Thursday, June 23, 2011

Are Psychopaths Running Rampant in the Worlds of Business and Politics?

This blog probably would not have been possible without the "assistance" of psychopaths. That's because I would not have had a legal story to tell if Mrs. Schnauzer and I had not encountered several likely psychopaths at critical junctures over the past 10 years or so.

I've covered a number of legal stories that do not involve my wife or me--the Don Siegelman and Paul Minor political prosecutions, the domestic-relations nightmares of Alabamians Sherry Carroll Rollins and Angela Turner Drees--and I strongly suspect that psychopaths play leading roles in those cases, too.

After witnessing over-the-top misconduct by a number of individuals, Mrs. Schnauzer and I have found ourselves, in so many words, saying, "That boy (or girl, in a few cases) ain't right." Those thoughts inspired me to conduct some layman's research on sociopathy--that term and psychopathy can be used interchangeably; they mean the same thing--and write several posts on the subject, as it applies to justice and politics. (See here and here, for example.)

Now we have a new, best-selling book that draws attention to psychopaths and the impact they can have on our lives. "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry," by Jon Ronson, sits at No. 17 on The New York Times List of Best Sellers in the Hardcover Nonfiction category.

We are pleased to see a well-known author--Ronson wrote "The Men Who Stare at Goats"--tackle an important subject. But we suspect readers who are seriously interested in psychopathy should use Ronson's book as an entry point to the subject. I haven't read Ronson's book yet, so I cannot offer a review. But a check of reviews to this point indicates Ronson's book is entertaining but relatively lightweight and short on conclusions.

The book is based on The Hare Psychopathy Checklist, developed by Robert Hare, a renowned Canadian criminal psychologist. Hare has spent more than 35 years researching psychopathy, and his checklist has become the primary psycho-diagnostic tool for assessing the disorder.

Hare's 20-part checklist can be divided into three categories:

Factor 1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"
Glibness/superficial charm
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Pathological lying
Lack of remorse or guilt
Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
Callous/lack of empathy
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Factor 2: Case history "Socially deviant lifestyle".
Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Parasitic lifestyle
Poor behavioral control
Lack of realistic long-term goals
Juvenile delinquency
Early behavior problems
Revocation of conditional release

Traits not correlated with either factor
Promiscuous sexual behavior
Many short-term marital relationships
Criminal versatility

Reviewers indicate that Ronson makes an effort at examining psychopaths in the halls of power, in business and politics. But the effort sounds rather perfunctory, and I'm left with the impression that Ronson does not understand the importance of Hare's work, even though the author attended a three-day seminar on the subject. In a review subtitled "Madmen Among Us," Salon's Laura Miller writes:

Ronson decided to book a spot in a three-day training course run by Hare (something of a guru in the field) and by the end of the weekend he was identifying possible psychopaths right and left, including a Vanity Fair critic who had "always been very rude about my television documentaries."

Ronson, reviewers indicate, becomes concerned about his ability to identify so many psychopaths and concludes that Hare's test might be dangerous. Ronson, however, misses the point of Hare's work: The checklist is not meant to be used by amateurs like Ronson (and me). It is meant to be used by true professionals, who know what they are doing. From Without Conscience, Hare's Web site:

Because an individual's scores may have important consequences for his or her future, the absolute value is of critical importance. The potential for harm is considerable if the PCL-R is used incorrectly, or if the user is not familiar with the clinical and empirical literature pertaining to psychopathy.

In other words, "don't try this at home." But those who want to gain insight on psychopathy should read some outstanding books that go well beyond Ronson's best seller. I have read the following and can highly recommend them:

* Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert D. Hare (1999)

* The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout (2006)

* Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare (2007)

At the heart of all of these works is the exploration of a personality disorder. In fact, the technical term for psychopathy is antisocial personality disorder, a term we explored in the following post:

Will Personality Disorders Jeopardize Our Future

How can your life be affected by encounters with those who show signs of having antisocial personality disorder? We have examined that question:

Antisocial personality disorder, also called sociopathy or psychopathy, basically refers to a lack of empathy for the rights and feelings of other people. It is notoriously difficult to treat, partly because those who have it almost never acknowledge that they have a problem. It's the people around them--family members, neighbors, coworkers--who suffer. . . .

Personal experience tells me that coming in contact with people who have personality disorders makes life much harder than it should be. For example, if you take people with personality disorders out of the equation, my wife and I never set foot in a courtroom--except maybe as potential jurors--and never experience any of the ugly events described in this blog.

Take people with personality disorders out of the equation, and I'm still contentedly--and effectively--working at UAB.

Like Ronson, I'm not remotely qualified to diagnose an individual as a psychopath. But I can make this layman's observation: In looking back over 10-plus years of legal mayhem, I can think of at least a dozen people who exhibit many of the traits outlined in "Factor 1" of Hare's checklist--superficial charm, grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callous/lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility for own actions. In fact, I can point to a number of people in our Legal Schnauzer story who exhibit every one of those traits.

Most of these individuals don't really know my wife and me--and either have made no effort to know us, or have no reason to know what makes us tick. We hold these folks in contempt, but our feelings are somewhat impersonal because . . . well, we don't know them either, and we really don't want to.

The most disturbing individuals are the few who do know one or both of us. I'm talking about one or two people from my former workplace, UAB, who have known me for 10 years or more. I'm talking about one or two people who have had me in their homes on multiple occasions. I'm talking about one person, in particular, who has known both me and my wife quite well for way more than a decade. But these individuals knowingly cheated me out of my job, lied to my face about the real reasons for their actions, have even lied about their actions under oath in court documents, and have not shown the first sign of remorse, guilt, empathy or accountability.

I have no idea how such people live with themselves--and I hope I never find out. But I do think the problem of psychopaths in our midst, and the destruction they can cause, goes way beyond my little world.

Think about business scandals of fairly recent vintage. Think about individuals such as Bernie Madoff, Ken Lay (Enron), Bernard Ebbers (WorldCom), and Dennis Kezlowski (Tyco). Do you think there might be a psychopath or two in that crowd?

As for politics, think just about the eight years of the George W. Bush administration. Think about individuals such as Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzalez, and Dubya himself. Do you think there might be a psychopath or two in that crowd?

How much damage have these heavy hitters caused in the worlds of business and politics? How would some of them fare on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist? The words "off the charts" come to mind.

For readers who want to learn more about psychopaths and the havoc they can wreak, Jon Ronson's best-selling book might be a good place to start. The work of Robert Hare definitely would be a good place to finish.

Here is a video with Hare, and others, discussing psychopathy and corporations:


Starkville Bible Student said...

Excellent article Roger. There is a professor at the University of Manitoba that authored a book called 'The Authoritarians', which dovetails very nicely with your conclusions in this story. It is available as a free pdf download:

I think that you would gain additional insights into psycopathic behavior, which is common among certain authoritarian personalities.
Thanks for the article, very nice.
--Mark Tribble

Anonymous said...

Pathological lying


Lack of remorse or guilt

Callous/lack of empathy

Failure to accept responsibility for own actions


That's Karl Rove!

Jeffrey Spruill

Rebel Flower said...

That's all politicians and televangelists. That's why religion and politics are such a dangerous combination and why the South remains in the dregs as far as progression is concerned.

Anonymous said...

Amazing! You have finally figured out Angela Drees.

legalschnauzer said...

I'm afraid your comment makes no sense in the context of the post, but thanks for weighing in.

Susan Hill said...

"Are Psychopaths Running Rampant in the Worlds of Business and Politics?"

in a word......


jeffrey spruill said...

Parasitic lifestyle

Isn't that the definition of a lawyer?

Anonymous said...

All government employees are sociopaths. They exist by stealing money from people who actually work for a living and they show no form of remorse or guilt. These are people who live in our neighborhoods, attend our churches (maybe that assuages any guilt they might have). They see absolutely nothing wrong with stealing from people so that they may have income.

legalschnauzer said...

You think government employees don't work for a living? I know some government employees--including military personnel--who would beg to differ.

Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't worked for a living? Bet you call yourself a "patriot."