There has been a meme floating around in the last few years of corporate psychopathy. Actually there are two ideas here: co-workers as (potential or actual) psychopaths; and corporations as psychopaths. It is the latter I find interesting.
Let me explain. In the US at least, corporations have had many of the rights of natural persons for many years. The most famous example of this is the recent supreme court decision relating to election funding (specifically striking down provisions in the McCain–Feingold Act that prohibited all corporations and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications”).
So, if corporations benefit from many of the rights of people, shouldn’t they be similarly judged by their acts?
DSM V, the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Associations’ Diagnostic and Statistic Manual for Mental Disorders, proposes a number of criteria for antisocial personality disorder:
- Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
Pathological personality traits in the following domains:
- Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
- Identity: Ego-centrism; self-esteem derived from personal gain, power, or pleasure.
- Self-direction: Goal-setting based on personal gratification; absence of prosocial internal standards associated with failure to conform to lawful or culturally normative ethical behavior.
- Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
- Empathy: Lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others; lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another.
- Intimacy: Incapacity for mutually intimate relationships, as exploitation is a primary means of relating to others, including by deceit and coercion; use of dominance or intimidation to control others.
The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
- Antagonism, characterized by:
- Manipulativeness: Frequent use of subterfuge to influence or control others; use of seduction, charm, glibness, or ingratiation to achieve one’s ends.
- Deceitfulness: Dishonesty and fraudulence; misrepresentation of self; embellishment or fabrication when relating events.
- Callousness: Lack of concern for feelings or problems of others; lack of guilt or remorse about the negative or harmful effects of one’s actions on others; aggression; sadism.
- Hostility: Persistent or frequent angry feelings; anger or irritability in response to minor slights and insults; mean, nasty, or vengeful behavior.
- Disinhibition, characterized by:
- Irresponsibility: Disregard for – and failure to honor – financial and other obligations or commitments; lack of respect for – and lack of follow through on – agreements and promises.
- Impulsivity: Acting on the spur of the moment in response to immediate stimuli; acting on a momentary basis without a plan or consideration of outcomes; difficulty establishing and following plans.
- Risk taking: Engagement in dangerous, risky, and potentially self-damaging activities, unnecessarily and without regard for consequences; boredom proneness and thoughtless initiation of activities to counter boredom; lack of concern for one’s limitations and denial of the reality of personal danger.
OK, let’s do some diagnosing.
A1 is pretty straightforward. Most corporates pass a or b or both.
A2a is slightly more difficult, but again many corporates pass, while A2b is pretty much the definition of being an employee.
B1 is harder. A diagnosis for a corporate would have be based on a or c, but certainly many PR/investor relations/government affairs groups have an element of B1a about what they do, while B1c can be met simply by the pursuit of profit at the expense of (most) other things.
I would not argue B2a or b are common in corporates, so we need B2c to get a diagnosis. Sadly (or fortunately depending on your point of view), that is not easy either. Yes, corporations take risk, but typically not unnecessarily’ and without regard for consequences. Moreover, while some display ‘a lack of concern for [their] limitations’, they at least try not to. That is what risk management is about. So it seems we stumble on the requirement for disinhibition in our diagnosis.
C and E are straightforward passes for many corporates, but D is difficult too as, frankly, the way corporates behave is normative, at least in North American culture. So, reluctantly, while I think that a lot of what corporates do is antisocial, it would be hard to make a case for involunatry commitment (or sectioning, as we call it in the UK) under the DSM V criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Badly behaved, yes; psychopaths, (mostly) no. Before you get too comfortable though, check out the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Personality Disorder Trait Specified: these are a lot easier for corporates to pass…