Wednesday’s episode of Horizon on BBC2 reveals a shocking truth concerning the nature of corporate culture and the types of individuals it nurtures.
BBC2′s Horizon documentary on Wednesday was an eye opener to say the least. Entitled ‘are you good or evil’ it sets about explaining recent developments in neuroscience and how scientists are beginning to recognise the kind of brain patterns and genes that characterise a psychopathic personality. The kinds of advances we are witnessing in these fields never fail to amaze me. They are allowing us to peer deeper into the human psyche than we ever have before and what we are finding is often quite disturbing and unsettling. It’s a fascinating and highly philosophical field which is helping us get to grips with what it actually is to be human and why we are the way we are.
The programme featured Prof Jim Fallon, who’s was given a number of brain scans by a colleague and asked to sort them into distinctive groups. He had no prior knowledge concerning the recipients of these brain scans but found a distinct difference in some of them and so grouped these seperately. It turned out that every one of the brain scans in this distinctly different group belonged to a convicted murderer or psychopath. Further studies into genes reveals how the MAOA gene (also referred to as the ‘warrior gene’) is another important precursor in an individual propensity to psychopathy. It seemed that scientific research was beginning to reveal a distinct neural and genetic template for a psychopath. But this was only half the story. It is the combination of these two factors along with the social trigger of an abusive or troubled childhood that sees to cause psychoapthy to fully develop.
This is all very fascinating, but what really made me think was the announcement of a simple statistic whose implications seemed to stretch far beyond the remit of the programme. Far beyond the remit of science infact. The issues thrown up by Horizon are at once ethical, social and political in their implications. Perhaps even economic. It seems that psychopathic personalities are much more common than we would perhaps realise and that these personalities can operate within society quite normally. Indeed, in some scenarios they can positively thrive. It turns out that psychopathic personalities have been found to exist in far greater concentrations in the boardrooms of big businesses and corporations. Infact there are four times more psychopaths these groups of people than there are in a normal cross section of society.
Now lets just take that statistic in shall we. Four times as many psychopaths in the gleaming towers and citadels of London’s square mile than walk the streets far below. Four times greater a concentration of unempathetic, manipulative, charming and potentially viscous people betting billions of pounds of savers money on risky financial investments, playing the stockmarkets, earning the big bucks until… well until the whole house of cards came crashing down in 2008. It seems there are times when the results of rigorous scientific research reveals what people quite often observe anecdotally within a given system or society. This is one of those occasions.
Lets look at wikipedias definition of a psychopath.
“The prototypical psychopath has deficits or deviance in several areas: interpersonal relationships, emotion, and behavior. Psychopaths gain satisfaction through antisocial behavior, and do not experience shame, guilt, or remorse for their actions. Psychopaths lack a sense of guilt or remorse for any harm they may have caused others, instead rationalizing the behavior, blaming someone else, or denying it outright. Psychopaths also lack empathy towards others in general, resulting in tactlessness, insensitivity, and contemptuousness. Psychopaths can have a superficial charm about them, enabled by a willingness to say anything to anyone without concern for accuracy or truth. Shallow affect also describes the psychopath’s tendency for genuine emotion to be short-lived, glib and egocentric, with an overall cold demeanor. They tend to be impulsive and irresponsible, often failing to keep a job or defaulting on debts.“
We can now accurately and detachedly observe that some of the most fundamental institutions of our nation’s financial wealth and the pillars of our economy, have much higher concentrations of psychopaths making decisions at the top levels than in normal cross sections of society. It is no wonder then, that this tendency fostered such a consequence free environment; an environment that became so engrained into corporate culture that it became systemic throughout the entire free market economies of the world. It has always been self evident that very few men at the top of these organisations saw the dangers lurking around the corner. But maybe many did and they just didn’t really care about the consequences. Greed has always been prescribed as the driving force of this collective corporate myopia, but could we add psychopathy as a factor as well?
This kind of clinical description not only seems to describe individuals but systems and practices in general. In many ways it offers up explanations for a lot of the post banking crisis behaviour we have seen from banks and financial institutions and the individuals that run them. These institutions, many of which in the UK are now majority tax payer owned, seem to have absolved themselves of all blame, perhaps occasionally feigning guilt when public relations requires them to do so. They are antisocial, in that they have no concern for the damage they have caused and their egocentricity is surely self evident.
I don’t know about you, but if the consequences of curbing obscene bankers bonuses means a move towards a less finance sector dependent economy in the long term, and less psychopathic bankers at the helm of the British economy in the short term, then I’ll help chip in for their plane tickets myself.