26 August 2013

mental health mondays :: guilty pleasures?

we have to make some cuts...
i once made a decision to leave a job after discovering this fast company article on line. why? because i realised that my job involved answering to a psychopath. and once you've realised that, you know that there's no light at the end of the tunnel. whatever you're doing, however secure or skilled you think you are, even when you think you've mastered the ways of your mercurial overlord and can rely on him/ her to carry you on their dragon's wings ever higher, the fact is that you're working for someone who doesn't accept the fundamental humanity of others. it's not a matter of this person betraying you the way you probably think of it. the psychopath is someone who thinks of him/ herself as somehow different and better than everyone else- including you. if you think they're on your side, if you think that they're your partner, it's really just that you happen to be useful to this person. 

on a basic level, we are acclimatised to have the reaction that psychopath = bad. after all, the psychopath is the person who's going to eat [insert generic popular eye candy actress here] if she doesn't manage to escape. so how is it that psychopaths have managed to rise to such prominence in our society that a business mag like "fast company" deems them significant enough to warrant an article? 

there's the rub [as hamlet would say, if he weren't dead and mostly fictional]. let's look at a full set of the hare criteria for psychopathy, generally considered to be the defining terms for identifying a psychopath in your midst: 




  • glib and superficial charm
  • grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  • need for stimulation
  • pathological lying
  • cunning and manipulativeness
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • poor behavioral controls
  • sexual promiscuity
  • early behavior problems
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • many short-term marital relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • revocation of conditional release
  • criminal versatility
  • source: http://www.minddisorders.com/Flu-Inv/Hare-Psychopathy-Checklist.html#b#ixzz2d7kN0K6q


    in a hare diagnosis, subjects are graded a 0, 1, or 2 depending on how well any of these points applies to them. score above 30 and he-ya, welcome to psycho territory. 

    except that when you think about it, these are also things that we tend to value in business. people who are superficially charming [because really, what kind of substance is ever demanded in business relationships?], people who are smart enough to talk their way out of trouble, people who will not get bogged down in a sense of emotional responsibility or morality... these are people who can benefit employers. the ones who are impulsive, who are not constrained by realistic long-term goals, who are always looking for the next big, new thing to occupy them. you can certainly see where, contrary to what horror films may have told you, the psychopath is an exceptionally valuable member of society. 

    i asked dom, who has forgotten more about movies today than i'll ever know, to come up with a single portrayal of a psychopath that showed them to be successful in society. excluding "american psycho"- too easy and a noted exception- and stories based on true events, he was only able to come up with "peeping tom". although i adore the film, i'd say that it at best portrays its antihero as treading the line between artistic fervour and straight-up insanity. so can we just agree that film portrayals of psychopaths have not been positive?

    so how does this apparent disconnect happen? pop culture inundates us with stories of the amoral psychopath as dangerous, antisocial and deadly, but at the same time, business studies indicate that amorality and lack of empathy are conducive to growth. herein lies the problem. 

    what we claim to value in our consideration of ourselves as whole, moral beings is somehow in conflict with the extremely quantifiable values we have in business. so yes, we accept characteristics that we might otherwise classify as deranged when they are directed towards a financial goal. so psychopaths are only a problem when their tendencies are "misdirected". and by "misdirected", what's meant is that the psychopathy manifests itself solely in ways that are not beneficial to the economy. even then, of course, the psychopath isn't problematic- just annoying. read the checklist again. there is nothing in there that deals with a predisposition to violence. at most, it establishes the psychopath as a non-respecter of authority and laws.  the particular laws that they disrespect are determined by which ones prove an inconvenience to them and, more importantly, which ones they feel they can defy without getting caught. pragmatism is paramount. accounting inconsistencies can go years without being caught. dead bodies tend to raise questions. 

    the fact is that our cinematic fascination with absolute, unreasoning evil as being very recognisable as an aberration blinds us to the fact that amoral behaviour is mundane and its effects have clear benefits for industry. those who are the least bound by the social contract, which requires people to see each other at some basic level as equals, tend to be those who can spur the most growth. 

    so the next time you look at your stock portfolio or rrsp [401k if you're in the states and i don't know what you call them elsewhere], remember that any improvement you see is probably due to the fact that michael myers and jason voorhees have dropped their masks and are sitting at the head of a conference table somewhere. 

    2 comments:

    Martin Rouge said...

    While we encounter psychopaths, or people with varying degrees of psychological behavior, and give them a free pass, is not only because they do things that can be beneficial (if amoral) but also because we interpret their success as and perceived worth as to make them untouchable.

    Bad boss, coworker, life partner, business rival or pundit, they are given free reign, because what can you do, really? Their success is feared and envied, and by direct connection, we know that, were we to rise against them, we would lose. Their very existence, their presence is a threat, a constant reminder that we are swimming with sharks.

    Kate MacDonald said...

    Very well put, as always Martin. Non-psychopaths have a capacity for questioning and self-doubt that just isn't in the wiring for psychopaths. And those are things that can easily undermine the rest of us.

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