Did Psychopaths Take Over Wall Street Asylum?: William D. Cohan

January 5, 2012 § Leave a comment


Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) — 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.”

How do people with such obvious personality flaws make it to  the top of seemingly successful corporations? Boddy says psychopaths take  advantage of the “relative chaotic nature of the modern corporation,” including  “rapid change, constant renewal” and high turnover of “key personnel.” Such  circumstances allow them to ascend through a combination of “charm” and  “charisma,” which makes “their behaviour invisible” and “makes them appear  normal and even to be ideal leaders.”

Stable Environment

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.

Then, according to Boddy’s “Corporate Psychopaths Theory of  the Global Financial Crisis,” these men were “able to influence the moral  climate of the whole organization” to wield “considerable power.”

They “largely caused the crisis” because their “single- minded  pursuit of their own self-enrichment and self- aggrandizement to the exclusion  of all other considerations has led to an abandonment of the old-fashioned  concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of  corporate social responsibility.”

Boddy doesn’t name names, but the type of personality he  describes is recognizable to all from the financial crisis.

He says the unnamed “they” seem “to be unaffected” by the  corporate collapses they cause. These psychopaths “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 convincing  in blaming others for what has happened and have no doubts about their own worth  and value. They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have  managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising  governments how to prevent such economic disasters.”

‘Reasoning Aptitudes’

In closing his short essay, Boddy recognizes that the theory  is relatively untested and would benefit from “further development and research”  into the “personalities and moral reasoning aptitudes of the leaders” of the  companies that got into serious trouble in the financial crisis.

In an e-mail correspondence with me, he said his article has  been warmly received and has been downloaded 9,440 times in the past 90 days.  “Apparently this is a lot for an academic article and it is more than the next  four most-downloaded papers combined,” he wrote.

He also has a prescription for how to prevent psychopaths from  getting into positions of power on Wall Street and elsewhere.

“Anyone who makes decisions that affect significant numbers of  other people, concerning issues of corporate social responsibility or toxic  waste, for example, or concerning mass financial markets or mass employment,  should be screened to make sure that they are, at the very least, not  psychopaths and at most are actually people who care about others,” he  wrote.

Makes sense to me.

(William D. Cohan, a former investment banker and the author  of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg  View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2012/01/03/bloomberg_articlesLX0Z3W0UQVI9.DTL#ixzz1ibZFrsKT


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