Snakes in Suits - When Psychopaths Go to Work 1/x
Paul Babiak, Robert Hare
This book was highly recommended to my by my INSEAD classmates, so I had to oblige :)
1/ Who Are These People?
For psychopaths aggression is instrumental, i.e., the means to an end, without concern for others’ pain and suffering. For other people, if they have to resort to violence, it’s done in a reactive way, followed by remorse and guilt for the harm done to others.
Psychopathic criminals recidivate at a much higher rate and much earlier than do other criminals. Around 1% of the entire population is psychopathic, but in prison up to 15% inmates are, and at least 50% of all serious and violent crimes in the US are committed by them.
There’s a difference between psychopathy (no conscience, empathy, guilt, or loyalty), sociopathy (patterns of behaviours and attitudes that are antisocial and/or criminal by the broader society, but which were developed as part of the upbringing in a certain subculture or group), and APD [Anti-social Personality Disorder] (similar to psychopathy, but all or some emotions may still be present). There are 3-4x the people with APD as there are psychopaths. The number of sociopaths is much higher than those with APD.
No all psychopaths are actual or borderline criminals; they are just unpleasant to be around, or they are manipulators and relationships abusers. Their common theme is that they cause pain and distress in others.
Non-criminal psychopaths seem not to have real goals and plans, being insincere, unreliable and outright liars, not doing the things beneficial even for themselves. They may look charming and intelligent, calm and in control, but it’s a deception. They process all kinds of information neutrally, stripping out the emotional contents.
Criminal psychopaths comfortably describe the most gruesome details of their crimes with dispassion and disinterest. Many criminals, assessed via PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist – Revised), show very high match rate of their psychopathic traits to the scale. (This test is now considered prone to several biases, though.)
It turns out that genetics plays a major role in making a person psychopathic. Thus, the social environment is almost powerless to make a meaningful change.
There are four domains / key factors in the psychopath’s personality:
Interpersonal – how psychopaths present themselves to others. The person can be superficial, grandiose and deceitful.
Affective – what they feel or don’t feel emotionally. The person lacks remorse, empathy and doesn’t accept responsibility.
Lifestyle – how they live in the society. The person is impulsive, lacks goals and irresponsible.
Antisocial – propensity for antisocial behaviours. The person has a history of poor behavioural controls, antisocial behaviour during adolescence and adult life.
Everyone sits somewhere on a scale of these four domains, but most people tend to fall towards the lower end (i.e., harmless). Even those in the mid-range wouldn’t qualify to be psychopaths, but may be unpleasant to deal with nonetheless.
2/ Off and Running
Most people meet at least one psychopath a day (simply because we see too many people unless we’re working from home), and most of the time don’t realise it. Many psychopaths are good at sizing up people and identifying the buttons to push. They are able to speak influentially, often lacking substance, but making up for it with perfect delivery and manipulation. They can switch their personas to become likable. In other words, they’re “social chameleons”.
The difference between a usual manipulator and a psychopathic manipulator is in the motivation to take unfair advantage of people – no matter how this affects them. Some psychopaths are not charming, so they resort to bullying.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder, not a mental illness. Personality disorders severely limit people’s range of possible options and behaviours applicable to situations, making them inflexible. Two personality disorders apply to psychopaths:
Narcissistic personality disorder – excessive need for admiration and a sense of superiority, sense of entitlement and lack of empathy. Everything revolves around such people, and everything is about them. In social settings this leads to stealing attention and belittling others. Over time narcissists can learn to manage their condition. If left unchecked, some behaviours may turn antisocial and destructive, looking very much like psychopathy (but being a different thing). Only 1% of people are narcissistic.
Histrionic personality disorder – the two most prominent features are emotionality and the excessive need for others’ approval. The also seek attention via behaviours and looks, but not for the purpose of feeling superior, they just need psychological support. Only 2-3% of people are histrionic, even though many more look the kind.
The Manipulative Approach to Life
Psychopaths naturally grow into their personalities, don’t really plan them out. The process of manipulation consists of three steps:
Assess the value of individuals to their needs and identify their psychological strengths and weaknesses. Then they manipulate people via carefully crafted messages and tailor them based on the feedback received; it’s easy to look innocent even if confronted or challenged. Then, when they receive what they want, they leave the drained victims alone.
These behaviours and attitudes are not only displayed by psychopaths, but also by pragmatic people who want to win no matter what. Anti-social behaviours can be practiced by normal people (no word on how to undo the damage, though), and the closer one is to emotional insensitivity – the easier they come.
Psychopaths are always sizing up people for the ability to obtain something from them: money, power, sex or influence. People with power, high social status or celebrities are particularly attractive to them.
In the business world power is not only positional (CEO), but also informal, coercive, reward, etc. (see the full list here), and people with power are the targets of resourceful manipulators. Some psychopaths prefer a challenge, while others prey on people in weakened or vulnerable state. The latter are the lonely people, the elderly, young and naïve, or people who’ve recently been hurt or victimised. Sometimes the ease of swindling a person is more important than the value one can receive from this person.
Many psychopaths are playing out a parasitic lifestyle, living off the work of others, asking for and demanding financial support from other people, and not just relatives. This occurs all the time, not just in the rare times of need. Their inability to feel others’ emotions lead them to believe that others are just like them, every game is a zero-sum game, and the world is dog eat dog.
Psychopaths need considerable novel stimulation to keep from being bored. They drift from a relationship to a relationship, “lifehack” or game the system to achieve complex goals via cheating and not through effort. They can’t perform routine boring job tasks and seek thrilling activities instead. This easily leads into antisocial and criminal behaviour.
Psychopaths are often searching for new sexual partners, being unable to keep the relationship. From the evolution standpoint, this behaviour is a winning one: producing lots of children without regard to their well-being fits the bill. [MK: I seriously believe the author is mostly talking about men, as it’s easier to father many children rather than give birth to them.]
Cult leaders are psychopaths almost by definition; their grandiose sense of self-importance and perception of self as a gift to humankind may look attractive, charming, and even charismatic to others.
Psychopathic fiction – a shroud of charm and deceit. The goal is to gain trust of a subject, usually via charm. A psychopath will create a façade best suitable to trigger most touch points with the target. Not everyone is a master charmer, so often the attempts to present oneself as someone else fail; however, some are really good at impressing listeners with how they say things.
Lack of empathy and guilt allow psychopaths to con and manipulate their targets shamelessly. Many people are not able to lie about things because of the fear of being found out, and psychopaths have an upper hand in making entertaining, creative, believable, but completely bogus, stories. Storytelling is an art many psychopathic manipulators have mastered perfectly. Psychopaths are not embarrassed if challenged or caught in a lie; rather, they recreate the story line so that to address the inconsistencies without emotions.
Psychopathic manipulation often works even on those people who already know the truth, making them doubt their knowledge and views. In the psychopath’s world truth is just one of the tools, which can be thrown away if it stops fitting the job.
If things go wrong, psychopaths refuse to take responsibility for the outcome: they blame everyone around, circumstances, fate, etc. What is placing blame on others may look like a display of loyalty to a listener who may be unhappy about certain aspects of a company, people or the market.
If caught red-handed on a crime scene, psychopaths try to minimise their involvement or the gravity of the deed, again placing blame on the victim. In general, psychopathic abuse of victims (sometimes leading to property damage or assault) is their favourite pastime.
Once the victim is drained of all the value, it’s abandoned, often abruptly. The psychopath starts searching for or exploiting an already found new victim. Is there is crime involved – the psychopath may change their identity or reappear elsewhere.
To psychopaths the past and future are less important than the present, so remorse is an alien concept to them.
Psychopaths often pretend to “have found God” and are good at infiltrating religious groups. When it comes to getting early parole or reduced sentence, they’re trying to play this card in order to convince the judge or a parole officer that there’s something good in them and that they can be redeemed.
Psychopaths are chronically irresponsible, be it money (loan repayment), safety of others (driving recklessly) or family relationships (ignoring children).
They have many short-term relationships in their lives (a direct result of the Assessment —> Manipulation —> Abandonment process). Their commitments last no longer than the useful life of a target person. In families such people leave a trail of unhappy ex-partners, unsupported children and often – abuse.
Psychopaths also don’t have practicable long-term career or life goals. The progression of jobs doesn’t make a lot of sense, and their resumes are padded with exaggerations and outright lies. They can, though, put a good spin on their lives for others to get recognition and envy. Even their criminal activities often are opportunistic rather that well-thought and in line with their criminal “specialisation”.