A few months ago, there was quite a bit of talk about a BBC story on Alessio Rastani, a self-described “independent trader,” who indicated he couldn’t care less what the European financial crisis did to people’s lives. For him it was all about making money and another recession would enable him to make plenty. Andrew Leonard of Salon tied the story together with and article in Der Spiegel on a Swiss study of traders. The results showed that these people
behaved more egotistically and were more willing to take risks than a group of psychopaths who took the same test.”
Particularly shocking for [Thomas] Noll [researcher] was the fact that the bankers weren’t aiming for higher winnings than their comparison group. Instead they were more interested in achieving a competitive advantage. Instead of taking a sober and businesslike approach to reaching the highest profit, “it was most important to the traders to get more than their opponents,” Noll explained. “And they spent a lot of energy trying to damage their opponents.”
Using a metaphor to describe the behavior, Noll said the stockbrokers behaved as though their neighbor had the same car, “and they took after it with a baseball bat so they could look better themselves.”
The researchers were unable to explain this penchant for destruction, they said.
Yesterday, Dakinikat sent me a Bloomberg article by William D. Cohan about a British academic’s “theory” on the causes of the financial crisis: Did Psychopaths Take Over Wall Street Asylum?
It took a relatively obscure former British academic to propagate a theory of the financial crisis that would confirm what many people suspected all along: The “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of our financial institutions are to blame.
Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”
As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”
Of course this isn’t a scientific study, but it certainly makes intuitive sense. Boddy blames changes in corporate culture for the problem.
Until the last third of the 20th century, he writes, companies were mostly stable and slow to change. Lifetime employment was a reasonable expectation and people rose through the ranks.
This stable environment meant corporate psychopaths “would be noticeable and identifiable as undesirable managers because of their selfish egotistical personalities and other ethical defects.”
For Wall Street — a rapidly changing and highly dynamic corporate environment if there ever was one, especially when the firms transformed themselves from private partnerships into public companies with quarterly reporting requirements — the trouble started when these charmers made their way to corner offices of important financial institutions.
There they supposedly changed many of the moral and ethical values that previously had guided businesspeople. This theory seems somewhat flawed, since it doesn’t explain how these men differed from the 19th century robber barons. But I haven’t read Roddy’s original articles. Perhaps he explains this inconsistency in his argument. I would argue that these kinds of people have always been involved in business and probably in politics too.
Case in point: Mitt Romney. I urge you to read the new article about Romney in Vanity Fair: The Meaning of Mitt: The Dark Side of Mitt Romney. The article is based on a new book about Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, The Real Romney. There’s no way I can briefly summarize the piece or excerpt all the important parts. The article focuses on Romney’s attitudes toward family, his deep involvement with his Mormon religion, and his business career. If you read it, you’ll recognize characteristic signs of the psychopath–coldness, calculation, lack of empathy for others, self-involvement. The only thing missing is the charisma that these people often have.
There are multiple examples of Romney’s insensitivity toward women and women’s autonomy in the article, and his career as a corporate raider and junk bond pusher are described in detail. I’ll give you just one shocking example of Romney’s attitude toward women’s rights in his role as “spiritual leader.”
Peggie Hayes had joined the church as a teenager along with her mother and siblings. They’d had a difficult life. Mormonism offered the serenity and stability her mother craved. “It was,” Hayes said, “the answer to everything.” Her family, though poorer than many of the well-off members, felt accepted within the faith. Everyone was so nice. The church provided emotional and, at times, financial support. As a teenager, Hayes babysat for Mitt and Ann Romney and other couples in the ward. Then Hayes’s mother abruptly moved the family to Salt Lake City for Hayes’s senior year of high school. Restless and unhappy, Hayes moved to Los Angeles once she turned 18. She got married, had a daughter, and then got divorced shortly after. But she remained part of the church.
By 1983, Hayes was 23 and back in the Boston area, raising a 3-year-old daughter on her own and working as a nurse’s aide. Then she got pregnant again. Single motherhood was no picnic, but Hayes said she had wanted a second child and wasn’t upset at the news. “I kind of felt like I could do it,” she said. “And I wanted to.” By that point Mitt Romney, the man whose kids Hayes used to watch, was, as bishop of her ward, her church leader. But it didn’t feel so formal at first. She earned some money while she was pregnant organizing the Romneys’ basement. The Romneys also arranged for her to do odd jobs for other church members, who knew she needed the cash. “Mitt was really good to us. He did a lot for us,” Hayes said. Then Romney called Hayes one winter day and said he wanted to come over and talk. He arrived at her apartment in Somerville, a dense, largely working-class city just north of Boston. They chitchatted for a few minutes. Then Romney said something about the church’s adoption agency. Hayes initially thought she must have misunderstood. But Romney’s intent became apparent: he was urging her to give up her soon-to-be-born son for adoption, saying that was what the church wanted. Indeed, the church encourages adoption in cases where “a successful marriage is unlikely.”
Hayes was deeply insulted. She told him she would never surrender her child. Sure, her life wasn’t exactly the picture of Rockwellian harmony, but she felt she was on a path to stability. In that moment, she also felt intimidated. Here was Romney, who held great power as her church leader and was the head of a wealthy, prominent Belmont family, sitting in her gritty apartment making grave demands. “And then he says, ‘Well, this is what the church wants you to do, and if you don’t, then you could be excommunicated for failing to follow the leadership of the church,’ ” Hayes recalled. It was a serious threat. At that point Hayes still valued her place within the Mormon Church. “This is not playing around,” she said. “This is not like ‘You don’t get to take Communion.’ This is like ‘You will not be saved. You will never see the face of God.’ ” Romney would later deny that he had threatened Hayes with excommunication, but Hayes said his message was crystal clear: “Give up your son or give up your God.”
Not long after, Hayes gave birth to a son. She named him Dane. At nine months old, Dane needed serious, and risky, surgery. The bones in his head were fused together, restricting the growth of his brain, and would need to be separated. Hayes was scared. She sought emotional and spiritual support from the church once again. Looking past their uncomfortable conversation before Dane’s birth, she called Romney and asked him to come to the hospital to confer a blessing on her baby. Hayes was expecting him. Instead, two people she didn’t know showed up. She was crushed. “I needed him,” she said. “It was very significant that he didn’t come.” Sitting there in the hospital, Hayes decided she was finished with the Mormon Church. The decision was easy, yet she made it with a heavy heart. To this day, she remains grateful to Romney and others in the church for all they did for her family. But she shudders at what they were asking her to do in return, especially when she pulls out pictures of Dane, now a 27-year-old electrician in Salt Lake City. “There’s my baby,” she said.
The information the authors provide about Romney’s career at Bain Capital is just as revealing of Mitt’s insensitivity and lack of empathy. Here’s just a brief quote about Romney’s attitudes toward capitalism.
Romney described himself as driven by a core economic credo, that capitalism is a form of “creative destruction.” This theory, espoused in the 1940s by the economist Joseph Schumpeter and later touted by former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, holds that business must exist in a state of ceaseless revolution. A thriving economy changes from within, Schumpeter wrote in his landmark book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, “incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” But as even the theory’s proponents acknowledged, such destruction could bankrupt companies, upending lives and communities, and raise questions about society’s role in softening some of the harsher consequences.
Romney, for his part, contrasted the capitalistic benefits of creative destruction with what happened in controlled economies, in which jobs might be protected but productivity and competitiveness falters. Far better, Romney wrote in his book No Apology, “for governments to stand aside and allow the creative destruction inherent in a free economy.” He acknowledged that it is “unquestionably stressful—on workers, managers, owners, bankers, suppliers, customers, and the communities that surround the affected businesses.” But it was necessary to rebuild a moribund company and economy. It was a point of view he would stick with in years ahead. Indeed, he wrote a 2008 op-ed piece for The New York Times opposing a federal bailout for automakers that the newspaper headlined, let detroit go bankrupt. His advice went unheeded, and his prediction that “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye” if it got a bailout has not come true.
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Anyone who still sees Romney as the “reasonable” Republican candidate needs to read this article. I knew that Romney had been involved in Mormon Church leadership, but I had no idea how deeply he was involved and how committed to his religion he is. And yet, he’s probably going to be the Republican nominee, facing a weak, unpopular Obama. We’ve heard about a meeting of Conservatives to discuss possible alternatives, but Politico reports that GOP elites are saying Romney probably can’t be stopped.
We’ll see. There’s nothing more dangerous than a Newt scorned, and South Carolina looks to be unfriendly to Mitt. But the next challenge for Romney is New Hampshire, where he leads by double digits. Can Santorum and Gingrich knock him down a peg? Only time will tell.
So….. What are you reading and blogging about today? Please share.
Annals of Psychology: Research on Group Differences in the Crime Narratives of Psychopathic MurderersPosted: October 23, 2011
Thanks to Delphyne for sending me a link to this article about a study of the crime narratives of psychopaths. Unfortunately, since the journal article was just published in September, I haven’t been able to read the whole thing yet. It’s a study of speech patterns and word usage in the crime narratives of 14 psychopathic killers, compared to 38 murderers who were not categorized as psychopaths, carried out by Jeffrey T. Hancock of Cornell University and Michael T. Woodworth and Stephen Porter of the University of British Columbia.
Please forgive a brief personal digression here. I have been interested in narrative analysis since I took an introductory course in research methods about 16 years ago. My professor in that course was one of the leaders in the study of children’s narratives and narrative development. I was amazed that someone could be a psychologist and study stories, and my imagination was immediately captured by the idea. As an undergraduate, under supervision from this professor, I analyzed the writings of novelist Jack Kerouac, and found a fascinating pattern in his work. In every book he wrote, Kerouac recreated a traumatic scene from his childhood in many different guises.
Kerouac’s 9-year-old brother Gerard, whom he adored, had died when Jack was only four. Shortly before Gerard died, Jack had knocked over a structure that Gerard was building with his erector set, and Gerard had gotten very angry and yelled at Jack to go away. That was the last interaction that Jack remembered with Gerard before he died. From a child’s point of view it seemed that these two events–knocking over the structure and getting yelled at and Gerard’s death were linked. Young Jack felt that his bad behavior had caused Gerard’s death. This was extremely traumatic for a young child, and the scene became a part of Kerouac’s vision of the world and his interpretation of interpersonal experiences. Such traumatic repetition is not unusual in creative works. It happens with writers, painters, and musicians. Freud called it sublimation.
In graduate school, I interviewed children for a study of narrative and personality. I later wrote my dissertation on children’s use of a specific aspect of narrative structure called “evaluation.” Evaluation refers to any parts of the narrative that are not necessary to straightforwardly convey “what happened.” When someone adds emotion or description to a story or uses words like “very,” “really,” or “a lot” to add emphasis, that is evaluation–the narrator adds personal reactions to the events in the story.
The narrative form is inherent to the way humans think. Narrative is the basis for autobiographical memories, and it very likely reflects aspects of personality. In my opinion, personality is likely to be correlated with individual differences in the use evaluation in stories.
The study by Hancock and colleagues that I mentioned above was based on computerized textual analysis of personal crime narratives–basically personal stories like the ones I have studied in both children and adults. Here is a summary of the results (emphasis added):
The words of psychopathic murderers match their personalities, which reflect selfishness, detachment from their crimes and emotional flatness, says Jeff Hancock, of Cornell University, and colleagues Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter at the University of British Columbia….
Hancock and his colleagues analyzed stories told by the murderers and compared them with 38 convicted murderers who were not diagnosed as psychopathic. Each subject was asked to describe his crime in detail. Their stories were taped, transcribed and subjected to computer analysis.
Psychopaths used more conjunctions like because, since or so that, implying that the crime had to be done to obtain a particular goal. They used twice as many words relating to physical needs, such as food, sex or money, while non-psychopaths used more words about social needs, including family, religion and spirituality.
Unveiling their predatory nature in their own description, the psychopaths often included details of what they had to eat on the day of their crime.
Psychopaths were more likely to use the past tense, suggesting a detachment from their crimes, say the researchers. They tended to be less fluent in their speech, using more ums and uhs. The exact reason for this is not clear, but the researchers speculate that the psychopath is trying harder to make a positive impression, needing to use more mental effort to frame the story.
The primary purpose of this study was to demonstrate that the language patters could be identified using automated software rather than human coders. According to Hancock, his findings provide support for previous studies of the language of psychopaths. I can’t wait to get my hands on the full article so I can look at his sources. I hope the paper includes an explanation of the coding system and examples of narratives.
Based on the brief descriptions of the study that I’ve seen so far, the differences that were found between the narratives of psychopathic and non-psychopathic murderers could mostly be classified as differences in the use of narrative evaluation, which I described above. Evaluation includes causal words and emotion words. I assume that the researchers programmed the software to count causal and emotional words and phrases as well as words and phrases that referred to social needs–also examples of evaluation.
The differences in fluency could also be classified as differences in narrative structure. Differences in narrative structure, including evaluation, have been found in comparisons of children from different cultures and comparisons of children with developmental disorders such as ADHD, autism, and Williams syndrome.
Of course there are many limitations to this study. The authors suggest that their findings could be used to identify psychopaths, but I’d think it could only be used to distinguish between groups–not to diagnose individuals.
Whenever a story on research results is published in the media, people start to generalize the results in all sorts of inappropriate ways. For example, just because someone uses a lot of “uhs,” and “ums” in their speech, doesn’t make him or her a psychopath. I’d be really concerned if police departments tried to use the automated language analysis software to evaluate criminals.
I found some quotes from Gary Ridgeway’s confessions on-line. Ridgeway (pictured at the top of this post) is also known as the Green River killer. He has so far confessed to murdering nearly 50 women. I believe his confessions are even posted on You Tube. Here are some examples of his descriptions of his crimes. Keep in mind that a narrative is defined as two statements about the past that are temporally related.
Question: “How did you kill her?”
Ridgway: “I choked her, with my arm. One or two I choked with a towel.”
He doesn’t express any emotion toward the victims other than his own hatred and rage.
“All the women I killed them ’cause I wanted and it was hate, hated them,” he said….”They were just pieces of trash to me. They were garbage,” he said.
When he talked about his own motivations, he included information about his emotions.
“I had control when I killed the women. I got my rage out for the time,” he said. “I did cry, yes I did, and that was the good part of me. I cried, but I still killed them and didn’t care anything about them.”
So Ridgeway’s “emotional flatness” was expressed in relation to his victims, but he describes himself as experiencing strong emotions. His problem is not understanding that other people also experience the same kinds of emotions. His lack of empathy allowed him to treat his victims as objects rather than feeling human beings.
If I were doing a follow-up to Hancock’s study, I would try to find a larger sample of psychopaths, including both males and females. I would specifically at expressions of emotion and note whether the words referred to the narrator or to other people. Since psychopaths are deficient in empathy, I would expect to find that they express more emotion in their narratives when talking about their own feelings than in references to the feelings of other people.
While I was out in the car today, I heard a story on NPR about the recent banning of special last meals for people about to be executed in Texas.
Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed Wednesday for the hate crime slaying of James Byrd Jr. more than a decade ago, asked for two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover’s pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. Prison officials said Brewer didn’t eat any of it.
“It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege,” Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, wrote in a letter Thursday to Brad Livingston, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Within hours, Livingston said the senator’s concerns were valid and the practice of allowing death row offenders to choose their final meal was history.
Whitmire claims to be a Democrat.
Today on NPR’s All Things Considered, there was an interview with Brian D. Price, a former prison inmate who served for years as a death row chef and wrote a book called Meals to Die For. Price is now out of prison and owns a restaurant in East Texas.
In his interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, Price said he had offered to pay for and prepare the requested last meals, since Texas is too cruel and stingy to do so. But he was turned down. In addition, Price revealed that in fact the “special meals” have never been what those about to die actually requested. For example, if the inmate requested lobster, he or she would get whatever piece of fish was available. So Brewer never actually got all that food he requested–the fantasy meal that caused Whitmire to throw a tantrum.
Price argued that Texas’s elimination of last meals is inhumane.
Price made the case that “as a civilized society and a Christian nation … why not … show that softer, more compassionate side?”
Granted, Price said, most murderers don’t offer their victims last meals. “But … are we going to lower ourselves to that same level as that crime that was committed and be so cold and heartless?”
I agree with the sentiment if not the “Christian nation” characterization. Here’s a little more from the UK Guardian, which is published in a country that views the death penalty as uncivilized.
Since Texas resumed carrying out executions in 1982, the state correction agency’s practice has been to fill a condemned inmate’s request as long as the items, or food similar to what was requested, were readily available from the prison kitchen supplies.
The exact request was rarely fulfilled, Price said. He noted that when one condemned inmate asked for two T-bone steaks, the prisoner got a hamburger steak instead.
Price made 220 final meals, from 1991 until his parole in 2003, while serving 14 years in the Texas department of criminal justice Huntsville unit for a pair of convictions related to the abduction of his brother-in-law and a sexual assault on his ex-wife.
We are living through one of the worst economic crises in our country’s history. Millions of people have lost their jobs, their homes, and their faith in our political system. That a Texas legislator saw fit to make a fuss about people being given a choice of meal before they are strapped to a gurney and killed is a sure sign that this country is doomed. The psychopaths are in charge–and I don’t mean the ones in prison.