Monday, September 3, 2007

Mini review. Snakes in suits

This is the third review in this series I am calling 301.7—terrorism @ home, and as promised it is about the workplace. In the previous two reviews we visited The sociopath next door and Without conscience. In science, the Nineties were the decade of the brain, and so much progress was made—think for example functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—Dr. Hare's latest book, written with Dr. Babiak, gives us a much more precise picture of the psychopath than Without conscience. Yet, there is still no other cure than capital punishment while concomitantly we have made our organizations more inviting for psychopaths.

Snakes in Suits book coverSnakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work should be required reading for all executives, but everybody who did not drop out of society should also study it slowly and carefully. You get your money's worth when you buy this book, because you get actually two books: an updated version of the relevant content of Without conscience and a manager's guide on how to avoid that your organization becomes another Enron (Drs. Bobiak and Hare quote this pearl from Enron's 1998 annual report: "We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don't belong here.")

Let's start with the research in psychopathy. Although as I mentioned above there is still no cure other than capital punishment, there are now many hundreds of researchers working in this field, compared to a few academics and forensic psychiatrists when Cleckley wrote The Mask of Sanity. There is now even a Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy (SSSP).

Yet, there is still confusion even in the name of this personality disorder. Although the terms psychopathy, sociopathy, and antisocial personality disorder are still used interchangeably, this latest book now makes the following distinction:

A personality disorder described by the personality traits and behaviors that form the basis of Snakes in Suits. Psychopaths are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves.
This is not a formal psychiatric condition. It refers to patterns of attitudes and behaviors that are considered antisocial and criminal by society at large, but are seen as normal or necessary by the subculture or social environment in which they developed. Sociopaths may have a well-developed conscience and a normal capacity for empathy, guilt, and loyalty, but their sense of right and wrong is based on the norms and expectations of their subculture or group. Many criminals might be described as sociopaths.
Antisocial personality disorder (APD)
This is a broad diagnostic category found in the DSM. Antisocial and criminal behaviors play a major role in its definition, and, in this sense, APD is similar to sociopathy. Some of those with APD are psychopaths, but many are not. The difference between psychopathy and APD is that the former includes personality traits such as lack of empathy, grandiosity, and shallow emotion that are not necessary for diagnosis of APD. APD is three to four times more common than psychopathy in the general population and in prisons. The prevalence of those we would describe as sociopathic is unknown but likely is considerably higher than that of APD.

The new results include that the number of psychopaths in the normal population is about 1%, and in the prison population they make up about 15%. When we do the math, the number of APDs is 4%. The important new number is that among high-potential executives psychopaths make up 3.5%. The average PCL: SV (see below) score for corporate psychopaths was 19 (out of a top score of 24), which is well within the research range for psychopathy. In evaluating these findings, it is important to note that scores of at this level indicate the presence of enough psychopathic features to be problematic for the organization (p. 193).

If you think these numbers are small, consider that they are responsible for at least half of the persistent serious and violent crimes committed in North America. As for executives, the authors bring up Enron, who was able to infiltrate and manipulate the top levels in government, caused billions of damages to California's utility users, and financially ruined thousands of workers in the collapse of the company.

PCL:SVOn a more positive note, the authors report and an improved version of the Psychopathy Checklist called PCL-R, and more importantly on a new Screening Version PCL: SV, which allows the quick scoring of subcriminal psychopaths by evaluating the domains and traits of the psychopath:

The person is:
  • superficial
  • grandiose
  • deceitful
The person:
  • lacks remorse
  • lacks empathy
  • doesn't accept responsibility
The person:
  • is impulsive
  • lacks goals
  • is irresponsible
The person has a history of
  • poor behavioral controls
  • adolescent antisocial behavior
  • adult antisocial behavior

The authors insist that scoring each item requires professional qualifications, adherence to the scoring instructions in the PCL: SV Manual, and access to extensive interview and collateral information. In particular, these traits are partially very similar to those with narcissistic personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder; aggressive or malignant narcissism being particularly difficult to distinguish from psychopathy. So, never ever call somebody a psychopath, because you have no way to know.

This is a bummer, because hopefully there will never be a law requiring psychopaths to wear a bell, yet they can kill us, or at least destroy our lives. Since this blog is on visual perception, if you think you might be a victim of a psychopath, your best bet may be to walk down the hall to a colleague with an fMRI machine and collaborate on an experiment. As these renderings from the paper Limbic abnormalities in affective processing by criminal psychopaths as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging [if this link fails, search the paper from the Library's site to get the full text] illustrate, psychopathy is easy to make out: the neural areas in which criminal psychopaths showed significantly less affect-related activity than noncriminal control subjects for the comparison of all affective phases versus all neutral phases from the random-effects analysis. Regions include (top left) posterior cingulate, caudal and rostral anterior cingulate, and ventral striatum (top right), right amygdala/hippocampus. Also shown are the regions in which criminal psychopaths showed greater affect-related activity than noncriminal control subjects and criminal nonpsychopaths. These regions include bilateral inferior frontal gyrus.

fMRI of a psychopath

Alternatively, if you do psychophysics, you can also rig up a fake color naming experiment where you present the suspect with words made of random characters and ask the subject to hit a key when the random characters form a valid word. In the set of valid words, intermix color names with emotional words like rape, sex, love, mother, etc. Probit analysis will quickly tell you if the reaction time is the same for all words (you are probably dealing with a psychopath), or takes longer for the emotional words (the subject is likely not a psychopath).

The authors write that the number of people with psychopathic personalities suggests that most of us will come across at least one psychopath during a typical day (p. 37). Their skills make them difficult to detect, because first, they are motivated to, and have talent for, "reading people" and sizing them up quickly. They identify a person's likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots, and vulnerabilities. We all have "buttons" that can be pushed, and psychopaths, more than most people, are always ready to push them. Second, many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communications skills. In many cases these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people, especially scientists. In the great card game of life, psychopaths know what cards you hold, and they do cheat.

Snakes in Suits also has several references to new research showing that psychopathy has a strong hereditary component. It runs in families and psychopathic parents will certainly nurture the condition in their evil offspring. Not only is psychopathy a package (syndrome, see below), but psychopaths come in packages.

Even when the authors tell us not to jump to conclusions and label somebody as a psychopath, do not hesitate to use your skills as a scientist to unmask them and to use the mechanisms in your organization to exterminate them. For example, here in HP we have the Rules of Business Conduct (brochure) as an effective tool to keep our work environment psychopath-free.

In my view, the weakest point of Snakes in Suits is that it tells us to just stay away from psychopaths. As I argued in a previous post on research in transition, it is our duty towards the organization for which we work, and as members of the scientific elite of society, to have a zero tolerance attitude against psychopaths and to get them locked up. Do not just climb on the armoire and listen through the ceiling what the pyromanics are doing in the attic, as Biederman did!

Psychological "autopsies" have shown that even if family members, close friends, and associates had noticed that all was not right with these individuals, they would not necessarily have appreciated the potential significance of the information and might not have known how to act on it. Therefore, do not hesitate and read Snakes in Suits now to educate yourself before it is too late and your life is jeopardy.

If you chicken out, be prepared for the psychopath at work to take you through three phases: assessment, manipulation, and abandonment. In the first phase, upon hiring, the psychopath will seek out the pawns he or she can use to do their work. They also build connections to executive management (see p. 123) to hit their detractors from above when the shit hits the fan. In the manipulation phase, psychopaths use their uninhibited social skills to create chaos in the organization. In the last phase—abandonment—once you are no longer useful, you will just get dumped like an old rag.

How does the psychopath get you in a fatal bond? You have three selves. The first is you inner or private personality, all the good and bad you subjectively know about yourself. The second is your public self or persona, how you want others to see you. The third is your reputation—how others see you. The psychopath is a master in getting you to fully disclose your persona and will create a mask, your simulated persona he or she will put on to create the psychopathic bond. In the abandonment phase, the psychopath will fully destroy your reputation. No kidding!

The authors describe (p. 132) how the employees most at risk of being manipulated into covering for psychopaths, actually carrying out their workload in exchange for things that are not readily apparent at the time, are highly skilled specialists with poor social skills. The latter prevents them from having a successful career and the high skills allow them to cover for the psychopath with little effort. All the psychopath has to do, is to give them the little attention and praise of their work they are not getting from their managers.

In a chapter titled Darkness and Chaos, Drs. Babiak and Hare review how organizations have changed in the past 50 years. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the relation between organization and employees was based on a "psychological contract." During the late 1970s, teamwork replaced traditional command-and-control hierarchies, and employees were entrusted with the decisions affecting their own work and group decisions about needed business improvements often took precedence Then change became a key method to run a business (see also my first post on research in transition).

However, in the 1980s and the 1990s, the rate of change accelerated too quickly and there were too many changes at once. The "psychological contract" was challenged, and it gave way eventually to a world where the employee-employer relationship was seen as a transitory one rather than a long-term partnership.

Since the turn of the century the rate of change has increased exponentially, so that organizations now find themselves in a constant state of transitioning (p. 159). Organizations are now characterized by unclear, outdated, unenforceable, or nonexistent work rules and policies; inconsistent risk taking; greater tolerance for controversial, perhaps even abusive, behaviors; and antiquated measurement systems and communication networks. The leader's job becomes increasingly complex but far less well defined—itself a frustrating thing. Traditional strategic planning, organizing, and motivating skills are of limited use.

Today, employees are treated as individual contributors, responsible for their own career advancement, and organizations act rewarding them with large salaries for innovative, fast-paced problem solving—as well as the chance to continue to work on new, exciting projects. The symbiosis of employees with entrepreneurial talents and the transitioning organization can lead to the constant reinventing, rebuilding, and reenergizing that both need for survival and growth. If well managed, the results can be impressive.

The gist of the book is, that while the old "psychological contract" was a deterrent for psychopaths and relegated them into the penal system, the transitioning organizations have become psychopath friendly, a bonanza for the psychopath. Rapid business growth, increased downsizing, frequent reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures have inadvertently increased the number of attractive employment opportunities for individuals with psychopathic personalities—without the need for them to correct or change their psychopathic attitudes and behaviors (p.164).

These "entrepreneurial pretenders" capitalize on the lessened reliance on rules and policies and the increased need for free-form decision making that characterize organizations in a chaotic state. Because a leader's ability to get people to do things is often of more importance than his or her technical capabilities to perform work tasks, pretenders lacking in real work expertise are not disadvantaged; their talents are assumed and their phony or exaggerated backgrounds often accepted at face value.

The authors have identified three main "psychopathic styles" in these pretenders. The classic style consists of those with a high score on each of the psychopathy dimensions (see table above): interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and antisocial. They exhibit virtually all the features that define psychopathy.

The manipulative style consists of those with a high score on the interpersonal and affective dimensions, and somewhat lower scores on the lifestyle and antisocial dimensions. They manipulate, deceive, and charm but are less impulsive and antisocial than the other types. They are talkers more than doers.

The macho style consists of those with a high score on the affective, lifestyle, and antisocial dimensions, and a low score on the interpersonal dimension. They are aggressive, bullying, and abrasive individuals, less charming and manipulative than the other types. They are doers more than talkers.

A cynical reader may state that in their dysfunctionality these psychopaths may actually have value for the transitioning organization. However, Drs. Babiak and Hare warn that we can safely say that those who believe that "psychopathy is good" clearly have not had much exposure to the real thing. The problem is that you cannot choose which psychopathic traits you want and ignore the others; psychopathy is a syndrome, that is, a package of related traits and behaviors that form the total personality of the individual. Unfortunately for business, the "good" traits often conceal the existence of the "bad" when it comes to a psychopath (p. 194).

Moreover, visionary thinking, the ability to conceptualize the future of the organization, is a complex skill requiring a broad perspective, the ability to integrate multiple points of view, and a talent for looking into the future—that is, to think strategically. Psychopaths are not good at establishing and working towards long-term strategic objectives; they are much more opportunistic. They can weave compelling stories about situations and events of which they know very little into superbly believable visions of the future.

Snakes in Suits contains comprehensive tips on interviewing job candidates. Even for those trained in the study of psychopaths, one of the problems that researchers who interview psychopaths face is losing control of the interview. Psychopaths avoid answering direct questions, but rather introduce topics into the conversation that are interesting to the interviewer. Before you know it, you are the one being interviewed and your plan is derailed. You lose sight of what the interview was about in the first place (p. 223).

Many individuals believe that they are good at telling if someone is lying or not. Few of us can really tell. Even those who are trained to detect lying and deception are not particularly good at it (p. 231).

The book concludes with explicit practical tips on what to do when you find a psychopath in your organization. Study them before you have that dooming encounter.

Interwoven in the book is a play presenting a comprehensive case study. It might be tempting to read it ahead of the book's meat, but I was glad I refrained, because the play has a surprise ending you can only appreciate is you have learned about psychopaths during your diligent study of the book.

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