7 Reasons Rich People Are Psychopaths

rich sociopath

Photo credit: Miguel Pires da Rosa

There’s an unsettling correlation between psychopathy, a personality disorder characterized by a lack of conscience, and those who find personal wealth and success. From negotiating the hiring process to manipulating and controlling co-workers, psychopaths thrive in the modern corporate workplace, often making millions during their rise to stardom. The incidence of psychopathy among CEOs, for instance, is four times higher than the general population, reports journalist Jon Ronson in his book “The Psychopath Test.”

“Basically, when you get them talking, [psychopaths] are different than human beings,” Ronson told Forbes. “They lack things that make you human: empathy, remorse, loving kindness.”

In studying psychopaths, researchers Paul Babiak and Robert Hare found that the high-stakes, high-profits corporate environment attracts these dysfunctional personalities. Psychopaths often share the same goals as many others: money, power, material goods and influence. But as Babiak and Hare report in their co-authored book “Snakes in Suits,” the difference between a typical corporate worker and a psychopath is that the latter views any means, even the harmful, cruel or illegal, as justified if they help achieve the end.

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7 Traits Shared By Psychopaths and the Wealthy

This is not to say all wealthy and successful people are psychopaths — after all, the four-times-higher rate of psychopathy among CEOs was still just 4 percent. But there is a correlation between wealth and psychopathic behavior. Here are some of the most common psychopathic traits exhibited by the rich.

1. Lack of Empathy

Psychopaths are incapable of empathy — understanding the feelings and experiences of others and responding appropriately. A lack of empathy was also linked to those who are rich and powerful in a 2008 study by social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and UC Berkeley, reports The New York Times. The study paired up strangers and asked them to share difficult moments in their lives with each other, like the death of a loved one or divorce. The study’s participants who were more powerful in terms of wealth and social status showed less compassion and attentiveness to the struggles of their less-powerful counterparts.

Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley psychology professor involved in the study, explained that people tend to focus on social connections with people who offer them the most value. To the wealthy, those with few material assets and little social power matter the least. The less-well-off, however, rely more on social connections for support, and so are more willing to listen to others and give their experiences greater weight. This kind of “social distance” can lead successful people to display less empathy for those of lower socioeconomic statuses.

Read: “The Wolf of Wall Street” and Other Films About Rich Psychopaths

2. Egotism

Nobel economics prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman tracked the achievements of 25 wealth advisers over eight years and found that that their success was a total illusion, reports The Guardian. The consistency of their performance was zero.

“The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill,” Kahneman said. Contrary to the advisers’ beliefs in their superior talents, the study showed that luck had the biggest impact on their financial successes, not skill. When Kahneman pointed this out to them, the facts fell on deaf ears — the financial advisers simply could not believe it.

“The illusion of skill…is deeply ingrained in their culture,” Kahneman said.

3. Superficial Charm

Do senior leaders rise to the top because their judgment, vision and management skills are superior to anyone else in the company — or do they get there by manipulating others, through charm, deceit or a sense of entitlement?

A study published by Psychology, Crime and Law tested the psychological traits of 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses and compared these results to those of convicted criminals. The business executives tested similarly to the convicts for certain indicators of psychopathy.The managers actually scored higher for several characteristics that companies value and reward, including skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people, a strong sense of entitlement, a willingness to exploit others, and a lack of conscience.

4. Lack of Remorse

Psychopaths are usually very charming and charismatic, but show little remorse when their actions harm others. A psychopath often blames others for the things he does, or the negative outcomes of his behavior. Ronson told Forbes that in America’s capitalistic society, psychopathic traits and ruthless, cold behavior actually become positives. Among higher-scoring psychopaths, there was even a joy in manipulating others, actions for which a typical person would feel remorse or guilt.

Ronson names Al Dunlap, the former Sunbeam CEO and author of “Mean Business,” as an example of this. Dunlap earned a nickname of “The Chainsaw” and a spot on TIME’s list of the “Top 10 Worst Bosses” through his brutal layoffs and aggressive restructures to increase corporate profits. Still, the more merciless his tactics, the higher the stock value of companies he managed rose.

5. Selfishness

It makes sense that the rich can afford to be more generous and would thus be more likely to give than those who are less well-off, but a recent study shows that the reality is the opposite. An experiment by Paul Piff and a Berkeley research team suggested it’s the poor, not the wealthy, who are more inclined to charitable giving, reports The Economist. The team observed that the generosity of study participants increased as their economic statuses fell. Those who ranked themselves at the bottom of the ladder gave away 44% more than the participants who ranked themselves at the top.

Follow-up experiments showed that those in lower classes felt a greater responsibility to donate a portion of their salary to charity, naming an average rate of 5.6 percent of income as the reasonable amount to donate, versus the upper-class participants’ donation rate of 2.1 percent. The final test also showed that lower-class participants consistently displayed spontaneous compassion, while upper-class participants had to be prompted to display compassion. Dr. Piff concluded that the increased generosity among the lower-class participants might be essential for this group to survive hard times.

Related: Do the Rich Have a Social Obligation to Help the Poor?

6. Unethical Behavior

Upper class people are more likely to behave unethically than lower class people, according to a series of studies from the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Data from the study suggested this unethical behavior was supported by a more favorable attitude toward greed. The series of studies showed that upper class participants were more likely than poorer participants to:

  • Break the law while driving
  • Exhibit unethical decision-making
  • Take valued goods from others
  • Lie during a negotiation
  • Cheat to increase their chances of winning
  • Endorse unethical behavior at work

7. Prone to Boredom

Psychopaths love to live life in the fast lane. Living on the edge gives them the sense of danger and excitement they crave, reports Psychology Today. Many psychopaths commit crimes or hurt others just for the thrill of it. Anything mundane, boring or repetitive doesn’t excite them and they will quickly lose interest.

“Basically, high-scoring psychopaths can be brilliant bosses but only ever for short term,” Ronson said to Forbes. “They always want to make a killing and move on.” That charming and highly-successful CEO who seems to switch companies every few years? He could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  • Paul Cush

    Sounds like the same traits you will find equally in most of the criminal population that are almost universally poor in this country. That is not to say all poor are criminals, however from the tone of this article you seem to be implying most of the wealthy are psychopaths.

    • Liberty N. Cognito

      I don’t know what poor people you’ve been hanging around, and I suspect you probably don’t actually know anyone who is truly poor or homeless.

      As for the “criminal” population, do you mean those who have actually been convicted of crimes and have served time in prison? If so, you are leaving out the worst criminals of all: the white collar criminals who are almost never convicted and even when they are they rarely serve very much if any time at all. Yet they do so much more damage by wrecking the economy, sending other people’s kids to war and then refusing to take proper care of them when they return home ill and injured, and generally using the world and the people in it as their own personal property and pawns.

      Please recheck your facts.

      • pc11040

        Boo f’ing hoo. Let me take some time out of my busy day to parse my comment so an insignificant slug like you can comprehend it (to use a Ferris Buelerism, good breeding is what allows people like me to tolerate people like you). I stated that the criminal population in this country, which happens to be disproportionately represented by the poorest economic levels (which I agree is horrendous) exhibits a similar ratio of psychopathic personality behavior as the ratio the author attributes to successful/rich people in this country and I took offense to yet another statistical liar trying to create an us vs. them mentality between rich and poor in this country. Remember to be careful, when you villainize the rich in this country, you’re catching a lot of people that started out poor and achieved their wealth on merit and ability in that net.

        • Allen

          psychopaths can be poor or rich but what this article really says is that psychopaths have the seven above traits or don’t you get it? maybe your offended because you have all the above traits? if so then you are a psychopath and deserve to die like that pig hitler!

          • Bongstar420

            No..he is rich and doesn’t want to lose his power over others that are less wealthy

  • Susan F. Thompson

    Lack of compassion or awareness of the efforts of their fellow people is psychotic. We (all) need to be aware of the struggles of life. The wealthy of this country is 1%, Hillery Clinton was amazed by the gas prices when she ran for Pres in 08. I would guess she had never gone to pump her own gas. HA! We were all amazed at the gas prices then. It simply says to achieve you need to be uncaring. And usually are unless you are smart and normal.

  • Bongstar420

    That would get him kicked out. They are very rigid in their social constructs.. lest their hierarchy be perturbed.