Have you ever wondered whether the person you work with or work for is a psychopath? Well, I used to all the time when I was a stockbroker and it turns out that I may have been onto something. I read a book last week called ‘The Devil You Know’ and I’m now more convinced than ever that some of the investment bankers who used to ruin my day weren’t just ‘psychos’ in the jokey sense of the word but actual living, breathing psychopaths. Indeed, the recent BBC interview with the unusually candid trader Alessio Rastani who claimed to be ‘dreaming about a recession for the last three years’ reminded me just how wonderful some of my former City colleagues used to be!
It turns out that around 3% of men exhibit the character traits that together would officially classify them as ‘a psychopath’ and they’re not all sitting around eating someone’s liver ‘with a nice little Chianti’. Your typical psychopath is simply manipulative, charming, remorseless, arrogant and lacking any conscience. They are generally single-minded risk-takers with a ruthless will to succeed who are unable to empathise with others and have no problem breaking rules or lying. They are not team players and are experts in office politics. They often have deviant lifestyles and only superficial relationships.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could think of at least twenty Cityboys I met over my twelve year City career who fit the above description exactly and what’s worrying is that they tended to be the most successful ones. Indeed, anyone hoping to make it in the City could do a lot worse than emulate the psycho’s natural tendencies. Arrogantly taking risks, brazenly lying to clients and ruthlessly manipulating colleagues without being impeded by silly things like a conscience is, in fact, how you make it big in the City!
My fears that banks might be populated by psychos were further confirmed by one of the leading experts, Robert Hare, who concluded in his book that had he not been able to use prisoners when seeking out psychos to study (15% of whom qualify) he would have used stockbrokers. It turns out that psychos are drawn to large organisations where there is scope for impressive promotions and job titles and that they target jobs which require vague things like ‘leadership skills’ or ‘people management’ rather than hard and fast qualifications. Again, parts of banking fit the bill perfectly.
Hours after having finished the excellent ‘The Devil You Know’ I happened to watch one of my favourite films – Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall St’. It quickly became apparent that the film’s anti-hero, Gordon Gekko, is in fact a psychopath. He is a ruthless, manipulative, conscience-free monster who remorselessly pursues ‘success’ at any cost and is completely comfortable breaking laws. Gekko says at one point that he wants the people working for him to ‘have no feelings’ and even looks happy when he’s astutely told ‘you’d sell your mother to make a deal’!
The significance of this realisation is that Gekko has long been a hero to many bankers – especially in New York. His pithy aphorisms like ‘lunch is for wimps’ are bandied around the trading floors of Manhattan with gay abandon and his approach to business is seen as admirable. What is also clear is that the character played by Charlie Sheen has certain psycho tendencies that are encouraged by Gekko but ultimately, when faced with the break-up of his father’s airline business, he rediscovers his conscience and shops Gekko to the authorities.
This morality tale got me thinking about whether the City attracts psychos or simply brings out the worst in those it employs. Whilst banking is undoubtedly an ‘appropriate’ career choice for psychos I can say from personal experience that the City’s all-pervasive hyper-competitive ‘maximize your bonus at any cost’ mentality demands that we borderline psychos forget our more gentle, human qualities as we ruthlessly strive to beat our colleagues.
I used to think that the recent financial crisis came about because the ‘loonies had taken over the asylum’ but I’m now convinced it’s because the psychos did. Surely, only the arrogant, single-minded pursuit of victory and a cold indifference to others can explain how predatory bankers knowingly infected the world with toxic loans fully aware that they’d cause untold misery when they exploded at a later date.
There’s one final psychopathic character trait that confirms my theory – apparently psychos have a complete inability to accept any blame for their misdeeds or take responsibility for their actions.
When it comes to bankers’ reactions to the financial crisis does that ring any bells?