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Paul Babiak, Ph.D. talks Arbitrage and Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work

Paul Babiak, Ph.D.

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WITH acclaimed thriller Arbitrage released on Blu-ray and DVD this week (Monday, July 15, 2013), we chat exclusively to best-selling author Paul Babiak, Ph.D about his own experiences of psychopaths and his book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work.

He also analyses Richard Gere’s performance in the film, advises on how to spot psychopathic traits in the workplace and – perhaps more crucially – how to spot them in yourself!

Q. What do you think of Arbitrage as a film and the way it conveys the business world? And how does Richard Gere measure up as a corporate psychopath? Does he comply with your criteria?
Paul Babiak: I really liked Arbitrage on many levels. There are so many poor portrayals of psychopaths in the media that this film is a refreshing change. The media image of the psychopath as serial killer or serial killer as psychopath is just not that accurate. People believe that they would see a psychopath a mile away (people always ask me whether they have piercing eyes!) but we know this is wishful (and perhaps even dangerous) thinking. When you consider that about 1% of the population have psychopathic personality disorders, it makes you realize that you have probably already met one or two and not known it.

Psychopaths hide in plain sight by creating a “mask” that is a perfect match to your unconscious needs, drives, weaknesses and expectations – they impress you so much by their understanding of you that you become easy prey. Their well-constructed masks easily fool victims into thinking that they are trusted friends (or even spouses) – someone who is their “soul mate,” ideal partner and so forth. Once someone believes this “psychopathic fiction,” they let their guard down, and ultimately give the psychopath everything they ask for.

Arbitrage offers many illustrations of psychopathic traits and characteristics, and it is a tribute to Richard Gere’s acting ability that he can present so many convincing masks throughout the film. As his character interacts with his wife, mistress, daughter, lawyer, protégé, and others he subtly displays different personas fitting what each expects and aimed at what he wants to get from each. None of these individuals realize anything is amiss until a bit later on in the movie (and a couple never do realize) when events seem to get out of hand – but even then they secretly wish for the old person, the one who had fooled them, to return.

The audience is easily taken in by him at first as well, and despite being surprised by the things he says and does as the movie progresses, you may find yourself rooting for him, wondering how he is going to get out of his dilemma, and wanting him to get away with everything. Such is the power of psychopathic manipulation.

Q. What is your exact definition of a psychopath?
Paul Babiak: There are 20 traits and characteristics that psychologists and psychiatrists trained in the assessment of psychopathy look for. The easiest traits to see include a grandiose sense of self-worth which is often described as self-confidence, and a glib, sometimes superficial charm which looks like charisma. Both of these traits, of course, are part of the requirement for being a good leader, so, as we argue in Snakes In Suits, psychopathic leaders look and talk the part but they are missing so many other positive leadership traits they can never be successful, at least in the sense of being a solid contributor to the business.

In fact, psychopaths have many dysfunctional or destructive traits which ultimately lead to abuse of co-workers – sometimes even fraud. These negative traits include pathological lying, a propensity to con and manipulate people and situations, lack of (and some neurological research has shown an inability to feel) remorse, guilt or empathy when dealing with others (often described as a lack of conscience), plus impulsivity, irresponsibility, and several others. These negative traits are well hidden behind the mask and it is because of this that psychopaths can play out their scams and head-games for quite a while, perhaps moving up in the organization to higher levels where they can do significant damage.

Arbitrage

Q. How would I go about spotting psychopathic traits in myself and what would be the best way to exploit them for career gain?
Paul Babiak: It’s been known for a long time that most psychopaths have no concerns about themselves and how they act, so the fact that you’re even asking this question makes me feel a bit better! Certainly, if you find yourself lying to others, bullying people, flying into a rage and then calming down so quickly that those around you are puzzled, conning people to get things from them, or you lack realistic, long-term life goals, and feel like you have no conscience, then I would recommend you see a psychologist or psychotherapist who is trained to assess psychopathy. Everyone displays psychopathic-like features occasionally in their lives, but if you truly have a personality disorder, it will be very difficult to overcome it; however, if you really want to change and you seriously put your mind to it, I’m confident you can learn better, more socially acceptable ways of behaving.

As far as exploiting the traits of the psychopath, I would suggest that there are a couple, such as their self-confidence, charm and excellent presentation skills which would be useful to emulate, particularly on the job. Luckily, these can be learned if you put your mind to it and you don’t have to sacrifice your integrity. However, I’ve met some executives who suggest that some of the negative psychopathic traits would be useful in their companies, so they are a little tempted to recruit a psychopath. I argue that when you hire a psychopath you get the whole package (psychopathic traits exist together in what’s called a syndrome); you can’t pick a psychopath with the traits you want (charisma, etc.) but without those you don’t want (deceit, manipulation, irresponsibility, lack of basic human emotion, etc.). Usually, once they’ve learned more about what a psychopath is actually like, these executives realize that a psychopath will never be loyal to them or their company. At a fundamental level, really, you want co-workers, employees, and managers whom you can trust.

Q. Have you ever worked for a psychopath or had dealings with them, outside of conducting your study and, if so, what was that experience like for you?
Paul Babiak: Yes, I have met quite a few psychopaths although I’ve (luckily) never had the misfortune to work for one. Actually, I really didn’t know I was working with a psychopath in my first encounter with one many years ago. I had been retained as a consultant to work with a high performing team that had fallen into total chaos. Morale had sunk, there was in-fighting, nothing was getting done. As I worked with them I realized that the leader was the source of much of the conflict. About half of the group hated him, referred to him as a “snake,” while the rest thought he was a perfect team leader. I knew from my meetings with upper management that they thought he had the potential to assume a senior level position in the future. In truth, even I was impressed with him when I first met him.

But then, as things moved forward in our teambuilding, the company, without notice, disbanded the team, promoted this questionable leader into his boss’s job and transferred his boss to another department. I was as shocked as anyone! Afterwards, as I tried to piece together what had gone wrong, I recalled some early reading I had done about psychopathy. I contacted Dr. Robert D. Hare, the world’s expert on psychopathy and with his assistance completed his new assessment instrument, the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), on this person. Without a doubt I had been working with a true psychopath!

Arbitrage

Q. What made you decide to write Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work in the first place and what was the most surprising thing to emerge from it?
Paul Babiak: After my eye-opening experience I started to study psychopaths in business, who I now refer to as corporate psychopaths. I also focused my consulting practice on individuals and organizations who believe they are dealing with a psychopath. After several years, Bob Hare and I thought we had enough understanding of their personality, how they interacted with others, and why they seemed to be so successful to write a book on the subject. Snakes In Suits is a business book, of course, aimed at explaining how to spot them, how they operate, and what to do about them in different situations. But we also included many case studies written in a narrative style which opens the book up to readers, not necessarily in management, who have a curiosity about them (or who think they work with one!)

I often receive emails from people thanking me for writing the book because it helped them in their personal life; they say that the case studies rang true and they could see and hear their “psychopath” in our descriptions. I never expected to hear from readers, so I guess this response was the most surprising thing to emerge (and it makes me feel really good inside, too).

Q. Who are your favourite (most convincing) movie psychopaths?
Paul Babiak: Most films about psychopathy tend toward the sensationalistic. Silence of the Lambs is a good portrayal of a psychopath albeit a bit exaggerated and, of course, dramatic; yet, it is a useful training tool, especially the psychological manipulation. If you watch it carefully you will see many psychopathic characteristics excellently portrayed. As for the corporate psychopath, many people look to Wall Street. I think it is very good, again a little exaggerated, but now I’m seeing Richard Gere’s portrayal in Arbitrage as the most accurate example; in fact, I’ll probably be including scenes from it in some of my workshops.

What I really liked about Arbitrage is that you can watch it for purely suspenseful entertainment, but if you want to, you can study how Richard Gere’s character handles each roadblock and real-life dilemma handed to him in true psychopathic fashion. We know that psychopaths can be particularly resourceful and opportunistic, especially if they are trying to continue playing head games with people and escape detection. In each decision he makes, Richard Gere’s character chooses the self-serving psychopathic option, yet, as a viewer, you often feel he might be making the right choice, maybe even one you would be tempted to make. I guess I’d add “stimulating introspection” to my list of positives about Arbitrage!

QED

Dr. Babiak is an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist who coaches and consults with executives and organizations on leadership development and issues management concerns.

His research focuses on corporate psychopaths, their traits and characteristics, manipulation techniques, and the impact they can have on organizational performance and employee job satisfaction. He is the author of Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, with Dr. Robert D. Hare, as well as several scientific papers and book chapters.

Arbitrage is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Koch Media