Friday, June 03, 2011

Did Psychopaths Cause the Economic Crisis?

Answer: possibly. An article in Fast Company suggested that psychopathology led to the ruin of the energy giant ENRON. But there are other more recent articles saying the same about the executive class in general. A highly regarded human resources magazine. The New York Times. National Public Radio. This American Life. What does it say about our society if the people who run our economy are nuts?

We test convicted criminals for psychopathic tendencies when we sentence them and before releasing them back into the general population, but people who head up large corporations are immune from this kind of intrusion. So we don't really know whether the people who lead our companies or trade our stocks or operate hedge funds to game the markets or manage our health insurance on a denial basis are psychopaths.

All we have is the set of traits psychologists use to measure psychopathology and the unsettling realization that many of these psychopathic traits are also the traits of rock stars in the business world.

The standard list of psychopathic characteristics:
Glibness and superficial charm
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Pathological lying––skilled secretiveness
Manipulative cunning
Lack of remorse or guilt––ruthlessness
Shallow affect––genuine emotion is short-lived and self-centered
Lack of empathy, lack of concern for others
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions––evasion of liability

It does sound like a lot of the people in executive positions. Especially the people at the very top.

Another often-cited characteristic of psychopathic personalities is risky behavior. To a certain degree we admire risk-takers, but risk can be taken to extremes, with much at stake and large downsides. Concentrated wealth in the hands of big risk takers risks our entire society.

Did psychopaths in expensive suits lead us into the financial crisis? If so, they're still running things, and paying themselves more than they did before.

I'm not saying we should label individual CEOs as psychopaths. It's not that simple. But maybe we should begin labeling ruthless CEO behavior, the remorseless downsizing of companies and the pocketing of vast sums, as psychopathic. As sick behavior. As something to be abhorred rather than admired.

We see some of the same stubborn recklessness in the elected politicians who cut taxes on the very very rich and protect them from regulation and interference, while simultaneously and ruthlessly cutting millions of working people off from help.

Consider the dangerous game of budget Chicken being played by Republicans right now. We wouldn't tolerate it on the highway, why let it happen with our state and federal budgets? Threatening government shutdowns and credit defaults is recklessness. Gladly dumping the poor, the sick and the elderly but refusing to consider restoring the Reagan era tax rate onto the extremely rich is antisocial behavior.

There is a callous ruthlessness in the Republican leadership that comes very close to psychopathology. And it's hard to negotiate with psychopaths; they don't blink, they don't hesitate, they don't think twice or worry about other people. That's why they often win. We admire winners in America, but we should draw the line somewhere. Antisocial disregard for others shouldn't be admired or rewarded. Why do we vote for it?

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