Psychopaths in Politics and Business

A study from a few years back isolated some neural factors common to psychopaths. For example, a lack of empathy and compassion, a hyperfocus on rewards (money) and social recognition or status.

I read the study and its findings and thought, “Hmm…this fits serial entrepreneurs, VC, high-end bankers, the serially advantaged, the generationally wealthy and most politicians I’ve met. Hmm…”

Luck is required in success. I thoroughly believe that. I also believe that luck favors the well-prepared. As Louis Pasteur said

Chance favors the prepared mind.

I also believe that nothing is more likely to insure success than persistence. Calvin Coolidge said

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

A great of science and industry and a great of industry and politics. Who am I to argue?

If “success” were easy, we’d all be successful and the concept of success would go through inflation-deflation cycles like any other economic commodity. I’ve studied “successful” people — those whom society defines and who self define as successful — and there is no doubt that drive, aka “persistence”, plays a major role.

All successful people have an almost pathologic ability to focus on their goal (financial rewards, social recognition, status) and many of them, when they believe it necessary, act dispassionately towards people they know and with complete lack of empathy to people they don’t with absolutely no difficulty.

They make what some call the hard decisions with no afterthought, no regret, no remorse and definitely no trouble.

Where the trouble begins

The trouble begins when leaders make hard decisions. We want our leaders to act and make decisions dispassionately and without regret or remorse when the action or decision is neutral to us. But when it benefits or punishes us? Heck no! And if it punishes us and benefits somebody else? Oh, gosh, look out.

This is often the rationale behind NIMBY and a demonstration of tribal identity. We want our leaders to be like us when some decision is to our benefit or detriment. What better time to demand they have compassion and empathize with our needs, wants and desires than when their decision will help or hurt us?

And here’s the trouble point for most people and something I first mentioned in Humor: Do we want business leaders to agonize over an out-sourcing decision? They may put 500 people out of work here and there’s no question that’s painful. But if they keep those 500 people employed the business itself goes at risk and then, perhaps 10,000 people become at risk. Economic history is replete with these kinds of examples and yes, there are excesses.

But it’s the excesses (such as Enron) that make the news, not the stories were 500 lost their jobs (and most companies offer reasonable retirement, reeducation and reemployment training packages) but 10,000 jobs were saved.

Similarly, do we want political leaders to agonize over sending troops into harm overseas? Especially when not doing so places us in harm’s way here at home?

In short, no, we don’t. In fact, when it comes to being able to make the hard decisions, we don’t want leaders who think like us at all. We want people of action and action doesn’t allow for indecision.

So we don’t want business and political leaders to think like us. Given and done.

But do they have to be psychopaths?

Do You Trust Your Neighbors to Do the Math?


During the middle of the next US Presidential election cycle it will be twenty years since the Republican majority closed the OTA.

If you’re like the majority of Americans, that little bit of arithmetic will give you pause. You may look to see when this post was published, compare that to what you know about US politics and election cycles and work backwards. If you’re into politics you may know when the last Republican majority was able to do such things.

And if you really know your US history, you’ll know when the OTA was shut down — 1995.

The OTA was the US Congress’s Office of Technology and Assessment, a bipartisan, nonpartisan, group of 150 skilled and trained technologists whose function was to provide unbiased evaluations of technology — expertise — on a wide variety of subjects. They produced incredibly well thought out, well reasoned, cogent and authoritative reports on what should receive funding, what the government should keep an eye on, what should be ignored and so on.

While I’m not surprised that a Republican majority voted to shut it down, I also must recognize that most Democrats weren’t sure what to do with the information the OTA provided.

But shutting it down? Because it was deemed “unnecessary”? In 1995? Thank goodness there’s been no technological developments since then!

That thinking was about as ill conceived as closing the US Patent office in the late 1800s because there was nothing left to invent (an urban myth, by the way).

OTA to pTA

Many countries are moving from an “office” of qualified, trained and tested experts providing technology assessments to what’s known as pTA or “participatory” Technology Assessment.

There are lots of problems with pTA. In its most overt form, it’s known as lobbying. The more covert forms involve groups and individuals funding faux information centers that profess expertise towards economic gain. Expertise towards economic gain is well established in the court system where it’s known as experts for hire.

The most inane form is when everybody, regardless of education or training, has a say in how things such as fusion technology, wind farming, bioengineering and the like should be done and where. Nobody wants the big ugly windmills in their backyard but everybody wants affordable power, and only fools think politics is a rational enterprise.

The US is a republic, not a democracy. We elect people we hope will do the best for us. This sometimes means they will do what they think is best, not what we think is best. Leapfrog Representation and Extremism: A Study of American Voters and Their Members in Congress, published in the Aug 2010 issue of American Political Science Review, demonstrated that the voting records of politicians in the 109th and 110th Congresses didn’t match the electorate’s sentiments on key issues at all.

But truthfully, can you be surprised? Especially in scientific matters? Most times those we elect are as technically and scientifically ignorant as the rest of the population.

And do you want someone who couldn’t figure out the little arithmetic problem in the opener of this blog to make decisions on what technologies, what medical treatments, what scientific endeavors are in the common good?