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Hiring the right psychopath

There could be increased numbers of psychopaths in senior managerial positions, high levels of business: a paper in Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology has demonstrated that smart psychopaths are hard to detect as psychopaths. The authors tested participants for psychopathic tendencies using a psychological scale, and then tested their arousal levels through galvanic skin response while showing normal or upsetting images. The interesting finding was that only lower IQ participants showed the expected responses (lowered startle when viewing aversive images in psychopaths): smarter participants seemed to be able to control their emotions.

The lead author, Carolyn Bate, said:

“Perhaps businesses do need people who have the same characteristics as psychopaths, such as ruthlessness.  But I suspect that some form of screening does need to take place, mainly so businesses are aware of what sort of people they are hiring.”

Should we screen people at hiring for psychopathy?

There is no question that psychopaths can be destructive. They tend to be deceitful and manipulative, lack empathy and remorse, and behave in irresponsible or impulsive ways. There is an association with criminal behaviour, and they can hurt corporate culture through bullying, stress, conflict and indirect effects on staff turnover, absenteeism and productivity. There is also some evidence that psychopaths are more common than average at higher levels: the combination of boldness, manipulation and ruthlessness can further the career of a smart psychopath.

Lack of empathy is not always bad: somebody needs to do the downsizing, and surgeons famously tend to score higher on psychopathy inventories. In fact, there seem to be a clear selection for (and against) certain professions (although the methodology can be discussed). Lack of fear, staying cool under pressure, heightened ability to detect and exploit other’s emotions: there are may roles where these traits are actively useful. The problem is that human minds are package deals: getting the charming and fearless CEO will also get the ruthlessness, amorality and impulsiveness.

The problem with screening people for psychopathy is obvious from Bate’s own paper: smart psychopaths are not going to be as easy to find as dumb ones. Maybe it is reasonable to discriminate against less intelligent psychopaths for employment in many organisations (discrimination is OK as long as the difference matters for the ability to do the job well: the double whammy of lower intelligence and psychopathy probably does matter). We might be concerned about these people being kept out of the job market: they are vulnerable and potentially (self) destructive – and few disability rights or neurodiversity advocates are likely to stand up for them.

But suppose we could test psychopathy in a way intelligence cannot influence (in fact, this is an implicit assumption about the scale used in the paper – it is not entirely clear to me why we should trust the self-assessment more than the galvanic skin response!) Now the smart psychopath would point out that he indeed has psychopathic traits… but since he is smart, he is keeping the bad traits under control. This is not entirely implausible: intelligence acts as a protective factor in schizophrenia, and many personality disorders seem associated with low IQ. There may simply be a cognitive reserve in high IQ people that allow them to work around their mental problems. Similarly the smart psychopath would also be able to avoid some of the pitfalls of their personality. Yes, he is impulsive, so he has trained himself not to rush in too fast. Yes, he might not care deeply about other people: that is why he is applying for a finance job rather than at the HR department.

What should we make of this? The problem seems to be that we conflate an identity as a psychopath with the detected traits of psychopathy. The person has certain personality traits but might not act on them: many people let their higher order goals and moral overrule desires and impulses. That your coworker scores high on a psychopathy score does not mean he will back-stab you… except that the probability is higher than if he had scored low. The problem with a psychopath test is that it would be tempting to use it as a form of “pre-crime” judgement against people who have so far done nothing. Sometimes disturbing minds live mundane lives.

What matters morally is more whether the smart psychopath actually has good control over their impulses, and whether their goals align with the organisation. Maybe we should focus more on how to test for this than what the core personality is (no matter how fascinating insights we gain from studying psychopaths). After all, knowing that our employee, surgeon or MP is reliably going to use their personality traits and abilities in a way that works for your shared goals, is what we actually want.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Tina Taylor @GeneticPsycho

    Psychopaths are people who have never experienced any stress, nor the agony of heartbreak, and therefore are in no position to counsel the rest of the world. Psychopaths are habitual. They form their lifelong antisocial or prosocial automatic behaviors in childhood. These behaviors are not set in stone. No sociopath/psychopath is capable of loyalty. Only habits.

    Here is a list of recurring dysfunctional habits that psychopaths display, even when they mask their antisocial personality traits: “How to Spot a Pro-Social Psychopath”

    Psychopaths are impaired neurologically, and (like drug users) are not fit for positions of leadership. Testing needs to be implemented. I am sharing knowledge with- TED-Ed Lesson “What is a psychopath?”

    1. Hmm… so anybody with psychopathy should be prevented from a large swathe of jobs and opportunities in society, based on the statistics that they are not suitable?

      Isn’t this a bit like profiling? Or even James Fitz-James Stephen’s old argument that since women were inferior to men in all domains it is right to ban women from joining professions? As Janet pointed out in her Uehiro lectures, the fault in his argument was not just the wrongness of the factual claim (which in a possible world could have been true), but that it took a statistical reason and applied to every woman no matter what her actual qualifications were. Similarly, if somebody scores high on psychopathy but is actually behaving in a dependable manner, it seems unfair to block them from a position. That such nice psychopaths might be rare is not an argument against allowing them the job.

      If you are right, around 1% of the population are not fit for positions of leadership *no matter what they do*. Just because of who they are.

      1. Erm, isn’t that a bit like saying there should be no screening for people who work with children? Psychopathy is (inter alia) a tendency to abuse power, so similar logic should apply it seems to me.

        1. You want to screen people so that the likelihood of them abusing their position (or fouling up in general) is low. This is not discrimination, since it is relevant for the job. However, what matters is actual likelihood, not what traits there are.

          According to some studies I were told about, almost 10% of the population have some detectable paedophiliac tendencies (!). Of course, of these the vast majority never act on them. If there was a practical detector for such tendencies, would it be rational to prevent this subpopulation from having to do with children? It would prevent some wrongdoing, but at the price of stigmatizing a large group where most members would never actually do something. Maybe, given our culture’s abhorrence for pedophilia, we would still say this is an acceptable price. But it would be costly (would you allow them to have families?)

          I also wonder about current screening procedures. How high is their error rate? I suspect much of screening and vetting mainly consists of (1) getting rid of obvious cases, (2) scaring off people who think they would fail, and (3) making sure applicants fit some template that may have very little to do with actual behaviour but plenty to do with some notion of social conformity. Anybody know if there have been proper studies about their validity?

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