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Wilful Blindness

Published: Feb 3rd, 2011
ISBN-10: 184737770X
ISBN-13: 978-1847377708
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril was first published in 2011.


National Post, Canada
Why Scoundrels Rule
Adam McDowell, National Post - May 21, 2011

Imagine you are, in the words of American psychologist Stanton Peele, "an average slob" who has taken a child on a business trip, and you're "worried the IRS is going to audit your tax return because you claimed a breakfast voucher and you included your child's milkshake."

This little worry is a big problem. It may mark you for a life of mediocrity. "The average person is really kept in line by an oversubscription to the rules," Dr. Peele says.

Now imagine you don't care in the slightest about the stupid milkshake. No nerves, no nagging conscience. That is the ticket to bigger things. It's often the brash, insensitive rule-breakers among us who have the moxy, people skills and self-belief necessary to make the world go round. But these same people often have trouble keeping their impulses in check, leading to a catastrophic downfall down the road.

This week saw sexual assault allegations against former International Monetary Fund chief and French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as well as the revelation that former California governor and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered a love child.

Whatever the truth is in these cases, the world was reminded yet again that scoundrels, cheats and deceivers abound in the higher echelons of human society. Leaders often do outrageous things because a lack of concern for consequences goes hand in hand with leadership qualities. The average person does not have a love child, but also cannot make a movie millions want to see. Those with the greatest accomplishments usually take the greatest risks.

As Dr. Peele wrote in a blog post for the magazine Psychology Today: "Really successful people break rules constantly. It's the route to the top."

By now, when a scandal breaks involving a high-ranking leader in politics, business or entertainment, any surprise must surely be feigned. Our collective past experience makes accusations of outrageous behaviour among the great and powerful all that more believable.

Rather than ask why powerful men cheat and do bad things, perhaps we should understand and even accept that it might be the other way around: People who are prone to do bad, selfish things also have an edge in rising to high positions, and excelling.

"They share certain characteristics with psychopaths. It's just that they tend to be more talented and brighter than guys who end up in prison," Dr. Peele says.

"The kind of personality that rises to the top of sharkinfested professions like politics and finance -these guys tend to be ruthless, they tend to be fearless, they tend to be charming and somewhat lacking in the conscience department," says Cambridge University social psychologist Kevin Dutton.

Regardless of whether the accusations against the former IMF head are true, "there's a ton of evidence that suggests that Strauss-Kahn is a formidable intellect, was doing fantastic work at the IMF, was able to keep lots of constituencies together that otherwise would have been fighting like cats and dogs, and was able to see through all this chaos to some solution," says Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur and the author of Willful Blindness, a book about how businesspeople and members of other complex organizations can fail to recognize obvious problems.

"Now that's a phenomenal capacity," she says. "Undoubtedly the IMF needed that. To do all that, he needed extraordinary levels of self-belief."

A great leader's array of skills includes cold decisionmaking, the ability to motivate others and, above all, charisma. These traits also earn points on standard tests for anti-social psychological disorders -narcissism, or worse, sociopathy and psychopathy.

"Narcissistic personalities can be very compelling, because they believe in themselves so powerfully that they make you believe in them," Ms. Heffernan says.

Among sociopaths, writes U.S. clinical psychologist Martha Stout in her 2005 book The Sociopath Next Door, "one of the more frequently observed of these traits is a glib and superficial charm that allows the true sociopath to seduce other people, figuratively or literally."

But sweet-talking and a devil-may-care abandon, the basis of the sociopath's mystique or "glow," can be wielded by non-sociopaths as well -you don't have to be a scoundrel to be charming, but it helps. Increasingly, psychologists recognize that positive aspects of psychopathy (magnetism, energy, courage) are distributed widely in the population. They are part of the human identity.

"For a long while, it was thought that psychopathy was black and white. You're either a psychopath or you're not," Dr. Dutton explains. "But there's growing evidence to suggest there's a spectrum along which we all lie. It's just like height, weight, IQ."

Or creative dishonesty. "There are plenty of people who are highly adept at manipulating others . who are not people who would be classified as having personality disorders," says David Livingstone Smith, a University of New England philosophy professor and author of Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind.

Manipulation skills are endemic to leaders, from popular high school students to CEOs and politicians, Dr. Smith says. "It's actually quite

an important social skill."

Dr. Smith believes humans must manipulate and even deceive for the sake of social organization.

"We need our politicians and we need our entrepreneurs. We need these people with people skills. And people skills are, to a significant degree, manipulation skills, deception skills," he says.

It is easy enough to administer an ad hoc test for these traits using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised test, a commonly used questionnaire developed by Canadian psychologist Robert Hare. It measures psychopathic traits including charm, fearlessness and lack of conscience. As Dr. Dutton writes in his book Split-Second Persuasion, ordinary people tend to score around four or five points out of 40. True psychopaths score 30 or more.

High-scorers are not all in prison, because many, if not most, appear to be regular people and are not immediately dangerous.

Dr. Dutton -interviewed during an international conference on psychopathy in Montreal, concluding Saturday -stresses the popular association between psychopathic traits and physical violence is a myth.

"You don't need to be violent or sexually weird to be a psychopath," he says. "You can have these traits -fearlessness, you can be ruthless, you can be amoral [or] very charming. If you are not naturally violent and you leave school with good grades and go to a good university, you're going to end up stabbing people in the back in the boardroom or on the trading floor."

(And make smart trades, too: a 2005 University of Iowa study showed that people with psychopathic traits make the smartest investments.)

Charm plus intelligence, minus conscience, often equals a fraudster. Ms. Heffernan has interviewed both white-collar criminals and their victims, notably people swindled into financial ruin by disgraced financier Bernard Madoff. "Fraudsters are incredibly intelligent and they're very, very attuned to what will work with their mark," she says.

Instead of empathizing, sociopaths intellectualize the task of reading others' emotions. Research indicates socio-and psychopaths also differ in how strongly they feel threats: A part of their brain called the amygdala, which creates the sensation of fear, is far less active.

This business about the amygdala "is a fascinating theory," says retired American executive Al Dunlap in the new book The Psychopath Test. "Why are some people enormously successful and others not at all?"

For the book, author and journalist Jon Ronson travelled to Mr. Dunlap's Florida estate to administer a psychopathy test to a businessman nicknamed the "Chainsaw" for his flippant approach to mass layoffs. Granting that he is not a psychologist, Mr. Ronson reports that Mr. Dunlap scored positive in category after category.

"The morning continued with Al redefining a great many psychopathic traits as leadership positives. Impulsivity was 'just another way of saying quick analysis,' " Mr. Ronson writes.

Mr. Dunlap retired from his job as CEO of Sunbeam appliances amid a 2002 dispute with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He had closed plants and fired thousands of employees. According to The Psychopath Test, the share price rose from US$12.50, when he came aboard in 1996, to US$28 two years later.

The uncaring high-achiever is only in his position because others have allowed him to be. Once in power, psychologists note, he can be difficult to challenge, especially when he is effective.

In the Second World War, notes Ms. Hefferman, the entrepreneur and author, it took a narcissist (Winston Churchill) to rally a nation to defeat a psychopath (Adolf Hitler). "We need these people in times of crisis," she says. "We kind of embrace them for what they're able to achieve for all of us, and chuck them out when we see the cost."

Alas, lacking impulse control and fear of negative consequences does entail a cost. Consider Bill Clinton. Without trying to diagnose him from afar, Dr. Peele mulls over his behaviour while in office.

"A multimillionaire and a man who was twice elected president, [he] is one of the most popular people in the world. Think about it, when you're in your fifties, having a 22-year-old intern giving you oral sex at work -who would do that?.

"When you're the president of the United States and all these [negative consequences] could happen, and did happen, most people would say, 'I'd just skip it. This is too much.' But not him," Dr. Peele says. "That's very close to the kind of logic you find with psychopaths."

Even when embarrassed or fallen from grace, Dr. Dutton says people with aggressively self-serving traits are usually more emotionally resilient than others.

Dr. Smith points out another benefit: "When we see someone's fall from grace . I think what's most useful is to see ourselves in the mirror that they present," he says.

"If we really, really care about truth, if we really care about honesty, the first step is to admit that we are natural born liars, natural born manipulators. It's part of us and it's not always bad."

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