A snake in a suit. It’s a phrase that will remind most people of someone they’ve worked with in the past. The phrase was coined by Dr Robert Hare and Dr Paul Babiak to describe people they came across in their research who, despite under-performing in their job, had managed to slither their way into the highest echelons of the companies they worked for.

These individuals were ruthless, callous and charming; traits that seemed to help them reach the top. On the surface, they might have seemed perfectly harmless and were often well-liked, but closer scrutiny revealed them to be something much more sinister: corporate psychopaths.

Over the last three years, Babiak, an industrial psychologist, was hired by seven different companies to help assess whether their employees were ‘promotion material’ or not. The people he was assessing ranged from supervisors to CEOs and even the odd president.

While he tested their performance and overall potential, Babiak was permitted to use the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – the psychometric test typically used to assess whether criminals have psychopathic tendencies. Babiak discovered that out of the 203 people he tested, one in 25 of them were classified as psychopaths, despite having no criminal background. That’s four times the number he would have expected to find in the general population.

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When Hare took a closer look at the data, he discovered something else. “The company’s in-house evaluations of these people often said stuff like ‘this guy/gal is a team leader – innovative, bright, can be trusted, lights up the room when they step in, and so on,’” says Hare. “In fact, the higher they tended to score on the Psychopathy Checklist the better an impression people had of them.

“But when we measured their performance scores, by looking at how effective they were at furthering the company, they went right down as their checklist scores went up. In fact, when you get up at the high levels of the psychopathy scale, their performance was generally unacceptable. They should have been fired, but they weren’t because they were viewed differently by the people – they were great at managing impressions.”

The psychopath test

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist gauges 20 hallmark traits of psychopathic behaviour – examples include glib and superficial charm, sexual promiscuity and pathological lying. Each trait on the checklist is given a score out of two, before being added up to give the individual a score out of 40.

A score above 30 classes the person as a psychopath. Usually it’s a test that’s administered to inmates of high-security psychiatric hospitals to determine whether or not it’s safe to release them. But in this case, the personality traits had belonged to seemingly normal people. It was these characteristics, which had allowed others to kill and maim without empathy, that had enabled the people Babiak was assessing to claw their way past their peers.

So what’s the difference between a corporate psychopath and a criminal psychopath? “Serial murderers are very unusual and very rare,” says Hare, “we don’t know what turns an individual into a serial killer. We don’t know why one person with many psychopathic characteristics will become a serial murderer and a thousand others won’t. It could be opportunity, chance, flukes, experimentation. We just don’t know.”

Criminal minds

Although it’s not clear what makes one psychopath a criminal and another a CEO, research underway at a prison in New Mexico could tell us what’s inside the mind of a psychopath. The prison cells inside the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility are unlike any other in the world. Alongside photos of friends and family, inmates proudly decorate their walls with something more unusual: MRI scans of their brains.

These brain scans are gifts, given to them by Dr Kent Kiehl and his researchers in return for their sitting in his MRI scanner for hours on end.

While the inmates relish the welcome break from boredom and the chance to brag about the size of their brains, Kiehl – known as ‘The Doc’ to the inmates – hopes to discover exactly what it is that makes someone a psychopath. His theory is that psychopaths have a defect in an area of the brain known as the para-limbic system – a network of brain structures that work together to detect and understand emotion.

They’re also thought to control our inhibitions and our attention. So far it seems his scans back this up. Inside the MRI scanner, when an individual classed as a psychopath is asked to weigh up a serious moral dilemma – like whether they should divert an out-of-control tram to hit a bus full of schoolchildren or one headed to a retirement home – their brain doesn’t seem to work as expected. Their amygdala – an almond-shaped brain segment that deals with raw emotions like fear and rage – should reel in horror at this hypothetical disaster. But the scans reveal that it remains relatively sedate in psychopaths. In fact, the more severe their psychopathy the less this part of the limbic system seems to react.

It doesn’t seem to be just one isolated portion of the brain that’s affected either. “The Orbito-Frontal Cortex (OFC) is supposed to attach emotional salience to fear stimuli,” says Kiehl. “In other words, it helps make sense of the basic emotions formed by the amygdala. When the psychopaths were asked to rate moral violations, this circuit also demonstrated much lower levels of activity than non-psychopathic prisoners. Not only were they not picking up on the emotionally charged content, but their brains didn’t seem to be equipped to attach meaning to it either.”

The result of this faulty circuitry is that they either fail to empathise or understand an emotion in the first place, or don’t know the appropriate way to react to it – something Kiehl has witnessed first hand.

“A serial killer once confessed to me about a number of other crimes he’d committed that he hadn’t been convicted for,” says Kiehl. “Right after he talked to me he was charged with those murders. He told his cellmate that he thought I squealed, and that he was going to have me killed. So that person went straight to the security officer and narked on him. The police came to my home and told me that they were putting me in protective custody until they could figure it all out. “So, I just ended up going backpacking for a weekend and when I came back, the guy had found out that it was actually somebody on his crew that had been caught on the outside, and had squealed to try and get a deal. In the 17 years I’ve worked with psychopaths, I’m really fortunate to have had nothing more serious than that happen – touch wood.”

Digging deeper

While Kiehl’s MRI unit is unique, he’s not the only one mining the brains of convicted criminals to uncover the root of psychopathy. Here in the UK at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, Dr Michael Craig and his colleagues have gone one step further and discovered that the actual brain tissue of a psychopath is physically different.

Using a new imaging technique, known as Diffusion Tenser Tractography, Craig was able to take a closer look at the brain tissue connecting the two regions identified by Kiehl – the amygdala and the OFC. “We know that sections of the brain don’t operate individually,” says Craig, “it’s the connections between them that are important. In short, we found that the integrity of the tissue connecting the two regions was reduced in people with psychopathy compared to control subjects.”

In other words, the pathway of neurones connecting two brain regions vital to understanding emotion was ‘bumpier’ than in normal people, making it difficult for clear signals to get across – almost like a CD being scratched. This small but significant biological difference suggests that psychopathy isn’t a purely psychological condition, but one that has a physical component too.

Craig hopes that this could lead to a treatment in the long-term, that might repair the damaged white matter. But he stresses that this would need to be spotted early on. Treatment is, of course, the holy grail of psychopathy research. It’s a condition that is uniquely resistant to any kind of therapy because of its very nature. The only way it seems possible currently, is to catch it early.

Dr Essi Viding, a developmental psychologist at University College London, works with children at a high risk of acquiring severe anti-social disorders. She agrees that it’s practically impossible to treat a psychopath, but she does have a rather novel approach to prevention.

“You can capitalise on the fact that they tend to have lower levels of anxiety, are confident and goal-oriented,” says Viding. “Think of it from the point of view of evolution. It wouldn’t do, if all of us were massively empathic and pro-social. There are situations in the organism’s life cycle where it may actually be more advantageous to look after number one, and there are reasons why these sorts of genes survive in the gene pool. If we can work on that basis, and make them use these traits positively, then perhaps we can treat it before it becomes a disorder.”

It’s a sentiment that Dr Robert Hare, the father of modern psychopathy research, shares. “There are advantages of having some psychopathic traits; not in the extreme and not very many of them, but a fairly low to moderate dose might be very advantageous to many businesses. I wish I had a few more of them myself.”

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Daniel BennettEditor, BBC Science Focus

Daniel Bennett is the Editor of BBC Science Focus. He is an award-winning journalist who’s been reporting on science and technology for over a decade, writing about the science of serials killers, sandwiches, supernovae and almost everything in between.