What are Psychopaths and How do they exist in a corporate world?

The media may portray the psychopath as a crazed serial killer - the stuff of nightmares and horror films - but the reality is chillingly different. Not all psychopaths are violent criminals and fewer still have a desire to eat you for dinner. Many are highly successful businessmen and women, lawyers, academics, politicians, doctors and teachers. Psychopaths wear suits too...

The Mental Health Act 1983 (HMSO 1983) described psychopathic disorder as: “A persistent disorder or disability of mind (whether or not including significant impairment of intelligence) which results in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct.”

Whilst 15–25% of criminals are psychopaths, it is estimated that the condition exists in 1% of the general non incarcerated population where Hare (1996) concludes that there would be a higher proportion in such areas as business, politics, law enforcement agencies, law firms, religious organisations and the media.

Psychopaths have a wide range of attributes that we do not possess and vice versa and these will be discussed later. However, one particular trait is empathy, this often used as a determining factor in diagnosing a psychopath (Hare 1991). Empathy is loosely thought to be the capacity to put yourself in another persons shoes. But this seems to be only one part of what constitutes empathy as it exists in the psychopath. What seems different about the psychopath is that he is peculiarly unmoved or disconnected emotionally from the knowledge that he gains by putting himself in your shoes. Thus, although he is able to very quickly glean during the briefest of interaction with another person a lot of very useful information about what makes him tick, this knowledge is simply knowledge to be used or not as the politics of the situation dictate. What seems to be missing in psychopaths is the compelling nature of an appropriate affective response to the knowledge gained from putting himself in another persons shoes, in the way that this happens in the normal person. This essential missing aspect of empathy in a person can indicate psychopathic tendencies within their personality. (Barker and Shipton, 1988)

Robert D. Hare, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of British Columbia where he has researched psychopaths for more than a quarter century. He has provided an unrivalled amount of research into the field and is very well respected for his work. He has looked into psychopaths in a corporate setting and holds this view. "They have a predatory quality to them and the prey is always around certain areas," Dr Hare said. "In the business world, if I was a good psychopath and I was well educated, bright, intelligent, grew up in the proper way, knew how to talk and dress and how to use a fork, I\'m not going to go out and rob banks.” (Hare 1994: Psychology Today, 134-137).

Historically, psychopathy, which is predominantly encountered in males (Hare 1970), has been framed within the arena of criminality; studies have focused upon incarcerated psychopaths with the near exclusive use of incarcerated offender samples in research programs. Diagnostic tools have been generated from within institutional settings where offending behaviour is included as part of the overall assessment (Newman 1991). Whilst it may be tempting to assume that all psychopaths are recidivist criminals, the facts do not support this assertion. Not all psychopaths are criminals and in fact some have no formal criminal record at all (Cleckley 1964, Hare 1970).

In this paper will discuss what psychopaths are and how they exist in the corporate world. I will examine the traits and personality of a ‘typical’ psychopath. How the traits of criminal psychopaths compare and contrast to those found in non incarcerated psychopaths (primary and secondary psychopaths). As well as this it will explore the contextual and situational affect upon the psychopath and these can change the results of the particular behaviour; either criminally inclined or not.

The first question to be raised in any discussion relating to psychopathy must inevitably be ‘what is a psychopath?’, Cleckley (1941, 1982) the initial influence within this area and quoted writer of the clinical condition of psychopathy; formulated a list of 16 ‘key characteristics’ which represent the cardinal features of the psychopath and which are consistently used as a framework for research studies (see