Wednesday, May 11, 2005


The New York Times: Making you long for the days of Jayson Blair

Today's New York Times carries this op-ed by University of Surrey (London) clinical psychologist Belinda Board. It's eminently Fiskable.

[Why the Times chose to cross the Atlantic to find someone to write such tripe is worth of separate inquiry.]

The Tipping Point

Published: May 11, 2005

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. These are descriptions given by opponents. Supporters have given vastly different descriptions. 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. Did we need an expert to tell us this? What's more astonishing is that those characteristics when exaggerated are the same ones often found in criminals. Perhaps it would be better if your results actually supported your thesis. This will be shown below.

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? That would depend on who you see in everyday life, now wouldn't it? And what makes someone's personality extreme?

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. Actually, you did. The character disorders of the business managers blended together with those of the criminals and mental patients.

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. Narcissistic personality disorder? No. This is a fabricated disorder by a pseudoscience. It's a name given to "medicalize" and assert a right and duty to treat egotism. Grandiosity, exploitativeness, and independence are basic traits of leadership. They do not combine to form a disorder. It causes no adverse effect on a person to seek to promote himself. They were also as likely to have traits associated with compulsive personality disorder: stubbornness, dictatorial tendencies, perfectionism and an excessive devotion to work. Another fake disorder rears its ugly head here. Compulsive personality disorder is not the same as the real disorder obsessive-compulsive personality disorder ("OCD"). How can one be a boss without a significant degree of these traits? Even the one trait that tries to qualify itself as inherently abnormal ("excessive devotion to work") is a purely subjective determination being made by members of a group (clinical psychologists) which is not noted for its long work hours or its subjection to competitive pressures. If your labor is physically taxing, working longer hours may be bad for you, but in the white collar world, many of us have external deadlines and quantities of work such that simply working 9 to 5 Monday-Friday will not get the job done. People choose fields like clinical psychology, where you don't direct the work of others, and where your hours are standardized and often short, in part because their personality characteristics lead them to find such conditions more desirable. That's fine; but converting their traits into normalcy and criticizing as disordered those whose traits are different is an abuse of their prestige.

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. More silly "disorders" are upon us. I should well hope that your average business executive is a lot more superficially charming than your average criminal or psychiatric patient.

They were also significantly less likely to demonstrate physical aggression, irresponsibility with work and finances, lack of remorse and impulsiveness. Facts, they are a funny thing. Here's a little hint for clinical psychologists anywhere: physical violence is the best predictor of criminality. You see, the traits that real people, who haven't had their brains turned to mush by academic theories trying to name a disorder for every personality, regard as actually being dangerous or disordering are found significantly more often among criminals and psychiatric patients. Even if you grant that narcissistic, compulsive, or histrionic personality disorders are real, people do not end up in prison for them. On the contrary, people end up in prison for physical aggression and serious irresponsibility with finances (usually coupled with impulsiveness and a lack of remorse). It's not egotism or stubbornness that makes a man shoot his wife.

What does this tell us? It tells us very little that common sense would not have told us. It tells us that the characteristics we would imagine to be present frequently in mental patients and criminals as compared to the general population are in fact, significantly more frequent among those groups. It tells us that if reports of Mr. Bolton's behavior are accurate then both his supporters and critics could be right. Not only is the entire conclusion qualified by an "if", it's something so stultifyingly obvious that we needed a British expert to tell us so. It also tells us that characteristics of personality disorders can be found throughout society and are not just concentrated in psychiatric or prison hospitals. Wrong. It tells you that the characteristics associated with serious real personality disorders are concentrated in psychiatric and prison hospitals. Each characteristic by itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. Oh good. For a moment I thought independence was considered a bad thing.

Take a basic characteristic like influence and it's an asset in business. What would we do without experts to tell us this? Add to that a smattering of egocentricity, a soup├žon 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. What if we add a spoonful of sugar? Add a bit more of those characteristics plus lack of remorse and physical aggression, and you have someone who ends up behind bars. Forget the other characteristics. Have physical aggression and lack of remorse, 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. Untold human wreckage? Some people are claiming that John Bolton hurt their feelings and made them upset. Pol Pot caused untold human wreckage. Hitler, Stalin, Mao - they caused untold human wreckage. For shame. What's important is the degree to which a person has each ingredient or characteristic and in what configuration. Uh, no. We can do without the physical aggression, irresponsibility toward work or finances, impulsiveness, or lack of remorse. Everything else mentioned is just fine for a policymaker. Congress will try to decide whether Mr. Bolton has the right combination. Senator Kennedy, do you have any opinion on Mr. Bolton's psychiatric fitness?

[edited to acknowledge a hat tip to Rich Lowry of NRO]

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