nurtured by a system that is, by way of inherent nature, socially deviant. If the reasoning of a typical arsehole is moved by moral justification, taken from his surrounding environment, then the ability of a psychopathic culture and/or system to shape its own governing class is implied.
They Gave Us Their Mind
The enduring strength of psychopathy lies in its ability to manipulate how others perceive it. But the innate ability of the psychopath or the system to shape our perceptions is not, in itself, entirely the reserve of the clinical psychopath.
We all play our part in the masquerade. Many of us partake in cosmetic enhancements and props that support our ego’s waltz through this porcelain world. Whatever the score, the Hare check-list has a number picked out for us all. In its pursuit of ultimate control, this is the greatest achievement of psychopathy; after all, what better way to predict by response a person or group, than to give them your mind?
The competitor’s urge to win at all cost is certainly pervasive. So, too, the trend of irresponsibility, most evident in the compensation culture that has crept into the social mindset, thanks to laws that restrict a person’s capacity to develop by way of ethics and moral concepts of right and wrong. How can you take responsibility for thoughts and concepts that are not your own? In the broad, rules and regulations teach us to hand over our power, a transaction that re-enforces itself in society according to Thomas. She says that given the choice between having power and giving it up to a ‘trusted’ entity, people often choose to give it up rather than take the responsibility that comes with it.22
In its apparent, endless quest to reinvent society in its own image, psychopathy perhaps has more than one expression. Recent research into social media habits throws up disturbing correlations between heavy Facebook use and socially aggressive narcissism. In one study users that scored highly on a Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire, reports Damien Pearse, “had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their news-feeds more regularly.” The research, the report states, “comes amid mounting evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.”23
In the same breath the media have ‘jokingly’ jumped on those abstaining from Facebook as highly suspicious and suspect – they could have something to hide. Facebook use is, of course, prevalent and ‘normal’.
An infinite number of media streams exist that entice us to see our reflection, drawing us into powerful undercurrents, and buffeting us from one bank to the next. We surface only to take breath, disorientated and confused, disconnected from our natural cues. But perhaps that’s the idea. Certainly it is the innate need to control and the power to wield it, at whatever cost, and without care, that fractures the pathological mind from the rest of us.
The God Complex
Those who rise to power in the corporatocracy, are control freaks, addicted to the buzz of power over other human beings.
– Bruce Levine, social critic & psychologist
In a competitive world there will always be those who actively seek out, justify or embrace traits of psychopathy as a route to success. For a surgeon, a cold detachment and cool head has its place. But glorifying the psychopath is a perilous path to tread. According to psychologist Linda Mealey, competition only serves to increase the use of antisocial and Machiavellian strategies and counteracts any increase in pro-social behaviour after success.
Spiralling societal separation, and re-enforcing detachment, sets a dangerous precedent, what James refers to as a sense of “entitlement born of cosmic grandiosity.”24 He cites oil baron John D. Rockefeller who viewed his wealth not in some Wild West American capitalist context that gave him free rein, but unapologetically, by divine right: “God gave me my money,”25 said Rockefeller.
This sense of divine entitlement, being chosen, as apart from society, has deeply disturbing parallels to contemporary wealth.
Jeff Greene is a multi-billionaire property investor and entrepreneur, and owns reportedly America’s most expensive home. Greene, who made his fortune betting on sub-prime mortgages, says Americans need to have “less things”: “America’s lifestyle expectations are far too high and need to be adjusted, so we have less things and a smaller, better existence,” lectured the 60-year old, who lets out the $195 million palatial estate in Beverly Hills to royal families and international dignitaries for hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.26
At its heart, assuming it had one, departments within the system, be they political, corporate or financial, select by lineage this mind; one willing to create, support and maintain it. “Figures such as J.P. Morgan, Randolph Hearst, and Mayer Rothschild,” argues author Stefan Verstappen, “are professional psychopaths that reach the pinnacle of the financial stage where they cause no less misery and destruction as their political counterparts.”27
As a result, examples of psychopathic conduct in high office are commonplace. Robert Kirkconnell is a decorated US Air Force combat veteran of 27 years, and an outspoken critic of the US government MK-ULTRA program that conducted a battery of callous psychological or ‘mind control’ tests on its own citizens. In American Heart of Darkness, Kirkconnell charges the presidential Rockefeller Commission, set up to investigate the CIA’s activities, which he says funded the program. Kirkconnell no longer sees his home as a constitutional republic, but as a pathocracy run by psychopaths.
Contagious Psychopathic Worldviews?
I had to win at all costs, sometimes allowing the costs to flow unchecked, just to see the volume of my power.
– M.E. Thomas
“Power is all I have ever really cared about in my life,” states Thomas. “Physical power, the power of being desired or admired, destructive power, knowledge, invisible influence. I like people enough that I want to touch them, mould them, ruin them,” says Thomas. “I want to exercise my power.”28 It’s nothing personal. It’s dietary. The idea of ruining people, she says, is simply delicious.
Thomas is not unique. The psychopath invariably plays with its food. In the process actively seeking to visit misfortune or suffering on others. Thomas regards herself as a white tiger – a beautiful and exotic pet but inherently dangerous. And whilst in her own words she considers herself tamed, inside she continues to grapple with a primal urge to destroy.
This mindset is not lost on society. In fact, it is a worldview captured succinctly in Michael Ellner’s personal state of the world address: “Just look at us,” he asks. “Everything is backwards, everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, psychiatrists destroy minds, scientists destroy truth, major media destroys information, religions destroy spirituality and governments destroy freedom.” You can see his point. But to what extent does this world talked of by Ellner stem solely from blind pursuit of power and profit?
Is there a hidden systemic malevolence that creates fear and uncertainty; the chaos to warrant this chase? Is the malevolent mist, that evil intent we ascribe to heinous acts and misdeeds, illusory, an epiphenomena, a by-product of the psychopath brain? Or is it real, autonomous, and guiding the program? And does this distinction matter? Does it help us interpret, say, the rise in chronic illness, its origins and how the healing profession has become, as critics claim, a public relations buzz-term; managing symptoms for profit?
The world of Kirkconnell swings into focus. Are we all victims of systemic programming; of disorientation; an imbalance the predator incites in us to maintain and enforce its position and status?
Like a god, so much of what psychopathy is and does hides in plain sight. The psychopath appeals to its prey’s sense of empathy and faith in humanity. He is the blank slate onto which people project their hopes and ideals.
This realisation must dawn if we are to expose systemic psychopathy and confront wildly sinister possibilities, not least the darker identities and underlying motives upon which it is based.
Darwin Dorr is the director of research into psychopathology at Wichita State University, Kansas. “The majority of paedophiles are psychopathic,” says Dorr, “or at least manifest to a significant degree the psychological characteristics of psychopathy.”29
Such ties that bind power to its perversions are historic, endemic and persist to this day. Investigations surrounding an elite Sydney paedophile ring are only the tip of a cold and callous iceberg that threatens to sink a titanic raft of untruths. In the UK, the reputation of once respected DJ, television presenter, and establishment confidante, Jimmy Savile, sank when his penchant for children, dead bodies, and satanic rituals and foreplay was disclosed to a shocked population.
Questions are now being asked outside UK Home Office circles and its curious taste for celebrity trash cans. All of a sudden the term psychopath seems no longer sufficient. Are such people, the system they represent, and the entities they mimic and worship, beyond a check-list? Certainly UK and wider establishment attempts to stymie the truth only serve to disclose further the covert means and amoral control by which psychopathy operates as an integral part of the system.
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- M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding In Plain Sight, Crown Publishing Group, 2013
- G. Greenberg, M.M. Haraway, Comparative Psychology: A Handbook, Garland Reference Library of Social Science, Routledge, 1998
- P. Babiak, C.S. Neumann, R.D. Hare, “Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk,” Behavioural Sciences and the Law, at http://web.natur.cuni.cz/~houdek3/papers/Babiak et al 2010.pdf
- J. Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, Picador, 2011
- P. Babiak, C.S. Neumann, R.D. Hare, op. cit.
- R. Hare, www.hare.org/comments/comment2.html
- H.M. Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So Called Psychopathic Personality, Mosby, 1976
- P. Babiak, C.S. Neumann, R.D. Hare, op. cit.
- B.J. Board, K. Fritzon, “Disordered personalities at work,” Psychology, Crime and Law, Vol. 11(1), 17-32, with reference to D. Doren, Understanding and Treating the Psychopath, Wile, 1987
- D. West, “The purpose of the corporation in business and law school curricula,” Governance Studies at Brookings, www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/7/19 corporation west/0719_corporation_west.pdf
- M. Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” New York Times Magazine, 13 September 1970
- D. West, op. cit.
- D. West, op. cit.
- “PNG Leadership has been poor steward of resources,” The National, 20 April 2011, www.roland-seib.de/05/Seib-Pressespiegel-1.5.11.pdf
- J. Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, Free Press, 2004
- A. James, “Ass-holes: a theory,” Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2013
- D. Love, “16 Examples of Steve Jobs being a jerk,” Business Insider, 25 October 2011,www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-jerk-2011-10
- A. James, op. cit.
- R. Hercz, “Psychopaths among us,” www.hare.org/links/saturday.html
- A. James, op. cit.
- M.E. Thomas, op. cit.
- D. Pearse, “Facebook’s dark side: study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism,” The Guardian, 17 March 2012, www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/mar/17/facebook-dark-side-study-aggressive-narcissism
- A. James, op. cit.
- J. Christie, “Multi-billionaire who gave a lecture about American’s ‘needing to have less things and live a smaller existence’ owns a staggering FIVE mansions…”, Daily Mail, 24 January 2015
- S. Verstappen, Defense Against the Psychopath: A Brief Introduction to Human Predators, Woodbridge Press, 2011
- M.E. Thomas, op. cit.
- D. Dorr, “The pedophile as psychopath,” 1998, in T. Millon, E. Simonsen, & M. Birket-Smith (Eds.),Psychopathy: Antisocial, Violent, and Criminal Behavior, 304-320, Guilford Press
- P. Gilbert, “An introduction to the theory and practice of compassion-focused therapy and compassionate mind training for shame based difficulties,” The Compassionate Mind Foundation,www.compassionatemind.co.uk/downloads/training_materials/1.Workbook_2010.pdf
- P. Gilbert, op. cit.
NICK PARKINS has a master’s degree in philosophy of the mind and likes to live outside the box.