17 March 2012

Harvard Business Review: Psychopaths on Wall Street

I think that the salient point in all this, the technical details of percent and depth of psychopathy in the US financial industry aside, is that self-regulation is at best a vulnerable strategy in any human concern involving trust, but is absolute folly in an industry where the emphasis and incentives are based on the ruthless pursuit of performance at any cost, and where such behaviour is lauded.

There is little doubt that strong personality types such as even marginal psychopaths can hijack an organization, a party, or even a sub-culture given the right environment of moral relativism and complacency. And if successful, they bring more of the morally ambivalent and weak-willed along with them.
"I may have made an error in judgement...but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up to leader of a people of almost 80 million... His success alone proved that I should subordinate myself to him."

Adolf Eichmann
The efficient market hypothesis is more a clever cover story than a legitimate scientific observation worthy of consideration in public policy discussions.   Transparency and oversight are absolutely essential in all financial matters.

The financial system, and their amoral enablers in politics and the media, have done enough damage to the world. It is time to have a stop.

Harvard Business Review
Psychopaths on Wall Street
by Ronald Schouten, MD, JD
Wednesday March 14, 2012

Psychopaths are the subject of endless fascination. We tend to apply that term loosely to people who engage in bad acts, ranging from pathological lying and repeated deception to major fraud and serial killing. Psychopaths rival pedophiles in the panoply of those we despise and fear. Given this fascination with psychopathy, and the public's current negative view of Wall Street (see Greg Smith's op-ed column in The New York Times about his resignation from Goldman Sachs), it is no surprise that Twitter, the blogosphere, and traditional media have been buzzing about "The Financial Psychopath Next Door," an article in CFA Magazine by Sherree DeCovny (subscription required).

The headline-grabbing factoid in the article was an estimate that 10% of people in the financial services industry are psychopaths. And that's a conservative estimate, according to Christopher Bayer, a Wall Street psychotherapist cited by DeCovny.

DeCovny describes "financial psychopaths" as individuals who seek thrills, lack empathy, don't care about what others think, are charming and intelligent, and are skilled at lying and manipulation. Citing Richard Peterson, managing partner of MarketPsych (a firm that provides psychological and behavioral finance training for the industry), DeCovny notes that these are some of the traits that also predict success on Wall Street.

To understand the implications of all this, it helps to define psychopathy. It is a psychological condition based on well-established diagnostic criteria. These include glibness and superficial charm, conning and manipulative behavior, lack of remorse and empathy, refusal to take responsibility for one's behavior, and others.

Determining whether a person is a psychopath is generally done using a test like the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), developed by Robert Hare and his colleagues. People who are "normal" invariably score a few points on such scales. True psychopaths score in the top 25%.

Using formal diagnostic criteria, researchers have estimated that about 1% of Americans — about 3 million people — are psychopaths. Based on statistics alone, there are some true psychopaths on Wall Street, as there are in all walks of life. The odds increase further when we consider the competitive advantage that some of the characteristics of psychopathy, including willingness to take risks, can provide in the field.

Psychopathy is mistakenly regarded as an all or nothing affair: you either are a psychopath or you aren't. If that were the case, saying that 10% of people on Wall Street are psychopaths could actually be somewhat comforting, since it implies that the remaining 90% are not and so shouldn't cause us any concern...

But there is good news. First of all, it is possible to screen out almost and full-blown psychopaths during the hiring process and after. Some of the key indicators are:
Glibness and superficial charm
Lack of empathy
Consistent decisions in their self interest, even where it is ethically questionable
Chronic, sometimes transparent lies, even with regard to minor things
Lack of remorse
Failure to take responsibility for their actions, and instead blaming others
Shallow emotions
Ignoring responsibilities
Persistent focus on gratifying their own needs at the expense of others
Conning and manipulative behavior
The only way to deal with a true psychopath is to get him or her out of the organization as fast as possible. While full-blown psychopaths are not deterred by fear and do not learn from punishment, "almost psychopaths" can get the message that adverse consequences will follow misconduct. As a result, strictly enforced firm policies can be effective in deterring those who may be tempted to engage in illicit conduct. As long as the firm wants to deter them.

Read the entire article here.

What I find most disturbing is that checklist sounds like a screening tool for political candidates.