[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: The Tipping Point

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Thu May 12 00:38:26 UTC 2005

The Tipping Point


    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
    and impulsiveness.

    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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