American Psycho

A number of recent studies appear to suggest a correlation between class and ethical laxity, or to, put it another way, rich people are bad. Now that’s a touch of deliberate bombast based on what for many, myself included, is a healthy, instinctual mistrust of wealth and authority. And for healthy, sane , fully functioning individuals such as us these results will come as no surprise. However, some less well-balanced humans argue that it is an absurd generalisation to claim that all rich, powerful people are liars and murderers so let’s point out right from the off that correlation does not imply causality. Indeed the authors of one studies highlight the fact that “upper and lower class individuals do not necessarily differ in terms of their capacity for unethical behaviour, but rather in terms of their default tendencies toward it” (The Grauniad). Never the less the same authors do claim that self-interest may be a “more fundamental motive among society’s elite” and selfishness “a shared cultural norm“.

So let’s start with some appropriate and wholly biased music and then we see if we can’t develop a working model for explaining the rise of the corporate psychopath. Know your enemy, people. And then love them ’til they beg for mercy.

The study cited in The Grauniad is, blatantly and provocatively entitled “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be found here. The abstract follows below:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

Interestingly, an earlier study on “the influence of social class on prosocial behavior” found the inverse to be true as well. The abstract speaks for itself (the paper can be found here):

Lower social class (or socioeconomic status) is associated with fewer resources, greater exposure to threat, and a reduced sense of personal control. Given these life circumstances, one might expect lower class individuals to engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others. The authors hypothesized, by contrast, that lower class individuals orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments and that this orientation gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion. 

The lead author behind these papers, social psychologist Paul Piff has stated that these results don’t apply to all wealthy people, some of whom are philanthropic, and likewise notes that the high rates of violent crime in deprived neighborhoods counteract the study’s findings. Nevertheless, Piff says. “What it comes down to, really, is that money creates more of a self-focus, which may account for larger feelings of entitlement… We hope to further study how we can curb these patterns and how that will affect our social environment” (from abcnews).

As I said in the opening, these findings are probably not a surprise to most people, more an empirical validation of a truism most people know instinctively.  Piff’s desire to ‘curb these patterns’ in the rich and powerful will probably be met with more support than it would have a decade ago. And he is correct to worry how the behaviour of such individuals affects our social environment. As Seabrook writes, Robert Hare rejects, “the notion that a distinction ought to be made between a violent psychopath, like Ted Bundy, and a nonviolent one who commits financial crimes. Both, he said, are willing to do whatever it takes. He went on, “Can you say Ted Bundy caused more disaster than the guys at Enron? How many destroyed lives and suicides followed as a result of so many people losing their savings?” In fact, there are good arguments to suggest that Western society had for some time been in the grip of psycho-pathological fugue state during which these morally and ethically bankrupt behaviours became the basis of social policy.

In the video below Adam Curtis argues that Game Theory has been used to bolster the growth of the free market economy by positing individuals as driven only by self-interest. In short, a society of psychopaths.

Given this it is hardly surprising that there are large amounts of evidence to suggest that psychopathic and sociopathic personalities thrive in the corporate world. In an article entitled The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis published last year in the Journal of Business Ethics- Clive R. Boddy put forward a theory of the Global Financial Crisis which argued that psychopaths working in corporations and in financial corporations, in particular, played a major part in causing the crisis. they are, Boddy writes:

simply the 1 per cent of people who have no conscience or empathy… Psychopaths, rising to key senior positions within modern financial corporations, where they are able to influence the moral climate of the whole organisation and yield considerable power

In The Independent Brian Basham wrote of a conversation with a senior UK investment banker who confessed that  “At one major investment bank for which I worked, we used psychometric testing to recruit social psychopaths because their characteristics exactly suited them to senior corporate finance roles.” Basham then quotes Boddy on the matter:

The very same corporate psychopaths, who probably caused the crisis by their self-seeking greed and avarice, are now advising governments on how to get out of the crisis. Further, if the corporate psychopaths theory of the global financial crisis is correct, then we are now far from the end of the crisis. Indeed, it is only the end of the beginning. Here lies the rub then, we find ourselves within an economic system that is itself psychotic. A system that relies upon and creates psychopaths.

Basham muses that “in its search for never-ending growth, the financial services sector has actively sought out monsters… and nurtured them with bonuses and praise“.  John Seabrook notes in the New Yorker that although psychopaths are believed to exist in all cultures, ” they are more prevalent in individualistic societies in the West“. Seabrook also notes that Robert Hare’s book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work,  “points out that many traits that may be desirable in a corporate context, such as ruthlessness, lack of social conscience, and single-minded devotion to success, would be considered psychopathic outside of it“. One study at least has linked psychopathy with individualistic cultures (Collier, Erin (2009) ) and as early as 1941 the American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley argued in his book The Masks of Sanity that individualistic, competitive aspect of American culture nurtured psychopathy.

The idea of the corporation has come to stand for all that is most pernicious, unfeeling and ethically blind in free-market capitalism. Although composed of many human beings (several of whom, as we’ve seen, are potentially psychopathic)  arranged hierarchically within it, the corporation remains a singular multiplicity whose actions cannot be solely attributed either to the will of its CEO or the will of its workers.  Multi-headed hydras, corporations are legally recognised as human beings, a point outlined  in the documentary film The Corporation (2004)and accompanying book outline the history of the corporation, pointing out that the legally defined mandate of these institutions is, “ pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others” (2004:2). In the following clip from the film psychopath expert Robert Hare argues that if corporations can be granted personhood then the psychological profile of that person is psychopathic.

In fact, Hare told journalist Jon Ronson in his book The Psychopath Test that while researching psychopathy, “I should have spent some time inside the Stock Exchange as well. Serial killer psychopaths ruin families. Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.” Moreover, the economic thinking that supports the growth of these corporations is itself psychopathic, lacking no purpose other than growth and indifferent not just to society but to nature itself. In an interesting article from The Nation (reprinted over at Alternet)  James Gustave Speth sums up the issue:

An unquestioning commitment to economic growth at any cost, powerful corporations whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profits (including profits from avoiding the environmental costs they create, from amassing deep subsidies and benefits from government and from continued deployment of technologies designed with little regard for the environment), markets that fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government, government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative, rampant consumerism spurred by sophisticated advertising and marketing, economic activity so large in scale that it alters the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet–all combine to deliver an ever growing world economy that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain life.

To use a metaphor drawn from history’s most enigmatic and infamous psychopath, the planet earth is to psychopathic corporations what Victorian prostitutes were to Jack the Ripper.

In a 1987 interview Margaret Thatcher infamously said, “who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women” (read the transcript here). if this post has tried to suggest anything (and it has, without balance or expertise) it’s that a societal model that emphasises the individual, or more rightly, the individual as consumer, above the collective is a societal model that prizes psychopathic traits above collectivist ones-superficial, self-serving and devoid of guilt, empathy and love. And for some time such a view held sway, informed economic and social policy in the West (especially the US and UK) and led us right up to a financial and ecological precipice.

But the tide of history is turning. It’s interesting to note that one of the slogans of the Occupy Movement was We are the 99% , referring to the concentration of wealth among the top 1% of income earners, and the belief that the “99%” are paying the price for the mistakes of a tiny minority. A common statistic in the literature on psychopathy is that 1% of the population are psychopaths.

“We are the non-psychopathic 99%”? The campaign starts here.

About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at View all posts by Scott Jeffery

2 responses to “Psychopathonomics

  • Tom Larworthy

    nice work. Although I think cheating and lying in negotiations are “fair play”. If we all stick to the rules the system gets stuck in local minima. Perhaps a pathology in finance is a real problem, but other than that I am not sure its such a bad thing that a group of people have realised occasionally flaunting the rules is beneficial. Power to the individual!
    I think the a stronger lack of ethics would be demonstrated if you could show upper class are willing to hurt other individuals for personal gain (and in a more direct way than by through a spread sheet).

  • youblogibgol

    deception and subtle manipulation are the key tools of todays modern financial actor. demographics predicate the slowing of a once vibrant and growing society. if we cannot build and destroy a series of bubbles, our financial system might contract due to lack of volatility. what a tragedy that would be.

    cool article.

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