Stories about the genius sociopath are ubiquitous. So ubiquitous, in fact, that we glorify those who are considered “crazy like a fox” and assume their extreme behaviors are well calculated. In a way, we almost expect the smartest among us be rule breakers and disregard limits. Therefore, it becomes complicated to distinguish between a candidate for the “most interesting person in the world award” and a sociopath.
Despite the ubiquity, the actual number of business executives who possess the characteristics of a sociopath (somewhere between 3% and 8%) is much smaller than perceived. Their impact, however, is anything but small.
Take, for example, the following three high profile individuals—Thomas Edison, Andrew Wakefield, and Jérôme Kerviel— who all behaved at the intersection of intelligence and meanness, resulting in catastrophic ramifications. Edison, while being overshadowed and pushed out of business by Nikola Tesla and his alternative electricity source, felt threatened and went to extreme lengths to discredit the competition by engaging in the public electrocution of dogs, cats, horses, and even an elephant.
Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor, accepted a large sum of money in exchange for a contrived medical journal article linking autism to the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, resulting in millions of children going unvaccinated over a period of several years.
Finally, Jérôme Kerviel, a brilliant trader at the French financial services company Société Générale, executed a series of elaborate, fictitious transactions that cost the company more than $7 billion (the biggest loss ever recorded in the financial industry by a single individual).
In all three cases, the individuals did much more damage because they were exceptionally smart and pushed the boundaries of what’s accepted to the point of not seeming to care about the consequences of their actions. More significant, however, is the fact that Edison, Wakefield, and Kerviel were all highly self-aware and extremely deliberate in their behavior. In contrast to our previous blog on the “bias blind spot” in which collateral damage was unintended, these three cases illustrate the intentional harming of others.
As such, intentionality (or conscientiousness) is the theme that distinguishes healthy boundary-pushing individuals from genius sociopaths. Defined as high-level self-awareness of what goes on around you, conscientiousness as a differentiating construct is explored in the 2010 research article entitled “The search for the successful psychopath”.
In addition to academic research, Dr. Popple’s early career experience with incarcerated individuals and later experience assessing over one thousand executives for leadership roles as an organizational psychologist, further reinforced the intentionality/conscientiousness as the predominant characteristic of sociopathic behavior.
Finally, while Psynet Group as an organization does not diagnose mental disorders, Pysbil (our online assessment platform) uncovers the successful sociopath by measuring bullying behavior and highly elevated levels of self-awareness.