Do Psychopaths Make Better Entrepreneurs?
The arrest this week of the California man police believe is the "Golden State Killer" reminded me that pop culture has done an abysmal job of showing us what psychopaths are really like.
Psychopaths aren’t all bloodthirsty serial killers, nor are they inherently cruel or violent; some, in fact, are actually able to use their unique traits to get ahead in life, whether that means seizing political power, accumulating wealth and social prestige or, sometimes, creating excellent businesses.
Related: How to Avoid Hiring a Psychopath
In fact, as this Psychology Today article points out, some psychologists argue that the idea of a “psychopath” is flawed and should be discounted altogether, in favor of more precise medical diagnoses, like the diagnosis for antisocial personality disorder.
Still, let’s assume that psychopaths do exist, at least in our historical understanding of them. Do they make for better entrepreneurs?
Traits of psychopaths
The traditional methodology for identifying a psychopath has been the Hare checklist, a diagnostic tool that evaluates a patient’s exhibition of certain traits. It has since been updated as the PCL-R (the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised), but most of the traits it checks for remain the same. Some of the most notable include:
- Glib and/or superficial charm
- A grandiose view of the self
- A constant need for stimulation
- Lying, to a pathological degree
- The tendency and ability to manipulate others
- A lack of remorse or guilt
- Limited emotional responsiveness
- A lack of empathy
- Behavioral problems early in life
- A lack of responsible, realistic long-term goals
- A parasitic lifestyle
- Sexual promiscuity
- An inability to accept responsibility for their own actions
You can probably see where some of these traits might come in handy for entrepreneurs. But what does the research say?
The objective findings
A 2013 study from the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales found that entrepreneurs and individuals with psychopathic tendencies whose behavior was analyzed tended to show similar strategies in risk-taking tasks. Regardless of whether the execution of a risk-taking task was rewarded or punished, participants with psychopathic tendencies and those with entrepreneurial intentions both persisted past adversity, making repeated attempts without being deterred.
This is certainly an interesting study, but it treats psychopathy and entrepreneurship as distinctive concepts, and examines only one trait the two groups have in common: risk-taking behavior.
Still, this study wasn't alone in its attempts to analyze the relationship between entrepreneurship and psychopathy. Jon Ronson, author of the book The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, reveals that the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is approximately 4 percent, which is four times higher than the incidence rate for the general population. This claim was bolstered by a 2011 study by psychologist and executive coach Paul Babiak, who found that one in 25 CEOs studied exhibited enough psychopathic traits to qualify them as psychopaths.
An article by Babiak and Mary Ellen O’Toole, meanwhile, discussed one possible reason why corporate psychopaths succeed so consistently. Their ability to callously manipulate other people is certainly a plus: Psychopaths in full control of their faculties can make extraordinary salespeople and often have little trouble getting a team to follow their commands.
Stimulation- and impulse-seeking behavior may lead these people to take more risks, which can characterize them as bold and fearless in a competitive environment, or lead them to start businesses of their own. And, best of all, psychopaths are able to use their cunning and manipulative tendencies to create a charismatic façade, which can keep their coworkers and supervisors blind to their more harmful psychopathic tendencies.
In the article, Babiak and O’Toole also discussed the disadvantages of psychopathy for corporate leaders, such as an inability to form realistic long-term goals, though even this problematic trait could be misinterpreted. They also discussed overly ambitious goal-setting, which could be seen as visionary; and the characteristic of a lack of emotion, which could be seen as staying calm under pressure.
It's perhaps worth noting herethat a related field, politics, has an increased likelihood of supporting professionals with psychopathic tendencies, and for many of the same reasons. Ruthless, risk-taking tactics and impersonal, logical decision-making can help a person rise to the top of practically any career.
A caveat on diagnosis
The message from all this research would seem straightforward: Psychopaths, despite the potential damage they can inflict on individuals within an organization, often make better entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. So, what about you? Do you exhibit enough psychopathic traits that you might gain an advantage?
Before you answer, you should realize that psychopathy isn’t a black-and-white issue; like most psychological traits, it exists on a spectrum, and only a qualified professional can accurately diagnose you. It’s unlikely that you exhibit all the traits associated with psychopathy and it’s equally unlikely that you exhibit none of the traits associated with this diagnosis.which might make you a better entrepreneur, can help you define your leadership style and/or find your place in the corporate world -- so long as you understand the disadvantages and potentially harmful ramifications those traits may have.