Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

 

They've been given a bad rap, have psychopaths.

In the movies, they're all stary-eyed and menacing.

But might a little psychopathic tendency be helpful in making you rich, successful and therefore attractive to your target sex?

This question demands attention on reading a cheerily disturbing piece by Scott Lillenfeld and Ashley Watts of Emory University.

They're psychologists. Those who follow such a daunting profession aren't always devoid of psychopathy themselves, in my experience.

Still, Lillenfeld and Watts suggest that some psychopathic traits are actually linked with success.

I can feel you're now rapt. You worry about yourself at times. You know you can be a little odd. Might this finally be proved to be a good thing?

Let's start with something you've already suspected: Most psychopaths are male.

They, for reasons unknown, are allegedly more able to offer a superficial charm that masks an underpinning of guilt-free mendacity and a tendency to have zero sympathy for their fellow human.

I can feel you pausing to worry that this accurately describes your CEO.

Indeed, academics have begun to wonder whether certain professions harbor more than their share of psychopaths.

You might be stunned that these professions are: Politics, business, law enforcement, firefighting, special operations military services and high-risk sports.

Yes, business. How odd.

The researchers speculate: "Perhaps their [psychopaths'] social poise, charisma, audacity, adventurousness and emotional resilience lends them a performance edge over the rest of us when it comes to high-stakes settings."

Thin is the gap between "He's a charmer" and "He's a psychopath."

You sort of knew that, didn't you? But it was hard to articulate.

You secretly marvel at those who are reckless and somehow get away with it. Perhaps their behavior doesn't seem reckless in their eyes at all.

So here's another sentence from these academics that might make you breathe more easily: "Want to be president? Having some psychopathic tendencies can help."

It's hard to know which candidate to start with, isn't it?

Still, the particular psychopathic trait that seems closely associated with presidential performance is boldness. (Ah, how they all promise they'll be bold. So you hope, but then they change.)

Boldness, as defined here, "encompasses poise and charm, physical risk-taking and emotional resilience, and it is a trait that is well-represented in many widely used psychopathy measures."

You, I feel, may immediately mutter about someone you know who embodies these traits. It might even be someone who's on TV every night or even in your office every day.

At heart, though, there doesn't seem complete agreement among psychologists as to the definition of psychopathy.

Moreover, these researchers say that "we know surprisingly little about how psychopathic traits forecast real-world behavior over extended stretches of time."

Importantly, they say, too much academic work has been skewed toward readily-available psychopaths -- those who happen to be in jail.

Perhaps it's harder to walk up to a successful psychopath and suggest that they're just that.

The sense, though, is that when psychopathic tendencies lead to success, their effect doesn't last forever. 

"We would argue," say Lillenfeld and Watts, "that boldness and allied traits may be linked to successful behaviors in the short term, but that their effectiveness almost always fizzles out in the long term."

Perhaps that's why we only elect presidents for short periods. We know, in the end, that their psychopathy will wane on our fickle souls.

Of course, it could also be that we're a little psychopathic ourselves. We boldly go off and choose another president -- who appears so different from the one before -- to solve all our problems.

And then, well, oh.

Published on: Jan 29, 2016
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