This is the science behind why your successful boss may actually be a psychopath

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Anomie shares a dangerous relationship with western civilization. Introduced by Durkheim, the condition was granted poetic immortality by the works of Camus and his reflective readership. I’ve only recently become familiar with the trial of Meursault, and its demonstration of what happens to those who fail to “weep at their mother’s funeral.” A conclusion that sees our hero beg for cries of hatred questions if nothingness actually implies something of character? It’s an interesting inquiry. And according to a new study set to be published in the journal Personality Neuroscience, the answer is halved by philosophy and gray matter.

Accidents of birth

Unlike similar afflictions characterized by a lack of empathic traits, psychopathy distinguishes itself with a veil of egotism. A true psychopath observes the will of others as tools with which to secure their own objectives. In the most compelling instances, these objectives are wholly perplexing to those of sound minds. An abundance of literature identifies one of two manifestations of the disease. There’s the charismatic but calculating hedge fund manager, and there’s the ‘jaundice eyed skin collector’ that manages to evade the “machinery of justice” for decades upon decades. We understand the mechanisms that link these two, but what exactly demarcates them?

Emily Lasko, the doctoral student that helmed the new paper, locates the line in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. “Our findings indicating that this region is denser in people higher on certain psychopathic traits suggests that these individuals may have a greater capacity for self-control,” Lasko explained in a press statement. 

The team of researchers that co-authored the report recruited 80 adults that were in long-term relationships. After analyzing them via an MRI scanner these subjects were tasked with completing a series of questionnaires designed to expose the dark triad of personality traits: Psychopathy, Narcissism, and Machiavellism.

Psychopathy denotes the psychological absence of concerns meant to accompany a developed mammalian conscious, narcissism refers to the unbridled pursuit of self-gratification and Machiavellism describes an individual that possesses the first two elements of the triad in addition to the tactical wherewithal to put them to use. The respondents that expressed all three evidenced abnormal gray matter density in their ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.  In other words, the ‘jaundice eyed skin collector’  lacks the necessary neurology to hide their off-putting qualities and preclude their morbid ideations, where the hedge fund manager is able to compensate for the very same social aberrations with strategic prowess. The team replicated the results of the first experiment above with a crop of 64 undergrads to the same result.

“Most neuroscientific models of psychopathy emphasize deficits in brain structure and function. These new findings lend preliminary support to the growing notion that psychopathic individuals have some advantages compared to others, not just deficiencies,” added study co-author David Chester, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.

My boss, the psychopath

This unique structural integrity allows psychopaths to curb their self-destructive and hostile tendencies even though these impulses exist with more vigor within them compared to the rest of the population. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for several regulatory functions, most relevantly inhibition and goal appropriate response selection. The authors hope that by intimating the neural differences between “successful” and “unsuccessful” psychopaths, they can dually disarm the pejoratives attached to those effectively condemned by biology-attempting to use nuance as a salve of sort for regressive generalizations.

“People high in psychopathy have ‘dark’ impulses, but some of these individuals are able to either inhibit them or find a socially acceptable outlet for them. The compensatory model posits that these individuals have enhanced self-regulation abilities, which are able to compensate for their antisocial impulses and facilitate their ‘success.’”

As suggested in the introduction, motioning a silver-lining in a shadowed state is a dangerous thing. Whenever the very same is implied outside of academic literature a pogrom of disparaging commentary invariably succeeds it.  This new study cogently shames the interpretation but not the lyrical impression. Phrased more famously (and less dumbly than I) by the epistemological renegade, Montaigne: “Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom. Whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.”