present financial meltdown may only be the latest example of the
incalculable harm done to civilization, and countless individual lives, by
psychopaths, a subspecies of Homo sapiens. The purpose of this essay is
twofold. First, I will provide a brief tour of the psychopath subspecies so
that you understand who they are and how they operate. You probably already
know psychopaths, and it is overwhelmingly likely that at some point in your
life a psychopath that you encounter personally will try to harm you. Second, I
will draw the correlative between psychopathy and the present financial
meltdown and provide a suggestion of a relatively simple change that could
decrease the likelihood of the sort of abuses that could lead to future
One: What is a Psychopath?
is a word Yupik Eskimos apply to "a man who . . . repeatedly lies and cheats
and steals things and . . . takes sexual advantage of many women — someone who
does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the
elders for punishment." In a Harvard University study conducted by
anthropologist Jane M. Murphy in 1976, an Eskimo man was asked how his people
might deal with a Kunlangeta, to which he replied, "Somebody would have
pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking."
West, the formal recognition of psychopaths goes back at least as far as Theophrastus,
a student of Aristotle, whose study of the Unscrupulous Man defines the basic
characteristics of psychopathy. Much later this condition came to be
referred to as manie sans délire ("insanity without delirium"), a term that by
the 1830s evolved into moral insanity, the key symptom of which is a "defective
the label was changed to psychopathic personality, but it wasn't until 1941
that psychiatrist Dr. Hervey M. Cleckley of the Medical College of Georgia
systematically defined the condition.
roughly (we'll expand on these characteristics momentarily) a psychopath is a
person without conscience, empathy or even an ability to experience the range
of human emotions. Their ability to feel is confined to a narrow range of
primitive proto-emotions such as anger, frustration and rage.
Psychopaths will tend to be pathological liars and expert manipulators
victimizing family, friends and strangers. Often they are charming,
charismatic, popular and admired, if not loved, by members of both genders.
They are not mentally ill, not delusional, and may often be more coldly
rational and intelligent than non-psychopaths. They are likely to be
promiscuous and to abandon partners without remorse. They are prone to
entitlement, grandiosity and find nothing wrong with themselves. They
typically blame others for the consequences of their actions and engage in
moral reasoning that is glib and superficial if not absurd. They usually
have little fear of consequences and enjoy risk as they need novelty,
stimulation and living on the edge to compensate for their emotional vacuity.
all eras and societies, approximately one in a hundred men is born a clinical
psychopath, and one in three hundred women. About twenty percent of an
average prison population, male or female, is comprised of psychopaths, but
amongst the violent offenders it is about fifty percent. Psychopaths
commit more than fifty percent of the serious crimes. For example, about
half of serial rapists are psychopaths. About 25% of wife assaulters are
psychopaths. Both male and female psychopaths commit a greater number of
crimes, and their crimes tend to be more violent, abusive and predatory than
those of other criminals. They also tend to recidivate earlier and much
more often than other criminals. While psychopaths make up about one percent of
the population, ten percent of the general population falls into a grey zone
with enough psychopathic tendencies to be of significant concern to society.
Empathy and Emotional Depth
us take emotional experience for granted and tend to assume that others have a
similar range of emotion as we do. Most of the time this premise is
correct, and this allows us to often accurately replicate the emotional state
of another within our own perception. But among those to whom we apply
this principal are psychopaths who often have a chameleon-like ability to
replicate and counterfeit emotions in ways that allow them to manipulate our
perceptions of them. We are very likely to accept as genuine their
counterfeit displays of emotion, and thereby falsely attribute emotional depths
to psychopaths who in actuality are entirely lacking the feelings we think we
perceive. In reality they may be completely indifferent to the acute
suffering of someone right in front of them, and can remain cold and unmoved by
all sorts of things that what would emotionally affect most people. On
the other hand, insignificant matters that most would react to with minor
annoyance can greatly enrage them.
Cleckley believed that psychopaths have a profound underlying disorder in which
emotional and linguistic components of thought are not properly
integrated. He called this condition semantic aphasia and concluded that
it greatly reduced the capacity for developing internal control, conscience and
the capacity for making emotional connections with others.
MRI scans of the brains of psychopaths show that their patterns of brain
response to words and images of strong emotional content have a fundamental
difference with non-psychopaths. Ordinarily, limbic regions of the brain
process emotional content, but for psychopaths, activations occur in regions of
the brain associated with comprehension and production of language suggesting
that things which evoke emotion in normal people are experienced by psychopaths
as linguistic categories. A psychopath might scan the inanimate, animate and
emotionally charged with the same neutral, indifferent coldness — a rusting
transmission over here, a person writhing in agony over there, an overturned
trash can just up ahead, etc. They may be well aware, however, of how
others might react, and can smoothly feign an emotional response if so doing
serves their agenda.
example, a psychopath who killed an elderly man during the course of a
burglary, casually gave the following account of his evening:
rummaging around when this old geezer comes down the stairs and . . . uh
. . . he starts yelling and having a fucking fit . . . so I pop him one in the,
uh, head and he still doesn't shut up. I give him a chop to the throat and he .
. . like . . . staggers back and falls on the floor. He's gurgling and making
sounds like a stuck pig (laughs) and he's really getting on my fucking nerves
so I . . . uh . . . boot him a few times in the head. That shut him up . . .
I'm pretty tired by now, so I grab a few beers from the fridge and turn on
the TV and fall asleep. The cops woke me up (laughs).
researcher tried to find out if a psychopathic convict recognized the feeling
of fear. When asked, the psychopath responded, "When I rob a bank I notice that
the teller shakes or becomes tongue-tied. One barfed all over the money." The
psychopath found these responses puzzling.
researcher pressed the psychopath to describe his own fear and sked how he
would feel if the gun were pointed at him. The convict responded that he might
hand over the money, get the hell out or find a way to turn the tables.
"Those were responses," the researcher said. "How would you feel?"
Why would I feel?"
can, however, feel primitive protoemotions like anger, frustration and
rage. Occasionally, even full-blown psychopaths like Eric Harris (of
Columbine infamy) will display what seem like flickers of empathy. Eric
appeared to feel bad for his dog when it was sick and, along with Dylan,
apologized on his basement videotapes to his parents for the trouble he
anticipated they would experience after the massacre. Since psychopaths are
so often masters of feigning emotional responses, however, it can be hard to
discern what might be an actual moment of empathy from another simulation.
probable psychopath that I knew in the early Eighties seemed to have a
subordinate part of his personality that had elements of conscience and
empathy. For example, he once warned me that he was evil and that I
should have nothing to do with him. Foolishly I responded
sympathetically, and rather than heeding the warning I told him I thought he
was being too hard on himself. For a moment he seemed to take me behind
the scenes of his inner psychopathic machinery. He said that he was just
kidding when he told me that he was evil, but then told me that when he said he
was kidding that it was just an example of his deceptiveness so that he could
disown his own statement. Then he said no, he really was just kidding, and put
on again his usual charming, smiling demeanor. Although this might seem like
merely a mind game and a psychopath toying with someone, it was also a type of
confession. He was intentionally going in and out of psychopathic mode to
show me what he was.
same evening, he related a specific incident in his past when he felt that his
soul died. This did not seem a mind game at all; a palpable sense of
suffering and bitterness was in the air as he confessed this. He also confessed
many traumatic details of his life that I was later able to verify.
Although it is a classic psychopathic technique to reveal some truths as part
of playing someone, I don't think that was the complete explanation in this
case. There also seemed to be motivations of actual confession and
reaching out for help.
later I discovered a series of deceptions and thefts he had committed against
me. In what appeared to be an act of calculated carelessness, he kept
evidence of all his petty crimes against me in a place where I could easily
find it, as though a part of him desired to be caught.
research on psychopaths I noticed an obvious paradox: psychopaths, everyone
agrees, are notoriously unempathetic, but they are also, everyone agrees,
superb manipulators able to accurately read other people and gauge their weak
points with fine precision. None of the research I encountered seemed to
comment on or explain this paradox, so I'm going to offer my own
speculation. Non-psychopaths are often inaccurate in their reading of
others because of their own complex emotional lives. When emotions are
swirling around inside of you it is all too easy to project feelings and
expectations onto others. We also tend to assume that others must have a
similar range of emotions as we have. Most dogs, for example, display a
range of emotions that seem very recognizable to us, so it is natural to assume
that our fellow humans must have these as well. The emotional vacuity of
the psychopath combined with their cold rationality may allow their psyche to
register an image of our personalities as if on a clean photographic plate.
They may be able to recognize our needs and vulnerabilities much more
clearly since there is little emotional confusion within them to obscure
that. With a focused, predator consciousness as their inner baseline,
they can see all of our characteristics that deviate from that baseline in
distinct relief. Even if we are complex, it may not take complex insight
to manipulate us because even complex people have very stereotyped
vulnerabilities and therefore can be manipulated by flattery, sexual attention,
greed, intimidation and fear.
Charm, Magnetism and Charisma of the Psychopath
such a caring man. So intelligent. He can always find the right words to reach
your heart. You must love him." —
Woman who befriended a rapist/murderer on death row.
who has observed psychopaths has noted their intense charm and magnetism, which
will often cause them to be the most popular individuals in almost any social
circle. Many of the most popular movie heroes, Clint Eastwood's
Dirty Harry character comes to mind, are psychopaths. In
Cleckley's classic study of psychopaths, "likeable,"
"charming," "intelligent," "alert,"
"impressive," "confidence-inspiring," and "a great
success with the ladies" are some of the most common descriptions of
psychopaths. Most people labor under insecurities and psychopaths are often
objects of intense admiration since they possess desirable traits such as
overwhelming self-confidence, decisiveness and attractiveness to the opposite
sex. Even well trained mental health professionals with substantial knowledge
of psychopathy are deceived and seduced into sexual relationships with known
psychopaths. For example, a prison psychologist had an affair with a psychopath
and planned to marry him after his release. When a psychiatrist showed
the prison psychologist a copy of Without Conscience, by
Robert Hare, the world's leading expert on psychopathy, it had no effect on her
love and marriage plans with the psychopath.
. . . A
con artist who became Man of the Year, president of the Chamber of
Commerce and member of the Republican Executive Committee in the town
where he resided for ten years. When found out, this man was unconcerned, and
stated that he knew if he was ever discovered 'these trusting people
would stand behind me. A good liar is a good judge of people.' He
was right in many senses. The local community rushed to his support. 'I
assess (his) genuineness, integrity, and devotion to duty to rank right
alongside of President Abraham Lincoln,' wrote the Republican party
I have a
theory of the often-astonishing appeal of psychopaths, cult leaders, super
salesmen and demagogues of various sorts that uses magnetism as an
analogue. Most people are highly fragmented and oppressed by what
psychologists call psychic entropy — the anxious tape loops and other
distracted thoughts and fantasies that crowd their attentional space.
When a person of single-minded focus and confidence appears it is analogous to
placing a powerful magnet below a sheet of paper on which there is a scattering
of iron filings. The magnet immediately organizes the scattered filings
into a coherent pattern that reflects its magnetic field. The scattered
personality feels an immense relief to be structured in this way from the
outside and craves further contact and submission to the magnetic personality
that can produce this effect, relieving them of their default state of psychic
belief is that if I say something it goes. I am the law. If you don't like it,
you die." –Eric
are predators and their predation is oriented toward members of their own
species whom they view as pawns, suckers, targets and victims. They are
unable to empathize with anyone and are therefore completely unfazed, if not
contemptuous, by the suffering of their victims. Although they may appear
charming and solicitous, covertly they are domineering, hostile and
exploitative. According to Hare,
statements often reveal their belief that the world is made up of 'givers
and takers,' predators and prey, and that it would be very foolish not to
exploit the weakness of others. In addition, they can be very astute at
determining what those weaknesses are and using them for their own benefit. 'I
like to con people. I'm conning you now,' said . . . a forty-five- year-old man
serving his first prison sentence for stock fraud.
recognize no rights of others while feeling infinite entitlement for
themselves. They will, therefore, violate any boundaries to get what they
want. Often they will take pleasure in dominating, exploiting and
humiliating their victims.
the fucking world. I feel like God. I am higher than almost anyone
in the fucking world in terms of universal intelligence." –Eric
Harris (From his journal, which was entitled "The Book of God."
Eric also wrote a composition for school entitled "Zeus and I" in which he
compared himself to Zeus.)
other personality types also display grandiosity, psychopaths seem to be
particularly high on themselves. Hare described a psychopath named Earl
whose long list of accomplishments included stabbing a teacher with a fork in
kindergarten, becoming a pimp at age 10 by procuring young girls including his
12-year-old sister, multiple counts of assault, rape, theft, fraud, attempted
murder, sexually abusing his daughter, and raping his daughter's
girlfriend. Earl described his self-esteem this way: "I'm always
being told by others how great I am and how there's nothing I can't
do — sometimes I think they're just shitting me, but a man's got to believe in
himself, right? When I check myself out, I like what I see."
"I lie a
lot — almost constant, and to everybody, just to keep my own ass out of the
water. Let's see what are some big lies I have told . . . No, I haven't
been making more bombs." –Eric
lie with such ease and coolness that they can become addicted to it and will
often lie when it serves no practical purpose. They have no anxiety about
lying and are often extremely convincing and are even able to pass polygraph
tests. Polygraph tests register physiological stress responses to the anxiety
of lying, but since psychopaths have no anxiety about lying, the lies register
no different than their baseline. Psychopaths also lie to themselves and
may get deceived by complex beliefs about their own talents, powers and
abilities. As Hare put it,
comes so naturally to psychopaths that one of them compared it to
breathing. Often they take considerable pride in their facility with
lies. One female psychopath, when asked if she lied easily, laughed and
replied, 'I'm the best. I'm really good at it, I think because I sometimes
admit to something bad about myself. They'd think, well, if she's admitting to
that she must be telling the truth about the rest.' She also said that
she sometimes 'salts the mine:' with a nugget of truth. 'If they think some of
what you say is true, they usually think it's all true.'
Remorse, Shame, Guilt and Empathy
psychopath can commit the most heinous deed without experiencing a trace of
remorse, guilt or empathy for victims. A lack of empathy, however, does
not mean he will to do harm. Many psychopaths are nonviolent and may
instead be found amongst white-collar criminals. But when a psychopath
also happens to be a sexual sadist, the lack of empathy can produce a
catastrophic result — a remorseless, efficient rapist and/or killer. Ted Bundy,
who may have murdered as many as a hundred women, was once asked about guilt:
"Guilt? It's this mechanism we use to control people. It's an
illusion. It's a kind of social control mechanism — and it's very
unhealthy. It does terrible things to our bodies. And there are much
better ways to control our behavior than that rather extraordinary use of
guilt." An expert on serial killers I once heard interviewed recalled an
instance where he asked a serial killer what he thought about what he
systematically stalked a young woman and prepared to abduct, torture, molest
and kill her. He replied, "Takin' care of business." The shame,
guilt and anxiety that might inhibit or trip up the average criminal may be
entirely absent in psychopaths, allowing them to be cool, collected and
efficient. Where we might hope to find inner conflict about an act of
violence we may instead find only pleasure and considerable pride. On the
block I grew up on in the Bronx a guy in his twenties would sometimes show up
who carried a laminated clipping in his wallet that he showed off every chance
he got. The clipping described how he had fatally stabbed someone for
bumping into him at a dance.
and/or Warped Moral Reasoning
psychopath attempts to justify a crime, the moral reasoning is likely to be an
act, but if sincere it will be glib and superficial or absurdly
rationalized. A rapist psychopath justified himself this way: "What's a
guy gonna do? She had a nice ass. I helped myself." Joyti De-Laurey
, a female psychopath who stole more than 7 million dollars from her employers
to lead a lavish lifestyle, felt sure that God was on her side. She kept
notebooks she called "Bibles of Daily Thoughts," which contained her letters to
God. In one of them she wrote: "Dear God. Please help me. I need one more
helping of what's mine and then I must cut down and cease in time all the
plundering. Please ensure my job is safe and my integrity is
some might comfort themselves that religiosity should be an immunization of
some sort against psychopathy, the opposite seems to be the case. Religion can
easily be used by a psychopath like Jim Jones as a justification for an agenda
of power, greed, sexual conquest and sadistic manipulation. Since
religious communities tend to assume bonds of affinity amongst members, they
are the perfect hunting grounds for psychopaths.
for Risk, Excitement and Novel Stimulation
of their emotional vacuity, psychopaths may have an extreme and overriding need
for risk and life on the edge. They are often high-risk thrill-seekers,
as this may be the only way they can feel anything. For example, a female
psychopath said, "But what I find most exciting is walking through airports
with drugs. Christ! What a high!" This need for continual stimulation, as we
shall see later, is a key point of connection between psychopathy and the
Power of Now
related quality is that psychopaths tend to live for the moment and usually
don't dwell on the past or future. They tend to be clever situationalists
interested in getting as much stimulation out of the day that they can. They
are usually less interested in long-range planning and tend to disregard
consequences for themselves and others. A psychopath in high finance, for
example, will be much more interested in making a windfall profit this quarter
rather than doing what is in the long-term interest of his company or clients.
psychopaths tend to live for the now, and are often unable to feel fear, they
tend to have little concern about consequences for themselves and others.
They are usually very poor at mentally picturing the consequences of their
actions. Particularly fuzzy is any image they might have of consequences
for their victims. The excitement of immediate rewards seems much more real
than the vagueness of future consequences.
Know Thy Self
usually don't find any fault with themselves. They apparently don't notice the
inconsistency between their enormous sense of entitlement and their stunning
disregard for the rights of others. If they acknowledge anything wrong
they can always blame it on someone else or on society. For example, a
young psychopath said, "I wouldn't be here if my parents had come across when I
needed them. What kind of parents would let their son rot in a place like this?"
Asked about his children, he replied, "I've never seen them. I think they
were given up for adoption. How the hell should I know?" A refusal to
accept blame can also characterize a psychopathic culture, and I certainly
can't recall hearing a single mea culpa during this financial meltdown.
as Predator, Parasite and Chameleon
typically lead a parasitic lifestyle. They are experts at finding people and
institutions that can be drained of resources. The host could be a vulnerable
person with a bank account or a Wall Street investment firm. Many
researchers describe psychopaths as chameleons because of their great
proficiency at blending in and disguising their true agendas and nature.
As the author of Columbine, David Cullen, put it, most
people think Hannibal Lechter when they think of psychopaths, but it would be
more accurate if they thought of Hugh Grant. Robert Hare related a recent
incident where he was taken in by a psychopath and he said that his "antenna"
weren't aroused at all. One researcher described the psychopath as a
"near perfect invisible human predator." Another described him as a
chameleon that becomes "an image of what you haven't done for
Rule's book, The Stranger Beside Me,
describes how she worked across a desk from Ted Bundy at a suicide hotline and
became his close friend. She had great trouble accepting that her friend
and fellow counselor was one of the most notorious serial killers in history.
are known to be masters of tapping into the vulnerabilities of others, at first
by appearing to be what victims are hoping to find, and later taking ruthless
advantage of their fears and insecurities.
frequently report that in the presence of a psychopath their hearts are racing
and they are sitting at the edge of their chair. The air around them may
seem to crackle with electricity, which some find thrilling and magnetic.
According to a survey conducted by psychologists Reid and M. J. Meloy, one in
three mental-health and criminal justice professionals report such feelings
when interviewing psychopaths. In their paper based on the survey, Reid
and Meloy speculate that this may be an ancient intraspecies predator-response
some experiences that would provide a little anecdotal support to their
speculation about an ancient intraspecies predator-response system. One
time on a daytime train ride to Brooklyn I had the distinct feeling of close
proximity to a murderer/predator. The feeling was quite unpleasant and
seemed primordial and almost cellular, a feeling that seemed primitive enough
not to be specifically human, but rather to be a feeling that a great many
other organisms experienced. What I experienced was the very unpleasant
sensation of my body as meat, as a possible food source for a predator.
As I looked around the subway car, however, I couldn't locate the source.
Another time, around 1987, I had a very similar feeling, also on in the NYC
subway system, but this time while waiting on the platform of the 14th Street
Union Square station. I looked all around me, but the only people I could
see seemed fairly harmless. A couple of seconds after my brief visual
survey I saw two adolescent males, both of them relatively small and skinny,
coming down the staircase. One of them was wearing an Eight Ball leather
jacket. Eight Ball leather jackets, cleverly sewn together out of colored
segments that depict a pool table and a large eight ball, were one of the
hottest retail items in the inner city, the Air Jordans of that particular
season. Having only just left a six-year stint as teacher and dean of a
public high school in the South Bronx, where I was also the building security
coordinator, I understood the significance of such a jacket. Five minutes
after leaving my class, a student of mine, who had an imposing physical size
and presence, was shot with a shotgun when he resisted giving up a different,
though similarly popular, type of leather jacket. Anyone wearing an Eight Ball
jacket likely took it from someone else and/or had the means to defend this
high status item — probably with a device that could easily make a series of
nine-millimeter holes in a would-be jacket thief of any size.
the implications of the one boy's jacket, these two adolescent males lit up as
the source of my predator-alert feelings. Since Union Square was a
well-populated station I didn't feel that I was in imminent danger, despite the
sensation of my predator-response system, and decided to stand near these two
adolescents when they reached the platform. The more dominant-seeming of
the two appeared to be surveying people on the platform, many of them
well-dressed professional types, and said to his partner, "So much meat
on the hook and we can't do shit." I understood his statement to mean
that he saw that there were many prime mugging victims around, but that the
crowded station prevented them from acting.
feelings and suppositions were correct, this would be the second time that I
had encountered a dyad — a two person killing team. Some famous dyads include
Bonnie and Clyde, Leopold and Loeb, and, far more recently, Eric Harris and
Dylan Klebold. In both of the dyads I encountered, it was instantly
obvious that one of the pair was dominant and acted toward the other like a
puppet master. According to Columbine, dyads
are much more likely to be complimentary rather than similar.
Psychopaths a Subspecies?
dare you think that I and you are part of the same species when we are so
different. You are human? You are a robot. And if you pissed me off
in the past you will die . . ."
psychopathy, like every other psychological attribute, has an environmental
component, its source may be biological. According to at least one major study
of identical twins, psychopathy does seem to have a strong genetic component.
It is often impossible to account for a psychopath based on his environment and
upbringing. Psychopaths often occur in caring families amongst empathetic
siblings. Eric Harris quoted Shakespeare in an entry he left in his day
planner for Mother's Day : "Good wombs have borne bad sons."
Harrington, in his book Psychopaths, states that the
psychopath is "the man of the future." Other researchers, among them Dr. Marnie
Rice, an Ontario-based psychologist, echo this sentiment by claiming that the
condition isn't a "disorder" at all, but is more accurately considered an
adaptive, evolutionary trait. From the point of view of this theory, in
societies where most people are law-abiding and inhibited by conscience, a
finely tuned, camouflaged predator can find a great, adaptive niche. Part of
their successful evolutionary adaptation hinges on the fact that psychopaths
become sexually active earlier and remain more promiscuous than their non-psychopath
counterparts. Besides the frequency of their sexual transactions, their
uninhibited use of coercion and exploitation, as well as their tendency to
freely abandon partners and quickly take up with new ones, means that they are
considerably better than average at passing on their genes. Psychopaths
also seem to selectively target reproductively fertile women and are less
likely to sexually target the same gender or the prepubescent.
Two: Psychopaths and the Financial Meltdown
businessmen are walking together, each carrying a briefcase. ‘We're only
morally bankrupt,' says one. 'Thank God,' says the other.
Psychopaths Uniquely Adapted to Succeed in High Finance?
Harrington called the psychopath the "man of the future," when it comes to the
world of high finance the psychopath may be the man of the present and recent
past. R. J. Smith, in his book, The Psychopath in
Society, views psychopathy as an orientation encouraged and
rewarded by the materialistic, competitive, marketplace values of our
capitalistic society. Our tour of psychopathy emphasized those who committed
violent crimes, the easily defined psychopaths who, by their open acts of
transgression, are available for study. However, the cleverer, more successful
psychopaths are likely to elude detection and may even achieve great success in
society. It is the failed psychopaths, those who are not able to blend in
and restrain their impulses, whom we hear about in newspaper headlines. Most
psychopaths are not violent criminals; they may be more likely to pursue
white-collar crime, where the payoff is so much higher and the odds of
detection so much lower.
are perfectly designed for success in many fields, especially business, law and
politics. They have higher IQs on average than the general population; they are
charming, charismatic and manipulative; they can be decisive and take risks
without anxiety, and they are ruthless, cunning and coldly rational.
Psychopaths often personify many of the traits that the human resource
departments of many corporations look for in job candidates: confidence,
charisma, decisiveness, emotional detachment, coolness under fire and
relentless drive. Take for example Bernie Madoff, who was described by a
reporter who grilled him for two hours as "cool as a cucumber." He was
relentless in his drive for success and was not inhibited by conscience when he
took money from friends, schools or charities. His all-confident charisma and
capacity for deception took in many very astute people. Madoff was a
master at making it seem like he didn't particularly want your business so that
prospective customers had to court him, and when he acquiesced they felt
privileged to be part of an exclusive club.
are natural parasites, and parasites always look for rich deposits of energy
such as blood, sexual chi, and money. Wall Street and other spheres of
high financs are like super-charged magnets for psychopaths. As Hare put
it, "If I were unable to study psychopaths in prison, my next choice would very
likely be a place like the Vancouver Stock Exchange." Vast deposits of
energy in the form of money are available for the clever and ruthless
manipulator with a head for numbers. In the process of manipulating money
the ambitious psychopath may also achieve prestige, if not celebrity.
Since they are emotionally vacuous, money fills up a psychopath; he can use
money to fulfill all his needs and won't be tormented by guilt or a sense of
to steal money are irresistible for psychopaths. As one psychopath
convicted of selling forged corporate bonds put it, "I wouldn't be in prison if
there weren't so many cookie jars just begging me to put my hand in." For
psychopaths, known for their grandiosity and ability to "think big," the entire
global economy is a planet-sized cookie jar begging to be plundered.
the Nightmare from which We are Trying to Awaken
affinity of psychopaths for high finance is certainly not my discovery.
My original working title for this essay was: "Reptiles in Brooks Brothers
Suits." I abandoned that title when I discovered that Robert Hare, the
world's leading expert on psychopathy, had co-authored an excellent book
entitled Snakes in Suits — When Psychopaths go to Work. I
almost abandoned the whole project, wondering if I had anything new to
say. After some consideration I realized that although the main
hypothesis was already well established by others, I had a few new points to
add and, in any case, the subject is so important, and with such vast
implications for society, that I felt obliged to continue. The damage that
psychopaths do to the global economy, and human civilization in general, is
incalculable. As the James Joyce character Stephen Dedalus said,
"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken." Psychopathy may be
one of the prime drivers of the nightmarish aspect of history.
Psychopathy, a Confusion of Terms
understand the depth of connection between psychopathy and the financial
meltdown we need to acknowledge that not everyone who acts like a psychopath is
a psychopath. As we pointed out earlier, about ten percent of the
population is in a grey zone where they are not full blown psychopaths but have
enough psychopathic aspects to be of concern to society. A psychopathic
culture can cause people who might otherwise be restrained or even moral to act
like psychopaths. The stress and culture of combat, for example, can
cause some soldiers to act like psychopaths, needlessly killing civilians even
when not specifically ordered to do so. As veterans, these soldiers may
be tormented by profound feelings of guilt and remorse. Many male
subcultures have a psychopathic attitude toward women such that it is considered
virtuous and manly to ruthlessly exploit women without remorse. Street
and motorcycle gangs, organized crime families and syndicates, all tend to have
psychopathic cultures. The person who is most ruthless, cool under fire,
and skilled in lying and manipulation will likely be deferred to or made the
leader of a gang or other criminal enterprise.
who act like psychopaths are frequently called sociopaths. Sociopath is a
term that many researchers dislike since it is often incorrectly used as a
synonym for psychopath. A sociopath is someone who acts in an anti-social way,
who commits transgressions without taking moral responsibility. Most
psychopaths are sociopaths, but many sociopaths are not psychopaths. If
that's not confusing enough, the DSM created a third unilluminating term,
antisocial personality disorder or ASPD, which they define as " . .
. a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others
that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into
adulthood." Some say that ASPD is just psychobabble for "criminal."
My former writing mentor, E.L. Doctorow, once called such psychiatric terms
"the industrialized form of storytelling." We do, however, have a
rigorous way of defining and diagnosing psychopaths — Hare's psychopathy
checklist — so it is the other two terms that seem to muddy the waters and
create endless confusion. I propose, and will hereafter use, the terms
"situational psychopathy" and "situational psychopath" because I believe these
clarify the key difference. Some people, who are not psychopaths, will
act like psychopaths in some situations and there are some situations that seem
to bring out psychopathic behaviors in non-psychopaths. The stress of combat,
as we discussed above, is the classic situation of situational pscyhopathy.
Bond trading and the floor of the stock exchange are often described as combat
situations, with people screaming and shouting orders amidst frantic activity
and general chaos. Many areas of high finance seem to be psychopathic
cultures (a culture that generates situational psychopathy) where
psychopaths and situational psychopaths act similarly. Robert Hare was a
consultant to the excellent documentary, The Corporation, which
documents the psychopathic culture that reigns in many, but not all,
corporations. As illustrative examples of how this psychopathic culture
is generated we will next take a look at the movie, Wall
Street, and the documentary, Enron: The Smartest
Guys in the Room.
on Wall Street
artifact of popular culture captures the mythology of Wall Street so well as
Oliver Stone's classic 1987 movie, Wall Street. Oliver
Stone's father was a Wall Street trader and the film was meticulously
researched and informed by insider information. Twenty-two years later it seems
not just mythological, but also remarkably prophetic. The personification of
Wall Street in the movie is a corporate raider, Gordon Gecko, a man who we are
told, "…had an ethical bypass at birth," a description that sounds almost like
a definition of psychopathy. The character is named after a reptile and
Gecko lives in a super-charged atmosphere of reptilian proto emotions. He is
continually saying things like, "we're in the kill zone, lock and load," and,
"I want every orifice in his fucking body flowing red."
thing Gecko wants in prospective employees is killer instinct and emotional
vacuity: "Give me guys who are poor, smart and hungry, and no feelings."
He has complete remorseless contempt for his competitors and the thousands of
victims of his hostile takeovers: "We beat them because they're sheep, and
sheep get slaughtered."
seems motivated by risk and the atmosphere of combat. He tells his young
protégé, Bud Fox, that it's "trench warfare out there pal. It's better than
named after a reptile, but his protégé, Bud Fox, is named after a mammal. While
Gecko seems pure psychopath, Fox is obviously not a psychopath; he is a man of
conscience who eventually acts nobly. The Bud Fox character personifies the
situational psychopath, a person who becomes seduced by a psychopathic culture
into acting in ways that violate his essential human values.
The Smartest Guys in the Room
the Smartest Guys in the Room is a brilliant 2005 documentary about the Enron
scandal. Imdb.com offers the following summary:
dives from the seventh largest US company to bankruptcy in less than a year in
this tale told chronologically. The emphasis is on human drama, from suicide to
20,000 people sacked: the personalities of Ken Lay (with Falwellesque
rectitude), Jeff Skilling (he of big ideas), Lou Pai (gone with $250 M), and
Andy Fastow (the dark prince) dominate. Along the way, we watch Enron game
California's deregulated electricity market, get a free pass from Arthur
Andersen (which okays the dubious mark-to-market accounting), use greed to
manipulate banks and brokerages (Merrill Lynch fires the analyst who questions
Enron's rise), and hear from both Presidents Bush what great guys these are.
also provides fascinating glimpses into a psychopathic culture dominating a
major corporation. It would be presumptuous for me to diagnosis any
subject of the documentary as a psychopath. A diagnosis of psychopathy
should be made by a professional who has significant access to the person in
question and has been rigorously trained in the use of Hare's psychopathy
checklist, the widely accepted tool for screening possible psychopaths.
Most of the people involved in the Enron scandal were probably not
psychopaths. As the director of the documentary put it,
were not extraordinary people, extraordinarily bad people, they were
everyday people and many of them off the job were
extraordinarily decent people, but on the job they were killers
and how did that happen? Well, in some ways, I think, the only conclusion
you can come to is that the culture of Enron infected them in a way that they
lost any sense of moral perspective.
easy to recognize many instances of at least situational psychopathy in the
Enron culture. Many have pointed out how high testosterone and predatory
competition dominated the culture of Enron. As one very candid former Enron
employee put it, "Talking about my compensation — If I step on somebody's
throat and that doubles it, well I'll stomp on the guy's throat. That's how
people were." Jeffrey Skilling said that he liked to hire "guys with
spikes." In the most famous instance of situational psychopathy, a sound
bite widely replayed on TV news, two Enron energy traders who knew they were
being recorded, have a bit of informal conversation. The dialogue
takes place when Enron was artificially creating rolling blackouts in
California so as to manipulate the energy market through systematic extortion.
Grandma Millie, man, she's the one who couldn't figure out how to fuckin' vote
on the butterfly ballot. Now she wants her fucking money back on the power you
charged right up her ass."
president Jeffrey Skilling, perhaps the most visible of the Enron players,
displayed a number of psychopathic values and tendencies. A reporter who
interviewed Skilling just before he resigned from Enron, left absolutely
convinced of the improbable story that he was leaving Enron because of family reasons.
As the reporter put it in his interview for Enron,
convinced me that it was for personal reasons. I left his meeting
feeling sort of
emotional because of the concern that he seemed to be showing about the
relationship he had with his family. He appeared to be distraught and I
remember saying to an investor, 'If he's not telling the truth, then it's a
good thing he quit his day job because he needs to go to
Hollywood.' Skilling always seemed convinced of his own innocence
despite all the dramatic evidence to the contrary. His moral
reasoning seemed to embody the glib superficiality and sense of entitlement so
common in psychopaths. At one point Skilling looks a video camera right in the
eye and with a look of poignant sincerity says: 'We're the good guys. We're on
the side of angels.'
and a number of the key Enron players seemed motivated by the exhilaration of
risk even when it was at the cost of self-interest. In the documentary we
are told by people who knew Skilling personally that despite the fact that he "
. . . portrayed himself as somebody who very tightly monitored risk, in reality
he's a gambler, he gambled away huge sums of money before he was twenty years
old by making wild bets on the market." It's also pointed out that
Skilling " . . . was a huge risk taker. He actually talked about wanting
to go on trips that were so perilous that someone could actually die." In
fact, Skilling organized many such dangerous trips for himself and other Enron
executives. These high-risk adventures yielded many broken bones and
other serious injuries and no doubt helped to inculcate the high testosterone
Enron culture with its emphasis on aggression, risk and a thrill-seeking life
on the edge. While there was so much evidence of the garish palette of
reptilian proto emotions, there were few displays of other sorts of feelings
and a noticeable lack of empathy. At one point in the documentary, Lou Pai, who
would later flee Enron with a 250-million-dollar golden parachute, said,
"I'm not feeling anything."
a corporation seemed to embody the parasite strategy of going after a rich
deposit of energy and finding a way to drain it. Rather than getting into
the energy production business, they were mostly interested in being energy
middlemen using a variety of trickster strategies to acquire wealth and power
without producing anything of value to society. Fed Chairman Allan
Greenspan, and other true believers in the innate intelligence of the
marketplace to self-regulate, was not wary enough about parasitic tricksters
who like to take huge risks with other people's money. As a result, the
Enron scandal came as a huge shock, but not enough of a shock to get the SEC to
uncover Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, which they had been warned about
repeatedly. Also, as we are all now painfully aware, there was a
remarkable lack of action by any government agency or regulatory force while
sub-prime mortgages were being feverishly propagated by a whole sector of the
economy that was infected by a similar trickster passion for gambling with
enough of other people's money to threaten the economy of our entire planet.
in Greenspan's Model
congressional testimony and several interviews, former Fed Chairman Allan
Greenspan acknowledged that he was shocked to discover that there was an
essential flaw in his model of the economy. Before Congress he
acknowledged the flaw, but in densely abstracted Greenspanease. In
interviews he described the flaw more conversationally (unfortunately, I cannot
quote verbatim) and said that he falsely assumed that self-interest would keep
people from doing certain things. In other words, Greenspan recognized
that his model had a psychological flaw that made an incorrect assumption about
human motivation. I believe that Greenspan would have been quicker to recognize
this flaw in his understanding of motivation if he knew more about
psychopathy. Psychopaths are, of course, motivated by self-interest, but
there is another, more primary motivation that will often trump
self-interest. As we have discussed earlier, psychopaths are emotionally
vacuous, and therefore they are powerfully drawn toward risk taking in order to
feel anything. Psychopaths also live in the present and are not very
concerned about consequences for themselves and others. Harsher penalties may
not be much of a deterrent for psychopaths and might actually contribute to the
adrenaline rush they often crave when they take risks.
harsher penalties would likely be ineffective, is there any way to change the
model so as to discourage psychopathic plundering?
we must repair the flaw in Greenspan's model. The assumption of
self-interest as a psychological constant underestimates the irrationality that
so often drives individual and collective psychology and behavior. Although
psychopaths are more rational than average, any casino owner knows that, even
for nonpsychopaths, the thrill of risk taking, combined with greed and
over-confidence will often override rationality.
be aware of psychopaths, their techniques and their motivations, when we design
financial structures. Usually I have little confidence in social engineering,
and rarely make any suggestions in that direction, but I do have one for the
problem of psychopaths and Wall Street. Sometimes when computer hackers
are caught they are then hired by government and/or business to help defend
against or catch other computer hackers. Kevin Mitnick is a notable
example of a reformed hacker who now runs his own computer security company,
Mitnick Security Consulting, LLC. Many have commented that the SEC tends
to employ those trained in finance but who are not as clever, ruthless or
determined as those they are trying to monitor. I would suggest that they
be open to hiring psychopaths with MBAs and offer them multi-million dollar
bonuses and recognition, celebrity recognition if possible, for catching high
level scams. Since psychopaths are a force of nature we are unlikely to
eliminate, we should instead harness their unique talents to serve the socially
useful purpose of catching other psychopaths. Who could possibly be better
qualified, better able to pierce strategies of deception, than other highly
motivated psychopaths? To use Wall Street metaphorically, we need a
highly motivated team of clever reptiles and foxes to catch other reptiles and
the problems that the human species confront, such as racism, violence,
warfare, environmental pollution, and economic issues, all stem from a common
source — human psychology. It is human psychology that decides short-term
profits are more important than the long-term consequences to our
biosphere. All wars are a psychological product. Money is a
psychological artifact. By consensus we have agreed that these symbolic
counters have value, and it is our psychology that decides what we are willing
to do, or not do, to get hold of these artifacts. The irrationality and
ever-fluctuating emotionality of markets and economic structures are well recognized
and rigorously studied in fields like Behavioral Economics and Behavioral
Finance. In recent years neuropsychology and economics have merged and
researchers have made fascinating discoveries by observing people with
functional MRI scans while they make financial decisions. Allan Greenspan's
most famous phrase is "irrational exuberance," and Robert Shiller, an American
economist and Yale professor, wrote a bestselling book entitled Irrational
Exuberance, which predicted the burst of the stock market bubble in
the late 1990s, and warned about the emergence of a housing bubble after the
dot-com bubble burst in 2000. Another of Shiller's books is entitled Animal
Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global
Capitalism. The book opens with the following two sentences:
understand how economies work and how we can manage them and prosper, we must
pay attention to the thought patterns that animate people's ideas and feelings,
their animal spirits. We will never really understand important economic events
unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature.
the thought patterns and animal spirits driving economic events are generated
by psychopaths and situational pyshopaths, and to prevent another such economic
catastrophe we must take this into account as we design regulations, checks and
balances. We especially need an agency that, unlike the SEC, includes a core of
highly motivated and talented investigators who understand the remorseless mind
of the psychopath and who can stalk those who stalk us, the reptiles and foxes
who will forever try to steal the world's treasure.
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