British journalist Jon Ronson immersed himself in the world of mental health diagnosis and criminal profiling to understand what makes some people psychopaths — dangerous predators who lack the behavioral controls and tender feelings the rest of us take for granted. Among the things he learned while researching his new book, “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry”: the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is about 4 percent, four times what it is in the population at large. I spoke with him recently about what that means and its implications for the business world and wider society. Are we really to understand that there’s some connection between what makes people psychopaths and what makes them CEO material? At first I was really skeptical because it seemed like an easy thing to say, almost like a conspiracy theorist’s type of thing to say. I remember years and years ago a conspiracy theorist telling me the world was ruled by blood-drinking, baby-sacrificing lizards.
These psychologists were essentially saying the same thing.
Basically, when you get them talking, these people [ie. psychopaths] are different than human beings. They lack the things that make you human: empathy, remorse, loving kindness. So at first I thought this might just be psychologists feeling full of themselves with their big ideological notions. But then I met Al Dunlap. [That would be “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, former CEO of Sunbeam and notorious downsizer.] He effortlessly turns the psychopath checklist into “Who Moved My Cheese?” Many items on the checklist he redefines into a manual of how to do well in capitalism. There was his reputation that he was a man who seemed to enjoy firing people, not to mention the stories from his first marriage — telling his first wife he wanted to know what human flesh tastes like, not going to his parents’ funerals. Then you realize that because of this dysfunctional capitalistic society we live in those things were positives. He was hailed and given high-powered jobs, and the more ruthlessly his administration behaved, the more his share price shot up. So you can just go down the list of Fortune 500 CEOs and say, “psychopath, psychopath, psychopath…” Well, no. Dunlap was an exceptional figure, wasn’t he? An extreme figure.
I think my book offers really good evidence that the way that capitalism is structured really is a physical manifestation of the brain anomaly known as psychopathy. However, I wouldn’t say every Fortune 500 chief is a psychopath. That would turn me into an ideologue and I abhor ideologues. Is it an either/or thing? It seems to me, thinking about it, that a lot of the traits on the checklist would be be useful in a corporate ladder-climbing situation. So maybe there are a lot of CEOs who simply have some psychopathic tendencies.
It is a spectrum, but there’s a cutoff point. If you’re going by the Hare checklist [the standard inventory used in law enforcement, devised by leading researcher Robert Hare], where the top score is 40, the average anxiety-ridden business failure like me — although the fact that my book just made the Times best sellers list makes it difficult to call myself that — would score a 4 or 5. Somebody you have to be wary of would be in early 20s and a really hard core damaged person, a really dangerous psychopath, would score around a 30. In law the cutoff is 29.
There are absolutes in psychopathy and the main absolute is a literal absence of empathy. It’s just not there. In higher-scoring psychopaths, what grows in the vacant field where that empathy should be is a joy in manipulating people, a lack of remorse, a lack of guilt. If you’ve got a little bit of empathy, you’re kind of not a psychopath.