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Could Testing Block Psychopaths From Senior Management? 422

Posted by timothy
from the self-aggrandizing-liars-with-golden-parachutes dept.
Freshly Exhumed writes "Dr. Clive Boddy believes that increasingly fluid corporate career paths have helped psychopaths conceal their disruptive workplace behavior and ascend to previously unattainable levels of authority. Boddy points out psychopaths are primarily attracted to money, status and power, currently found in unparalleled abundance in the global banking sector. As if to prove the point, many of the world's money traders self identify as the "masters of the universe." Solution? Screening with psychological tests. Who would pay for it? The insurance industry." The tech world has plenty of company heads who've been called psychopaths, too — but would you want to actually change that?
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Could Testing Block Psychopaths From Senior Management?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 22, 2012 @05:18PM (#42068505)

    Picked them up from the printer's yesterday. That's Bone. Lettering is something called Cillian rail.

  • by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @05:23PM (#42068535) Homepage Journal
    Or in a less knee-jerk way: have we verified that this is actually a problem? What issues arise from psychopaths being in these positions of authority? Is there a way we can mitigate those negative effects while still playing to the strengths of the psychopath?
  • Change it? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ilsaloving (1534307) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @05:27PM (#42068567)

    Damn straight we want to change it. If companies are getting so big that they become "too big to fail" and governments would rather throw money at them then watch them collapse, then some other mechanism must be found to mitigate the destructive behaviour of higher-ups. I wouldn't care, if not for the fact that their screw ups can wreak massive amounts of havoc against innocent people.

    Of course, this all depends on if the tests are actually reliable.

  • by MightyMartian (840721) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @05:34PM (#42068613) Journal

    To some extent, perhaps, though a lot of what went on in Wall Street leading up to the crash could only be considered success providing the insanely hideous effects on 99.9% of the population were discounted. The difference between a sociopath and a normal person is that a normal person possesses empathy, and empathy means that they will at least make a small effort to weigh personal benefit against benefit to their fellowman (including, but not limited to investors), whereas a sociopath/psychopath is in it for the thrills and power, and will happily drive the institution they're in charge of into a brick wall if there is immediate short term benefit to themselves.

    There's no denying there is a place for insane risk takers, but as Captains of Industry (or whatever they're called these days), not so much.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 22, 2012 @05:34PM (#42068617)

    Hell yes, this is a problem. Watch The Corporation. It basically shows that most corporations are psychopathic, and I believe that most governments are too. This is fundamentally at odds with our basic notion that people in charge should have some sort of human decency. If the majority of us have empathy but are ruled by psychopaths without empathy, this is a very very serious problem...especially when many people will go ahead and assume that the people in authority have empathy.

    Basically the people who have the most say on how this world operates (including whether to wage war, take people's money, pollute the environment or not) are often (or mostly, depending on your point of view) behaving like psychopaths. This is nuts and it really goes a long way towards explaining the current state of affairs.

  • Test everyone (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hessian (467078) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @05:36PM (#42068625) Homepage Journal

    I've worked with enough people who are nuts to think that if we're going to test the leaders, we should test everyone and put the psychopaths out of the workplace entirely.

    One bad person on a team can not only make life miserable, but ruin the work output of the team, drive away anyone competent and damage everyone else's careers when they're associated with the failed team's product.

  • by MightyMartian (840721) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @05:42PM (#42068671) Journal

    Can you structure things in that fashion. One of the attractions of the entire industry is the promise of reward for sound investing. The problem is that a psychopath can game the system by achieving the reward through carefully constructed investments that will collapse inevitably, but after the reward has been gained. In some cases, those rewards appear to have been gained simply by lying (various iterations of cooking the books), and thus catching the cooking takes longer than the reward cycle.

    The only way I can see it is to push the reward off into the distance by years, so that whatever investment strategy is made today, the guy doing it will have to wait a year, two years, or even more before they get their reward.

    Even where systems like that have been implemented (ie. paid in shares rather than in cash or perks), it seems there are still ways for a sufficiently nasty person to grasp the reward that ultimately they did not deserve.

  • by faustoc4 (2766155) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @05:51PM (#42068725)
    The problem is in the system, not in the individuals, however the system gives incentives for psychopathic behavior
  • by Penguinisto (415985) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @06:07PM (#42068817) Journal

    What issues arise from psychopaths being in these positions of authority?

    I watched one completely destroy the IT department I worked at a few jobs ago.

    Dude was the passive-aggressive kind of putz. His first act as head of IT was to dig up (and in some cases invent) things to formally write-up everyone that he perceived as a threat to his authority. His next step was to rip out carefully-laid and in-progress projects and start re-wiring them to align with his goals (goals which, curiously enough, we were never really informed of aside from a bunch of acronyms. That said, we were already doing such things as ITIL and PCI compliance, among others... apparently he had other plans). The worst part is, he tried to pretend that he had the same skills... in spite of periodically destroying his laptop (malware aplenty) and once turning an Oracle DB testbed into mush, then blaming the DBA for it (VM snapshots are beautiful things...) I won't even begin to describe how much money this guy blew off into the ether on unneeded and unnecessary consultants, equipment, and worse.

    Most of us began quitting in droves as better opportunities arose - myself included. Out of the original crew, only one stayed behind, and I think she only stayed to finish off the tuition reimbursement program that the company once had.

    They eventually pushed him out (according to his LinkedIn profile, he's been "exploring opportunities" since earlier this year.) Too late though, I think... the company has been suffering pretty hard due to cost overruns and the increasing amount of bork-ups in its manufacturing automation (guess why...) I'm not really sure if they'll survive due to a market sector that's going to crap plus a rotten economy overall. We're talking about fuck-ups that will likely push 1500 people in the local area to the unemployment line if they collapse.

    Long story short? Be damned careful who you pick to sling around the expensive and important parts of your company. A more competent and less ass-hatted IT leader would have kept costs lower, kept an eye on what's truly important, listened to the warnings and rational dissent from his reports, and not driven away the critical staff that built and knew the damned thing in the first place.

  • by Alomex (148003) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @06:11PM (#42068827) Homepage

    and I believe that most governments are too.

    Actually one of the main properties of the welfare state a la Europe is that is not sociopathic,

  • by MrLizard (95131) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @06:27PM (#42068945)

    Actually, I would say that a society ruled by "empathy" would quickly collapse, as the people in charge would be unable to make decisions based on an objective cost/benefit analysis, but instead would be paralyzed by emotional concerns. It's a common cliche that "you can't put a price on human life", but every modern society does, constantly, and if a society's leaders can't do this, the society will fail.

    To use a highly oversimplified example: Let's assume that we can prevent 50% of automobile related deaths by imposing a regulation that increases the cost of a car by $1.00. Most people would say that would be worthwhile. To prevent 50% of the remaining deaths, we can increase the cost of a car by $100.00. To prevent 50% of the remaining deaths (this report was commissioned by Zeno, by the way), the cost increases by $1000.00. And so on. There is a point where someone must say, "Yeah, the harm done by increasing costs that much outweighs the value of the lives saved." An "empathic" person would be unable to draw that line, as he'd be unable to say "Some known percentage of people will die in accidents, people who COULD have been saved if we'd spent more money." This carries across many different fields and areas of human activity, from drug trials to engineering. There's a point where some level of risk must be deemed "acceptable". The more empathic someone is, the more difficult it will be for them to consciously allow a certain number of probable deaths or injuries.

    Emotions are easy to manipulate. I show you (generic you, not you personally) a bunch of pictures, along with heart-wrenching stories, of Palestinean children killed by Israeli bombs. "How can we support such murderers?", you ask. Then I show you heart-wrenching stories of Israeli children killed by Palestinean bombs. "We have to protect these people!", you cry. If your decision is based on how much you CARE, you can't make a decision. You have to step back and evaluate which side, if either, is more useful to support for reasons totally irrelevant to how many children are getting killed. You have to reduce people to numbers and statistics -- or you can't decide, and meanwhile, even more people die while you waffle.

    More abstractly, there will always be more problems than there are resources to solve them. Someone has to decide whose suffering to alleviate, and whose to ignore. People who are too empathic can't; at best, they'll make decisions based on whichever crisis is most heart-touching to them (usually determined by which one has the best propaganda), not on other considerations.

    Most of our society, at all levels, can only function if we set aside our feelings and focus on facts. An umpire shouldn't make calls based on which team he wants to win, even if his motivation is sympathy for the feelings of the team that keeps losing all the time. A boss shouldn't fire or hire people based on who he likes more, but on job performance. We disdain those who show favoritism to friends and relatives, but it is psychologically normal to be more sympathetic to those closest to you. It is psychologically *abnormal* to make decisions without regard to your emotional connections to people -- but people in power are expected, even required by law, to do precisely that, to decide things without consulting their feelings.

    Thus, it is inevitable that those with the least empathy will rise to positions of power, because those with the most can't do the job.

    (I've run into a depressing number of people who are convinced this is not the way the world is; that if only we all CARED enough, there'd never be a need for hard decisions, because everyone would just do the right thing, all the time.)

  • by Conspicuous Coward (938979) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @06:44PM (#42069067)

    The expected behaviour for any corporation is to maximise profits at the expense of nearly anything else. Certainly corporations are not expected to show empathy or compassion (except as PR exercises in the service of greater profit). In a person such complete narcissism and lack of empathy would be indicative of tendendcies towards sociopathic personality disorder.

    Is it any wonder then, that psychopaths are drawn to, and probably well suited to, senior positions in corporations, where their natural tendencies towards such behavior are rewarded rather than punished.

    It's somehow indicative of our complete lack of self-awareness as a society that we create these psychopathic institutions, and are then suprised and appalled when psycopaths end up running them. The problem isn't individual psycopaths as such, it goes far deeper than that, and testing managers for psychopathic tendencies will change nothing.

  • by gonzo67 (612392) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @07:20PM (#42069311)

    Actually, you over-simplified. You presume someone cannot be empathetic AND be able to do a cost/benefit analysis and make a decision. In the military, you do both frequently...PFC Johnny has had his mother go into hospital for cancer. She may not make it. SGT Dave works to ensure PFC Johnny gets home to see Mom before she passes. 12 months later, SGT Dave has no issue sending PFC Johnny through the door first as part of the sweep team as he is the best person for the job. If PFC Johnny gets killed as part of the sweep, SGT Dave will be sad as he has lost a team member and (if he is a good NCO) a protege, but he will move on and scream to his leadership for a replacement for the now dead PFC Johnny while also shedding a tear at the memorial service for PFC Johnny.

    The two conditions are mutually exclusive in most people.

  • by Johann Lau (1040920) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @07:22PM (#42069323) Homepage Journal

    The more empathic someone is, the more difficult it will be for them to consciously allow a certain number of probable deaths or injuries.

    No, the easier it will be for them to "feel for" ALL affected. This includes the positively affected. If a decision saves the lives of 1000 while killing 1, empathy doesn't mean "feel for the 1, ignore the 1000".

    Also, how is selfishness more rational? How would a sociopath do ANY calculation other than "does it give me what I want, fuck everyone else" --- ?

    Someone has to decide whose suffering to alleviate, and whose to ignore. People who are too empathic can't; at best, they'll make decisions based on whichever crisis is most heart-touching to them

    Bullshit. There's plenty of strong people who just happen to have empathy, too. You just don't know em. Just like there's plenty of weak-ass sociopaths. You just don't recognize em. How does that quote go? "Gentleness can only be expected from the strong."? I think you have it exactly upside down, and good luck with that.

  • by History's Coming To (1059484) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @07:32PM (#42069387) Journal
    You've just suggested that an individual company be allowed to restrict the ability of some users to post whatever they want. Cue screams involving the first amendment and a /. article phrased as a question.
  • by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Thursday November 22, 2012 @07:51PM (#42069543) Journal

    Not at all. Normal people can make hard decisions. If what you said is so, we'd never be able to raise children right. They'd all be spoiled rotten.

    You show confusion typical of the thinking on this subject. I've taught classes. I wished everyone would do all the work, get it all right, and not cheat. Then I could hand out all A's. It never happened of course. But I felt that not being a fair judge was the greater disservice to the students. Telling them that they did fine when in fact they did not I saw as not doing them any real favor. They learned the material, or they flunked. Some did respond to early bad news with greater effort, and were able to pass. I didn't like seeing anyone fail, but it was no strain for me to hand out the appropriate grade. This is not being sociopathic.

    One of the best lines that sums up the confusion is "greed is good". No. By definition, greed cannot be good. If it is good, then it's not greed. If it is greed, then it cannot be good. Negotiating for more pay may or may not be greedy.

    The sociopaths are the people who will choose to take $100 more even knowing that will cost 1000 people $10 more in expenses to deal with the problems their act causes. In other words, they don't care that their gain is a net loss to society. They can't see that what hurts society hurts them too. That kind of enlightened thinking is too abstract for them. I'm not talking about the desperate sort of petty thief who will smash a car window worth $100s for less than $1 in loose change, or will tear up $1000s worth of equipment for $2 worth of copper at the scrap metal recycler. They could be driven to that kind of behavior out of desperation, or anger at a society that has sidelined them. I'm taking about the sort of person who does appear to fit in and who doesn't need the extra $100, but takes it anyway.

    There's also the famous Stanford prison experiment. That shows that what seem to be decent people can be tempted into becoming monsters. Or in other words, power corrupts.

    It's not easy keeping the wrong sorts of people away from power, but we could definitely do better. If testing can help, we ought to do it.

  • by Sir_Sri (199544) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @08:06PM (#42069645)

    That disassociation causes a lot of problems for soldiers after the fact.

    Survivor guilt, PTSD, that sort of thing. Empathetic and ruthless objectivity happens but it's not necessarily healthy. Granted, soldiers are the wrong sort of people to face this problem in the first place because you're imposing inherently contradictory goals on someone who lacks years of experience at life trying to grapple with these things already. Have empathy for your own side but no empathy for the other, or the people you're going to get killed.

    That was why dehumanizing the other guys was somewhat easier, they weren't real people you killed, they weren't good people or the like, so you don't need to have empathy for them. Officers didn't associate with 'the men' because they might become to attached, and leadership is from the upper, good class not lower, parasite classes because getting them killed was no problem, the existed to serve. As we've moved away from those attitudes as a society it becomes harder and more conflicting to be off killing each other on the whims of leadership.

    The post you were replying to is a bit over extreme I agree. Everyone is somewhere on a spectrum of empathy and apathy to antipathy (hating everyone). You definitely don't want the latter in charge, sort of self evidently, you don't want people who think bankrupting customers is good for them. But the other two, it's not like you want people who have absolutely no empathy, they need to appreciate what the numbers actually mean to deal with them. But you still need to make decisions based on the numbers. Sometimes more apparently empathetic behaviour emerges because two objectively behaving sides collide, both look at the data for their problem and behave in the optimal way for them. Corporations aim to maximize return to shareholders, governments aim to improve lives of the maximum number of people and the two orbit around each other a bit. The US is troubling because the government seems to have shifted too far in the direction of aiming to improve the corporate bottom line rather than the average bottom line of its citizens, it is a spectrum, but you can be too far one way or the other.

  • by Dogtanian (588974) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @08:22PM (#42069713) Homepage
    By "Masters of the Universe", do they mean that they're cheap, plastic people only taken seriously by 8-year-old boys, 30 years out of date and the subject of cheesy nostalgia nowadays?

    I think I saw one of those guys on YouTube covering that Four Non-Blondes song...
  • by Johann Lau (1040920) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @09:39PM (#42070125) Homepage Journal

    People who are directly empathic tend to be worse at evaluating indirect harm.

    So you're moving the goal posts; can you at least clearly say what you're moving them to? What is "directly empathic"? I assume it's somehow magically different from what we were previously talking about, "having empathy" (which is simply an additional "thing" to have, like sight or hearing). But before I can engage you in this new, fascinating subject, please define what "directly empathic" means. Thanks :P

    They may be able to weigh up one death against ten, but it's harder for them to weigh up one death against some minor savings to the cost of production of a million cars, which allow the buyers of those cars to work slightly shorter hours, which make them slightly less tired when driving, which leads to, on average, ten fewer deaths on the road.

    Are you confusing empathy with lack of intelligence, or with being emotional?

    Ideally you want someone who cares about humanity in the abstract

    You know what, that reminds me so much of something I read just a few pages a ago in a book from Erich Fromm that I'm going to try to find and translate it. IIRC, it was something about those who believe "in humanity" (or as you put it, who "care in the abstract"), but not in humans.

    In the meantime I'll just have to disagree. Having empathy makes some things require and induce more personal growth, sure, and that growth is often enough accompanied by pain, of course; but that's the whole fucking point of living basically, to grow.* All those "number decisions" you cite ultimately (should) serve to enable actual individual people to live their actual individual lives, with their actual individual thoughts and deeds. We eat to live, we don't live to eat, and there is no abstract humanity. There's just you and me, the people next door, the people all over the world. That doesn't mean statistics or math aren't useful, or that hard decisions don't have to be made; which brings us back to empathy and rationality/intelligence not being mutually exclusive... but if you mistake your mental, simplified models with the actual thing they're supposed to represent, then you're drifting not into the realm of increased efficiency, you're simply loosing the plot.

    * So no, you don't really want the ones who don't ever bat an eyelid to make those "hard" (one might say "non-trivial") decisions; they learn nothing from them, and in gamer-speak you'd basically be wasting XP points on units who can't level up. Instead, let the others level up, and after some initial insecurity they'll outperform the "detached" people in more ways than not. I know that's hardly how to construct a good argument, but I like that comparison anyway. Haha.

    and, particularly unlike the standard psychopath, has no great love for themself.

    I hate to be a pain, but I also disagree on this one. I think respect of others without self-respect is a lie, a delusion. Selfishness no, but self-love.. of course! Don't trust anyone too proud or too humble...

  • by anon mouse-cow-aard (443646) on Thursday November 22, 2012 @10:17PM (#42070375) Journal
    Bingo, our numerous neighbours to the south can choose between pretty right (Clinton liberalized the rules that created the mortgage meltdown) that some choose to label "left wing" because their actual preference is to the right of Attila the Hun (fact checking required.) Their other choice is feigning to be further right but is actually a conspiracy by one percenters to wrap themselves in populist b.s. (religious, libertarian, conservative, or whatever comes to hand.) and maximize their federal returns ... frankly looks like 'murricans are screwed either way, and the two party system is a sham. So like wake up folks: both your parties are far right, and this perpetual bike shedding looks quite silly in front of the fiscal cliff.

    As a neighbour, and most of our economy is trading with you guys, we know that if you all don't pull it together, we are going over that cliff right a long with you, yee haw! So while I get that it's none of our business... well it kind of is our business too, and all we can do is watch, and it is terrifying.
  • by Sabriel (134364) on Friday November 23, 2012 @12:11AM (#42070897)

    However, your argument fails because the ability to emotionally detach from a situation is not the same as the inability to form emotional attachments at all.

    A psychopath cannot honestly take a loyalty oath, whether to enter a military service or uphold a fiduciary duty, because they are physically incapable of that loyalty. This problem is actually the stated crux of the last article linked in the summary.

  • by Eunuchswear (210685) on Friday November 23, 2012 @08:39AM (#42073005) Journal

    But "tftp (111690)" knows that socialism cannot work. Therefore Denmark doesn't exist. So it can't be happy.

  • by Slime-dogg (120473) on Friday November 23, 2012 @03:52PM (#42076103) Journal

    You've just suggested that an individual company be allowed to restrict the ability of some users to post whatever they want. Cue screams involving the first amendment and a /. article phrased as a question.

    The first amendment doesn't apply to a company's ability to censor content on a site they own.

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