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In the movie American Psycho actor Christian Bale plays an up-and-coming corporate vice president who barbarically kills people in his off hours. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, this unremorseful psychopath exhibits the oft rewarded business traits of aggressiveness, ruthlessness and aloofness while in the corporate suite. He may be callous but he gets the job done especially when it comes to business card selection.

While the Patrick Bateman character is fiction, it may not be far from the truth, according to recent research into the psychology of CEOs who are responsible for bringing down the world's financial system. One researcher, Clive Boddy, Professor of Marketing at Nottingham Business School in England, has been studying what he and others call Corporate Psychopaths well before the current global meltdown. They have found significant evidence that many of these business leaders may well be psychopaths whose behavior mimics serial killers and other social deviants but without the blood and gore.

He writes in the Journal of Business Ethics
"In watching these events [the global financial meltdown] unfold it often appears that the senior directors involved walk away with a clean conscience and huge amounts of money. Further, they seem to be unaffected by the corporate collapses they have created. They present themselves as glibly unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings, and investments, and as lacking any regrets about what they have done. They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events are very persuasive in blaming others for what has happened and have no doubts about their own continued worth and value... Many of these people display several of the characteristics of psychopaths and some of them are undoubtedly true psychopaths."
The thought of having these monsters running global companies is chilling but I bet that many readers have seen these kinds of people in action in their own companies. Before we get too far ahead, though, let's define a psychopath. They are the 1 percent of people who have no conscience or empathy and don't care for anyone but themselves. Some are violent and end up in prison, while others live among us often functioning at a high level. (I didn't make up the 1 percent; it's an accepted number in medical/criminal literature.) What causes the dysfunction is not entirely known, but the most current research suggests abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry in the areas of the amygdala and orbital/ventrolateral frontal cortex. These people are cold, calculating, self-absorbed and believe that social norms don't apply to them.

Researchers suggest that these folks are able to rise to the top of companies without being found out because of the chaotic nature of modern corporate structures - especially rapid position-hopping - which makes their behavior almost invisible. They are not in one job long enough for co-workers and superiors to see their problems. In addition, their charm, charisma, and extroverted behavior not only appears normal but ideally suited for today's global, competitive world.

Boddy also notes that in modern companies it's relatively easier than in past years to claim success for a project even if you had little to do with it because of all the movement and team participation. "Success could thus be claimed by those with the loudest voice, the most influence and the best political skills. Corporate psychopaths have these skills in abundance and use them with ruthless and calculated efficiency," he writes.
Work in this area of psychology continues, and if nothing else it answers the question that many of us have pondered while watching financial leaders walk out of hearing rooms after explaining what happened.

"How can they live with themselves?"