Free market greed has created a world in which psychopathic personality traits are rewarded, says Paul Verhaeghe, senior professor of psychoanalysis at the University of Ghent.
Frighteningly, says Verhaeghe, the economic policy of the past thirty years impacts not only on values but our very personalities. “Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative,” he wrote in an article for the Guardian.
Much like sadistic Wall Street banker Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ cult novel American Psycho (portrayed by Christian Bale in the 2000 movie, right), success in the corporate culture of the free market requires individuals to be increasingly articulate, self-aggrandizing, manipulative risk takers, who find lying easy and feel little guilt or responsibility for their actions, Verhaeghe explains.
These are all traits which feature heavily in boardrooms – as well as on the “psychopathy checklist” of the respected criminal psychologist Professor Robert Hare.
“It stuns me, as much as it did when I started 40 years ago, that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern,” said Hare in a recent interview.
What’s more, adds James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California, psychopaths commonly exhibit a strong grasp of “cognitive empathy,” where you can tell what someone is feeling, but struggle with emotional empathy, where you feel what they are feeling. “This all gives certain psychopaths a great advantage, because they can understand what you’re thinking, it’s just that they don’t care, so they can use you against yourself,” Fallon explains.
Chillingly, it’s not just that those with psychopathic tendencies are drawn to high-octane corporate careers; the cut-throat world of business actually nurtures these characteristics in us, says Verhaegher.
When the onus is on rapid profit at any cost, solidarity, loyalty and emotional commitment are all supplanted by “temporary alliances” that necessitate charm and deception in order to pull off. The culture of fear created by the uncertainty and performance anxiety in turn leads to workplace bullying, or “displaced aggression,” intensifying feelings of isolation and unease. Greed is fed at the expense of all our conflicting instincts towards community, closeness and trust, as explained by Verhaegher in his TED Talk, “Hedgehogs Unite.”
Meanwhile, he says, top-down corporate hierarchies are enforced by treating workers like children, giving them very little sense of independence and autonomy. This creates a toxic environment in which employees “tell white lies, resort to deceit, delight in the downfall of others and cherish petty feelings of revenge.”
At every level, this suggests, companies that are intensely focussed on profit create conditions that humiliate any employees who display trust or vulnerability, celebrating instead the calculated manipulation associated with psychopathic personality disorders.
“There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed,” says Verhaegher. “And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.”