Researchers have long known that psychopaths aren't evenly distributed throughout the population. Yes, you're likely to meet lots of card-carrying psychos in prison, but some legitimate professions have way more than their fair share.
And sorry, business leaders, but executive actually tops the list of jobs with the highest proportion of psychopaths. While the incidence of psychopathy among the general population is only one percent, some studies show triple or quadruple that percentage of business leaders are psychopaths. Even more alarming research claims that one in five corporate leaders qualifies as having a high level of psychopathic traits.
Why is that? Is it there something about the business world that transforms nice, well-meaning young people into ruthless psychos? Or is it instead that ruthless psychos are attracted to careers in business as the perfect venue for their inclinations? A group of Danish researchers recently determined to find out.
What came first, business leadership or psychopathy?
The researchers rounded up more than 400 students who were about to start one of five declared majors -- psychology, politic science, business, economics, or law. They then tested the students for the so-called dark triad of personality traits to get a sense of their levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.
The results won't do much to soothe those concerned about the personalities of those that sit atop many of the world's businesses. Those enrolled in business and economics showed, by far, the highest levels of dark personality traits. Law was in the middle. Would-be psychologists were the least psychopathic of the lot.
That suggests it's not something about the culture of business that's turning people into psychopaths (though business training could conceivably reinforce these tendencies). Instead, it seems that those with this sort of drive to power naturally gravitate to the majors that seem most suited to the expression of these characteristics.
"The desire for power, status, and money characterizing dark triad individuals may steer them toward, for example, economics, business, and law educations because these educations pave the way for a career in the corporate world, and the corporate world generally rewards self-serving behavior and provides an environment in which individuals with dark personalities can make use of their qualities and succeed," commented the researchers.
Though that shouldn't be taken to mean that budding psychopaths are sitting around drumming their fingers Dr. Evil-style and consciously planning domination through business leadership.
"I don't think it's a conscious or deliberate choice to be manipulative or express a 'bad' part of their personality that seeks power," explained Anna Vedel, the study's co-author. "I think it's probably more of a subconscious thing, allowing them to pursue careers in an environment that matches their worldview."
So, are you currently working with a junior psychopath in training? Here's a handy checklist to help you determine if your boss or co-worker is a garden-variety jerk or actually qualifies as a full-blown psycho.