Thursday 27 October 2016

What career paths suit the psychopath?

Published 30/06/2015 | 02:30

The late Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey Appleby in ‘Yes Minister’
The late Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey Appleby in ‘Yes Minister’

Just 1pc of the general population is a psychopath. What does that mean? Thankfully it means that very few of us possess the traits of callousness, lack of empathy, conflict regarding personal responsibility and absent insight into how our behaviour hurts others.

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These features are the hallmark of this condition. While we associate psychopathy with criminality and violence, there is evidence that these, often, superficially charming and urbane people, can lead lives of professional fulfilment in certain professions.

Their risk-taking and impulsivity may be beneficial and facilitate their success.

Several researchers have an interest in this. The neuroscientist, Dr. James Fallon at the University of California, was a keen subscriber to the view that we are at the mercy of our genes.

In respect of brain function, including the chaotic behaviour of the psychopath, he believed this was determined by the impact our genes had on brain function.

He even tested his own brain, using an MRI scanner and found that his brain had abnormalities that matched those of the psychopaths he had studied for the greater part of his professional life.

Yet, here he was, living an exemplary life as a married man with three children and a successful career.

Another academic, Kevin Dutton, an Oxford psychologist and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, is of the view that psychopathy can indeed be advantageous in some careers.

Typically, in this country we have a belief that psychopathic businessmen contributed to some of the financial problems we faced since 2008. This view may be erroneous and it may be a reflection of the very simplistic stereotyping that is part of modern living.

Dutton has carried out some research on this and has compiled a list of careers in which the traits of psychopathy are likely to be advantageous and even allow the person to thrive.

Top of his list is the CEO. The head of any company must have a determination and ambition that will allow him/her to do what it takes to succeed.

Even the irritating lingo of management speak, that identifies "sharks", "cut-throat deals" and "making a killing" in reference to financial deals, masks a real lust for such behaviour.

According to Dutton 4pc of CEOs are psychopathic (four times the national average) and several are in prison. Lawyers, apparently are next, because of their fondness for money and their seeming graciousness while still being able to lie.

His list also includes media people, whose narcissism causes them to believe they are influential and have something meaningful to say.

Journalists are viewed in the same light and the role of seeing their name and photograph in highlights every day, as the nation gawks at them, engenders features that will lead them to exaggerate their own superiority and sense of self-worth.

I was particularly interested in Dutton's view of surgeons.

He also classes these as closet psychopaths who have found an outlet for their blood-thirsty tendencies in the work they do, for the good of others. According to him, they stand out from the rest of the medical and nursing profession who are exemplary in their kindness and in whom psychopathic traits are least common.

While other groups are also, unsurprisingly, included, such as policeman whom Dutton believes are helped in their profession by their coldness under pressure and their ability to kill if required. Chefs also figure!

Nonetheless, I was interested in his perspective on clergymen.

He mentions the sexual abusers within the Catholic Church and the callousness of those who concealed the abuse.

But psychopathy, according to Dutton, does not have denominational boundaries and he lists others from the televangelist genre, such as Bill Gothard and some megachurch leaders, who also engaged in the abuse of others.

Finally, and with memories of Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister, Dutton includes civil servants as psychopathic adversaries because of the power they wield over government ministers, whose laws can make the lives of the population very difficult.

Indeed some notorious killers, such as Dennis Nilson, were themselves employed in this profession.

Whatever one makes of Dutton's book and its theories, there are elements that ring true to me.

I was surprised that politicians had been eliminated as had prison officers and those working as butchers or in abbatoires. I also wondered about bankers.

Perhaps Dutton is engaging in populism and some of his theories require verification before we begin to ask our surgeon for his score on the Psychopathy Checklist which measure spsychopathic tendencies.

Yet, in the totality of this work, the hybrid of opinion and science makes for very stimulating reading, and it points to the direction that future research such take.

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