Psychology professor Paul Verhaeghe (U. Ghent, Belgium), writing for The Guardian newspaper, suggests that three decades of “neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatization” have transformed behaviors and norms in ways that reward psychopathic personality traits:
There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.
It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can…. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.
On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces.
Verhaeghe admits that he’s taking this description to extremes, but he notes that it draws from the “psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.”
More on psychology and economics
I’m fascinated by how psychologists are linking individual behaviors and our economic systems. In another example, at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network held in 2011, psychologist Michael Britton described our current economic condition in terms of psychological illness.
Our economic system has taken on “bipolar” qualities, said Britton. Using terms and phrases such as “excited,” “frantic,” “crash and burn,” “disregard for reality,” and “disregard for empathy,” he described an economy grounded in constant consumption and concentrations of power.
Britton said that instead of worshipping at the altar of national GDP and high unemployment, we should “reduce resource stripping” and emphasize how everyone can contribute to society and live a “materially decent life.”
Psychopathy and workplace bullying
Prof. Verhaeghe further links the psychopathic dynamics of the economic system to workplace bullying:
Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.
I think Verhaeghe is right about “the impotent venting their frustration on the weak” when it comes to, say, a stressed-out, mid-level manager bullying and cracking the whip on his subordinates.
In addition, we must not forget that economic systems are man-made, so at the core of the problem are individuals who likely score high on Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist. We are paying a very heavy price for senior executives, managers, and board chairs who are perfect matches for the personality profile described by Verhaeghe.