The Inuit coined the word Kunlanget for someone who “repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and does not go hunting and, when the other men are out of the village, takes sexual advantage of many women.” The Yoruba people of Nigeria describe an Aranakan as an individual who “always goes his own way regardless of others, who is unco-operative, full of malice, and bullheaded.” Remind you of anyone with access to nuclear launch codes?
Humanity has seemingly co-evolved with a parasitic cohort most recently known as psychopaths, which research reveals represents about one per cent of the population. The quintessential antagonist of the human myth across millennia, the empathically impaired have become baked into human lore, undermining our innate desire to trust each other.
Even with scientific awareness of this ancient scourge, modern society has been slow to act on emerging knowledge and has arguably instead allowed psychopathic individuals to accumulate at the highest levels of business, and apparently even the Oval Office.
A study of 206 corporate professionals from seven companies found rates of “possible or potential” psychopathy five times higher than in the general population, and full-blown psychopathy was 15 times as common. Among the nine participants within this sample who scored highest in psychopathic screening, seven were vice-presidents, directors or managers. In spite of empathic impairment seen in only the most dangerous members of the prison population, the authors noted these individuals had “achieved considerable rank and status within their respective organizations.”
Which brings us to President Donald Trump. The most unavoidable psychopath in the world continues to shock the world with his aberrant behaviour, but should we really be so surprised? Every day — and especially this week — Trump has provided a clinic on classic psychopathic symptoms such as laser focus on self-interest, serial deception, reckless contempt for norms, and preoccupation with perceived status.
As the author of a 2019 Atlantic article naming the danger posed by Trump’s mental state tweeted today:
Now Trump’s own cabinet members belatedly are considering invoking the 25th Amendment to declare him unfit for office in order to prevent his selfish malevolence from further damaging his own party, America’s system of government and citizenry, and the world.
While the media remains focused on partisan political rivalry, is not the real divide between psychopathy and the other 99 per cent of humanity?
As the Trump presidency careens towards conclusion, this seems like an opportune time to itemize the societal costs of his dangerous condition as well as potential solutions. Is there any lemonade to be made from such a disastrous administration that has waged a full frontal assault on democracy and presided over 360,000 largely preventable deaths? We must harness this wrenching moment as a vivid reminder that ignoring psychopathy is perilous, and that emerging tools are increasingly available to mitigate the societal mayhem from this frightening condition.
Psychopathy is estimated to cost the U.S. economy $460 billion in violent crime-related costs alone each year. This is a far larger societal burden than substance abuse ($329 billion), obesity ($200 billion) or smoking ($172 billion). Many other non-violent costs are attributed to this affliction, like workplace harassment. A psychopathic president might have little interest in battling a global pandemic or the global climate crisis, instead marshalling the vast powers of elected office for self-enrichment, subverting democracy or aggrandizing their ego. Sound familiar?
Seizing on the teachable moment created by Trump and prioritizing proven solutions to mitigate psychopathy could provide vast benefits. Tailored treatment programs for at-risk youth — while expensive in the short term — have been shown to pay off sevenfold in reduced recidivism. Such cold calculations do not of course account for the terrible personal costs endured daily by the millions of victims of violent crimes or sexual assaults throughout their lifetimes. A sad irony is that for the mayhem inflicted on others by those solely focused on self-interest, psychopaths are largely unable to experience joy due to an innate emotional deafness.
At the other end of the societal spectrum, reliable screening tools for psychopaths have been adopted around the world and if backed up by public policy, could help companies to ensure that those entrusted with fiduciary responsibilities are medically capable of doing so. We don’t allow the legally blind to become airline pilots. Why then should those with severe empathic impairment be allowed to hold positions of power that legally require them to act in the interests of others rather than themselves?
Any direct attempt at regulating presumptive guilt based on brain chemistry would be a non-starter for a variety of obvious reasons. However, the alternative of continuing to ignore the mounting prevalence of psychopathy within positions of power is arguably more disastrous. Some researchers have attributed the 2008 financial crisis to an accumulation of this dangerous disorder within the leadership of the global financial sector. If true, psychopathy could have contributed to over $6 trillion in avoidable losses due to reckless behavior and pathological self-interest emblematic of the condition.
What to do? Every major company requires directors and officers’ liability insurance as well as fidelity coverage. Insurers are rightly focused on limiting risk and should use the best available tools to do so. Psychopathic screening is an excellent predictor of malfeasance as evidenced by years of mandated testing in the penal system. Other medical measurements like MRI scans have been shown to impartially identify those with clinical empathic impairment.
Since insurance is a simple legal contract between two parties, a psychopath occupying a fiduciary role identified through routine screening would merely be deemed uninsurable rather than requiring a litigious dismissal process, and as such would need to find a new line of work.
So why isn’t this happening? Effective screening has been available for years yet the insurance industry is not using the best tools to identify risk. The reasons are understandable. What company would want to take such a lead, potentially driving clients to their competitors? This is where regulators can mandate such a level playing field and begin to exclude the most inherently reckless individuals from senior management of the largest companies and the biggest banks.
Much of the regulatory groundwork is already in place. In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that established a federal role for regulating insurers. This law also defined Systemically Important Financial Institutions whose failure might trigger another financial crisis, as well as establishing a Federal Insurance Office to oversee the industry.
The incoming Biden Administration now in control of the U.S. Senate could amend Dodd-Frank to require insurers of SIFIs to screen senior managers to ensure they are medically capable of carrying out fiduciary responsibilities, and require the same of American trading partners.
Individual Americans may have the greatest influence of all in confronting psychopathy. After the shocking events this week, should not voters begin to demand documentary evidence from those standing for public office that they are not likewise empathically impaired? That America is witnessing an ongoing attempted coup underlines the importance of never again allowing another psychopath into the Oval Office.
If there was ever a moment for bold action against this ancient burden, that time is now — thanks largely to a certain psychopathic president.