Inside the Psyche of the 1%


Don Fitz, editor of Synthesis/Regeneration, recently wrote an illuminating overview of what current scientific studies can tell us about psychopaths in positions of power. In the following passage he examines why the psychiatric establishment has focused less on “successful psychopathy” than on other anti-social personality disorders:

The concept of “successful psychopath” is not new. An early text described “complex psychopaths” who were very intelligent and included unscrupulous politicians and businessmen. [6] By the 1970s it was more widely recognized that “this category includes some successful businessmen, politicians, administrators.” [7] In other words, the unsuccessful psychopath might go to jail for swindling dozens of people with home improvement scams while successful psychopaths might swindle millions with bank deals, get bailed out by friends in government, and never spend a day in jail.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the medicalization of the disorder is how the psychiatric establishment departed from science in order to grant partial exemption from being characterized as psychopaths to the wealthy. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, in order to receive a diagnosis of “anti-social personality disorder” (i.e., psychopathy) a person must exhibit at least 3 of 7 listed behavior patterns. These include “arrest,” “physical fights or assaults,” and “failure to sustain consistent work behavior.” [8] This means that those who can pay off cops (or never have charges pressed against them due to their social status), or pay someone else to commit violence on their behalf, or own companies instead of having to work for a living are all less likely to receive an official label of “psychopath.”

An increasing number of psychologists are becoming aware that traditional research was limited by the bias of only looking at people in jail. One wrote that subjects in psychopathy research “were usually institutionalized at the time of testing, and consequently our research may not accurately capture the internal structure and dynamics of the successful antisocial or psychopathic individual.” [9]

Support for the concept of successful and unsuccessful psychopaths is provided by the discovery that the “Psychopathic Personality Disorder” syndrome actually has two factors. [10] Statistical analyses have revealed an “emotional detachment” factor, which includes superficial charm and skill at manipulating others, as well as an “anti-social behavior” factor, which includes poor impulse control and the tendency to engage in activities that are illegal.

Multiple studies have confirmed that run-of-the-mill psychopaths (often studied while in jail) score particularly high on anti-social behavior while successful psychopaths score higher on emotional detachment factors. For example, Babiak [11] looked at “industrial psychopaths” and found that they scored higher on “emotional” factors than “deviant life style” factors. Functioning smoothly in the corporate world, they had a “charming façade” that allowed them to easily manipulate others.

In a study of “disordered personalities at work” other researchers [12] were able to give personality tests to business managers and chief executives. They contrasted their personality scores to psychiatric patients and “mentally disordered offenders.” Compared to the mental patients, the corporate executives showed greater “emotional” components of personality disorder and less “acting out” (such as aggressiveness).

There were no clear-cut differences between “psychopaths” and “normals.”
The authors concluded that “participants drawn from the non-clinical population [i.e., business managers] had scores that merged indiscernibly with clinical distributions.” There were no clear-cut differences between “psychopaths” and “normals.” The most likely explanation of psychopathy is that, like any other personality dimension, it has a bell-shaped curve: a few people have almost none of the characteristics, most people have some characteristics of psychopathy, and a few people have a lot. The most visible outlets for people high on psychopathy scales are petty con artists and corporate conniving. Operating in different worlds, their psychopathy expresses itself in different ways.

Now that it is clear that a streak of psychopathy runs through the 1%, it would be worthwhile to go back to those who espouse that “there is no ethic which requires we treat him [the psychopath] as we treat other adults” and ask if that would apply to corporate psychopaths as well. Will editors of scholarly volumes seek out articles heaping abuse on the 1% with the same vigor with which they find articles despising prison inmates? Will academics proclaim that “public health needs” dictate that we suspend civil liberties of corporate executives even if they “have not been convicted of any crime?” Will professors compare the “needed treatment” of the 1% to the “necessary slaughter” of animals?

Since academics know very well where funding for their research comes from, my guess is that they will be a wee bit less harsh on the corporate class than the jailed burglar who provides no grant money. We can be confident that the Tea Party will not be proposing that, if corporate psychopaths who blast the tops off of mountains wreak a thousand times the havoc of petty thieves who steal copper wire from air conditioners, then their punishments should be 1000 times as great.

Yet, it is important not to overstate the evidence and suggest that every capitalist is a psychopath. Not all corporate executives score high on scales of psychopathy. This is likely because many actually believe their ideology of greed makes for a better world.

Fitz also offers plausible explanations for various studies indicating that, on average, test subjects of a higher income have lower levels of empathy while test subjects of a lower income have higher levels of empathy:

Compassion reflects the opposite of psychopathy. When those with wealth and power plan to strangle social security, they never say they intend to hurt people, but rather they want to help them stand on their own. When corporations drive native people from forests, they tell us it is part of their grand scheme to stop climate change. Are we to believe that they are just as compassionate as everyone else…but that they reveal their compassion in their own way? There is now good evidence that there are, in fact, class differences in levels of compassion.

Social class could be linked to compassion more than to any other emotion.
By definition, the rich and powerful have more material resources and spend more of their time telling others what to do. Those with fewer material resources get told what to do. As a result, the rich value independence and autonomy while those with less money think of themselves as more interdependent with others. [13] In other words, the rich prize the image of the “rugged individual” while the rest of us focus on what group we belong to.

How do people explain the extremely unequal distribution of wealth? Those with more money attribute it to “dispositional” causes—they believe that people get rich because their personality leads them to work harder and get what they deserve. Those with less money more often attribute inequality to “external” factors—people’s wealth is due largely to events beyond their control, such as being born into a rich family or having good breaks in life. [14]

People with fewer financial resources live in more threatening environments, whether from potential violence, being unable to pay medical bills, or fearing the possibility of being evicted from their homes. This means that social classes differ in the way that they view the world from an early age. Children from less financially secure homes respond to descriptions of threatening and ambiguous social scenarios with higher blood pressure and heart rate. [15] Adults with lower incomes are also more reactive to emotional situations than are those with more money.

This means that people with fewer financial resources are more attentive to others’ emotions. Since low income people are more sensitive to emotional signals, they might pay more attention to the needs of others and show more altruism in response to suffering.

This was the thinking behind research linking higher income to less compassion. In one study people either watched a neutral video or one depicting a child suffering from cancer. People with lower income had more change in their heart rate and reported feeling more compassion. But they did not rate other emotions as higher. Social class could be linked to compassion more than to any other emotion. [16]

In another study, people reported their emotions toward a partner when the two of them went through a hypothetical job interview. Lower income people perceived more distress in their partners and expressed more compassion toward them. Again, they did not report more intense feelings of other emotions. Nor did participants show more compassion toward people with the same income level as their own. [17]

Like most psychological research, these findings are limited by their use of university students. This makes it hard to conclude that their findings apply to those not in school. Of course, it is quite possible that effects would be even stronger in situations that are far more intense than the somewhat mild experiences that occur in psychological laboratories. A greater problem is interpreting psychological findings as showing absolute differences between groups rather than shades of grey.

It would not be accurate to claim that research proves that the 1% have no compassion while all of the 99% do. But it strongly implies that the 1% feel less compassion, whether watching a videotape of suffering or participating in a live social interaction. Also, lab studies are consistent with findings that people with fewer financial resources give a higher proportion of what they do have to charity. In economic game research, they give more to others. [18]

The greatest reason is the huge jump in happiness as people move out of poverty …
This line of research confirms that (1) people with fewer financial resources identify with a larger “in-group;” (2) “attention to and recognition of suffering is a prerequisite step before compassion can take place;” and (3) “moral emotion is not randomly distributed across social classes…” [19] Compassion toward the suffering of others is less likely among the 1%.

He follows this with a recap of studies indicating how once the accumulation of wealth and material possessions get people above poverty level, it generally doesn’t correlate to increased levels of happiness. There tends to be a “tolerance” effect for happiness derived from wealth while social connection and altruism are more important for sustained happiness for most non-psychopaths. In his conclusion, Fitz argues that for corporate psychopaths, obtaining wealth and power is an addiction with harmful consequences for everyone and the entire planet, and it’s a societal problem requiring nothing less than a cultural transformation to solve:

The 1% could easily find compassion getting in their way as their actions affect an increasing number of lives. Gaining enough wealth to move out of poverty makes a significant difference in the life satisfaction of a person who has little. Gaining the same amount of wealth has no effect on the happiness of the very rich. They must grab the wealth of many impoverished people in order to have a perceptible increase in happiness. As for a drug addict, the rush from an increase in material possessions of those who already have more than enough is merely a temporary fix.

Soon they will have to prevent even more from rising out of poverty if they are to get another short-term happiness rush. Whether the rush is from the actual possessions or the power that they manifest, it still won’t be enough. They must increase the rate of wealth accumulation that they push through their veins. If those with spectacular quantities of obscene wealth are to get their next high, they cannot merely snort enough happiness objects to prevent masses of people from rising out of poverty—they have to manipulate markets to grind an ever-increasing number into poverty.

The petty psychopath and the grand corporate psychopath seek happiness through the act of obtaining material possessions as much as having them. A major difference between them is that the grand psychopath has the ability to cause so much harm. Even more important, the amount of harm that corporate psychopaths cause grows at an exponential rate. Their financial schemes are no longer millions or billions, but now trillions. Not content to drive individual farmers off their land, they design trade deals that force entire countries to plow under the ability to feed their own people and replace it with cash crops to feed animals or produce biofuels.

Finding that the pollution of small communities generates insufficient funds, they blow off the tops of mountain ranges for coal, raze boreal forests for tar sands, attack aquatic ecosystems with deep sea drilling, and contaminate massive natural water systems by mining gold or fracking for gas. While the petty psychopath may become proficient enough to become a godfather, the grand psychopath is driven not merely to planetary destruction but to a frenetic increase in the rate of destruction at precisely the moment when the tipping point of climate change is most haunting. A natural question might seem to follow: Would getting rid of the current batch of corporate psychopaths benefit the world greatly? Actually, no. It would do no good whatsoever because what psychologists call the “reward contingencies” of the corporate world would still exist. The fact that capitalism prizes accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the many would mean that, even if the worst corporate criminals disappeared, they would soon be replaced by marketplace clones.

Progressives should avoid using the same “categorical” model so adored by right wing theorists for its utility in hating the poor. A much better explanation for psychopathy among the 1% is that the corporate drive to put profits before all else encourages norms of manipulating people without compassion. The more readily corporate leaders succumb to this mind set, the more likely they will be to climb the ladder. As the corporate mentality dominates society, it reproduces its attitudes and expectations of behavior throughout every organization, institution and individual it touches.

In challenging what the market does to our souls, Alan Nasser said it so well:

A certain kind of society tends to produce a certain kind of person. More precisely, it discourages the development of certain human capacities and fosters the development of others. Aristotle, Rousseau, Marx and Dewey were the philosophers who were most illuminating on this. They argued that the postures required by successful functioning in a market economy tend to insinuate themselves into those areas of social intercourse which take place outside of the realm of the market proper. The result, they claimed, was that the arena for potentially altruistic and sympathetic behavior shrinks over time as society is gradually transformed into a huge marketplace. [35]As mentioned, there are differences in compassion and types of psychopathy between high and low income people. But the differences are not large. Perhaps, even in the corporate board room, many feel the old norms of group loyalty. It is also possible that differences are small, not because of the unwillingness of corporate executives to be ultra-manipulative, but because capitalism pushes everyone toward a “use people” mode.

Thus, building a new society involves going beyond equalizing material wealth. It means changing the core nature of interpersonal relationships. This requires vastly reducing the emphasis on material possessions. Relationships of people to people can never flourish as long as relationships of people to objects reign supreme.

As long as society continues to be deeply divided between those who tell others what to do and those who get told, it will not be possible to establish the emotional sharing that is the basis of widespread altruism. If the 1% are to develop the same level of understanding of others that the 99% has, they will need to walk in their shoes. If they continue to be the ones who live their lives telling others what to do while the rest of us continue being told what to do, they will not develop levels of compassion typical of the 99%.

This means that in office jobs, they should be able to share the joys of typing letters rather than ordering others to type for them. If we decide mining is necessary, those who are now the 1% should get to know that work life. In work at home, they should not be excluded from washing toilets but should participate in the same human activities as the rest of society. Creating a world of universal compassion requires a world of shared experiences.

Read the full article here:

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