Are politicians and CEOs sociopaths?

I was reading something on Slashdot about HP dumping Board member George Keyworth for leaking things to the press. The issue wasn’t that he was dumped, it was that pretexting was used to get his phone records.

This being Slashdot, the idea that all CEOs and politicians are sociopaths quickly came up. This is how it supposedly works: no normal human being would be willing to cut jobs, sell out their colleagues, keep saying what people want to hear with no guilt from lying, and otherwise do the things that lands you on top of the corporate ladder or in Congress. In order to be successful at those things, you have to lack empathy with others – hence, you’re a sociopath. Very intelligent sociopaths can be surprisingly charismatic – they learn can learn, and exploit, social graces even if they don’t feel bound to them.

Is there any evidence to back this up? There’s a book called The Sociopath Next Door, written by a clinical psychologist, but I haven’t read it. A search of the literature doesn’t show much, although I have to admit I’m not familiar with the technical terms to use in searching academic journals.

I did find one piece of related evidence. A magazine was able to run a Voight-Kampff test on the candidates for mayor of San Franscisco. They determined that the majority were replicants, and not human beings at all.

What do you think? Are politicians and CEOs really amoral enough to be called sociopaths, or do these jobs select for sociopathic tendencies? Or is it just an intelligent way of saying their jerks and we’re jealous of them?

Written by Jason

Last 3 posts by Jason

  1. I don’t think that they are complete sociiopaths, that would mean that they have no empathy to any fellow human beings or living things. I’m sure they care about their own families and friends, just not all those dirty poor people always asking for money. When in a public service role you have to have a certain level of detachment. If you cared about every family who could make that months rent and might go out on the streets you would go crazy. Dealing with large groups of people like that you need to view them as a gorup and not care about them as individuals.

    D Wallz
    September 8th, 2006 at 10:59 am
  2. Wallz, I know a local CEO who is a sociopath. I think you are assuming that people care about their own families and friends. This CEO did not. He would work 75+ hours a week, and not really give a damn that he was not around for his kids. He used his wife as a babysitter and didn’t really give a damn about what was going on in her life, nor did he make any effort to get to know her family at all.

    A lot of CEO’s sacrifice time with their families for work. I don’t think that they are giving up time with their families because they ‘care’ about them.. You are making an assumption that does not seemed to be based on any fact..

    Jim
    September 8th, 2006 at 7:05 pm
  3. I was watching a series on TV a few months ago. it delt with research on sociopaths.
    In all,it was a fasinating series…Way too short though.
    Anyway,in a nutshell,thei stated that one in a dozen people have some sociopathic
    traits…I always thought being a sociopath was an all-or-nothing thing…But apparently there are degrees one can be aflicted..So yeah,I’d say it’s possible.

    Don
    September 9th, 2006 at 3:02 pm
  4. So, here’s what the DSMIV has to say about Antisocial Personality Disorder http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/antisocialpd.htm.

    By this standard I would posit that many CEOs are sociopaths, or at least many of the CEOs we here about from the media. I think that the level of power they wield has a strong tendency to corrupt people who might otherwise seem more empathetic or “normal.” I didn’t see the TV series Don mentioned, but maybe sociopathy is a scale and things like exorbitant income and unchecked power tend to push people up towards the “total creepy sociopath” end.

    On a related note, many of you have probably read The Coporation” or seen the move based on it that examines the pathological behavior of corporate entities. It’s pretty good, if you haven’t.

    petitbourg
    September 10th, 2006 at 8:28 pm
  5. It is ridiculous to label corporate CEOs sociopaths and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Slashdot (where using the wrong flavor of Linux will get you labeled a sociopath). A corporate executive has a fiduciary duty to the corporation’s shareholders. That means they need to think about growing the company and creating a profit so that shareholders make money. It also means they have to exercise due care and diligence, amongst other things, in their handling of coporate affairs and not commit any legal or ethical violations. To condemn CEOs for doing their jobs, is to condemn the entire structure of our economy, which one is free to do of course.

    Here are the factors (with brief commentary) according to petitbourg’s link above:
    (1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
    -maintaining their fiduciary duty is what they are lawfully required to do

    (2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
    -deceitfulness and lying for personal profit would be a violation of the fiduciary duty

    (3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
    -another violation of the duty for care and diligence

    (4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
    -we don’t dee that often with CEOs

    (5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others
    -see 4

    (6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
    -violation of the fiduciary duty again

    (7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
    -this one is the only one that has legs

    Ulrimately, only one factor would be met by the “ideal” CEO who obeys the laws governing his or her office, hardly enough to “posit that many CEOs are sociopaths.” In fact, the fiduciary duty, as old as the law of agency, directs CEOs to avoid the behavior listed above. The very nature of being a CEO is not sociopathic. If a CEO consistently violates that duty and his actions mesh with the factors above, then it may be appropriate to label him a sociopath, but that is not the question being asked.

    Todd
    September 11th, 2006 at 12:30 am
  6. The problem with politicians is they are always campaigning trying to look good and have little time for managing the real issues. They are our most important fiduciaries yet they are not accountable like others in a fiduciary position. The ballot box is not working as we would like. The immunity rules that protect politicians need to be removed. Judges are the same. If we cannot hold judges accountable then we can never hold politicians accountable. The judicial oath is a fiduciary undertaking, yet after they sign it they are protected by judicial immunity which means you cannot hold them to account for the obligation they have promised. The entire system of state leadership accountability needs to be redrafted. If we don’t they will continue to cause us harm and god knows what they can and will lead us into. We all need to join any political party and vote from the local branches up for the removal of immunity laws that protect our incompetent, negligent and sometimes corrupt lying scumbag politicians and judges. Having a public jury into our highest courts will ensure deals behind closed doors will not work in the long played game of cover-up.

    Christopher Wingate
    July 26th, 2007 at 11:34 pm
  7. What no one is willing to admit is that capitalism is dying. The CEO’s are sociopaths as is necessary for their rediculous and unproductive occupations. Only workers create value, not pompous, C- students who inherent their positions and spend most of the day drunk.

    I think everyone knows what must be done to the Robber Barons. They are simply whorish idolators who only will only change if you (1)take their money or/and (2) take their blood. Otherwise, these pigs would sell their own mothers for a profit.

    Remember – “No taxation without representation.” We need a new American Revolution against the money pigs that have destroyed our country.

    Have a nice day!

    Max
    February 17th, 2009 at 7:35 pm
  8. Oh dear, Max. How many CEOs do you know (in person, not from reading articles about the rotten eggs that make headlines)? I know 10 or 12.
    First – the ones I know are extreme over-achievers, not “C- students.” Second – the position of CEO is EARNED, not inherited, 99% of the time. (Members of the family that founded a company are more often board members, not officers who do the day to day work.)Third – they are typically workaholics, not alcoholics (all that I know drink modestly but work insane hours, 12 hrs at the office and another 2-4 at home on the phone is not uncommon). While they may take vacations at very nice places, they are on call 24/7, and spend many hours of their vacation time doing video conferences, teleconferences, reading complex documents that have been overnighted to them, etc. I’ve seen them do this even while loving their families dearly – they would like to be at the beach with the family, but they are simply very driven people, and their job requires that they put this extra time in. I HAVE seen CEOs turn down more prestigious and lucrative CEO positions because that job would take them away from their family more.

    I agree that the amount of money many CEOs make (more often from bonuses and stock options/grants than salary) can be outrageous. But there are very few people with the talent it takes to run a company, and it is simply supply and demand, so the chosen ones can negotiate generous compensation packages. For a company to do well and continue to employee all of its workers (rather than lay them off), it needs someone with fantastic skills and talent at the top. Otherwise, there will be no work for the workers.

    I do believe (as do many wealthy CEOs!) that the wealthy should not be getting tax cuts when our country needs the revenue – but then, it’s the Republicans (and I’m fairly certain that Max is one of them) who insisted upon tax cuts for the wealthy.

    As for the general topic – I would not be surprised to learn that many/most CEOs are narcissists at least to some degree, but calling them sociopaths is going too far. I’ve seen CEOs suffer and actually become physically ill when they have to close offices, do layoffs, etc. I DO believe that a high percentage of politicians may be sociopaths.

    And Max, what on earth do you mean by “No Taxation without Representation”? Do you think employees should be voting on how the company you work for should be run? Trust me, you don’t know enough to make an informed decision. And unemployment isn’t going to pay your bills if the company crashes.

    Caroline Armstrong
    December 28th, 2010 at 4:06 am
  9. I read in a psychology textbook 20 years ago that stated a large number of sociopaths find safe havens {$$$ and no jail cell] in tele-evangalism i.e. TV preacher and politics. I had doubts then. I have no doubt whatsoever now.

    Midknight
    July 27th, 2011 at 12:59 am
  10. One of the worst unsung CEO disasters comes from Mark Hoffman. First at a private company APS, he supervised the destruction of hundreds of millions of dollars. Then, just before APS was forced into bankrupcty, he jumped to Corporate Express. This second company never recovered from his “leadership” and was eventually sold to Staples at a discount. Despite having degrees from the University of South Alabama (in finance) and an MBA from Harvard, Mark Hoffman’s mark has been the destruction of shareholder value. Despite his Republican leanings, Mark Hoffman is the capitalist’s enemy.

    His style fits the public image of CEOs — strong, tall, handsome, decisive — but completely removed from the impacts of his decisions. That describes a Trojan Horse CEO and a disaster for shareholders and employees. For owners and workers caught up in this man’s cold, even sociopathic behavior that helped him appear worthwhile to boards of directors, also prohibited him from effectively managing the people in his organization due to his void of empathy and inability to sense the needs of customers and employees. A true trainwreck waiting for the next company that is seduced by looks, patter, and a false sense of security.

    Steven
    August 21st, 2011 at 4:17 am

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