Madness is commonly understood to be a frequent bedfellow of creative genius but what about business acumen?
A recent study performed by Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey in England found various personality disorders to be much more prevalent among high-level executives than the mentally ill criminals that inhabit Broadmoor.
The idea that narcissists, sufferers of histrionic disorder and anankastic disorder are likely zipping past you on the career food chain isn’t a novel one but studies begin to suggest more and more cases to be observed.
This might be jarring when first read, but further analysis unmasks its reason.
Successful and unsuccessful psychopaths
The study goes on to illustrate a fascinating distinction between “the two types of psychopaths” – unsuccessful psychopaths lack either the faculty or the mettle to capitalize on the idiosyncratic way they view the world, while successful psychopaths let their psychosis take free rein. To reiterate this more sinisterly: Those biologically incapable of considering others in an emotional sense are at an absolute advantage in the job market.
In chorus with this is the demarcation of impulses vs. the question of severity. Is it that psychopaths who earn a place in the upper echelons of society are simply beset by a milder version of the same illnesses that plague the ones consumed by failure? Or, is it because what successful psychopaths lack in empathy, they make up for in restraint? The latter presumes they’re able to shackle instincts of self-destruction and pivot with unbridled grandiosity while the former sort of undermines the correlation altogether.
It should be noted that the majority of studies on the subject have two ways of defining success: Personal (wealth social status etc.) and simply avoiding imprisonment or institutionalization.
Successful psychopaths in the workplace
Ambition, drive, and resourcefulness are the apparent offspring of tunnel vision and a genius for manipulation. Ladders previously reported on the careers that attract the most psychopaths and the list is very much in harmony with Board and Fritzon’s findings.
The top five jobs adored by the wonky are all jobs considered by most to be high-paying ones: surgeons, sales reps, media personalities, lawyers, and CEOs, respectively. A study published by the association for psychological science found that three out four clinal psychology professors described either a current or past colleague as a psychopath.
Successful psychopaths were found to test higher in areas of excitement seeking, assertiveness, executive function, and self-discipline. They were also found to be callous, guiltless and lacking empathy. They channel all of these paradoxical qualities in ways that belie the impression of social normalcy,
The danger of the findings
“We promote them, we elect them, and sometimes, a lot of people feel comfortable when people like that are in charge of our lives,” Dr. Igor Galynker told CNBC two years ago.
It’s important to examine the continuum of the effects of psychopathy when evaluating these studies. Reliable data can’t exclusively be obtained from just the diagnosis itself because the symptoms tend to manifest in a myriad of ways.
Robert D. Hare pulls from 25 years of research to paint an imperatively disturbing portrait of mental deformity in his 1999 book “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World Of Psychopaths Among Us.” In the book, Hare’s admission of the ruthless and magnetic charm that lives inside true psychopaths is habitually met with all the ways it deems them “dangerous” to our society. His definition is pretty clear:
Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath is also a rubric to success: “Social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”
Ultimately we are talking about illness here, the destruction of which has been greatly hindered by our own obsession and lionization of it. What worries me most about studies that magnify the link between success and sickness, is it adding further credence to the romanization of mental illness.
It’s bad enough that aspiring writers ache for a drip of the madness that led Woolf to the river Ouse, now we have to worry about young professionals attempting to adopt maladaptive qualities in a bid to inch their progress that much further along.
The research is blameless, but I must caution those and their appraisal of it.