[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: The Tipping Point
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Thu May 12 00:38:26 UTC 2005
The Tipping Point
By BELINDA BOARD
JOHN BOLTON, President Bush's nominee to be ambassador to the United
Nations, has been described as dogmatic, abusive to his subordinates
and a bully. Yet Mr. Bush has said that John Bolton is the right man
at the right time. Can these seemingly contradictory statements both
be accurate? Yes. The reality is that sometimes the characteristics
that make someone successful in business or government can render them
unpleasant personally. What's more astonishing is that those
characteristics when exaggerated are the same ones often found in
There has been anecdotal and case-study evidence suggesting that
successful business executives share personality characteristics with
psychopaths. The question is, are the characteristics that make up
personality disorders fundamentally different from the characteristics
of extreme personalities we see in everyday life, or do they differ
only in degree?
In 2001, I compared the personality traits of 39 high-ranking business
executives in Britain with psychiatric patients and criminals with a
history of mental health problems. The business managers completed a
standard clinical personality-disorder diagnostic questionnaire and
then were interviewed. The information on personality disorders among
criminals and psychiatric patients had been gathered by local clinics.
Our sample was small, but the results were definitive. If personality
and its pathology are distinct from each other, we should have found
different levels of personality disorders in these diverse
populations. We didn't. The character disorders of the business
managers blended together with those of the criminals and mental
In fact, the business population was as likely as the prison and
psychiatric populations to demonstrate the traits associated with
narcissistic personality disorder: grandiosity, lack of empathy,
exploitativeness and independence. They were also as likely to have
traits associated with compulsive personality disorder: stubbornness,
dictatorial tendencies, perfectionism and an excessive devotion to
But there were some significant differences.
The executives were significantly more likely to demonstrate
characteristics associated with histrionic personality disorder, like
superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity and manipulativeness.
They were also significantly less likely to demonstrate physical
aggression, irresponsibility with work and finances, lack of remorse
What does this tell us? It tells us that if reports of Mr. Bolton's
behavior are accurate then both his supporters and critics could be
right. It also tells us that characteristics of personality disorders
can be found throughout society and are not just concentrated in
psychiatric or prison hospitals. Each characteristic by itself isn't
necessarily a bad thing.
Take a basic characteristic like influence and it's an asset in
business. Add to that a smattering of egocentricity, a soupçon of
grandiosity, a smidgen of manipulativeness and lack of empathy, and
you have someone who can climb the corporate ladder and stay on the
right side of the law, but still be a horror to work with. Add a bit
more of those characteristics plus lack of remorse and physical
aggression, and you have someone who ends up behind bars.
As we all know, public figures can exhibit extreme characteristics.
Often it is these characteristics that have propelled them to
prominence, yet these same behaviors can cause untold human wreckage.
What's important is the degree to which a person has each ingredient
or characteristic and in what configuration. Congress will try to
decide whether Mr. Bolton has the right combination.
Belinda Board is a clinical psychologist based at the University of
Surrey and a consultant on organizational psychology.
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