Screening Sociopaths (another modest proposal)

De Clarke
9 min readOct 23

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Image by author, using Midjourney

Preface:

Ingredients of this essay include Fallon’s The Psychopath Inside (a very interesting book, by the way, which I highly recommend) — and the unnerving US TV series Mindhunter (docudrama about the FBI team who pretty much invented psychological profiling). One of the characters in the series made an offhand remark about her work studying psychopaths — that she had little opportunity to interview them in person, because they were mostly senior business executives, and well-protected by their positions.

This reminded me of one of the cynical and despairing bits of “common knowledge” of our time, i.e. that psychopaths are drawn to positions of power over others, and that they are disproportionately represented at the upper levels of commerce and politics:

Hare reports that about 1 percent of the general population meets the clinical criteria for psychopathy.[11] Hare further claims that the prevalence of psychopaths is higher in the business world than in the general population. Figures of around 3–4% have been cited for more senior positions in business.[6] A 2011 study of Australian white-collar managers found that 5.76 percent could be classed as psychopathic and another 10.42 percent dysfunctional with psychopathic characteristics. […]

[…] psychopaths are usually most present at higher levels of corporate structure, and their actions often cause a ripple effect throughout an organization, setting the tone for an entire corporate culture. Examples of detrimental effects include increased bullying, conflict, stress, staff turnover, absenteeism, and reduction in both productivity and social responsibility.[2] Ethical standards of entire organisations can be badly damaged if a corporate psychopath is in charge.[3] A 2017 UK study found that companies with leaders who show “psychopathic characteristics” destroy shareholder value, tending to have poor future returns on equity.

So two facts come together here: a) modern MRI scanning can detect anomalies in brain structure which are strongly associated with psychopathy, and b) psychopaths in positions of power and responsibility are a liability. Our “success” in placing so many psychopaths in positions of power and responsibility may account for a great deal of dysfunction in contemporary economic and political life.

So maybe we should do something about this…

The psychopath, so the literature tells us, is not necessarily deficient in theory of mind (an essential stage in human development, in which we realise that other people have thoughts, feelings, and an inner life similar to our own). But they are deficient in empathy — the ability to perceive and sympathise with another person’s pain.

The feelings of other people, while a psychopath may be able to predict them (and manipulate them), do not elicit any sympathetic echo. The only feelings they really care about are their own, and these are limited to satisfaction vs frustration, elation vs disappointment. Their experience of fear, sadness, and anxiety in particular are muted, leading them to be reckless risk-takers.

A person who cannot feel empathy for others, in a position of power, is dangerous. Only empathy (or what we call a sense of decency) restrains a person in power from abusing that power to the detriment of others, or disregarding others completely and making decisions based purely on their own immediate advantage. A psychopath does not consider what is right, what is fair, or what is best for others when making decisions.

A psychopath in a position of power within a hierarchical institution — such as a political party, corporation, or church — can poison the workplace culture of that organisation. Psychopaths are notoriously charming and often charismatic; they can be expert manipulators and are very good at influencing others. (Cult leaders, for example, are considered by some experts to be typical psychopaths or sociopaths.)

Though we reflexively think of the psychopath as “evil” (and their behaviour and deeds certainly fit the common understanding of that word), clinical psychologists today believe that the psychopath is actually deficient. The psychopath is tone-deaf to empathy — much as another person might be to music — and colourblind to ethics and common decency, right and wrong — much as another person might be to the difference between red and green. The genetic or developmental anomaly in their brain structure creates a kind of disability.

At this point, given what we know and the technology we have in hand, I don’t understand why we are not screening candidates for positions of responsibility and power, with a view to detecting and disqualifying psychopaths based on their disability. The idea of making candidates for positions of power submit to MRI scans will, I know, cause discomfort to some readers. It feels like an invasion of privacy for a start; it seems vaguely and ominously unconstitutional, somehow. And “discriminating against people based on their disability” sounds like a slippery slope. But bear with me for a moment…

I sit on the board of a small food co-op (grocery store). In order to obtain a liquor license, we had to provide a criminal record check on every board member. Certain kinds of criminal record in a board member would disqualify the business from obtaining a liquor license. The same is true for many positions of responsibility: a person with prior convictions for CSA is not going to get a job at a day care centre, and people with a “controlled substances” criminal record are not employed in pharmacies. This is basic risk management on the part of licensing and regulatory agencies, and the reduction of risk is considered sufficient justification for the demand for personal information, the intrusion into a person’s past and their privacy.

Risk management becomes even more intrusive and personal in some occupations. To stay employed as a heavy equipment operator in “the patch” (the Alberta tar sands catastrophe), workers must submit to a urinalysis at the start of each shift, to prove that they are not using drugs that could impair their reflexes or concentration while driving large, dangerous machines. [The risk to humanity posed by the project as a whole, however, remains unmitigated.]

Airline pilots must meet a long list of physical condition requirements, and submit to routine medical examinations throughout their careers. People with certain disabilities and illnesses, or over a certain age, are simply not permitted to fly commercial aircraft — because the risk to the public is too great. Even the staunchest proponent of personal privacy and disability rights (myself for example) can see the sense in these traditional practises.

Today we are reaping the terrifying harvest of decades — of more than a century — of keeping a small but influential percentage of psychopaths in positions of influence and control in our politics and major commercial/industrial sectors. Consider the decision by the fossil fuel industry to bury its own research that indicated how very serious was the problem of carbon emissions and global warming — and to fund an ongoing “merchants of doubt” campaign to discredit and minimise the research of others.

If the climate chaos ahead is as severe as the global climate science consensus suggests, this decision by the leaders of the most powerful industry on earth — which delayed by decades any substantive action on carbon emissions and climate destabilisation — may amount to the greatest crime ever committed in human history, in terms of lives lost and damage inflicted. Only an institutional culture of psychopathy could have led to this result.

I have proposed that international criminal law should be expanded to include a new criminal offence that I call postericide(link is external). It is committed by intentional or reckless conduct fit to bring about the extinction of humanity. Postericide is committed when humanity is put at risk of extinction by conduct performed either with the intention of making humanity go extinct, or with the knowledge that the conduct is fit to have this effect. When a person knows that their conduct will impose an impermissible risk on another and acts anyway, they are reckless. It is in the domain of reckless conduct, making climate change worse, that we should look for postericidal conduct. […]

Who should be prosecuted for postericide? We could start by examining the established international network of well-funded organizations devoted to organized climate denial(link is external) (For more on this subject, read “Text-mining the signals of climate change doubt”, in the journal Global Environmental Change, Volume 36, January 2016). The epicentre of this activity is in the United States. A set of Conservative think-tanks has deliberately deceived the public and policymakers about the realities of climate change. Their ideologically-driven climate denial has been heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry; which include, for example, Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. This climate denial has had a significant impact on public opinion and has impeded legislation to tackle climate change. (Catriona McKinnon, UNESCO)

The risk to the public is far too great for us to allow psychopaths to occupy positions of responsibility and power. The question of good and evil is beside the point; they demonstrably and measurably have a cognitive disability which prevents them from making responsible or ethical decisions. They should not be allowed to pilot corporations, nations, or churches — any more than a person with epilepsy should be allowed to pilot passenger jets.

At present we do not remove these people from their powerful positions until there’s an embarrassing revelation of some legally actionable offence; perennial classics are the sexual abuse of staff (or underage persons), and massive embezzlement. This “wait for the crash” approach is both inefficient and harmful; we certainly don’t allow pilots with high risk factors to get their licenses, carry passengers, and total a plane or two before we deemed them unqualified to fly.

When it comes to airline passenger safety we are precautionary and pro-active. We should be at least as precautionary and pro-active with our barons of industry, leaders of our nations and political parties, and elders of our churches.

Our precautionary practise might “unfairly” bar the occasional psychopath who, thanks to a splendid upbringing or other good fortune, has a handle on their condition and poses little risk. We also, almost certainly, occasionally ground an older pilot whose eyesight and reflexes are above average for their age; but we consider that a small price to pay for the stellar safety record of passenger air travel.

In summary: a strong case can be made for MRI scanning and psychological evaluation of all candidates for positions above a certain level of seniority in any organisation of consequence to society, with a view to screening out psychopaths; and I would suggest this also even for lower-level positions, where individual power is amplified by the conditions of employment (such as police officers or health care workers).

Of course, we face an immediate challenge in implementing such a policy… because an influential and clever percentage of the people who set policy at these high levels are themselves psychopaths who will not want to lose their jobs (any more than ExxonMobil’s psychopaths wanted to lose their enormous profits). There is bound to be resistance. But there has always been resistance to every advance in public safety and social justice. That shouldn’t prevent us from trying.

Particularly in the dangerous and difficult years ahead of us, we cannot afford to have psychopaths at the helm.

[In case anyone was wondering, this article is not satire. I am quite serious. Our habit of permitting psychopaths to occupy positions of influence and power, when we have the technology and expertise to detect their condition, strikes me as barbaric and quaint — as barbaric and quaint as our historical habit of eating arsenic to improve skin tone, or soothing babies with narcotic syrups. We would not dream of doing either of those things today, and rightly so. Allowing psychopaths to run powerful corporations and occupy political office will, I hope, seem just as barbarous and quaint to our descendants… if we are lucky enough to have descendants who enjoy a civilisation intact enough to afford them the luxury to opine on such matters.]

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De Clarke

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste. @tazling@mstdn.ca