The power of sociopaths and psychopaths

If you look at what’s going on in the country—bailouts of crooked bankers, protection of high-level criminals from prosecution, corporations forcing down wages, public institutions such as the postal service and public universities being strip-mined for private gain, the erosion of civil liberties, the militarization of local police, the crackdown on protest and whistleblowers—there seems to be a pattern.  The pattern is concentration of power and wealth at the top, and preparation to defend that concentration from a popular uprising.

I discuss this a lot with a good friend of mine, and we wonder to what extent this is deliberate and to what extent it consists of powerful and privileged people just doing what comes naturally.   I find it hard to believe that it could be deliberate.  But maybe I’m wrong.   This documentary, narrated by Peter Coyote, suggests that we are vulnerable to being ruled by sociopaths and psychopaths, people without conscience or normal human feeling.

The first 30 minutes consists of interviews with psychologists who have studied sociopaths and psychopaths.  They say such people are skillful at mimicking human feeling and manipulating others, and therefore have a natural advantage in rising to the top in organizations.

The only actual fact presented in support of this was a study of 203 high-potential senior managers, eight of nine of which proved to have psychopathic characteristics.  This is about the same proportion as in the general population, but the eight or nine reportedly had a higher degree of psychopathy.

The next 15 minutes are the most interesting.  It is about how Prozac and other anti-depressant drugs give users some characteristic of psychopaths.  Anti-depressants make people more self-confident, but less emotionally aware.  They help people focus on a task while ignoring all other considerations, which is characteristic of psychopaths.

The final 30 minutes are about what ordinary people can do to avoid being manipulated by psychopaths.  Coyote cites the Milgram experiments on submission to authority, in which participants inflicted intense pain (as they were led to believe) on helpless subjects because somebody in authority told them to do so.  But a lesser-known part of the Milgram experiment was that when somebody was seen to defy authority out of conscience, almost all the participants also defied authority.

Everybody is influenced by friends and also indirectly by friends of friends and friends of friends of friends, psychologists told the filmmakers.  That means anybody who sets an example of integrity influences not only their friends, but their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends.  No matter what our situation, we are not helpless and what we do matters.

The documentary isn’t proof of anything, but it is thought-provoking.  It is long, but you don’t have to watch it all at once.

Click on SociopathWorld for a web log by someone who claims to be a sociopath.  Hat tip for the connection to marginal revolution.

Click on Wisdom from psychopaths? for an article in Scientific American by a writer who sees a positive side to psychopathic charm, focus and ruthlessness.

Click on The psychopathic 1 percent for an earlier post of mine on this subject, and more links.

Click on The Logic of the Surveillance State for reasons for suspecting our society is run by sociopaths and psychopaths.

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