Where the psychopaths are: in prison -- and the CEO office

Does running a company attract people who are short on empathy and remorse and long on manipulation? Apparently so, according to new research that found as many as 1 in 5 corporate executives are psychopaths.

That may strike some cynics as a lowball estimate, yet it does represent a startlingly large share of psychopathy in the CEO suite, given that only 1 in 100 people in the general population are psychopaths. The CEO rate of psychopathy is similar to that of the prison population, forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks told The Telegraph, based on his survey of 261 senior U.S. executives. 

The findings highlight the issue of “successful psychopaths,” or individuals who share the traits of a “malignant psychopath” but who are able to find success due to their charm and self-centered focus as well as their higher level of impulse control. That doesn’t mean high-functioning psychopaths can’t cause damage, however: Brooks noted that CEO psychopaths may veer into unethical behavior or exhibit toxic behavior.

“Typically psychopaths create a lot of chaos and generally tend to play people off against each other,” Brooks told the publication.

The research, which was presented earlier this month at the Australian Psychological Society Congress, notes that the idea of the “successful psychopath” emerged after the 2008 financial crisis, with some theorizing that the number of psychopaths working in the financial industry may be partly to blame for the economic crisis.

Yet corporations may also create the ideal environment for a psychopath. The 2003 documentary “The Corporation” argued that if a corporation were a person, she would be a psychopath, since companies lack concern for the feelings of others, fail to experience guilt, and can engage in actions that put others at risk.

Whether or not one agrees with “The Corporation,” it’s easy to see how corporate settings may allow psychopaths to flourish. They can be charming and manipulative, which allows them to gain entry to the executive suite. They appear to make decisions easily and cooly, which can impress others around them. But there’s a dark side to such leadership.

Corporate psychopaths “cheerfully lie about their involvement in events are very persuasive in blaming others for what has happened and have no doubts about their own continued worth and value,” wrote Nottingham Trent University researcher Clive Boddy in a 2011 report on corporate psychopaths and the financial crisis. “They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising governments how to prevent such economic disaster.”

There are other professions with higher-than-average rates of psychopaths, according to The Hustle​, which cited research from author Kevin Dutton. They include lawyers, media, salespeople, surgeons, journalists, and police officers. The professions with the lowest rates of psychopathy include care aides, therapists, nurses and craftspeople.

Hiring professionals should tweak their practices to help weed out psychopaths from the candidate pool, Brooks told The Telegraph. Instead of focusing on personality, they should focus on skills.

“For psychopaths,  it [corporate success] is a game and they don’t mind if they violate morals. It is about getting where they want in the company and having dominance over others,” he said.