We have embedded below a superb documentary on psychopaths by Misha Votraka and Vaclav Dejcmar. See also their Fishead Website. The documentary is so impressive and covers so many bases on the subject that it deserves an article on it’s own to cover some of the key points they make. It is an excellent introduction to the subject of psychopathy.
It prominently features the world’s foremost expert on psychopathy, Dr Robert Hare, as well as fellow researcher and co-author of the popular book Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak. For this reason the documentary has a definite emphasis on corporate psychopathy and the effect of psychopaths in the workplace, though it also covers many other bases on the subject.
In this article we will seek to provide an overview of some of the main points covered on the subject of psychopathy and psychopaths, since the film is also a very useful resource for definitions on the disorder and key personality traits to look out for. The filmmakers also provide some useful insight into how psychopathy affects societal structures such as politics, financial institutions and mass movements.
Excellent Definitions and Descriptions
The first 15 or 20 minutes of the film provides a superb summary on the common definitions and descriptions of psychopaths. It firstly dispels the common myth that a psychopath is a violent serial killer like in the movies. These people of course do exist but only represent a very small proportion of all psychopaths.
They correctly point out that these psychopaths are only a more extreme subset of a much broader section of society and that most psychopaths actually blend into society far more effectively and do not immediately stand out as strange or different.
The perfect example of this is the so called Corporate Psychopath, a person who has all the traits of psychopathy but who actually does very well for himself in the world and progresses up the corporate ladder very smoothly.
Hare and Babiak also provide an excellent summary of some of the key defining traits and characteristics of a psychopath. We will list the main ones below, linking off where relevant to articles we have posted for this site covering the same general traits and topics on psychopaths.
- A psychopath is someone who does not fully comprehend or understand human emotion. They see that other people experience what is called an emotion, but they cannot actually feel what this is themselves. Their understanding of emotion is purely intellectual.
- Research has demonstrated this fact by showing the brain of a psychopath cannot process emotional events in the same way normal people can. The parts of the brain normally associated with the comprehension and processing of emotional events do not function in a psychopath as they do with normal people. Events which elicit an emotional reaction in normal people are just seen as neutral, unimportant events emotionally to the psychopath, however horrifying and disturbing.
- Connected to this lack of ability to process emotion is a complete lack of ability to empathize with others. They cannot put themselves in the emotional shoes of another and don’t get human suffering.
- Psychopaths are without conscience in that they may have an intellectual understanding of the difference between right and wrong, but there no emotional component to this understanding. The don’t feel the difference between right and wrong. See Robert Hare’s book Without Conscience on Amazon.
- Psychopaths are also extremely egotistical, self centred and with no remorse for the way they treat others. They operate purely on the level of power, dominance and ego.
- Psychopaths have a superficial charm can easily take people in. They are capable of creating a strong “psychopathic bond” with their victims which can be very difficult to break.
- Psychopaths are very manipulative and deceitful by nature and are very adept and capable at fooling people. Even vastly experienced researchers like Robert Hare admit that they cannot immediately spot a psychopath and correctly identifying them takes time even for the most skilled and trained observers.
- Once they get bored a psychopath will happily “drop” a person and move on from the relationship. That person is then left with all kind of emotional wounds, thinking they were in a real relationship with someone when in fact the psychopath just saw the whole thing as a game.
- Psychopaths can often blend very well into society and even appear as high functioning, successful individuals. They can present themselves to an employer as an ideal potential candidate for a job; everything they want and more. See our articles on psychopathic managers and psychopathic companies.
- In this sense it is important to move away from the cliche of the psychopath as purely a violent serial killer. Most psychopaths have the same kind of underlying mindset but have learnt through education and environment to curb or conceal these undesirable traits and present the facade or mask of respectability to the world.
These are just some of the defining characteristics of psychopaths that the documentary draws out. The aspects of the psychopath’s relationship to emotion, and more specifically the mimicking and faking of it, are particularly well conveyed by Dr Hare and emphasize the deceitfulness and trickery that psychopaths are often adept at.
Robert Hare sums this aspect of psychological trickery very well:
“The psychopath is using facial expressions, hand movements, body language that seems appropriate to an underlying emotional state, but it’s fake…The psychopath has learned that there are certain facial expressions, body language that is associated with what other people say is a particular emotion”
The more clever psychopaths are mimicking speech, patterns, expressions and body language patterns which seems appropriate for a particular circumstances, but the whole process is entirely learnt and faked by the psychopath through observing how normal people act, and is not genuine. There is no actual underlying emotion associated with their actions as there would be with a normal person.
As we mentioned in the list, this is something which has been backed up by brain scans done on psychopaths, which show that parts of the brain which light up for normal people in reaction to emotional events do not light up for the psychopaths.
The parts of the limbic brain such as the hippocampus and the amygdala do not function properly in the psychopath and so they are unable to process emotional events any differently from neutral ones.
The documentary also covers the issue of psychopaths in the workplace very well. Professors Hare and Babiak have produced an entire book on the subject called Snakes in Suits, available on Amazon, which covers this subject in detail.
Because of their manipulative and deceitful personality traits, psychopaths can be very good at working their way up the corporate ladder, often taking a “by hook or crook” approach in the sense of getting where they want to go as quickly as possible without the same concerns of how they treat others along the way that normal people with a conscience would have.
In this sense they can often comes across as very charming at first to ingratiate themselves with the right people, and then later turn round and stab these same people in the back if it allows them to move up the ladder.
As Babiak mentions, they are able to mimic and parasitically feed off the genuine high performers to attract resources and favor, before later turning on these workers since they are seen as a threat.
In this way a poisonous culture can develop in companies who allow too many psychopaths into their midst, where high quality, decent, conscientious people who like to do things the right way are constantly undermined and pushed out by psychopaths, who are more ruthless and conniving with how they get from A to B.
Through this dynamic the general standards and culture of a company can decline and turn more toxic, becoming more and more concentrated with psychopaths and therefore more and more immoral and corrupt in it’s day to day operations.
Eventually this comes back to bite the company in the form of scandals and high staff turnover as the genuine high performers leave and their reputation will suffer, so this is an important issue for the employers themselves to recognize.
We have covered an aspect of this same dynamic ourselves in our article on psychopathic companies. Psychopathic managers are often tolerated and allowed to fester in companies because they are seen by the upper management to be “doing a good job” in terms of pure numbers.
The question of how they doing it – often with constant scheming, conniving, mistreatment of others and unethical behaviours – is too often overlooked and higher ups often prefer to look the other way on this.
It is this short termist approach which has become rife in many companies and leads to a great deal of suffering for employees which have to work under ruthless psychopaths, with their constant controlling, manipulative and deceitful tendencies.
Too often companies are doing the easy thing rather than the right thing by allowing toxic characters to remain in positions of power as long as their bottom line is being taken care of.
As Babiak emphasizes, companies need to put in place proper procedures to screen employees and properly differentiate true high performing, quality workers from the psychopathic frauds who merely copy and mimic what they see the high performers doing and use manipulation and scheming to make their way to the top.
The documentary covers this aspect of corporate psychopathy very well. The same principle however applies to all areas of work, not just the corporate world. The retail environment for example also has it’s fair share of psychopathic bullying managers, particularly in more soulless and non vocational lines of work.
In addition, Dr Hare also details a study he conducted of more than 200 high level corporate executives, seen as high potential and high achieving employees. Screening these people for psychopathic traits he found the distribution of psychopaths was around the same as the general population; however he noticed an extremely high percentage of candidates scored higher for psychopathic traits.
In other words, his sample indicated that the corporate world has a very high concentration of people who may not be diagnosed a fully psychopathic, but still have many psychopathic tendencies and score far higher for these traits than members of the general population.
In this sense the corporate world can be seen to be psychopathic as the cliche would suggest, rewarding and promoting those who show more of these traits such as ruthlessness, lack of morality, harsh treatment of others and so on. It appears that having psychopathic traits offers a distinct advantage to those trying to progress to the higher echelons of society.
The characteristics of the suit and tie wearing corporate psychopath is very well covered by Hare and Babiak in the documentary
Role of Psychopaths in the Financial Crisis
Another important offshoot from the study of psychopaths in the workplace is to look at their possible influence in a particularly important sphere of the econonmy – the financial world, which was of course brought down in late 2000s largely through the trading of complex and risky financial instruments.
Robert Hare sums up some important aspects which contributed towards this, especially the growth in the internet and electronic trading which allows decisions involving millions or billions of dollars to be made in an instant. When reading over the details of the financial crisis, one simple fact stood out which bears repeating:
“I read through this stuff (on the crisis), I say hold on a minute, there were a lot of decisions made by individuals along these lines, and who are these individuals?”
Paul Babiak follows up with another explanation as to why the impulsive and fearless nature of a psychopath can be especially damaging in the financial world:
“Most businesses are risk averse or at least try to manage risk. A psychopath will do something risky just to see what happens, making a decision that others would have taken a long time and a lot of data to come to, they’ll do it on a whim. And because they are fearless, it could even hurt them, but it doesn’t bother them”
We can see how having someone with a psychopathic personality in a position where they can make decisions involving large amounts of money is extremely dangerous and no doubt contributed towards some of the decisions which led to the financial crisis unfolding.
It is in this context that we can often fall into the trap of judging others by our own values, assuming that because we would never make a stupid decision involving a lot of money on a whim, no one else would. This carries within in the assumption that all people have the same moral barometer and impulse control as we do, when unfortunately they do not, as the existence of psychopaths and sociopaths shows.
This is a crucial question for us to answer, since although psychopaths make up only a small percentage of the population, it does appear that they tend to gravitate towards the higher positions in society, such as politics and finance, where they can do the most damage.
In others words, they are a small percentage but a very significant percentage in that they naturally seek power over resources and over others but don’t have the same emotional or moral brake checks that the rest of us do. They crave power but have no idea how to use it wisely and proportionally.
By contrast many of the rest of us are not naturally controlling over others and don’t seek out positions of power over others so keenly. Life isn’t a constant power struggle or ego trip for us.
This is totally understandable but leads to a kind of “top heavy” situation where a disproportionately high level of psychopaths are in positions of power, whilst non psychopathic people often shy away from these positions. The bad people end up in charge and the good people don’t, and the more this happens the harder it is to make changes in society.
Plenty More Topics Covered
We have covered here only a few of the key areas of this excellent documentary on psychopathy. Many more topics relating the subject are covered, such as:
- The role of psychopathy in mass movements and murderous leaders.
- The role of the apathetic masses in allowing psychopathy to persist.
- Experiments such as the Milgrim Experiment which demonstrated the lengths to which people will go in harming others under the pretext of following orders.
- The three degrees of influence theory which decribes how one’s treatment of others, good or bad, has an outward ripple effect into one’s immediate circle of friends and family and beyond.
- The role of medication in numbing feelings and cutting people off from any sense of strong emotions which would lead to positive action to implement changes.
- An interview with former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel on the issue of standing up to suppression by authoritarian governments.
For this reason the documentary is highly recommended viewing and contains authoritative sources on the topics covered as well as excellent, concise definitions of psychopathic personality traits which will definitely be of help in allowing people to more easily identify these characters in their lives.
See also our Resources page for links to some of the books cited in the documentary, by Robert Hare, Hervey Cleckley and others.
Here are links to academic studies on the issue of corporate psychopathy involving Robert Hare and Paul Babiak: