The Corpus Callosum

Is your Boss a Psychopath?

has an
amusing and interesting article
on .
 Being a business-oriented magazine, they ask “Is your boss a
psychopath?”  But one could just as easily apply the same
principles to other important people in your life, such as politicians.
 They even have a quiz useful for making armchair diagnoses.

Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

[1] Is he glib and superficially charming?
[2] Does he have a grandiose sense of self-worth?
[3] Is he a pathological liar?..

so forth, ten items in all.  The include the following
“disclaimer: If you’re not a psychologist or psychiatrist, this will be
a strictly amateur exercise.”  In fact, even if you are a
psychiatrist or psychologist, you cannot ethically diagnose someone who
is not your patient/client.

Another technicality is that you cannot use a checklist-type instrument
to make a diagnosis.  (You can use it to support a diagnosis,
or to quantify the severity of some aspect of the diagnosis, but not to
make the diagnosis.)  Plus, pychopathy is not really a
diagnosis.  Rather, it is an imprecise term that roughly
corresponds to the diagnosis of Antisocial
Personality Disorder

In common usage, the term psychopathy probably is
more correctly though of as part of a spectrum: the milder end being
populated by persons with narcissism, and the more severe end being
populated by mass murders and people who lie to start wars.

On the broad continuum
between the ethical everyman and the predatory killer, there’s plenty
of room for people who are ruthless but not violent…

…This view is supported by research by psychologists Belinda Board
and Katarina Fritzon at the University of Surrey, who interviewed and
gave personality tests to 39 high-level British executives and compared
their profiles with those of criminals and psychiatric patients. The
executives were even more likely to be superficially charming,
egocentric, insincere, and manipulative, and just as likely to be
grandiose, exploitative, and lacking in empathy. Board and Fritzon
concluded that the businesspeople they studied might be called
“successful psychopaths.” In contrast, the criminals — the
“unsuccessful psychopaths” — were more impulsive and physically

It sounds as though they are making the point that high-level
executives are more charming but less violent than criminals, but
otherwise are quite similar.  Of course both groups are good
at coming up with excuses for their behavior.  In the
corporate world, it has become standard practice to justify bad
behavior by saying that you are only doing what your shareholders
expect, or that if you didn’t do it, someone else would, or “it’s
just market forces at work
“.  Or other feeble

And when politicians act like this, there are fond of pointing out that
government should be run like a business.  Taken to an
extreme, in the business world, it can lead to hostile takeovers in
which thousands of people lose their jobs.  In the political
world, it also can lead to hostile takeovers, the main difference being
that people are more likely to die in wars.

There’s evidence that
the business climate has become even more hospitable to psychopaths in
recent years. In pioneering long-term studies of psychopaths in the
workplace, Babiak focused on a half-dozen unnamed companies: One was a
fast-growing high-tech firm, and the others were large multinationals
undergoing dramatic organizational changes — severe downsizing,
restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and joint ventures. That’s
just the sort of corporate tumult that has increasingly characterized
the U.S. business landscape in the last couple of decades. And just as
wars can produce exciting opportunities for murderous psychopaths to
shine (think of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic),
Babiak found that these organizational shake-ups created a welcoming
environment for the corporate killer. “The psychopath has no difficulty
dealing with the consequences of rapid change; in fact, he or she
thrives on it,” Babiak claims. “Organizational chaos provides both the
necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient
cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behavior.”

I’ll add that perpetrators of domestic violence do the same thing: they
create chaos in the household, in order to keep the others off-guard
and off-balance.  There is more than one way to be a

Curious readers will want to know: is there a neurobiological substrate
for this behavior?  Of course there is:

substrates of antisocial and borderline personality disorder:
preliminary results of a functional fMRI study.

Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health
Volume 14, Issue 1 , Pages 39 – 54


Neuropsychological and imaging studies of patients with antisocial
(ASPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) are suggestive of
frontal lobe dysfunction in these individuals. In normal subjects
functional brain imaging has been used to investigate the neuroanatomy
of impulse control. There are no such imaging studies in
personality-disordered populations.

This study aimed to investigate which neuronal networks are involved in
response inhibition in Cluster B personality disorders and whether
these are different from healthy subjects.

We hypothesized that the personality-disordered sample would have
attenuated orbitofrontal cortex responses during performance of a
Go/NoGo task compared with healthy controls.

Eight inpatients with a DSM-IV diagnosis of borderline or antisocial
personality disorder and eight healthy controls were scanned using fMRI
while performing a Go/NoGo task. Impulsivity was assessed using the
Barratt Impulsivity Scale (BIS) and the Impulsiveness- Venturesomeness-
Empathy (IVE) inventory.

In the control group the main focus of activation during response
inhibition was in the prefrontal cortex, specifically the right
dorsolateral and the left orbitofrontal cortex. Active regions in the
patient group showed a more bilateral and extended pattern of
activation across the medial, superior and inferior frontal gyri
extending to the anterior cingulate.

fMRI is a useful tool to detect brain activation during response
inhibition. ASPD and BPD patients activate different neural networks to
successfully inhibit pre-potent responses. Copyright © 2004
John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Yeah, it was just eight patients, and they were all hospitalized, so it
might not be a good representative sample.  Persons with
antisocial personality disorder generally are not hospitalized,
primarily because there is no known treatment.


  1. #1 Ardem
    May 29, 2007

    “Persons with antisocial personality disorder generally are not hospitalized, primarily because there is no known treatment.”

    Maybe that is because, as unpleasant and even apparently destructive as their behaviour might be, there is no definite, unambiguous ‘pathology’ that could be labelled ‘antisocial personality disorder’. The fact that there might be some neuro-biological correlates to such behaviour neither proves nor disproves that it is pathological. Societies readily pathologise such behaviour, but also frequently lavishly reward it, as it suits them. Go figure.

    This strikes me as just another one of those ultimately untestable, abstract, and very convenient labelling exercises by psychiatry.

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