Maybe Patrick Bateman wasn’t such an outlier.
One out of every 10 Wall Street employees is likely a clinical psychopath, writes journalist Sherree DeCovny in an upcoming issue of the trade publication CFA Magazine (subscription required). In the general population, the rate is closer to one percent.
“A financial psychopath can present as a perfect well-rounded job candidate, CEO, manager, co-worker, and team member because their destructive characteristics are practically invisible,” writes DeCovny, who pulls together research from several psychologists for her story, which helpfully suggests that financial firms carefully screen out extreme psychopaths in hiring.
To be sure, typical psychopathic behavior runs the gamut. At the extreme end is Bateman, portrayed by Christian Bale, in the 2000 movie “American Psycho,” as an investment banker who actually kills people and exhibits no remorse. When health professionals talk about “psychopaths,” they have a broader range of behavior in mind.
A clinical psychopath is bright, gregarious and charming, writes DeCovny. He lies easily and often and may have trouble feeling empathy for other people. He’s probably also more willing to take dangerous risks — either because he doesn’t understand the consequences, or because he simply doesn’t care.
An appetite for risk can seem like a positive business trait on Wall Street, where big gambles sometimes lead to big rewards. But for the people DeCovny is talking about, the outcomes matter less than the gambles themselves — and the chemical rush of serotonin and endorphins that accompanies them.
This is hardly the first time that mental illness has been equated with a certain capacity for professional success — especially in the financial sector, where some stock traders have actually scored higher than diagnosed psychopaths on tests that measure competitiveness and attraction to risk.
Some psychologists have long claimed that the qualities that make for a high-achieving politician or stockbroker are also the same traits that psychopaths have in abundance.
Other researchers generalize it to bosses as a species, saying that about 4 percent of all executives are psychopaths — and that their relative lack of scruples is what helps them excel in business.
At the same time, the fast-moving, high-pressure environment of Wall Street probably compromises the mental health of some of its employees. A recent study found that many young bankers develop alcoholism, insomnia, eating disorders and other stress-related ailments within just a few years on the job.
Stockbrokers have also been shown to experience clinical depression at a rate more than three times as high as the general population.
DeCovny writes that for someone with a “latent” compulsive gambling problem, a job trading stocks can trigger pathological responses that send the person into an escalating pattern of lies, debts and even embezzlement and fraud.
A person with this problem would feel gratified by an enormous loss, because of the way their brain’s reward system works — which DeCovny says may explain the activities of such notorious rogue traders as Kweku Adoboli, Jerome Kerviel and Nick Leeson, three men who gambled and lost the combined equivalent of $10.3 billion for their respective institutions over the past 17 years.