Psychopathy  Corporations

One in 25 bosses 'is a psychopath' but hides it with charm and business-speak

By Duncan Macpherson

Last updated at 3:54 PM on 2nd September 2011

Business leaders are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the general population, a study has found.

One out of every 25 company high-flyers is believed to have the mental disorder but disguises it through their high status, charm and manipulation in the workplace.

And only favourable environmental factors - such as having had a happy childhood - prevent their psychopathic tendencies turning them into serial killers.


Psychopathic bosses like Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), seen here menacing Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) in Horrible Bosses, are all too common

Psychologists say today's ruthless corporate culture benefits people like Kevin Spacey's character in the recent movie Horrible Bosses, by rewarding their natural callousness and disregard of others' feelings.

The findings emerge in a survey led by New York psychologist Paul Babiak to discover how many psychopaths had infiltrated major firms.

Revealing the results in Are You Good Or Evil?, a Horizon documentary to be screened on BBC2 next Wednesday, Dr Babiak said: 'Psychopaths really aren't the kind of person you think they are.

'In fact, you could be living with or married to one for 20 years or more and not know that person is a psychopath.

'We have identified individuals that might be labelled "the successful psychopath".

'Part of the problem is that the very things we're looking for in our leaders, the psychopath can easily mimic.

'Their natural tendency is to be charming. Take that charm and couch it in the right business language and it sounds like charismatic leadership.'

Dr Babiak designed a 111-point questionnaire with the University of British Columbia's Prof Bob Hare - the world's pre-eminent expert in psychopathy and a regular adviser to the FBI - to determine how many industry bosses were psychopaths.

They found that nearly four per cent of bosses fitted the profile, compared with one per cent among the general population.

Workplace bosses, who are four times more likely to be psychopathic than the general population, climb the career ladder by charming their superiors

Workplace bosses, who are four times more likely to be psychopathic than the general population, climb the career ladder by charming their superiors

Dr Babiak said: 'These were all individuals who were at the top of an organisation - vice-presidents, directors, CEOs - so it was actually quite a shock.'

The results revealed that psychopaths were actually poor managerial performers but were adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they could cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates.

This, said Dr Babiak, makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath.

Prof Hare told Horizon: 'The higher the psychopathy, the better they looked - lots of charisma and they talk a good line.

'But if you look at their actual performance and ratings as a team player and productively, it's dismal. Looked good, performed badly.

'You have to think of psychopaths as having at their disposal a very large repertoire of behaviours. So they can use charm, manipulation, intimidation, whatever is required.

'A psychopath can actually put themselves in your skin - intellectually, not emotionally.

'They can tell what you're thinking, they can look at your body language, they can listen to what you're saying, but what they don't really do is feel what you feel.

'What this allows them to do is use words to manipulate and con and to interact with you without the baggage of feeling your pain.

'The essential features of psychopathy include a profound lack of empathy, a general callousness towards other people.

'These are people without a conscience.' said Dr Babiak. 'They are thrill-seekers, they are easily bored. What better place to work than a place that's constantly changing. That's a perfect environment for psychopaths.

'So how do you tell the high-power, high-talent MBA student from the lying, cheating, deceitful, manipulative psychopath? That's very, very hard to do.'

Brain scans from scientific studies of psychopaths who have murdered have shown that they share the same abnormalities - in the orbital cortex directly above the eyes and at the front of the temporal lobe which houses the amygdale, where a person's emotional responses are activated.

In a psychopath, these areas are either damaged or do not respond to emotional stimulus.

A gene known as the 'warrior gene' has also been linked to violence and high levels of aggression in response to provocation and is common in psychopaths.