A 2010 study found that psychopaths are three times more likely to appear in executive roles than in the general population.
A recent re-evaluation of this data found a disturbing increase to one in five corporate professionals exhibiting clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits. Given that widely celebrated character traits often coexist with psychopathic tendencies, is it any surprise that psychopaths are so prominent in positions of power?
Psychologist Dr Kevin Dutton awarded Donald Trump 171 points on the psychopath test, ranking him only two points above Hitler. The test measures against traits such as dishonesty, cold-heartedness, and narcissism – all of which have been exhibited by the former President. However, the test also requires an individual to be charismatic, fearless and influential to be diagnosed psychopathic – but aren’t the same characteristics essential for leadership?
Trump’s psychopathic tendencies
The former President’s track record for truth-telling isn’t great. He proudly boasts he has won 18 golf club championships – this is pure fiction. He labels his penthouse floors of Trump Tower numbers 66-68 – its lift and architectural structure boast only 58 floors. And who could forget those election night tweets – so extreme even Twitter had to intervene and warn users of “disputed or misleading” information.
Occasional hyperbole is forgivable- let’s instead consider his rating on the ‘cold-heartedness’ scale. His policies are enough to score sufficiently on this scale: from his Child Separation policy, to his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, not to mention the unfaltering racism and sexism that pervades his personality, it would be no exaggeration to consider Trump heartless.
Psychopaths in power
While Trump may appear to be an anomaly, troubling research indicates that psychopathic behaviour may be more common than we expect in positions of power.
In 2010 Paul Babiak (author of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work) examined a sample of 203 individuals from numerous companies’ management development programs. These were individuals on track to getting positions in power. The research found that 3% of those assessed scored in the psychopathy range – a figure three times the incidence of 1% in the general population.
A more recent assessment of corporate psychopathy in 2019 found a perplexing 21% of participants displayed concerningly high levels of psychopathic traits – a figure comparable to that of prison populations.
Psychopaths being five times more likely to appear in corporate contexts has many implications. Their prevalence means that, unlike the pop culture portrayal of psychopaths – concealed in dark corners of the world committing crimes – they are much closer to home than anticipated. The promotion and glorification of psychopathic tendencies in corporate environments is stomach-churning. The lack of empathy that dominates their personality means they possess a single-mindedness that is often indispensable to leadership. But at what cost?
It’s easy to secrete the Patrick Batemans of society in boardrooms and imagine that our lives would never intersect, but these statistics encourage us to look closely at our own political spheres and the psychopaths that may operate under our noses.
Is our Prime Minister a psychopath?
While his handling of the pandemic may be considered concerningly unempathetic, we need to further measure BoJo’s characteristics against the Hare test for psychopathy.
A glaring one is item 11: sexual promiscuity. On several occasions, Johnson has refused to reveal how many children he has. While this could be in an attempt to protect said children from the scrutiny of being the PM’s kids, it could also be because he himself doesn’t know, or doesn’t care.
Another item to consider is juvenile delinquency (item 18). Supported by Johnson’s cocaine use in university, his Bullingdon days, and an attempted private prosecution against him for lying about Brexit, it appears his criminal record, while covert, is robust enough to score highly on this criterion.
Finally, consider item 4: pathological lying. From the infamous Brexit bus smeared with a false statistic to being fired from The Times for story fabrication; despite BoJo’s claim that “I’ve never tried to deceive the public and I’ve always tried to be absolutely frank”, his hypocritical tendencies make him the perfect candidate for psychopathy.
An unfair diagnosis?
Psychologists argue the illegitimacy of diagnosing someone without a clinical interview, but in many cases, politicians’ history is so well documented that a thorough assessment does seem possible. Yet, is this an unfair disadvantage?
The media’s microscopic reporting on politicians like Trump and Boris Johnson creates the opportunity for scrutiny from all angles. The same can’t be said for the average person. While it can be said that those in power tend to possess traits identifiable with psychopathy, many identified traits could be applicable to you or me.
I’ll put my hands up and admit I’ve never had short-term marital relationships (item 17) nor am I criminally versatile (item 20), but if I were to take the same Hare test, I would score considerably higher on the following items:
Item 3: Need for stimulation – I’m constantly switching fashion sense, hobbies, and even degrees.
Item 13: Lack of realistic long-term goals – I’m actively avoiding any career-related emails.
Item 15: Irresponsibility – I have been known to neglect unwashed dishes, forget house keys, and lose personal belongings to no avail.
Yet, the only people exposed to these traits are my housemates, not anyone who has access to a news platform.
Am I bored, unambitious, and slightly immature? Maybe. Am I a psychopath? No.
Is being a psychopath a bad thing?
Diagnosed psychopathy isn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘dangerous’. Lack of empathy doesn’t mean that 1% of the population is dressed up in a pig costume performing murder in Amsterdam’s red-light district (like Killing Eve’s Villanelle), or racking up dead bodies in a closet (see: Christian Bale in American Psycho). Instead, they could be working on Wall Street, sleeping snug in the White House or dining in 10 Downing Street.
This creates its own danger. Instead of a pig costume, we’re deceived by leaders disguised as nice guys, when their inner pig lies within. Instead of bodies hanging in closets, they’re reduced to statistics- inevitabilities of a poorly handled pandemic.
‘Am I a psychopath?’
Having read this far and encountered several qualities that make a psychopath, you may be asking yourself the all-important question.
To quote Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test :
“If you’re beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognize some of those traits in yourself, if you’re feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one”.
(Although, if you’re studying anything business or politics related, I’d reconsider).