Like it or not, psychopaths are all around you. We’re not trying to freak you out; Hannibal Lecter probably isn’t hiding under your ottoman, waiting for you to let your guard down (although you might want to check, just in case). However, if you work in certain industries, there’s a pretty decent chance that you’ll come into contact with a few psychopaths every week.
Before we delve into the science, let’s get our terms straight. “Sociopathy” and “psychopathy” are essentially the same thing, although “psychopath” has a more negative connotation and is often applied to people who’ve committed crimes.
“The terms ‘psychopath’ or ‘sociopath’ are actually more descriptive rather than clinical,” says Laura L. Walsh, PsyD, in an email to Urbo. “They are used as a sort of shorthand to refer to patterns in types of behaviors towards individuals or groups that are generally harmful. It describes a person who meets impairment criteria in personality development and function.”
The most well-known trait of a so-called psychopath is a lack of empathy, though that doesn’t mean that psychopaths aren’t capable of having a deep understanding of emotional communication. Psychopaths are thought to make up only 1 percent of the general population but up to 25 percent of the prison population.
“In general, mental health workers define psychopaths as those who lack empathy and commit crimes or other hurtful acts,” says Laura Dabney, MD, a psychiatrist in Virginia Beach. “In other words, what stops most of us from committing hurtful acts is our sense of guilt. We can empathize with the one hurt, we know how that feels, and we don’t want to cause another to feel that way.”
Psychopaths can’t empathize with others, which often leads to distressing behaviors.
Granted, some people with ASPD follow the law, help others, and improve society, but even though psychopaths are relatively rare, they’re thought to be responsible for over half of all serious crime.
Even so, psychologists often have trouble studying the extent of the disorder since psychopathic individuals don’t always seek treatment, particularly if they’re fairly successful.
“Oftentimes, people with [ASPD] commit crimes, have histories of broken relationships, and generally struggle with effects of early trauma,” Walsh says. “Very few people are actually diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder.”
The diagnostic criteria for ASPD lists behaviors such as not conforming to social norms or lawful behaviors, repeated lying or conning other people for personal gain, and indifference to having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from others. Those with ASPD tend to be motivated by personal gratification “without authentic care or concern for others’ feelings, needs, or suffering,” says Walsh, and they “lack the capacity for truly intimate and vulnerable relationships.”
A typical psychopath will lie, deceive, and exploit others, sometimes acting impulsively with disproportionate rage or irritability. In most situations, those personality traits are big drawbacks.
The key word, of course, is “most.”
Naturally, psychopaths are drawn to certain professions more than others.
Mental health professionals are quite interested in studying “functional” psychopaths, but as Walsh notes, that’s difficult when a relatively low number of people with ASPD are actually diagnosed.
“That’s where ‘traits’ [associated with ASPD] come in,” she says. “When combined with other factors such as education, intelligence, affluence, and opportunity, psychologists and other mental health providers can see ‘sub-clinical’ flavors of these same characteristics in otherwise highly functioning individuals.”
In other words, by looking for certain characteristics, psychologists can identify the psychopaths. Pretty cool, right?
“When we start to examine leaders, it becomes evident that in some professions, especially in leadership positions, having less empathy is an [advantage] when making difficult choices,” Walsh says. “There are certain professions with tasks or roles that are attractive to someone with traits of [ASPD] and others that, while attractive, require skills either the person does not have or would require too much energy to imitate.”
We asked for an example, and she had one ready.
“Take a psychologist seeing clients,” she writes. “The generally attractive qualities [to psychopaths] include believing they are the center of the sessions, wielding power as an authority figure, and feeding an empty self-esteem through the admiration of colleagues.”
So are psychologists psychopaths? Probably not, Walsh says (although, to be fair, she would say that if she were a psychopath).
“Success in this profession depends on displays of empathy, which must be ‘faked,’ integrity, and consistency,” she notes. Antisocial people probably wouldn’t find themselves sitting in a psychiatrist’s office—unless, of course, they were seeking treatment.
According to psychologist Kevin Dutton’s 2012 book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, these 10 careers have the highest proportion of psychopaths:
- Media (TV/radio)
- Police officer
- Civil servant
We should note that the list is six years old, and it’s based on the author’s own “Great British Psychopath Survey,” which is sort of like The Great British Baking Show, except substitute antisocial behaviors for the cupcakes, and…okay, it’s not really anything like it.
Dutton tested a (fairly) random selection of people from various professions for signs of psychopathy.
We reached out to him for more information, but he wasn’t able to comment for this story. He’s a respected psychologist and a professor at the University of Oxford, and his research methods seem sound.
Still, we wanted a second opinion, so we decided to run his list by Walsh to get her perspective. She says that each listed profession has one more traits that might attract a psychopathic individual.
CEO (and other C-level positions): “[In those positions], making hard decisions that negatively impact others are celebrated and rewarded, especially in certain industries,” Walsh says.
Of course, CEOs can often succeed by acting irrationally—as venture capitalist Bryan Stolle once noted, “starting a company is an irrational act” in the first place.
Clergy: “Charismatic speakers may not always believe or practice what they preach, but those with ASPD traits thrive on the power of gaining followers,” Walsh says.
Of course, plenty of perfectly wonderful people work as clergy, but the profession does seem to provide predators and antisocial personalities with a convenient infrastructure, as Joe Navarro pointed out in a piece for Psychology Today.
Careers in media and journalism, by the way, have a similar advantage: They provide psychopaths with access to the public while rewarding certain types of risk-taking behaviors.
Government Officials: “At all levels of bureaucracy, from senators to DMV clerks, there are small ways to gain and exercise power over others in legitimate ways,” Walsh says.
And while empathy would seem to be a benefit in the world of politics, psychopaths would still have advantages, since they’re capable of telling half-truths and outright lies in order to gain positions of power.
Need a famous example? Psychologist David Lykken once wrote:
“[President] Lyndon Johnson exemplified [antisocial personality disorder]. He was relatively fearless, shameless, abusive of his wife and underlings, and willing to do or say almost anything required to attain his ends.”
Sales and Advertising: “By focusing on a product and numbers, traits of [ASPD] can be expressed unchecked through the vehicle of doing the job.”
Walsh also says that data security professionals and other IT specialists benefit from a similar career structure that draws in psychopaths.
“[Data security] and other computer science jobs are precise, goal-oriented positions,” she notes. “It is easily rationalized that pursuit of the task at hand is priority over all else, including other people.”
Military: “Certain military tasks, as well as the higher ranks, run the risk of pulling out these problematic traits,” Walsh says. “Most people are able to keep a balance by focusing on the bigger picture. That shifts when the bigger picture is you.”
In other words, the military might create the right conditions for psychopathy. One 2010 study showed that trauma survivors with PTSD showed a lower empathetic response than non-traumatized individuals, and researchers noted that “no clear indications of other impairments in social cognitive functions were found.”
Surgeons: To us, this seemed unintuitive; how could any physician have a complete lack of empathy for their patients?
“[The profession of surgery] is somewhat unique, as the reward is on outcomes, not on bedside manner,” Walsh explains. “We often give the surgeon a ‘pass’ on their behavior, allowing the ego-centricity to go unchecked.”
Stock Brokers: “Money—and the ability to make money for others—is intoxicating to some,” says Walsh, in what is perhaps the greatest understatement in the history of this website.
“In the finance culture, there’s a lot someone with these traits can get away with as long as they are producing for their clients.”
We’d like to emphasize one crucial point: Even if you recognize some of the traits of psychopathy in a coworker, you shouldn’t be tempted to categorize them as such. Remember, highly trained mental health professionals often have trouble identifying people with ASPD—you certainly can’t make an accurate diagnosis after reading a quick article.
With that said, we’re glad to see that “writer” didn’t make the list. Hopefully, researchers don’t do a similar investigation of careers that attract neurotics.