Sanctuary for the Abused
Sunday, July 10, 2016
How Psychopaths Prosper
It is literally the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. Charming and often powerful, they seduce you to get your guard down. And then, without a second thought or any trace of remorse, they are able to cold-bloodedly thieve, rape, or murder you. Robert Hare, UBC's world-renowned professor emeritus of psychology, goes so far as to say that while they look and sound exactly like us, they are functionally a different species from human beings. And seven years ago, Hare estimated that up to one in one hundred Canadians is one of these people: psychopaths.
To make matters worse, Professor Hare recently remarked in a keynote address to a conference of criminal justice professionals that today's society is becoming more and more conductive to psychopathic behavior. Moral standards,reflected in television and politics, are glamorizing and normalizing what is abnormal predatory behavior, allowing psychopathic behavior to flourish more than ever.
The story of psychopathy made the front page of The Vancouver Sun, a comment on the ongoing interest and the lack of wide-spread understanding of psychopathy in today's society.
An unexpected profile
Psychopaths aren't necessarily the people we expect, says UBC assistant professor Michael Woodworth.
"Psychopaths don't have a background with pronounced amounts of child maltreatment or an overuse of drugs or alcohol or any of these other things that often lead to general antisocial behavior. For true psychopaths you'll often find they had quite regular upbringings."In Hare's 1993 book called Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, he quotes one specimen's memories:
"A psychopath is an individual who has a propensity to prey on others for their own gain.
"And what makes them particularly intriguing is that they not only often display a number of antisocial or problematic behaviors, they also have a lot of intriguing interpersonal deficits as well as emotional deficits. They don't interpret emotions such as guilt or fear the same way that others do; they don't respond to emotional stimuli. They are conning and manipulative. They are narcissistic, have a grandiose sense of self worth, and are pathological liars."
"[My] mother, the most beautiful person in the world. She was strong, she worked hard to take care of four kids. A beautiful person. I started stealing her jewelery when I was in the fifth grade. You know, I never really knew the bitch - we went our separate ways."
"A psychopath wouldn't care less about social rules. Wouldn't in the slightest pause at social norms or expectations. The only reason they might act with any semblance of normality is to achieve their goals or personal gain. Psychopaths have defining impulsivity. But what we find is that for more serious crimes such as murder, they actually show a lot of planning and premeditation, and there appears to be a real instrumental aspect to their behavior."More interesting than simple murder
"We're not sure if its because they realise the stakes are so high and they, or if its just that they take so much pleasure in it that the planning is part of the process. In terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, psychopaths are really stuck down on that lower level."
Horror movies and modern television shows like Dexter portray this classic view of psychopaths - the antithesis of what we expect from human beings. Often charming, normal-looking people, unable to form social connections and interested only in their own impulsive pleasures, be they murder, theft, rape, or manipulation.
But, while impulsive and prone to criminal behavior, many regard violent clinical psychopaths as being just the tip of the iceberg.
"If you think of a blood thirsty murderer, who kills and rapes dozens of people, you immediately think psychopath," Woodworth says. He believes that because most of the research to date has been on prison samples, the results are skewed. Those who end up in prison are, after all, the failed psychopaths.Since psychopaths thrive in large, chaotic situations, and love situations where power and wealth are easily achievable, psychopathy might have a profound affect on the many large hierarchies that form the basis of our society.
"For me what is almost even more scary is the successful psychopaths who are out there still committing a lot of those crimes," Woodworth says.
"All psychopaths are potentially criminals. All are harmful," Woodworth says. "The ones who are most intriguing are the ones we can't get our hands on. They haven't committed an explicit crime, or at least not one they've been caught for. They're up there in society, high up in businesses, law firms. Even the higher you get up in academia, the higher your psychopathy levels start to go. The higher you get up in organizations where you have a lot of power, the more you tend to find psychopaths."The ideal corporate leader, after all, might share quite a few traits with psychopaths. Self-focus, willingness to bend rules, and aggressive dominance would come quite easily to a psychopath.
"These environments even reward psychopaths for some of their key core traits. If they can keep them in check and not get caught committing any sort of conventional antisocial behavior, than these traits can actually serve them quite well."
And would likely be rewarded by corporate management.
Many people in some very successful places could very well be psychopathic. And their success might not end there.
"Psychopaths have a 'cheaters' strategy when it comes to reproduction, their behavior, in terms of lots of sexual partners, trying to knock up as many women as possible, and then invest as little to no time makes sense in terms of spreading their seed as efficiently as possible," Woodworth says.While their behavior is quite disturbing, given that there is research to suggest that psychopathy has a genetic component, psychopaths fit quite well into the mold of extreme social cheaters.
Group co-operation among organisms is not that unusual in the biological world. And it is an effective strategy. Our cooperation as a species allowed us to spread humankind around the planet. But co-operation is a hard process to achieve, and is vulnerable to predation from within. If one member of a group begins to exploit other members, then the benefits provided by co-operation evaporate, and more efficient co-operatives will out-compete them. Groups therefore effectively depend on trust, and internal regulation. For a co-operative group is ever vulnerable to being preyed upon by cheaters.
"Gossip, reputation, strongly-enforced social norms - these were the tools that allowed co-operation and prevented cheaters," says David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at the University of Binghamton in New York. "Of course, these things only work in small societies, the kinds of places where everyone can keep tabs on everyone else."However as societies grew, word-of-mouth became less capable of regulating people, leading to more potential for social cheating.
"You can look at the majority of recorded history in a sort of grand vision sense, as a struggle to find mechanisms to regulate co-operation on the larger scale," said Wilson.
Society has always depended on social co-operation to succeed. Even in the "free market" of "unbridled competition," people depend on references as to their character to be freely given from one employer to another - a strong mechanism to ensure reputation.
Of course, the larger a society gets, the more regulations are required to maintain cohesion. Wilson has studied Calvinism extensively in terms of its origin in Geneva. Wilson posits that Calvinism provided strong mechanisms of social cohesiveness - regulating co-operation in a city struggling to maintain cohesion. On those terms it succeeded fantastically, providing mechanisms of governance that were transparent, checked and balanced, and largely effective at preventing social cheaters.
Social regulation, of course, is a double-edged sword. In Calvinist Geneva, numerous people were executed for heresy, while others were fined or jailed for inappropriate dancing or gambling.
In the modern day, with our enormous governments running society, and our often-times ever larger corporations running our economy, fewer decisions are made by individuals, while more and more are being made by organizations. But Joel Bakan, professor of law at UBC and author of The Corporation, would argue that psychopathy still serves as a useful tool in understanding how groups work.
"As legal entities, the modern corporation is, as far as the law is concerned, a person. That is one of the fundamental legal characteristics of it and is then imbued by the law by an operating principle that it must always serve its self interest. So the idea that corporations are made in the image of human psychopaths is quite literal...we've created [an] institution that is incapable of being genuinely concerned about anybody but its own and its shareholders interests."You don't have to look very far to see examples of that. Corporations are driven to reduce their costs and increase their revenues by doing whatever they have to do. The other interests, be it environmental or working people or children or a population's health, are called externalities by economists meaning that they are outside of the corporation, they don't need to be considered by the corporation in making its decisions."
One example of this cited by Bakan takes place in the early days of the corporation. Henry Ford, having achieved great success through the production of the model-T, sought to raise wages, cut prices, and increase production of his product.
The Dodge brothers, both minority stockholders in the Ford Motor Company, sued Ford for not putting the interests of the shareholders first. They won, and the court decided that a business must be organized primarily for the profit of the stockholders, and cannot place the community or its employees first. The board of directors cannot decide to reduce profits in order to benefit the public.
Publicly-traded corporations legally can not be anything but psychopathic.
Governments, of course, have recognized this for a long time, especially in the wake of the workers' abuses of the industrial revolution.
"The tradition in both England and North America beginning in the 1930s was to say let's leave this corporation as it is, lets keep it psychopathic and driven by its own self interest, but what we're going to do is put external restraints on its behavior, what we're going to do is put the psychopath on a leash, so to speak, through government regulation," said Bakan.
One of the biggest trends over the past 10 years or so has been talk of corporate social responsibility. The Economist recently ran a story claiming that most businesses believe that corporate social responsibility is a vital part of doing business.
Bakan, who spoke with a number of corporate managers while making his film, believes that this idea is only skin deep.
"If a corporation says appearing to be socially responsible is good business, because customers like it, workers in our company like it, so there will be good morale in our company, and people will buy our products. In that strategic sense corporate social responsibility is perfectly lawful.A self-regulating corporation is even more of an incredible prospect when one considers Hare's data: the bigger and more powerful a corporation gets, the more the people at the top are likely to be psychopaths.
"The danger I see in corporate social responsibility is that when you talk to people in the corporate world, it is surprising how often they drew an equation between corporate social responsibility and deregulation. They said look, we're socially responsible now. You can trust us. And therefore you don't need to regulate us."
But even for those who are not psychopathic in the high levels of corporations, the very structure of the organization has an affect on those working within them.
"There is a gap between the way people are as individuals and what they are required to do within the framework of the corporation.
"People seem to be able to compartmentalize their moral life."That they can be quite decent people in their normal family and community lives, but when they're within the corporation, they become operatives for its amoral goals," said Bakan, who makes comparison to hockey. When hockey players get on the ice, they leave their normal day to day morality in the locker room. People will play quite dirty, slashing, tripping, and checking, and will generally receive no more than a few minutes in the penalty box as punishment.
Woodworth and the rest of the scientific community, don't believe that there is much that can be done to treat psychopaths. Profiling, monitoring dangerous offenders, and learning more about them seem to be all that can be done at this point.
But for the rest of us, there are things we can do to prevent being exploited by social cheaters.
"We can change the nature of the corporation, and change the way we do business," says Bakan. "Co-operatives, and public purpose corporations generally act in a way that has some level of responsibility towards society as a whole. Or we could deepen and widen the regulatory structures that are designed to protect the greater communities from being marginalized as externalities," says Bakan.Dr. Robert Hare would probably agree. An economy with clear responsibilities, perhaps that is also composed of flatter, smaller organizations, would provide less room for psychopaths to thrive and are less likely to provide incentives for regular people to behave in a socially exploitative way. Perhaps then we could at least keep the psychopaths on a leash and keep the rest of us co-operating.
"If we want to move toward an economy that actually respects social interests or embodies moral values and is democratic in how it functions then I think we have to be moving in these directions."