Rewarding the ruthless: capitalism and psychopathy – a perfect marriage?

Capitalism and Psychopathy
Adobe Stock Licensed – image by studiostoks

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud”

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962)

“If we believe in the fundamental goodness of man, we are doomed”

Professor Robert Hare, Specialist in Psychopathy studies, University of British Columbia.

Global inequality has reached catastrophic levels. 1 per cent of the world’s population owns 45 per cent of the wealth (2015 Global Wealth Report), whilst many millions of people are either unemployed or trapped in jobs which barely offer subsistence pay, with no employment protections.

Climate change is hurling the planet towards oblivion, yet investors continue to finance “dirty” industries. Politicians introduce only relatively minor measures to address the crisis. Industrialists push ahead with environmental destruction in the name of profit – in spite of the fact their own children and grandchildren will be among those to bear the most severe consequences.

Wars, violence and genocides are common. Minority groups are discriminated against and marginalised. Given all of the above, anyone could be forgiven for agreeing with Bob Hare’s quote.

I have to confess I do believe that most human beings are essentially good. Research carried out at Yale University in 2012 suggested that not only do babies tend to have a sense of right and wrong, but also an instinct to prefer good over evil.

We know there are many millions of people across the world who passionately believe in, and will fight to the death for a better world. It does appear though that insufficient numbers of them are occupying positions with the necessary power and wherewithal to expedite progress towards a more humane society and sustainable planet. Meanwhile, many of those who are in those positions often seem reluctant to embrace any changes, sometimes even actively working to undermine them.

So, why are we in this mess?

My background is in psychotherapy and I have an interest in the collective impact of individuals who display psychopathic traits. Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that in some cases it is not only a question of morality, but also related to the manner in which some individual brains function.

The term “psychopath”, refers to people who display what is known by mental health professionals as “The Dark Triad”, namely: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.  These individuals consistently show themselves to be unable to show empathy or remorse, regarding others as no more than instruments of gratification or disposable “things” to be used for their own gain. They can also be grandiose, crave power and prestige and highly intelligent and adept at “reading” others.

Obviously, we can all show aspects of the above and have the potential to make selfish and immoral choices. In psychopaths however these characteristics are structural. This is their baseline view of themselves and the world.

In the UK, some researchers have estimated that around 1 per cent of males and 0.5-0.7 per cent of females are psychopaths. However this being a spectrum disorder, there are likely to be many more individuals showing psychopathic traits not included in the estimates because they are not considered “full blown” psychopaths

The public perception of the psychopath has largely been shaped by the media. One potent example being Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 film “Silence of the Lambs”. Lecter is smooth, chillingly calculating, oozes malice and displays preternatural powers of deduction and intellect. Our worst bogeyman personified.

If we only look in prisons, that’s the only place where we will find psychopaths. What seems to be less commonly considered are the non-criminal psychopaths. Individuals who put on a suit or uniform every day and go off to work – very often as policy makers in society. People who display very high levels of self confidence, ambition and drive are usually very attractive to  employers. A willingness to be ruthless and do what is ‘necessary’, make ‘tough decisions’ unclouded by emotion is also usually seen as highly desirable, particularly for those in leadership roles.

Many common interview questions are specifically designed to ascertain those very qualities. How many job applicants are scrutinised on the nature of their moral compass?

A 2015 study by Australia’s Bond University found that a proportion of 1 in 5 CEOs (21 per cent of 260 corporate individuals tested) showed psychopathic traits. That ratio roughly equates to the number of those in the prison population.

In fact, psychopaths are likely to be found in any occupation. Not surprisingly, they can be particularly drawn to careers which offer an opportunity to exploit others and require a degree of professional detachment. Worryingly, I can’t exclude my own profession from the list.

In 2017, researchers for Aarhus University in Denmark carried out a study which found that students engaged in business studies and economics degrees had a far higher dark triad score than other disciplines. Why? Arguably, because our economic system is at its heart a Dark Triad philosophy. In its pure form, capitalism is an engine which recognises human beings only as fuel, its very existence revolving around a hungry self interest. Psychopaths can find a welcoming home in many organisations because the systemic ambitions of the institution and their personal aspirations are in sync.

This then places a significant number of individuals in powerful and highly influential positions in government and industry who have a brain structure which allows for no particular interest or investment in the future of humanity or the wider environment.

Relatively few of these individuals can exercise a disproportionate influence on attitudes and norms across a workplace, resulting in a culture in which employees are not only routinely exploited, but also overtly or subliminally pressured to adopt morally deficient attitudes and practices in order to retain their jobs.

Of course, no-one chooses to be a psychopath and demonisation of any section of society is quite clearly both immoral and highly counterproductive. In 2013, James Fallon, an American neuroscientist was researching brain activity of individuals with psychopathic traits  by examining PET scans. He had previously scanned himself and family as a control measure. Going through a stack he found one scan in particular which showed clear evidence of the abnormal brain pattern associated with high levels of psychopathy (namely front and temporal lobe impairment).  He then realised that the scan was his own.

Professor Fallon wasn’t overly shocked. He had always been aware that he enjoyed feelings of power and had a tendency to manipulate others. Describing himself as a “pro social” psychopath, he believes his tendencies were mitigated by a positive upbringing. What this case illustrates is that a person with the genes and brain structure of a psychopath can be non-violent, stable, have a successful career and make highly positive contributions to society.

None of this to suggest we live in a world solely run by psychopaths. The overwhelmingly vast majority of people are reasonable human beings, with moral principles, a genuine ability to connect with others and capable of the full range of human emotions. What it does illustrate is the need to urgently divest ourselves of the trust in the market mantra. The emphasis has to be on legislators updating and strengthening laws aimed at protecting employment and environmental standards.  The argument against “laissez-faire” forms of capitalism has never been stronger.

In our post-Brexit Britain the signs are not encouraging. There are currently noises from some quarters to make the UK ‘more competitive’ through deregulation, despite the UK, in terms of workers’ employment protection, already having one of the most lightly-regulated labour markets of all the OECD countries.

Meanwhile, the Environment Bill, waiting for a reading in the House since 2018 has recently been delayed yet again. At the same time, 40 Conservative MPs have signed a letter urging Cumbria County Council to approve the first deep coal mine in 30 years.

It’s not some faceless and remote future generation whose lives will be torn apart by decisions we make today. Watching my grandchildren play, I have a constant reminder that the future we’re whittling away belongs to them, the other kids they play with every day, and almost 2 billion of their young contemporaries around the world. 

If we continue on this path, the people whose lives are likely to be devastated are much closer than it is comfortable to consider.

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