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Do psychopaths rule the world?

Updated on October 4, 2014
Some suggest the psychopath was the inspiration for the figure of the vampire
Some suggest the psychopath was the inspiration for the figure of the vampire

Politics and the upper levels of business provide sheltered employment for psychopaths ( people with the disorder known as psychopathy) and sociopaths (less damaged and less competent psychopaths). Not everyone in these fields has the damaged brains that have been found to be associated with psychopathy but just as too much IT work can induce mild autism, politics and upper management reward and induce psychopathy and sociopathy. Paradoxically sociopaths, who may loosely be classed as failed psychopaths, may serve as insulators protecting society from the smooth charming and integrated psychopath.


A psychopath is a person who has no conscience, has no fear, lacks emotions, and is virtually unable to have feelings, sympathy for or empathy with any other person.

They are also impulsive and egocentric, boastful and grandiose, and violate social,legal and moral norms whenever it suits them, while blaming others for their behaviour or denying it outright “It wasn't me, it was my evil twin”.

One psychopath working as a bartender killed a customer then claimed it was the customer's fault because “He should have seen I was in a bad mood”.

Psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley in a classic work, called The Mask of Sanity, observed that psychopaths, can seem quite normal and even superficially charming, hence the term "mask of sanity" describing the deceptive personality they present to the world. Robert Hare, inventor of the leading tool used to diagnose psychopathy calls them intraspecies predators, and it seems to me the mask of sanity is their camouflage.

Psychopaths with no other disorder do not exhibit grossly psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions. But they lack empathy and guilt and are willing to manipulate, lie, or cheat with neither hesitation or remorse to achieve their own ends and are so abnormal in their interpersonal actions and behaviour that calling psychopathy a disorder seems justifiable.

Are psychopaths human? If the answer is no they are humanoid, like most aliens in Science Fiction films. Machine intelligence may exceed human intelligence at some point and a mechanical brain may be transplanted to a human body therefore we must consider whether psychopaths are human in the light the possibility of a non human intelligence in a human body. In the end however everyone must choose their own answer to this question. Personally I would argue that they are human but only just.

The ape closest to the hairless language using variety reading and that wrote this note, the Chimpanzee could be argued to have some, perhaps most of these characteristics. Chimpanzees lack empathy for other chimpanzees but do show fear: experiments showed that a chimpanzee, in a situation where they can feed themselves by pressing a lever and feed a chimpanzee in another cage by pressing a second lever presses the second lever randomly, but always feeds themselves, even if the other is a sibling.

A recognised test for psychopathy, known as the Hare test after its inventor, which has proven effective in revealing psychopathy in male criminals and psychiatric patients as well as in female criminals. The result of the test is a value on a continuum and suggests that everyone has some degree, however small, of psychopathy (have you never lied to save your skin, or pocketed excess change in a store without thinking the assistant might get it docked from their wages and then gone on your way whistling?). I think that on this scale the chimpanzee would be closer to the average human than is the classic psychopath.

Psychopathy is one member of the “Dark Triad” that also includes Narcissism and Machiavellanism and since all three share common traits, the assignment of the correct disorders to an individual is complicated. Care must also be taken to avoid labelling someone a psychopath simply because one dislikes them or their views and the tendency in the old Soviet Union (paralleled to a great extent in the USA, as I recall) of branding dissidents as insane shows how carefully the label “psychopath” must be used.

Social Forces

Social forces may either be partly responsible for psychopathy or encourage or repress these tendencies. Countries such as the United States where the incidence is as high as 4% and increasing steadily subscribe to an individualist, self-promoting ethic, whereas in countries like Japan and China that favour an ethos of connectedness and personal responsibility the incidence is just 0.03-0.14%. Equally other factors such as nature and nurture may play a role. However the fact that such people arise in all societies, together with the evidence for a neurophysiological component suggests some form of mutation with a relatively high probability and some degree ov evolutionary benefit.


It is worth recapping on the main characteristics of the classic psychopath: Lack of fear, lack of guilt, lack of conscience, lack of empathy, refusal to accept responsibility for their deeds, superficial charm and almost compulsive lying. Many would claim, and it has been stated publicly that many politicians suffer from almost all these traits, which are shared with serial killers then wrongly claim that all politicians are psychopathic. Such a claim neglects the fact that the political process and the culture in which politicians live and breathe not only encourages but requires and rewards these characteristics. A politician who says “I was wrong” dramatically reduces their chance of re-election and superficial charm is needed to win over voters and those who might donate funds. In order to get funds and votes lying is often essential.

It is true however that in the field of politics these characteristics are common, necessary and generally well rewarded. The leaders of countries may not be psychopathic but the most influential people in their government may well include a couple of psychopaths. Since psychopaths are self centred they will steer government policy to benefit themselves, and being smart, will give a plausible justification for the policy that masks the real motives.

Politics however probably includes many sociopaths. The Sociopath feels fear, guilt, remorse and all the normal emotions, but only in their insider group: family, colleagues, co-religionists etc but behave as classic psychopaths with outsiders, for example the electorate. To this extent they resemble what Altemeyer calls Authoritarian Followers. There are indications that Sociopaths are less well organised than psychopaths and tend to make more mistakes when carrying out plans. Since it takes one to know one, sociopaths in politics can recognise the true psychopath and may neutralise them, if only by having and pursuing different goals

It might be argued that Psychopathy is bred by Capitalism and will no longer be a problem after the “revolution”, but, apart from the fact that this theory has never been examined critically, one excellent path for the power inclined psychopath who is not born into privilege is the path of revolution. Again not all revolutionary leaders are psychopaths, but the ability to lie cheat, manipulate and if need be kill without losing a heartbeat gives the psychopath an advantage in the looser, more gullible crowds of social dissenters and potential revolutionaries, whether left or right wing.

Rather than relying on lesser psychopaths to protect us from the greater we need to reform politics to ensure it no longer gives them sheltered employment. This will not happen till the public become properly educated, learn to see beyond superficial charm and learn that a politician is most dangerous when they apparently agree with you.

Are psychopaths any use and can they be controlled?

Copley notes that psychopaths occur everywhere and that the Inuit regard them as irredeemable and traditionally push them off ice floes. This kind of solution is unlikely to be politically acceptable and in current society could be used for repressive purposes. So what is needed is to find a way to use these people is possible, and control them if not.

The lack of fear, guilt, empathy and remorse would make them good soldiers, as long as they could be controlled. They would make good stock exchange traders as long as they were supervised and technological mechanisms were in place to prevent over risky trades.

The extreme emotional detachment would make them excellent analysts of public policy though again measures would have to be instituted to ensure that they presented impartial analyses:perhaps multiple analysts preparing independent analyses of the same data or policy would work.

The problem is that psychopaths, especially the smart ones, are dangerous.

I recall a fantasy novel in which a dangerous psychopath was controlled by a geas, a magical binding that prevented him harming anyone. There was a key phrase that temporarily removed the geas and the man was used as an enforcer by the government. Speaking the key phrase let him loose to kill whoever he was ordered to kill. In the novel this power was used responsibly. I recall the scientist who planted an electrode in the brain of a bull and by pressing a button was able to stop the bull charging. It has long been known that humans can similarly be controlled and while this technology could be used to control a psychopath it could also be abused by an oppressive government, whether secular or theocratic. Given the low incidence of psychopathy controlling them in this way would be too dangerous to liberty.


The notion that managers are psychopaths is not new. But with the recession the possibility that sleek charming, ruthless psychopaths in senior positions were one of the causes of the recession that started in 2008 needs examination. Remember that the top management in the finance industry managed to hand the bill for saving themselves to the tay payer then decided it would be business as usual.

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian in November 2011 noted

a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, in which Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses and carried out the same tests on patients at Broadmoor a prison hospital for the criminally insane. On certain indicators of psychopathy, the mangers' scores matched or exceeded the the patients' scores, beating even the subset of patients diagnosed as psychopaths personality.

The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, closely resemble the characteristics companies seek. Those with these traits are often often skilled in flattering and manipulating powerful people. Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also likely to help their prospects in many corporations.

And there is the anecdote cited by Brian Basham in the Independent by an an unnamed senior UK investment banker who told him

At one major investment bank for which I worked, we used psychometric testing to recruit social psychopaths because their characteristics exactly suited them to senior corporate finance roles."

The question is how many other corporations are doing the same thing when recruiting? Monbiot concluded, perhaps mischievously, that a psychopath born to a poor family goes to prison but a psychopath born to a rich family goes to business school.

Former professor Clive Boddy theorises that psychopaths take advantage of the turbulent rapidly changing environment of the modern corporation and ascend the organisation through a combination of charm, charisma and various behaviours that makes them seen as ideal leaders

Until about the 70s people stayed in jobs for relatively long periods, often for life, and that meant psychopaths were spotted and identified as poor managers because of their selfish egotistical personalities and other ethical defects. With the seventies things changed and corporate values started to favour the psychopath. A simple example is that it became a virtue for a manager to be able to fire a worker, who might be a close friend, without the slightest feeling of guilt or remorse.

Eventually Boddy claims, these ruthless charmers managed to reach the boardroom and influenced the moral climate of entire corporations. Presumably by moving around they carried the viris of a new moral climate to entire sectors.

And then these charming people with basilisk eyes and broad smiles like the smile on a Guy Fawkes mask, "largely caused the crisis" because their "single- minded pursuit of their own self-enrichment and self- aggrandisement to the exclusion of all other considerations has led to an abandonment of the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of corporate social responsibility".

Boddy says the unnamed "they" seem "to be unaffected" by the corporate collapses they cause. They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events, are very convincing in blaming others for what has happened and have no doubts about their own worth and value. They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising governments how to prevent such economic disasters".

This is borne out since it appears former executives of Goldman Sachs are carving out careers as government advisors throughout the world, and one financial trader has claimed that Goldman Sachs rules the world, not its elected leaders, though it is unclear whether this is a hoax or not but the attitude he is expressing seems horribly plausible.

Boddy has a prescription for preventing the “Snakes in Suits”, the title of a book on the subject by Hare, from reaching these positions of power

"Anyone who makes decisions that affect significant numbers of other people, concerning issues of corporate social responsibility or toxic waste, for example, or concerning mass financial markets or mass employment, should be screened to make sure that they are, at the very least, not psychopaths and, at most, are actually people who care about others,"

This makes sense. Why not apply it both to politicians and to officials at any level, since these often make the sort of decisions Boddy mentions.

Unfortunately this is like requiring turkeys to vote for Christmas. And since some companies actively recruit psychopaths for senior positions it is unlikely to happen without a (strongly resisted) change in the law. And it is likely that the people affected will start studying how to cheat in the tests. Instead we need to reform the corporation so that it is less welcoming to those in the Dark Triad. Failing that we need to ensure that they neutralise each other.

in brief

The cultures of business and politics reward behaviour associated with psychopathic traits. Politicians need to exhibit certain traits that psychopaths also show in order to get elected, let alone advance. Some businesses actively recruit psychopaths for senior positions. All this has to change.

Returning to the question whether psychopaths are human, the Sidhe are reputed to swap their sickly children for healthy human children. The Catholic Church as I recall claim that a souls enters the body at some point after conception, and right wing conservative Christians seem to claim the same thing. So in a spirit(!) of perhaps mischievous speculation, are psychopaths changelings, or the result of a demon soul entering a childs body at conception? Clearly an affirmative answer would have a lot of ethical implications. It would also mean we do not need to seek extraterrestrial aliens: We have them already

If psychopaths do indeed rule the world it is likely we will not find out very easily, for the more intelligent psychopaths are concerned with getting what they want rather than being seen to get what they want or winning contests with others.


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