LIFE

‘Snakes in suits’: Living in a world of corporate psychopaths and sociopaths

By Catherine Del Monte 21 February 2021
Caption
Screenshot from the movie Wolf of Wall Street. Photo: Paramount pictures

‘Of course, everything comes with a price – we wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t getting something from you, often money or power or simply even the enjoyment of your admiration and desire,’ says ME Thomas in her memoir, ‘Confessions of a Sociopath’.

A quarter of the way into Mary Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho, wealthy investment banker and violent psychopath Patrick Bateman confesses: “I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflowed into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Natalie Kerr says psychopathy should be viewed as a spectrum rather than a typology. At their worst, psychopaths can be cold, calculating killers like Bateman, or “successful”, “socialised” sociopaths who use their skills to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, even if it means climbing over, and sometimes on, someone else to get there.

Consider business magnates Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Jordan Belfort and Donald Trump – much of whose notoriety has been credited to using fear, manipulation and intimidation to drive work ethic and innovative thinking in varying degrees.

The words “psychopath” and “sociopath” are often used interchangeably and generally a sociopath is seen as the ‘softer’ of the two and less likely to engage in acts of violence – although not exempt from doing so, says Kerr.

“The psychopath tells lies and manipulates people to steal something from them or use them in some other way. He or she (or they) has no moral qualms, but will likely pretend to have them, acting the way he has observed others do in order to blend in. Some psychopaths are violent while others are not.

“Sociopaths may know that taking advantage of others is wrong, and they may even feel a shred of guilt or remorse, but this knowledge nevertheless does not stop their behaviour, because in essence they ‘think’ remorse but do not ‘feel’ it.

“In general, the sociopath is the one who manages to access environments or work contexts that tend to reward their personality traits, thus enabling them to sublimate the character traits particular to their way of being, thinking and perceiving. These are the ‘socialised’ or ‘successful’ ones.”

Kerr explains that psychologists typically use the term antisocial personality disorder (APD) as indicated in the 2013 edition of the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . “The essential feature of an antisocial disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, social norms and the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood. This pattern has also been referred to as psychopathy, sociopathy and dissocial personality disorder,” she explains.

Key characteristics of antisocial personality disorder include deceit and manipulation but Dr Kerr mentions several other associated features including “lack of empathy, a tendency to be callous, cynical and contemptuous of the feelings, rights and sufferings of others, an inflated and arrogant self-appraisal (feel that ordinary work is beneath them or lack a realistic concern about their current problems or their future) and may be excessively opinionated, self-assured or [display] cocky, superficial charm”.

“These individuals may also be irresponsible and exploitative in their sexual relationships. They may have a history of many sexual partners and may never have sustained a monogamous relationship,” she adds.

In their 2017 article, “Successful Psychopaths: A Contemporary Phenomenon”, authors Floriana Irtelli and Enrico Vincenti remind us that, “while psychopaths are over-represented in the prison population, many psychopathic persons are nonviolent members of the community”. Some researches even suggest that one in 10 managers are psychopaths. Because of this, a new, fairly unchartered field of study is emerging on so-called corporate psychopaths. 

Irtelli and Vincenti write that, “in this contemporary social context, psychopathic personality aspects, like the appearance of confidence, calm, strength and other psychopathic dispositions, such as the disinclination to express emotions (except to manipulate), are often mistaken for ‘leadership qualities’.”

“Research has also suggested that business has promoted psychopathic managers because of their ruthless willingness to ‘get the job done’… organisational psychopaths are frequently seen as being charming ‘organisational stars’ deserving of awards by those above them (while they subject those below them to intimidation, bullying, and coercion). Successful psychopaths are assumed to have the potential to transform a company’s organisational culture at their pleasing, which others must follow or else exit the company,” they add.

On page two of a 1999 Amazon shareholder letter, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos wrote: “But there is no rest for the weary. I constantly remind our employees to be afraid, to wake up every morning terrified.”

Irtelli and Vincenti and other researchers have concurred on a general characteristic spec of a corporate psychopath, which includes that “men display higher levels of psychopathy than women do” and CEOs and lawyers are popular work categories within which corporate psychopaths are found.

In addition, Kerr says megalomania should be discussed in conjunction with narcissism. “Megalomania may be a reference to a manifestation of certain of the narcissistic character traits, including a delusion of grandeur.”

In 2012, an article by Walter Isaacson, the author of the 2011 self-titled biography of Steve Jobs, appeared in the Harvard Business Review connecting Jobs’s personality and leadership style to the overall success Apple enjoyed throughout his reign.

Kerr says it is important to note that often antisocial personalities are also narcissistic, but that not all narcissists are antisocial despite the overlapping personality traits. “What differs is their underlying motivation. However, one of the core distinctions is that antisocial personalities are far more cunning and manipulative, because their self-esteem isn’t threatened, as it is with narcissistic personalities.

“Both narcissists and antisocial personalities are driven by a desire to win at all costs and therefore lack empathy – which is the ability to place oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand what the other may feel.

“The psychopath however, has far less regard for others than the sociopath and sees others merely as objects he or she (or they) can use for their own benefit. They (psychopaths and sociopaths) also lack emotional responsiveness, although they might feign appropriate emotional reactions but because there is this underlying insincerity one usually gets the feeling that something is amiss in the sense that they lack the true ‘contrite’ heart. They can both be unreliable, controlling, selfish, disingenuous and share an exaggerated sense of entitlement, but they can also be charismatic, intelligent, charming and successful. This is perhaps why they thrive in certain corporate environments. According to Irtelli and Vincenti, these are the corporate psychopaths – or ‘the snakes in suits’,” adds Dr Kerr.

Former stockbroker and infamous Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, who cheated his way to the top of New York Stock Exchange in the 1980s, said: “I want you to back yourself into a corner. Give yourself no choice but to succeed. Let the consequences of failure become so dire and so unthinkable that you’ll have no choice but to do whatever it takes to succeed.”

While Kerr points out that psychologists are not ethically allowed to diagnose people they have not assessed themselves without their consent, the memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight – was written by a successful attorney, law professor and high-functioning non-criminal, self-proclaimed sociopath under the pseudonym Ms ME Thomas – may help explain the behaviour and, to an extent, the success of some of the big tech CEOs mentioned above as “socialised” or “successful” psychopaths.

Thomas purports that she is not defined by sociopathy but sees it as a collection of characteristics that animate her personality. “I am generally free of entangling and irrational emotions, I am strategic and canny, I am intelligent and confident and charming, but I also struggle to react appropriately to other people’s confusing and emotion-driven social cues. Psychopathy and sociopathy are terms with an intertwined clinical history, and they are largely now used interchangeably, though some academics distinguish between the two based on genetics, aggression or other factors. I have chosen to call myself a sociopath because of the negative connotations of psycho in the popular culture. I may have a disorder, but I am not crazy,” writes Thomas in her memoir.

She adds: “Do you have plenty of friends, paramours or admirers? That doesn’t disqualify you; in fact, quite the opposite. Despite our bad reputation, sociopaths are categorically known for our exceptional, albeit superficial, charm, in a world filled with gloomy, mediocre nothings populating a go-nowhere rat race, people are attracted to the sociopath’s exceptionalism like moths to a flame.

“You would like me if you met me. I am quite confident about that because I have met a statistically significant sample size of the population and they were all susceptible to my charms… Fun, exciting, the perfect office escort – your boss’s wife has never met anyone quite so charming. And I’m just the right amount of smart and successful so that your parents would be thrilled if you brought me home.

“Do you have an inflated view of yourself? I certainly seem to, don’t I? Sociopaths are known for having egos so full bodied they could be considered Rubenesque. I exude confidence, much more than my looks or social stature would warrant… Perhaps the most notable aspect of my confidence is the way I sustain eye contact. Some people have called it the ‘predator stare’, and it appears that most sociopaths have it… We are unfazed by uninterrupted eye contact. Our failure to look away politely is often perceived as being confident, aggressive, seductive or predatory. It can throw people off balance, but often in an exciting way that imitates the unsettling feeling of infatuation,” writes Thomas.

Kerr insinuates that one of the factors that might lead psychopaths and sociopaths to be successful, particularly in the corporate world, may just be their immunity to emotional distress, or “emotional bulletproofing”.

“These are the individuals who so often thrive precisely because they do not experience the emotional distress that most people do and are in a sense ‘bulletproof’. This suggests that they may be the ones to thrive in these circumstances because they are not likely to be bogged down or burdened with the anxieties, depression, emotional exhaustion that would be seen in most ‘normally’ empathetic people,” she notes.

The link between potentially psycho- and sociopathic attributes and those behind successful businesses has been a point of debate in articles for decades.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left loss of employment, loss of loved ones and supportive structures, increasing levels of stress and uncertainty in its wake. Kerr says this suggests it is possible that one might see more antisocial personality traits in the forms of less empathy and more impulsive behaviour coming to the fore.

In 2012, an article by Walter Isaacson, the author of the 2011 self-titled biography of Steve Jobs, appeared in the Harvard Business Review connecting Jobs’s personality and leadership style to the overall success Apple enjoyed throughout his reign.

“The essence of Jobs, I think, is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business. He acted as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him, and the passion, intensity and extreme emotionalism he brought to everyday life were things he also poured into the products he made. His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism,” writes Isaacson.

In the same article, Isaacson writes: “I asked him again about his tendency to be rough on people. ‘Look at the results,’ he replied. ‘These are all smart people I work with, and any of them could get a top job at another place if they were truly feeling brutalised. But they don’t.’ Then he paused for a few moments and said, almost wistfully: ‘And we got some amazing things done’.”

Former president Donald Trump, who’s candidacy was notorious for relying on fear and intimidation to win, wrote in his 2007 co-authored self-help book, Think Big and Kick Ass: In Business and in Life: “When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.” And: “Go for the jugular so that people watching will not want to mess with you.”

In a New York Times article published in 2019, in 2016 Trump, a presidential candidate at the time, is reported to have said in an interview with The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Bob Woodard: “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear.”

White House press secretary for George W Bush, Ari Fleischer, was reported to have said: “It is a common trait among those who ran privately held corporations. Their way is the only way. Their will gets it done. They’ve been successful against all odds, built something huge, and when they declare it so they expect everybody around them to make it so. That’s Donald Trump’s behaviour.”

While disclaiming that the development of a change in personality in middle adulthood or later life warrants a thorough evaluation to determine the possibility of a personality change, Kerr theorises that personality disorder may worsen following significant loss.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left loss of employment, loss of loved ones and supportive structures, increasing levels of stress and uncertainty in its wake. Kerr says this suggests it is possible that one might see more antisocial personality traits in the forms of less empathy and more impulsive behaviour coming to the fore.

“For the antisocial personality the pandemic and the situation it has created is one that is full of opportunity for exploitation, and, as with any stressful, pressured and uncertain situation, the context can either bring out the underlying best or the worst in any personality,” Kerr says.

To get the picture “one just needs to look at those in government who have pillaged funds intended to offer relief to those in dire need”.

The empathetic bunch might also be at risk and need to watch out for burnout. “Much research has been done on burnout and it is known that one of the symptoms is an emotional numbing and loss of the ability to demonstrate empathy – even when it is still there. Eventually the burnout sufferer simply becomes too exhausted to go on and what ensues is an emotional ‘deadness’ that can at times even resemble the lack of empathy characteristic of the antisocial personality, although it should be clearly noted that such people are not by nature antisocial at all, quite the opposite. They are simply unable to continue to empathise while in a state of burnout. Understandably, in this scenario there will eventually be less and less empathy. It can perhaps be expected that we shall see more of this as healthcare workers continue to be overburdened and as those who struggle to make ends meet during this economic crisis become more and more overwhelmed and desperate,” explains Kerr.

In a bizarre twist of irony, it might be the sociopaths who come “to the rescue” in the end. But only because there is something in it for them.

“The fact that the antisocial personality is generally ‘free of entangling and irrational emotions and is strategic, canny, intelligent and confident’, suggests these individuals can play a role in helping find the quickest path to success to get through crises and to find solutions – if they see that to do so would significantly benefit them. A lack of emotional distress means they are also likely to be able to continue to work and keep going for longer.

“Considering that the survival of the economy and the meeting of the needs of society are likely to be in the interests of the antisocial personalities, one can only hope that these individuals will see the benefit of playing a role that is assisting and beneficial to all – even if this is just a consequence of their other true intentions. That said, antisocial personalities are also the ones most likely to opportunistically exploit the situation to their benefit alone.”

On this, ME Thomas – the author and self-proclaimed sociopath – has another view: “I believe that most people who interact with sociopaths are better off than they otherwise would be. Sociopaths are part of the grease making the world go around. We fulfil fantasies, or at least the appearance of fantasies.

“In fact, we are sometimes the only ones attentive to providing for your deepest wants and needs, the only ones so deeply attuned to them for no ulterior motive immediately discernible by you. We observe our target and strive to become a facsimile of whatever or whomever that person wants – a good employee or boss or lover. It’s not always the case that the facsimile is malicious or ill intentioned. And it makes the target feel good for the course of the transaction and usually ends without harm.

“Of course, everything comes with a price – we wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t getting something from you, often money or power or simply even the enjoyment of your admiration and desire.” DM/ML

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • Except for the possibly implied nod in the title of this piece, why not a single mention of, or link to, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare’s 2006 book, “Snakes in Suits—When Psychopaths Go to Work,” where they carefully dissect and describe the psychopathic personality disorder and the behaviours it prompts?! In fact, Hare devised the PCL-R, which is the diagnostic tool that is used to identify the condition. Additionally, Hare denies the sociopath / psychopath distinction (except to the extent that psychopathy is innate and sociopathy largely inculcated), and this, taken in conjunction with the PCL-R’s use of a scoring range, means that he conceives psychopathy as a spectrum rather than a typology.

    There is very little in this article that is new or different compared to the aforesaid book, and so this blatant omission of any mention of the original work could easily be construed as a bout of psychopathic opportunism…

  • Not sure it is fair to put founders like Bezos, Gates and Jobs in the same category as the hired help in finance sector or inherited wealth like Trump. Bezos, Gates and Jobs built real companies from scratch and have grateful shareholders, employees and creditors. The modern generation of obscenely paid hired help are very different, they build nothing.

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