Twelve years ago, when Robert Hare published his ground-breaking book on psychopathy, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, the author stated that psychopaths can found working the stock market and prowling corporate boardrooms.
Hare has now co-authored, with New York corporate psychologist Paul Babiak, a new book on that very subject.
Snakes in Suits (Regan Books/Harper- Collins) examines the phenomenon of white-collar psychopaths.
Most people associate psychopathy with serial murder and other violent crimes, but the majority of psychopaths are non-violent. Psychopathic executives do share common characteristics with thrill-killers, however.
They are manipulative and controlling, lack emotional depth, and care nothing about harm done to others as they go about their business. Often they are charming and likeable, although they're more likely to turn the charm around those who in positions of power, and act ruthlessly to those who are not.
"Think of a psychopath as a social predator who's attracted to areas where there is some sort of advantage to be obtained," says Hare in an interview.
They go where the action is, and the action is where you can get power and prestige and control.
"If you have somebody who has all the social skills, is fairly intelligent, attractive and raised in the right environment, this person isn't going to rob a bank, he's going to get in the bank." Hare, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and president of Darkstone Research Group, states that about one per cent of the general population fit the psychopathy profile. That area will be lower in certain areas, such as a convent or a social work agency, and higher in others -- law, politics and business.
"It's almost certainly higher than one per cent in the corporate world," says Hare. "Would you want a manager who scored well (in a psychopathy test) and could operate in a convent or a monastery quite well? Probably not. You'd want someone who's hard-driving and aggressive and can be ruthless when it's important to be ruthless.
"Many of these psychopathic traits can actually be advantageous and useful in business." Hare has developed a number of screening checklists for psychopaths, but doesn't feel companies need to use them when hiring people. He does, however, hope those in charge of hiring would look beyond the interview process, because psychopaths are so good at manipulating an interview to make an impression.
"Quite often we don't thoroughly investigate individuals right at the front end," says Hare, who says a person's credentials often go unchecked. "A psychopath with proper social skills and intelligence and who's reasonably good-looking can easily fake out any personnel manager. It's not very difficult to get in.
"We go by first impressions, and quite often if the impression is very favourable we don't go beyond that." Psychopaths thrive in chaotic situations.
In business, they do well in companies that have upsized or downsized or restructured, where the rules fall into a grey area.
"When things are changing so rapidly, nobody has a chance to keep track of someone," says Hare. "In the old days, you had a stable corporate structure where everyone knew everyone else and you worked your way up. Nowadays, people are parachuted in. There are corporate takeovers. You don't know who's doing what. That's a good environment for (psychopaths)." We hear of those with psychopathic tendencies who have crashed and burned -- Enron executives, for example -- but too often psychopaths continue to thrive.
"One of the themes of our new book is someone who did just that," says Hare.
"Many of these people crash and burn, but a lot of them don't."