Snakes in suits

At the end of a talk on organised crime, Dr. Robert Hare mentioned his belief that some of the year's worst accounting scandals could have been avoided if all chief executives were screened for psychopathic tendencies. He was quoted everywhere, not so much because of the sensational implication that some of America's best-known companies had been run for most of the 1990s by people with a major mental disorder, as because of who he is.

Halifax Herald
November 17, 2002

Snakes in suits
Spot the true psychopath among the sharks in your office
Giles Whittell / The Times of London

HERE ARE SOME facts: Andrew Fastow, formerly of Enron, stands accused by an American court of taking $30 million in kickbacks from the company while its shareholders lost more than $70 billion. Bernie Ebbers, formerly of WorldCom, is said to have arranged for his telecommunications firm to lend him $408 million as it slid towards bankruptcy. John Rigas, founder of the Adelphia cable TV giant, built himself a $13 million private golf course and, it is claimed, "borrowed" more than $3 billion from company accounts for his family while his shareholders saw $60 billion wiped from their investments. And here is a perfectly sober conclusion: if guilty, they are all psychopaths. Not killers. Not rapists. Not necessarily even criminals. Just cold-blooded, remorseless, egomaniacal psychopaths.

It's a tricky word. Being a psychopath is not something that ordinary people aspire to, but neither does it have to involve face-eating cannibalism. The central qualification is to show no conscience; to fail to empathize.

Fastow, Rigas and the other stars of the great corporate meltdown showed little sign of conscience before - or since - being accused by the lumbering U.S. court system, and they share other symptoms of psychopathy. They radiated charisma and authority, but hid much about themselves and their organizations. They revelled in risk, took no account of its potential cost to others or themselves, and rose to power during a time of chaos and upheaval.

When their worlds imploded, the markets staggered in disbelief. Hundreds of thousands of employees and investors lost pensions, savings and money they could ill afford to have gambled. The bosses expressed scant regret and most of them continue to insist that they have done nothing wrong. Meanwhile, regulators, FBI agents and forensic psychologists, not to mention the fleeced American middle class, continue to scratch their heads and wonder how these apparent shysters got to where they did.

A diffident-sounding Canadian academic with a trim grey beard has an answer; possibly the answer. He first voiced it publicly to an audience of Canadian police officers in Newfoundland in August.

At the end of a talk on organised crime, Dr. Robert Hare mentioned his belief that some of the year's worst accounting scandals could have been avoided if all chief executives were screened for psychopathic tendencies. He was quoted everywhere, not so much because of the sensational implication that some of America's best-known companies had been run for most of the 1990s by people with a major mental disorder, as because of who he is.

Hare defined psychopathy for modern scientists with an exhaustive questionnaire, sold only to clinicians, called the Psychopathy Checklist, or PCL-R. It was introduced in 1980 and has become an internationally recognized instrument for identifying psychopaths. It means that when a subject scores 30 (out of a possible 40) in a prison in Dundee, an expert in Detroit will have a good idea of his proclivities.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the PCL-R revealed that psychopaths are everywhere. Most are non-violent, but all leave a trail of havoc through their families and work environments, using and abusing colleagues and loved ones, endlessly manipulating others, constantly reinventing themselves.

Hare puts the average North American incidence of psychopathy at one per cent of the population, but the damage they inflict on society is out of all proportion to their numbers, not least because they gravitate to high-profile professions that offer the promise of control over others, such as law, politics,

By the Hare definition there are 300,000 in Canada alone.

Despite this, spotting psychopaths is hard, though it may be about to get easier. Next year Hare and a New York-based colleague, Paul Babiak, will publish a book called Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, that will at least alert the average office worker to the possibility that her amusing but exasperating - and, frankly, narcissistic and untrustworthy - colleague may be clinically psychopathic. Hare and Babiak will also produce a new diagnostic tool based on the PCL-R but designed to help businesses to keep their recruits and senior management psychopath-free.

Enter the B-Scan. It won't be available to everyone, and it won't be free. Slightly jarringly, one is reminded that its authors are businessmen as well as academics. But they insist that it will do a better job of raising warning flags than traditional screening techniques such as CVs (routinely falsified and seldom checked) and interviews and role-playing ("Psychopaths love this stuff," Hare says. "It's like a game to them.").

If you are B-Scanned, it won't be you answering the questions. It will be your colleagues, grading your personal style, interpersonal relations, organisational maturity and antisocial tendencies according to 16 buzz words, none of them uplifting. They include the following: insincere, arrogant, insensitive, remorseless, shallow, impatient, erratic, unreliable, unfocused, parasitic, dramatic, unethical and bullying.

Yikes. Who isn't most of these things, at least some of the time?

I meet Hare in a London hotel and find him used to such anxieties.

"I know, I know," he says. "People read this stuff and suddenly everyone around them is a psychopath. They pick up on three or four of the characteristics and say, 'yeah, he's one.' But it's not like that. It's a medical syndrome. You've got to have the whole package."

And when you do, what does it look like? Hare gives an example, and not just any example. He first gave it to Nicole Kidman in a private meeting requested by her to help her prepare for her memorably chilly role in Malice.

"I gave her a scene," he says. "You're walking down the street and there's been an accident. A child has been hit by a car and is lying on the ground. There's a crowd around him. The mother's kneeling down there crying and emoting. You're curious but not appalled. You look at the child momentarily and then you look at the mother. You walk towards her, step in some blood and then study the mother's facial expressions for a minute or two. Then you walk back to your apartment or hotel room, walk into the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror practising those expressions. I said, 'If you did that, people would see that you don't understand emotion, you have no idea at all, you're a colour-blind person trying to explain colour.' They didn't use the scene, but they could have."

In the workplace such a person might resemble Dave, a real individual studied by Babiak who cut a swath of disruption through a highly profitable American electronics company in the mid-1990s. Dave was good-looking, well spoken and impressive in the interview that led to his recruitment. He was also a skilled and shameless liar, rude to subordinates, scheming towards his boss and quickly friendly with the firm's top management. Already on his third marriage by his mid-thirties, he was short tempered, happy to ignore assignments that he felt were beneath him, and quick to change the subject if challenged on a lie or asked to produce some real evidence of work.

When his boss summoned the courage and evidence to make a complaint to the company president, he found that Dave had got there first and secured for himself the status of "high-potential employee."

The boss ended up sidelined. Dave ended up promoted, swaggering and "in love with himself." He scored 19 on the PCL-R, lower than you would expect for a psychopathic murderer but much higher than your average working non-psychopath. He or she would score a five at most.

People such as Dave can be spotted early. Babiak recommends checking CVs exhaustively and auditing expenses - psychopaths like to indulge. It all seems obvious, but for the past 10 or 12 years, for most of corporate America, it hasn't been.

These have been tumultuous years in the world of business, with dot-coms booming and collapsing, older firms merging or shrinking to catch up, and hierarchies everywhere flattening faster than the boss can say: 'Hey, c'mon in, my door is always open.' In short, it has been a high old time for psychopaths.

"When you see what has happened with Enron and WorldCom and all these other big corporations, and you ask how the hell could this guy get in that position, well, there are answers," Hare says.

"When the structure's not there, when charisma is extremely important and style wins over substance, and one person ends up with three or four hundred million pounds in an offshore bank account, I start to get suspicious. And when the whole thing breaks and people are losing their pensions and livelihoods, these people give nothing back.

"Many of the high-level executives now being charged knew exactly what they were doing. They had no concern for anybody else, and you have to say they aren't warm, loving guys."

Likewise in politics. "Think what happened in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. The old rules went by the board. Structure vanished and all the ethnic tension that had been held in check by central government began to emerge. It was the perfect set-up for an opportunist, a thug or a psychopath to enter and take over."

That takeover usually has three stages. First, the psychopath identifies those who can help him and cultivates them with all his considerable charm. Then he pinpoints those who can harm him and outflanks them or stabs them in the back. Finally he makes a sycophantic but ultimately devastating beeline towards the source of power (one thinks of Hitler and Hindenburg, but also of the irrepressible Eve Harrington in All About Eve).

Psychopaths necessarily have victims, and Hare's drive to expose the "subcriminal" ones in our midst is at least partly personal. He speaks of an old college friend, now gravely ill, who lost $500,000 in a mortgage scam to a white-collar crook who got off with a $100,000 fine and a six-month trading ban. Society still labels such people rogues at worst. Hare calls them natural- born predators.

There is a difficulty approaching all this from outside academe: it can seem as if the experts are using jargon to force a thousand shades of grey - for there are surely at least that many degrees of psychopathy - into convenient boxes for personnel managers, employment tribunals and courts.

Babiak certainly counsels caution. Being psychopathic is not a sin, let alone a ground on its own for dismissal. But underpinning the PCL-R is hard science, hard to ignore. Before he published it, Hare performed two now-famous studies which suggest that psychopaths really are different from the rest of us. In the first, subjects were told to watch a timer counting down to zero, at which point they felt a harmless but painful electric shock. Non-psychopaths showed mounting anxiety and fear. Psychopaths didn't even sweat.

In the second, the two groups had their brain activity and response time measured when asked to react to groups of letters, some forming words, some not. Words such as rape and cancer triggered mental jolts in nonpsychopaths. In psychopaths they triggered precisely nothing.

That research is decades old now. The man behind it, instead of retiring, tours the world helping to nail the psychopaths among us and trying to make sure that his instruments are not misused.

Part of his mission is to stay serious. He won't appear on Oprah, and he won't name names. Instead, when he sees someone in the news he thinks might be a psychopath, he says: "I'd sure as hell like to study this guy."

Brought to you by

Risks: Predatory actions, Psychopathy, Without conscience, Canada, 20021117 Snakes in

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License