Psycopaths drawn to one industry more than others

Why psychopaths and commerce students have more in common than you may think. By Marc Wilson.

By the most common definition, psycho­paths are people who combine personality-level deficits, such as fearlessness and lack of empathy and guilt, and lifestyle-level deficits, such as difficulty maintaining intimate relationships, delinquency and unstable employment. Most of us can bring someone like this to mind, and it’s thought that 1 per cent-4 per cent of the general population, and maybe a third of the prison population, are these people. They’re also more likely to be men.

We’re fascinated by psychopaths because – I hope, anyway – they’re not like us and we want to understand what we don’t understand.

Contrary to telly portrayals, not all psychopathic personalities kill people or even engage in criminal behaviour leading to interaction with the police. This is because people who don’t feel empathy or guilt may find it easier to con or aggress others, but not necessarily in ways that rise to levels of criminality.

In fact, there is a problem that one of the most commonly used instruments for assessing psychopathy requires that a person demonstrate both the personality deficits and the lifestyle deficits in order to be classified as a psychopath. A person could, for example, have the personality deficits, but be able to avoid qualifying as a psychopath because they had enough self-control to stop them doing stupid things that would land them in trouble.

Consider James Bond. He’s superficially charming, daring to the point of being a threat to life – his own and others’ – and not exactly a mate for life. He’s a hero, right, but not too different from the similarly fictional Patrick Bateman of American Psycho.

Bateman is an investment banker by day and a serial killer by night, and sometimes in the daytime, too. Which raises an interesting discussion. If you are focused on grabbing all the goodies for yourself and you’re unencumbered by pesky emotions such as remorse or guilt, then professions such as investment banking may be the way to go: pots of cash, even though someone may end up the loser in the deal.

Ten years ago, I found that commerce students were more likely than other students to say they had psychopathic traits. This has now been corroborated in other countries, and in comparisons of people working in financial occupations compared with the general population. Admittedly, that last was based on a study in New York, home to Wall Street and the fictional home of Patrick Bateman.

It’s also the case, perhaps reassuringly, that studying commerce doesn’t make people more psychopathic – rather, it’s that people with more psychopathic traits are more likely to self-select into studying commerce. I suspect it’s just the perception that dollar signs will follow.

When I followed up the students who had been part of my original study, I also found something fascinating. The most psychopathic arts students tended to move from their BA to commerce, and the least psychopathic commerce students had drifted away to arts or science.

Here, and elsewhere, law students typically take second place on the psychopathy hit parade, and that’s interesting in itself. Although commerce is typically what I’d call a hierarchy-enhancing pursuit (meaning that most commerce maintains status differences between individuals, corporations and nations), law has two faces. There’s a hierarchy-enhancing one that includes commercial and prosecutorial law, but there’s also a more hierarchy-attenuating face, such as family protection and public defenders. If we separated the two sides, I think we’d see a difference again.

In fact, this distinction can be applied to other programmes of study and the professions they lead to. There just happen to be fewer hierarchy-enhancing occupations that follow directly from a BA.

Having had fun at the expense of commerce and commerce students, I probably should point out that we’re talking “on average” here. So, unless you’ve already got reason to worry about your financial adviser or bank manager, leave your hard-earned cash where it is rather than squirrelling it away under your mattress.

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