Hannibal and Skasey

Jason Soon has an interesting post drawing attention to research suggesting a link between psychopathic and sociopathic personalities and abnormal brain development. The research suggests that ‘unsuccessful’ criminal psychopaths (i.e. those who get caught) tend to exhibit specific brain development abnormalities which may correlate with being “insensitive to cues that predicted punishment and capture” and therefore being more likely to be caught.

And most of the psychopaths (successful and unsuccessful) also exhibited a significantly larger and longer corpus callosum than others:

With an increased corpus callosum came less remorse, fewer emotions and less social connectedness – the classic hallmarks of a psychopath, he said.

These people don’t react. They don’t care,” Raine said. “Why that occurs, we don’t fully know, but we are beginning to get important clues from neuro-imaging research.”

What especially interested me about this research is that, purely by coincidence, I was looking at an article in Forbes magazine discussing some research done into the psychological characteristics of business entrepreneurs.

The researchers studied some 800 start-up business entrepreneurs and compared them with a control group. The study didn’t involve examining brain development, but the findings were striking just the same:

From this data, Shaver and others have already been able to draw some basic conclusions. For instance, entrepreneurs and normal people seem to worry equally about financial autonomy and/or a feeling of being motivated in their jobs. Neither a need for financial nor personal independence seems to have caused any of these people to start their own business.

Nor, says Shaver, do the entrepreneurs seem to be devil-may-care risk takers. Only a subtle difference in the way they appreciate risk emerged. The entrepreneurs are worse at coming up with reasons they might fail. “Being able to generate more unpleasant possibilities might be making non-entrepreneurs more afraid,” Shaver says, but we don’t know that.

So far there is one other big difference between those who go into business for themselves and those who don’t, Shaver says. Entrepreneurs don’t care what other people think about them. “They really don’t care as much,” Shaver says. “They’re just happy to go ahead and do what they’re doing.”

Statistically speaking, then, Simplot and Gates would seem to have two things in common: They have trouble imagining failure, and they don’t care what you think.

A glib response would be to suggest that entrepreneurs are just psychopaths who have chosen mostly legal outlets for their pathological behaviour. And it might well be interesting to examine the brains of Bill Gates or Kerry Packer. But Rafe Champion captured the real question (at least about psychopaths if not entrepreneurs) when he argued in Jason’s comment box that human behaviour is a continuum. A person with a radical inability to comprehend the possibility of failure or to empathise with others is radically dysfunctional in most social settings. But a person paralysed by fear of failure, imagined adverse consequences to others and what they might think, is equally dysfunctional. At one end lies a hand-wringing Hamlet and at the other Hannibal Lecter or Christopher Skase.

Presumably a successful business entrepreneur will fall somewhere short of the extreme Skase/Lecter end of the continuum, but will be rather closer to that end than to the paralysed indecision of a Hamlet.

Although the researchers stress that these linkages are only tentative, it occurs to me that they raise interesting questions in terms of our recent discussion about wrongful dismissal laws. What would it imply if research clearly found that the typical business entrepreneur had radically less than normal empathy towards other human beings (including employees)? Would it mean that government and law should step in and supply the deficiency by regulatory intervention? Is that sort of radical interpersonal disinhibition so tightly bound up with the creative and productive instincts of the entrepreneur that stifling it to an excessive extent will also kill productivity and creativity? Is there some optimal mix of regulatory protection of workers and consumers and entrepreneurial creative freedom? Is it even useful to look at the issue in that way?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

The other half of the question is whether left-wing activists suffer from an equally crippling overempathy to others, leading them to avoid any action that might restrain criminals or aggressors.

We can see this very clearly in those activists who are evidently incapable of conceiving evil in the motivations of terrorists and the like, and who approach all issues with a naivete that beggars belief.

What actions, if any, should society take to restrain those of its members who lack any sense of perspective, and encourage aggressors and criminals in the mistaken belief that they deserve nothing but compassion and help?

Robert Merkel
2022 years ago

You might be interested in the transcript of a report on the ABC science program, catalyst, on corporate psychopaths:

http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s1360571.htm

If I may get ever so slightly Freudian for a moment, from the reports of bullying in the ABC at the moment, you might be tempted to conclude that it’s a subconscious (or maybe not so subsonscious) cry for help… :)

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

“What would it imply if research clearly found that the typical business entrepreneur had radically less than normal empathy towards other human beings (including employees)? Would it mean that government and law should step in and supply the deficiency by regulatory intervention?”

Who knows about the empirics, but if entrepreneurs had less than normal empathy and regulation could substitute for it, I wouldn’t mind if regulation could do it – but it can’t – just like it can’t do it in family law. It just screws things up – creates an additional legal feedback loop which adds cost, generates greater resentment and generally escalates the dysfunction. As I said on your last post on this Ken, imagine wanting to stay working for an employer who’d sacked you. Some people could plead that its all the work they can get (raising the thorny question of why they should have it ahead of someone else), but the very fact that you want to stick around in this situation is not a good omen for a happy and productive ending is it?

Why don’t we regulate to try to give employees knowledge of which firms and workplaces have high turnover of staff. I suggested something like this here http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/09/28/1096137237338.html

Regulating the workplace relationship directly seems like a recipe for dysfunction to me. My own problem in arbitrating between my two kids (which I have elaborate and relatively successful strategies to avoid and to internalise to them) is pretty much the same problem. An outsider cannot know, except in egregious circumstances, who is right and who is wrong. So I only arbitrate in such circumstances.

harry
2022 years ago

Hey EP,
Tell me more about this ‘perspective’ thing you seem to have the ownership of. Is this the thing that enables you to couch everything only in polar opposites?

The idea of brain structure be the fundemental reason for behaviours and personalities is fascinating. We have bipolar sportsman and politicians; artists channelling their schitzophrenia; asperges syndrome just waiting for computer programmers to be invented;
business people who are compulsive risk takers; policemen who perceive but don’t react to fear; and psychiatrists with profound empathy who all benefit greatly by their particular brain irregularities. Indeed the very reason they are so good is their unusual circuitry.

But I know that mental health professionals are hesistant to promote and develop the idea of targetting people for their particular brain wiring because it would lead to compartmentalisation and associated practises that would be to society’s detriment. The current course, where the person natural migrates to where they are called functions quite well enough.

“Is it even useful to look at the issue in that way?”
That’s a very tricky one, Ken. I’d suggest that general awareness would be a better response than some form of regulation. This would mean that people would have less reason to be surprised, emotionally distressed etc by the behaviour of their boss, and the workplace would be more stable and understanding than now. Any regulation would be horribly convoluted and sticky, and your previous post was a good explanation of why red-tape should be minimised.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Wasn’t it Thomas Szasz who first pointed out that schizophrenia is the characteristic personality tendency capitalism inculcates?

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Did he point it out, or make it up? I’m inclined to believe the latter.

I do know that Communist Russia led the way in classifying non-communist belief as a psychiatric problem, for the purpose of locking away dissidents in mental hospitals. Seems much the same process is being attempted here.

mark
2022 years ago

“The other half of the question is whether left-wing activists suffer from…”

EP, if you’re planning to characterise every whimsical muse on the nature of employment as a left-right shitfight you’re in for a world of confus… oh, never mind. It’s too late for you.

“Wasn’t it Thomas Szasz who first pointed out that schizophrenia is the characteristic personality tendency capitalism inculcates?”

Mark, I really hope not. If so, it speaks volumes about Mr Szasz’s abilities as a writer.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

I’m not aware of Thomas Szasz having written what you suggest about capitalism and schizophrenia. I don’t claim an encyclopedic knowledge of his works, but I have read both The Myth of Mental Illness and Ideology and Insanity. Szasz certainly condemns the use by the modern State of labelling people as mentally ill and then coercively hospitalising and treating them. And his immediate focus is western society, because that’s where he lives. But I doubt that he would deny that communist states abused psychiatry in similar (but even more extreme) ways.

Szasz is not concerned to argue for or against capitalism or any other particular ideology. I suspect your understanding of what Szasz was saying might emanate from his work being distorted and taken out of context by left-leaning po-mo writers like Baudrillard, Deleuze or Guattari, who certainly WERE concerned to deploy arguments about psychiatry and mental illness for the purpose of indicting capitalism. Szasz is essentially a libertarian, and criticises the illiberal tendencies of the modern State (whether capitalist, socialist or communist) without fear or favour. Szasz’s thinking is fairly well reflected in these various quotes I collected from a quick Google ramble:

“Psychiatry’s contribution to Power today is very similar to the Church’s contribution to Power in the Age of Faith. Psychiatry is one of the major justifiers and implementers of Power in our so-called secular age . . . it is one of the major supporters–

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, on reflection, I think it was R.D. Laing. I take the point about Deleuze and Guattari, whose arguments aren’t arguments and are therefore unconvincing. However, from a basic sociological point of view, it’s reasonable to suggest that the basic split between private ethics (ie be loving towards your family, treat others with respect) and business practices (be ruthless and treat people like objects) which have to be reconciled by one person has to lead to some distorted personality types.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

there’s a recent piece about szaz here
http://www.reason.com/0505/cr.js.thomas.shtml

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Mark
it’s ludicrous to blame compartmentalisation on capitalism, or even to claim that it’s bad.
such compartmentalisation is a *good* thing for civilised liberal societies to function. Private ethics and public ethics *should* be different at least in governance thus the pejorative meanings attached to ‘nanny states’, nepostism and Saddam Hussein’s brand of leadership

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Mark
it’s ludicrous to blame compartmentalisation on capitalism, or even to claim that it’s bad.
such compartmentalisation is a *good* thing for civilised liberal societies to function. Private ethics and public ethics *should* be different at least in governance thus the pejorative meanings attached to ‘nanny states’, nepotism and Saddam Hussein’s brand of leadership

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

sorry, must’ve pressed that twice. anyway it just occured to me a better example of the need for compartmentalisation would be Suharto. but the point stands even in the business world – if you promote your son over a more competent employee just because he’s your son, you deserve to be buggered. and if you’re not then something is wrong and consumers are worse off

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

Your quote/reference about schizophrenia and capitalism certainly sounds more like Laing than Szasz. Laing’s central argument was that mental illness (and particularly schizophrenia) stemmed from impossibly conflicting social demands and interpersonal “double binds”. Schizophrenia was a sane response to an impossible and insane situation.

On Jason’s point, I assume Mark is suggesting not that there is anything wrong per se with there being a rational need for a distinction beween public and private behaviour/morality, but that Laing argued (I think, although I’m not sure) that market capitalism’s sharp distinction between public and private morality creates a much greater potential for mental illness i.e. people who fail to maintain a distinction between public and private, internal and external, self and others (the latter being the title of Laing’s most famous work) will exhibit behaviours which society labels as mental illness.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

I don’t see any reason why market capitalism should require a greater distinction between public and private spheres than any other system.

Certainly the penalties for making public one’s private thoughts are far greater in communist/fascist/totalitarian systems than they are in a democratic market society.

harry
2022 years ago

Ken wrote “What would it imply if research clearly found that the typical business entrepreneur had radically less than normal empathy towards other human beings (including employees)?”

How about this then, assuming that working people (either employee or employer) *do* have a mental disorder and know it, can they use it as justification, or as a legal defence, for their unsavoury behaviour?

The flip side of the coin is how companies treat sick days with relation to mental health, with particular reference to depression.

david tiley
2022 years ago

You would of course be a complete mug to admit to any mental issues in a work context unless you could define it as completely temporary. Thus stress is probably okay, but depression, anxiety or even PMT would undermine your credibility in any team or judgement based context.

Although I can think of one exception. In my brief forays into tertiary teaching, it seems that teachers of creative activities at that level can find lunatic behaviour to be no impediment at all.

Just as long as you stay on top of the marking.

mark
2022 years ago

“Schizophrenia was a sane response to an impossible and insane situation.”

There’s a problem with the AE-35 unit, Ken.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Huh?

BTW Here’s a link to a quite good essat on RD Laing and his relations with assorted other thinkers and philosopohical schools: http://laingsociety.org/colloquia/philosophy/bortle.htm

mark
2022 years ago

It helps to have read the book /2001/. The book explains it quite well, although the movie drops hints.

If I recall correctly, the computer HAL9000 was built to be moral, and to follow orders. It was ordered to lie to its crew. Unable to reconcile these functions, it tried to resolve the situation by murdering the entire crew… Arthur C Clarke was of the opinion that this was the only rational response for the computer to take. I’m not sure how his co-author, Stanley Kubrick, felt about the issue, but I don’t think he was too fussy as it meant he got to make a movie involving a psycho murderous computer, and make it well.

So: schizophrenia is a sane response to an impossible situation. HAL responds to an impossible situation by going mad. The joke was a lot funnier before I explained it…

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Ken, yes that’s what I meant. I certainly don’t question the need for a separation between private morality and public ethics, but I think that the point of your post is that there isn’t much ethical about the behaviour of some who rise to the top in business. Their success has to have a structural component – ie be functional for the capitalist system.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

“there isn’t much ethical about the behaviour of some who rise to the top in business.”

Nothing special about Capitalism in this regard, Mark. There’s rarely much ethical about the behaviour of some who rise to the top in just about any system you nominate.

As good old Machiavelli wrote: “Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”