Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Psychopaths and big money - it all adds up

Commerce students returned 'significantly higher primary psychopathy scores than science or arts majors'. Photo / Thinkstock
Commerce students returned 'significantly higher primary psychopathy scores than science or arts majors'. Photo / Thinkstock

Psychopaths prefer commerce degrees - that's the finding of a world-first study examining university students' personalities and course preferences.

Victoria University students with higher scores for psychopathy traits tended to opt to study commerce, with law next most popular.

The study of 903 undergraduates found that significantly fewer with high psychopathy scores chose science and fewer still went for arts.

The paper - Greed is good? Student disciplinary choice and self-reported psychopathy - published this month in the international Journal of Personality and Individual Differences was sparked by fallout of the world financial crisis.

The role of high-profile financiers in the global recession made the idea of the psychopath in organisations increasingly relevant, said Victoria University associate professor of psychology Marc Wilson, who conducted the research with colleague Karena McCarthy.

The financial crisis prompted questions about what constituted success, says Professor Wilson, as the likes of former Lehman Brothers boss Dick Fuld and Bernie Madoff - the investment adviser who ran what has been described as the biggest Ponzi scheme in history - shifted from "aspirational hero to pariah and, in some cases, convict".

While research had been done into psychopathy in the workplace, there was a gap regarding student degree choices.

Students did surveys designed to measure psychopathic traits.

Distinctions were most apparent for what is referred to as primary psychopathy characterised by the statement, "For me, what is right is what I can get away with".

The study found males scored higher for psychopathy, regardless of degree.

But male and female commerce students returned "significantly higher primary psychopathy scores than science or arts majors".

Professor Wilson notes that commerce students did not stand out for secondary psychopathy - which measures disorganised lifestyle - and therefore fall into the group sometimes referred to as the "successful psychopaths".

Those who ended up in prison tended to rate highly in both psychopathy measures, combining coldness and impulsiveness.

"Psychopaths are not all serial killers although probably all serial killers are psychopaths."

As nurture as well as nature influences psychopathic tendencies, Dr Wilson says, commerce is more likely than other areas to endorse and so enhance psychopathic traits.

Enron, where ruthless and unethical behaviour aimed at improving the company's bottom line was rewarded with bonuses, was often cited as a case study.

Professor Wilson believes we need to be alert to psychopathic behaviour for reasons beyond the financial impact when organisations such as Enron and Lehman Brothers crash.

"A true corporate psychopath is an arsehole. One of the reasons they get ahead is that they ... work in a context where personally getting ahead helps the company and so they are rewarded for it. But they are also more likely to stab people in the back to get promoted."

Some companies, says Professor Wilson, promote themselves as ethical. Google's slogan for a time was "Don't be evil".

"That's the context one would hope that the corporate psychopath wouldn't be able to do well in, but unfortunately over the last decade or so there has been this confluence of factors where some people ... find themselves making pots of cash at the expense of other people and it has worked fine until the whole thing went belly-up."

- NZ Herald

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