Is the Age of the Psychopath Over?

Mark Chadbourn
Aug 11, 2014 · 8 min read

Look around you. Out on the street, all those faces. They look just like you. But some of them aren’t like you at all. They’re so different, they might as well be another species. They are the secret masters of this world, and they always have been.

If you think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we live our lives…if you think the game is rigged…that politics, business, commerce, warfare, produce terrible, unnecessary outcomes…it’s probably down to them.

There’s a very good reason why you instinctively recognize it (no, you’re not being paranoid). But now, after thousands of years of civilization, we might be moving into an age where you’re not beaten down, hounded, tricked and marched towards the sound of gunfire. And it’s happening for the same technology-driven reasons that every other aspect of life is being disrupted in this modern communication age.

Google’s corporate motto – Don’t Be Evil – may actually turn out to be of greater importance than anyone imagined.

Who are the Psychopaths?

The word ‘psychopath’ summons up images of Hannibal Lecter’s dead eyes in the depths of his shadowy cell. The truth is more mundane, but just as frightening.

Psychopaths are everywhere in life.

The term was first used two hundred years ago when doctors noticed some of their patients had no ethical sense, and couldn’t grasp that other people had rights. The definition has switched around over the years, and been refined – psychologists preferred the term sociopaths for a while, but have now returned to the original. But in general terms psychopaths are cold-hearted, insincere, over-confident, irresponsible, selfish, and they have little empathy for anyone else.

That lack of caring allows them to do quite awful things to other people to advance their own cause.

The Psychopathy Checklist, devised by psychologist Robert Hare, is the tool most widely used to diagnose psychopaths. It shows that about one per cent of the world’s population are what we might call full-blown psychopaths (and note that’s around seventy million people).

But here’s the important fact: psychopathy is not a ring-fenced state. It exists on a spectrum, like autism. Most of us have a little bit of it inside us – it’s how we manage to overcome obstacles and get on in the world. Some of us have a great deal of it without ever reaching the level defined by the Psychopathy Checklist. (And if you don’t believe me, try this fun test: Your Psychopathic Traits)

In this civilization we’ve built for ourselves, the traits you need to get to the top are the very traits that define psychopathy, neatly summed up in the phrase “Nice guys finish last” – which was, no doubt, invented by a psychopath to justify their behavior.

In his book, The Psychopath Test, journalist Jon Ronson tests ‘Chainsaw Al’ Dunlap, the former CEO of Sunbeam, who joyously laid off thousands of workers in search of profit. In the book, Dunlap redefines the items in the test as business positives.

Al Dunlap

“The thing that’s so startling about his story,” Ronson says, “is that the more ruthlessly and remorselessly psychopathically he behaved when he was heading up Sunbeam and the company before Sunbeam – Scott – the more he was rewarded. Capitalism rewarded psychopathy, and I don’t think that’s a one-off.”

But this doesn’t just apply to business – it’s anywhere that power resides – politics, the media, the Church, foreign dictatorships and your city council. The psychopath always gains.

Masters and Servants

The system of gaining power over others could have been designed to benefit psychopaths. They instinctively know how to claw their way up that ladder, gaining an advantage by doing things that more empathic people would never dream of doing. The rewards of power have always drawn the psychopath because it feeds the hungers that drive them.

William the Conqueror

Through that prism the history of the world – which is the history of gaining power – looks very different. We can clearly see the hand of full-blown psychopaths in the atrocities they have committed, the acts that show no empathy for the suffering of any other human. The passing of the years numbs us. But consider William of Normandy, who conquered England in 1066 and slaughtered a tenth of the population – babies and the elderly – to cement his rule, then burned food stocks and salted fields so many more would starve in the harsh winter. In the twentieth century, examples are too numerous to mention.

But then also consider those who are merely well along the psychopath spectrum, the ones who have risen to the top in politics, happily inflicting misery to achieve their ideological aims, or those in business who can ruin lives in search of profit. The Establishment.

In an interview with Time, Ronson adds, “I tend to believe the theory that it’s the solution to a huge number of mysteries about how things are going in this world, everything from corruption in companies to genocide. Just look at the dictators, look at their grandiosity, their pathological lying, their lack of empathy, their lack of remorse. I know there’s a terrible seductive danger in seeing psychopaths everywhere, but sometimes it’s just impossible not to.”

The history of the world is the history of the psychopath. Our masters for thousands of years.

But all that may well be changing, because the system is changing.

A New Age?

Over the last few years, technological disruption is shattering all sorts of norms, and now it’s reaching a point where it’s cutting into the very architecture of the way we organize ourselves. In his book, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, Nicco Mele, a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, discusses how technology is re-shaping business, the media, leisure, politics, the military, Government and education.

“Our institutions have in fact failed us,” he says. “Building a sustainable economy, for instance, that allows us to avert the catastrophic consequences of global warming seems hopeless in the face of big government, big business, and a dozen other big institutions. Ultimately technological advances provide unprecedented opportunities for us to reshape our future for the better.”

But while Mele examines the systemic change, he doesn’t address the human element: that the new system which is slowly emerging will not be so beneficial to the psychopaths among us.

The nature of this new system is hinted at in another recent book – The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by MIT academics Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The authors discuss the carnage that will be wreaked in the world of employment as a diverse range of jobs are taken over by technology – from accountancy to long-distance truck driving.

All the skills that were needed to rise to the top will no longer be relevant in this new-dawning society, they say. But Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify one particular element that technology cannot, for now, replicate and which will be the main driver – and the main source of power – in the years to come: ideation, or the creation of new ideas.

This is not one of the prime skills of the psychopath. Having new ideas – being smart – will get you on in the world, not being cunning, cruel, or having a sucking void where your conscience should be.

“To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice,” Brynjolfsson and McAfee say. “We think the data support this. We’ve seen not just vast increases in wealth but also, on the whole, more freedom, more social justice, less violence, and less harsh conditions for the least fortunate and greater opportunities for more and more people.”

To see this made flesh, you only have to look to the people who have risen to the top of the technology industry – by dint of their ideas – and who will be the template for the successful leaders of the future. They may be tough in the business sense, perhaps even ruthless, but many exhibit a degree of empathy that was rarely evident in the business leaders of the past.

Tim Cook

There’s Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook who admitted in a speech in December that his life was changed forever when, as a child, he witnessed Klansmen burning a cross outside the home of a black family. He told the audience that incident made him believe that human rights and dignity were values that needed to be acted upon. Apple believed deeply in “advancing humanity”, he said.

When Cook tells investors that Apple is serious about gay rights and environmentalism, this is not do-anything-for-profit. This is something we have not seen before, a company policy free of the taint of psychopathy.

When Bill Gates gives billions to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce extreme poverty and advance healthcare across the world, this goes far beyond the philanthropy of Victorian entrepreneurs. Sergey Brin pumps cash into good causes that benefit health, the environment or women’s issues, or spends time developing concepts that will make the world better, not simply to turn a profit. Mark Zuckerberg donates millions to charities that benefit heath and education, as does Google CEO Larry Page.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is not being cynical when he says, “Solutions emerge if you look for the positive.” Nor when he says, “The overwhelming majority of human beings are good and want to do good things.” Square CEO Jack Dorsey’s ten life lessons include ‘don’t be a jerk’, ‘be honest, always’, ‘be humble’ and ‘be kind’.

In fact, if you delve into the lives of all the major players in the developing tech economy, you will find philosophies completely at odds with the business leaders who have gone before. You will find empathy as a driving force. A new breed for a new age. Here, in the middle of it, it’s sometimes hard to see what a revolution this is. But make no mistake, we have never been here before.

As The End of Big tells us, all of our institutions are going to be disrupted. Top down power structures are failing. New architecture is emerging across society, built by the drive towards openness that characterizes the communication age, and demanding empathy. And we will see the rise of the kind of leaders who can thrive in this new environment.

There are those who would love to slow the pace of disruption. They’re afraid of losing what we had before (this is one of the themes running through Nicco Mele’s book). But seen from this perspective, if we’re after a true golden age, the opposite must be true.

Which brings us back to Google’s slogan: Don’t be Evil.

The evidence was there, right at the start of that globe-spanning, world-beating company. Don’t be evil, don’t be a psychopath. Your time has passed.

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