American Psychos: The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

Last week, I talked about the line between “mean” and disordered. I used the example of “Noel,” who’d been a patient of a colleague of mine and who had, after a lifetime of abominable behavior, been diagnosed as a psychopath. I noted that in some ways Noel was particularly well suited for an entrepreneurial life. Why might a psychopath thrive in this arena? It’s helpful to look at personality traits on a spectrum, and to think of a person’s traits being monitored by a temperature gauge. For most people, most of the time, a collection of traits will hover somewhere in the middle, the “normal” range, and only periodically heat up and brush against the red zone. Let’s take our ten traits of the entrepreneur—drive, autonomy, need for control, etc.—and imagine these in the higher midrange for a long duration. This could identify our signature mix for the “entrepreneurial personality” while still indicating a relatively well-adjusted person.

But what if several of the traits within this defined set were always in the red zone? If an entrepreneur is unable to adapt to the extent to which these traits have effectively taken over his personality, then this may be the sign of a disordered personality, specifically of psychopathy. These men have crossed the border into the realm of lying, manipulating, if not downright cheating, and perhaps even engaging in criminal behavior (though they may never have been caught). They are completely unfettered by anxiety and totally unbound by conscience.

Let me be clear: I do not mean to make the definition of psychopathy so broad as to easily lump into it those who are merely objectionable; this is a matter of extreme personalities. The notion that psychopaths choose entrepreneurship as the stage for acting out their internal psychological drama adds a new and disturbing dimension to our understanding of the entrepreneurial phenomenon. The data indicates that this connection is anything but random.

Because those with disordered personalities fail to change, the pathological themes that tend to dominate their lives become vicious cycles. So blind are they to opportunities that may lead to improvement that repeated dysfunctional themes provoke new problems and create situations that remind them of their failures over and over again.

Discovering the relationship between the List of Ten—specifically, when a disproportionate number of the characteristics are in the red zone—and the personality disorder of psychopathy was, frankly, a shock to me. I had not expected to find a correlation with a disorder with such dark implications. Perhaps some garden-variety narcissism combined with one or two other traits? Sure. But this was a revelation. When I first made this connection, my own understanding of psychopathy—a complex disorder that has been more fully understood only in the last decade—was at the time superficial at best. But as I dug into the research on psychopathy and matched it with the characteristics and behaviors of the mean men I’d observed, I became convinced that this disorder was by far the best fit. Let’s explore it.

The Mask of Sanity

The psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley was a top pioneer in understanding people who blended dangerously antisocial behaviors with a mask of normalcy. Cleckley worked at a psychiatric hospital in the late 1930s, a facility that often housed criminal offenders believed to be suffering from some form of mental illness.

These men seemed “normal” under most conditions. Cleckley watched as they charmed and then manipulated and took advantage of other patients, family members, and even hospital staff. As a result, he recognized that the psychopaths he worked with wore a cloak of normalcy to help them live in the world. He also came to believe that unlike the stereotypical criminal, these men generally came from “good homes” with loving parents and yet still ended up ruining lives without remorse, shame, or conscience.

Cleckley also found that these patients continually repeated dysfunctional or unfruitful behaviors; adaptiveness, as noted earlier, was elusive to them. They lacked insight about themselves and the impact their behaviors had on others. Because they were unmoved by the feelings of others, notions of remorse or shame were alien concepts. While they often appeared to be very honest—at least from the perspective of those with little experience interacting with them, particularly new staff members—they were frequently insincere.

Cleckley’s review of his patients’ records indicated they could be extremely egomaniacal and virtually unable to experience deep emotions, particularly love and compassion. They seemed unable to feel intensely any of the emotions that others experienced with the exception of a category known as proto-emotions, which includes very primitive emotions such as anger, frustration, and rage.

He personally experienced these patients as having superficial charm and reasonably good intelligence. They could tell creative, believable stories; they did not seem to show the delusional thinking that often characterizes psychiatric patients.

As he noted in his fifth edition of The Mask of Sanity, this patient “presents a technical appearance of sanity, often one of high intelligence capacities, and not infrequently succeeds in business or professional activities” [emphasis added]. The book’s title captured Cleckley’s belief that these men do not show obvious symptoms of mental illness.

Cleckley was quite taken by a profound underlying characteristic of the psychopathic disorder in which the language and emotional components of thought are not properly integrated, a condition known as semantic aphasia. Individual emotion-laden words or phrases are understood—“I adore you,” “I’m annoyed,” “I’m heartbroken”—but the psychopath cannot grasp the broader meaning of what he hears. This individual has a deep-seated inability to understand the emotional dimension of language, particularly those aspects associated with attachment and empathy. He can say the word “love,” for example, without an understanding of what it means, and certainly without any idea what it feels like.

Cleckley was startled by something else: nothing about the disorder suggested oddness, inadequacy, or moral frailty. The “mask” is one of robust mental health. But behind the mask he found pathological liars, adept at sizing up situations and feigning sincerity. Put the sum of these ingredients together, stir lightly, and you’d have a dangerous psychological profile that should sound awfully familiar to those reading this blog.