Kaja Perina on the Dark Triad: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy – #36

Kaja Perina is the Editor in Chief of Psychology Today.

Steve: Thanks for joining us. I’m Steve Hsu.

Corey: And I’m Corey Washington, and we’re your hosts for Manifold.

Steve: Okay. Our guest, today, Corey, is Kaja Perina. She is the editor in chief of Psychology today. I am going to read her bio from Psychology Today which is written in first person, so although I’m reading this, I’m actually pretending to be Kaja.

Steve: “I’m the editor in chief of Psychology Today. Prior to PT, I worked at magazines large and small, defunct and very much still alive. Rest in peace, Brill’s Content, not going anywhere soon, Vogue. Before that, I worked briefly in wire services and even more briefly in television news. My own writing for Psychology Today is anthologized in the Best American Science Writing series. The question I’m most frequently asked is whether I have formal training in psychology. My stock reply was once, “Only if you count years of psychotherapy.” I now tell people simply and no less honestly that lifelong curiosity about human behavior is ample schooling. As to formal schooling, I hold degrees from Vasser College and the Columbian University Graduate School of Journalism.”

Steve: Welcome, Kaja.

Kaja: Thanks. Very happy to be here.

Steve: Great to have you. We discussed what we were going to talk about because there are so many things we could cover, and maybe if we have time near the end we’ll branch into some of the other things, but we agreed that we would focus on something called psychopathology, also sometimes discussed in the context of the dark triad of personality traits, Machiavellian nature, psychopathology and narcissism.

Steve: I understand that you have both personal and professional perspectives on this topic which you’re going to share with us, so let’s start there, and first, I’m going to let Corey jump in if he wants any specific definitions or clarifications of what these things are, we could maybe start with that.

Corey: I guess I want to just start with the idea that psychopathology, I understand, is a very broad category encompassing anything that could go wrong with the mind or the nervous system, but you’re focusing on these particular dark personality traits. Is that correct for our discussion today?

Kaja: Psychopathology is the ultimate umbrella term. It really just means aberrant, non-normative functioning in the brain. Today, we had thought we would talk about a specific category of psychopathology and that is, take your pick of the term, but basically, people who are malicious, psychopathic, cluster B, personality-disordered in a way that really can wreak havoc in people’s lives.

Corey: Does this include people who are simply, and highly effectively, manipulative? My sense is that people are Machiavellian, I don’t know if that’s a pathology or if that’s, like, realpolitik brought into personal lives where you think it shouldn’t be brought in. Do you see what I’m trying to say? Are these people just being cold, rational, and exploiting human weaknesses or is there, in fact, something wrong with them?

Kaja: Dark triad, including Machiavellian behavior, psychopathic behavior and narcissistic behavior, can be described as factors in an overarching, what’s called, dark factor or D. This is an emergent way of thinking about psychopathology and really difficult people. It’s analogous to G, our general intelligence. It’s a factor that is thought to include everything from sadism, instrumentalism, being very instrumental about people, psychopathy.

Kaja: The way to think about D or a dark factor or a dark person most broadly is to think about someone who is interested only in utility maximization, so is only interested in their own ends. Obviously, everybody has a self-serving agenda to some degree, and Corey, I think that’s what you are flagging when you mentioned Machiavellianism as realpolitik in operating in the real world, but the idea behind the D or dark factor is that these people will do anything to pursue their own agenda. That includes hurting others if others interfere with their own goals, and thirdly, they feel justified in so doing.

Kaja: If you think about a dark factor in this way, you can map the idea of narcissism onto it. Narcissists are grandiose. They can be very charming but ultimately, they’re not at all interested in other people. You can map it onto psychopathy. Psychopaths are known to be callous and unemotional. They essentially have no affective engagement with people. They can read minds but they can’t necessarily experience a range of emotions.

Kaja: All of these things ultimately have to do with one’s own agenda and utility maximization.

Steve: I should explain why we chose this topic as something to discuss. Kaja and I occasionally bump into each other at meetings of the, for lack of a better word, power elite. I, am of course, is just a humble scientist that for some reason they’ve invited that they would like to talk to, and she’s a member of the media.

Steve: At these meetings are people who are super successful in life. They might be billionaires, hedge fund moguls, you name it, political titans, and of course there’s always this suspicion among us normal folk who are at the meeting that some of the success of these people comes, perhaps, from an unusual dollop or allocation of these dark traits.

Steve: Maybe this is just sour grapes on the part of us less successful people. On the other hand, maybe it’s a deep insight into how human societies work. I sometimes say that it’s disproportionately sociopaths at the top, but they’re very good at hiding it, and that may be true, it may be false, but it’s a topic that Kaja and I have discussed quite a bit over the years.

Corey: It’s also something that’s fascinated me because I’ve noticed a few times in my life, I can’t say it’s a majority, that there have been people I thought were deeply evil in my profession and that they were unusually successful, partly because they’re charming enough that people above them didn’t want to call them on it although they knew what they were doing, so I don’t think they made up the majority. I’m thinking, partly in my previous field of philosophy.

Corey: It’s a fascinating topic because I think there are fragments of this personality trait that are actually possessed by really good people. Again, this is something that we could get into, but there are two people that were pretty formative in my development, at least watching them, always from afar, but reading about them, were Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.

Corey: There’s no one, I was aware, of what a deeper sense of how humans operated than these two people. Mandela, as far as I can tell, used it all for the good, but if you read this guy’s autobiography, it’s almost frightening how well he understands people, how well he knows how to manipulate them if he needs to.

Corey: Clinton is a little more ambiguous, but I wouldn’t call … At least, I’d like to hear your point of view. I wouldn’t call either of these people either sociopaths or having dark trait personalities, but they definitely seem to have certain insights and abilities to operate.

Steve: Just to jump in there, I think the ability to have insight into other people or think strategically or to manipulate other people isn’t necessary good or bad. The key issue that makes it a real dark trait is that you do this with no concern for the wellbeing of the others, and you only treat these other people as instruments toward your own goals.

Steve: Then it becomes a negative or dark trait. This basic skill to be good with people or to understand how other people tick is, I think, not sufficient for you to be characterizing this dark category.

Corey: Not simply understanding but also having the capacity and sometimes manipulating them is also not sufficient. It’s the lack of caring about them.

Steve: Yeah, and you could even have a more complicated situation where someone literally doesn’t feel any emotional concern for what he does to other people, but actually has super idealistic goals. You could imagine Gandhi or Clinton, maybe they did have very idealistic goals for where they wanted society to go, but they didn’t mind breaking a lot of eggs. Then you have to decide, is that a good person or a bad person? Maybe just a callous person. Who knows?

Kaja: I actually think there is a type of person, and let’s step aside for a second from the question whether or not they’re dark. I actually don’t think this is a dark constellation, but there’s a type of person who is incredibly committed to humanistic goals, but only in the abstract, and they actually have very little interest interacting with people one on one.

Kaja: They often are very disdainful of people one on one. I think you see this in very intellectual people. I think you see this in very idealistic people who have the intellectual capability to pursue their overarching aims, but there’s a grandiosity to it.

Kaja: I’m hesitant to name names. Possibly Clinton. I don’t know the degree to which he enjoyed and was genuine in his very real charisma.

Corey: People seem to think he loved being around people. He drew energy from them. He was attracted to them. If he found someone in a room who he perceived didn’t like him, he was almost magnetically attracted to that person to try to charm them into liking him. He seemed to have a kind of magnetism and a magnetic attraction to people that really seemed to show real feeling, although there’s clearly a distance he also had and an ability to operate exclusively in his own interests against other people’s interests under certain circumstances.

Steve: Yeah. In all of this, at least for me, I’m operating only at a secondary level because I guess I’ve only met Obama once and I never met Bill Clinton, but I think what people say about Obama is that he isn’t naturally as gregarious as Clinton, and it’s actually a visible effort for him to be sociable for a few hours and then he has to go away and recharge, whereas Bill can just do it for hours and hours and hours and you have trouble dragging him out of the room where all the people are.

Corey: Yeah, classic extrovert is Clinton.

Steve: Exactly, but let’s go back to, I think Kaja was giving us a slightly more technical definition of what all these terms mean. Rather than talk about specific people that you and I are obsessed with, let’s let her do her thing.

Kaja: I think, what intrigues and confounds people about these dark personalities is the fact that, as Steve says, they are often found in positions of power. These are, for obvious reasons, studies and survey data that’s difficult to collect, but psychology researchers believed that the professions in which psychopaths are most prevalent are, number two, surgeon, and number one, CEO.

Corey: I would guess finance.

Kaja: Finance actually has not made the lists I have seen.

Steve: It may not have been a category they had access to.

Kaja: But, it may actually include CEOs of organizations that would fall into that domain.

Steve: In Silicon Valley, typically when you start a company, there’s a CTO guy who’s kind of a nerdy, technical guy, and there’s a CEO guy, and there’s this, sort of, folk wisdom, if you talk to CTOs who are usually, typically honest, borderline aspy type people, they will often say that the CEO has to be a warm sociopath. Warm, because he has to be charming and deal with people and people have to like him or her, but ultimately a sociopath. That’s just standard, conventional wisdom, like, “Yeah, you know. We need a CEO. We’re trying to put together our team. We need a CEO. He’s got to be a warm sociopath.”

Kaja: It sounds cynical, but I do think that instrumentalism is very important to get ahead in any career, and to the degree that you find sociopaths, not psychopaths, in Silicon Valley or in positions of power, I think that’s accurate. To get technical for a minute, psychopathy is considered to be more innate due to, perhaps, genetics, brain insult at birth, brain injury at birth.

Kaja: Sociopathy is actually more environmentally driven. It often is due to trauma and other really adverse childhood conditions.

Corey: Okay, let me stop you there. Can you distinguish between those two, psychopathy and sociopathy? I think most people don’t see a difference between them.

Kaja: Yes, so, to back up, there is a difference and these terms are used interchangeably, often incorrectly, which is fine, because when psychopathy, the term, was coined around 1900 and it was used to describe people who were morally weak. A lot more psychology was framed in moral terms a century ago. Ultimately, the term psychopathy morphed into the term sociopathy because these were people who wreaked havoc not just on people in their immediate circle, but on society.

Kaja: Today, we think of sociopaths as people whose behavior can be callous, can be instrumental. Very similar behavior patterns to psychopaths, but the genesis of that behavior is more environmental and for that reason they are considered more amenable to change. They’re considered amenable to therapy in a way that psychopaths are not and they’re considered to be expedient based on circumstance.

Kaja: Somebody can be very sociopathic in a business setting, as Steve’s conjuring, but still have some real relationship, some real affective connection to other people. Not so with psychopaths. Psychopaths would not be able to truly develop affective bonds with anyone, and there we could get into a lot of different brain wiring.

Kaja: Skin conductance tests on psychopaths indicate that they don’t generate a fear response when tested. Not so with sociopaths, so there are real biological differences. They just haven’t been distinguished in common parlance.

Corey: When you talk about skin conductance, that’s how lie detector machines tend to operate. My guess, I’d like to hear your response, is that you can’t catch these people using a lie detector.

Kaja: Lie detector tests are-

Corey: Again, we know they’re kind of questionable in general, but it seems like these people are probably especially good at not having signal. Would that be right?

Kaja: I think that is accurate. I think there are false positives if you’re looking at them in terms of psychopathy, of course, because a lot of people don’t show arousal for other reasons and are able to control it.

Corey: Are you familiar with Paul Bloom’s book, Against Empathy?

Kaja: I know Paul Bloom. I actually have not read the book.

Corey: He makes an argument in there that one of the problems with empathy is that it kind of paralyzes people. For example, if you’re extremely empathetic towards somebody, the first thought is, that should lead you to become more generous towards them. For instance, if you’re very empathetic towards a homeless person you might actually be more likely to give them money or help them.

Corey: He points out, that’s actually not a conclusion you should draw. If you’re extremely empathetic, you might just avoid them, and thus not help them at all. He’s arguing that if you actually want to accomplish things in life, you often want to have less empathy and less connection with people because this kind of connection is often painful. It’s often something that, as a result, we avoid, and I think this is kind of arguing on the lines that highly effective people may lack empathy, because they’re simply not constrained by the kind of emotional reactions the rest of us have, and so they’re very affective and efficient. They can go into a situation, see that someone needs to be fired, fire them.

Steve: Or just deliver bad news.

Corey: Deliver bad news, yeah, exactly.

Steve: I can give you a very specific example that I have experience with, here. One of my old friends became, first, a chair of an ivy league department, and now is one of the senior administrators at this ivy league school, but he is super empathetic. I remember, when he first became chair, it was a nightmare.

Steve: Every day I saw him the black circles under his eyes got deeper and deeper, because every little crisis in his department, because he was an empathetic guy and a friendly guy, he felt he had to get involved, help the people, take the person out for a drink, stay up late helping with the situation, and he was just exhausting himself trying to be an empathic good leader, but there’s just too much for you to handle. At some point you just have to cut it off.

Steve: I saw that as quite a negative thing. You need a little bit of it. That’s why they say the ideal CEO is a warm sociopath. You can’t have people thinking you’re a robot or a Vulcan. You have to have people thinking that you like them. I really like you, Corey, but on the other hand, you got to be able to just cut the thing and say, “Hey, we got to do this for the good of the company. We’re going to do it,” and then just be able to go to the next decision without having a bunch of lactic acid build up in your brain over the past decision.” That’s the balance.

Kaja: Corey, Bloom’s articulation of this type of overly empathic, I guess he’s talking about, the non-empathic person, is exactly what I was referring to earlier in terms of the person who has idealistic goals, wants to contribute to humanity, if you will, is humanistic and philanthropic, but in fact, does not relate individually and that itself can be useful.

Kaja: Steve, you mentioned, obviously, the problems with empaths empowering, retaining power. There’s a lot of literature on the question of who rises to power and why the degree to which empathy actually impairs people from rising.

Kaja: This has been looked at at the level of companies. This has been looked at at the level of countries. There was a Polish psychologist named Łobaczewski and he survived the Nazis, he survived the Soviets in World War II. I believe he was taken prisoner, and ultimately he emerged from this chaos to coin a term called pathocracy. Pathocracy, it never caught on, but I really like the term. Pathocracy is basically a country run by psychopaths or sociopaths.

Kaja: It’s the idea that only people who are personality-disordered, essentially, can rise to positions of leadership. He has a scend postulate which I don’t agree with, and that is, when they do, you see psychopathic traits in his countrymen, in the actual citizens of the country, rise. He would take that, apply it to historical circumstances. We can put that aside, but I do think the question of pathocratic leaders, if you will, people who are truly personality-disordered being the only ones who want power, very broadly speaking, because they’re not bothered by the need to be expedient. I think that does obtain.

Steve: Among some of my friends, there’s a term called big jobs, like CEO of a public company is a big job. Governor of a state or president of a university is a big job, and there’s this general recognition that, you ran into somebody and they say, “Oh, yeah, my husband just took a big job so our family is really dealing with all that stress,” and all this other stuff. There’s a general recognition that your quality of life is pretty crappy in these big jobs.

Steve: You’re on call 24-7. People are constantly coming to you with difficult problems. All the easy problems get solved at lower level, so you really have to want something about that job, the title, the money, something about it to put up with that kind of crap in your life, and so, yes. This comes back to my thesis that it is disproportionately, whether it’s sociopaths or psycho, whatever it is, dark triad people. I’m not saying all of them are, but it’s disproportionately that kind of person that ends up at or near the top.

Corey: I actually have a question about your term, warm sociopath, and I’m curious. Is the warmth purely put on or do these people actually have a small modicum of empathy?

Steve: A little tiny coal ember in their …

Corey: But, are they just really good actors or does it help to have a little bit, or can we not tell the difference between those two hypotheses?

Kaja: These are spectrum disorders, spectrum behaviors, if you will, if you don’t want to pathologize a successful CEO. To the degree that you could be expedient, you can be two-faced, I think you can also be empathic. It’s just a matter of switching it on or off in context. I have often argued that being able to compartmentalize is incredibly important for successful people in every domain and, again, the ability to be more or less expedient versus empathic when needed applies to any successful person, and I actually think women have a harder time compartmentalizing.

Kaja: I might get in trouble for saying this, but I think that’s a big part of why women fail to obtain or hold certain positions. It’s not a lack of competence, but it’s the fact that everything else in life tends to bleed into both women’s to-do list and into their mind in a different way. It is harder for women to ruthlessly compartmentalize than it is for men.

Steve: I think there’s a pretty well-validated … I think it’s a big five trait, agreeableness, is that correct?

Kaja: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve: Someone who has high agreeableness is someone who wants to be liked, doesn’t want to cause friction between himself and others. Someone who has low agreeableness is someone who’s just willing to say it how it is and it doesn’t matter if people get mad at him. I think, correct me if I’m wrong, that men and women, there is a delta in levels if you just measure the personality factors of a bunch of people, women are a little bit more shifted toward the agreeable side and men are a little more shifted toward the disagreeable side.

Steve: You can imagine, for some of these big jobs, you have to have a certain level of disagreeableness to deal with the day to day. Then, consequently, that difference in personalities might account for some difference in the representation of men versus women in these big jobs. What I just said is super controversial. Even though each specific fact in the chain, I think, is not really controversial-

Corey: I’m not sure it’s that controversial, Steve, but I think what Kaja was saying is a slightly different point, but they interact. I think what you’re saying is that men are willing to be disagreeable and they see that as part of their job executable. What Kaja is saying is, actually, that disagreeableness and experiences that come with it bleed into the other aspects of women’s lives, and their feelings, and then have a harder time blocking that out.

Corey: That’s partly what makes men able to carry out this kind of thing. I have a lot of difficulty compartmentalizing. When bad things happen during the day it ruins my sleep. I’ve seen this kind of thing play out in different ways. Just to give you another example, I was friends with the writer Dave Wallace, and Dave was, at least when I knew him best in College, and just after that, incredibly careful with people.

Corey: He avoided conflict as much as possible, primarily because it had such an enormous affect on him that he was really careful just not to get in bad situations with people because it would destroy him for days.

Steve: Right, so, that specific sensitivity could cause you to be very agreeable, right?

Corey: Exactly.

Steve: So, when you answer the survey and they say, “Would you do this in this situation?” You’re thinking to yourself, I would feel shitty for days after that. I’m going to be agreeable. The survey just elicits some score on agreeableness for you, but the internal cause could be specifically what you’re talking about or it could be something very different, actually.

Corey: That’s right. It’s interesting. As he became more famous, he became much more disagreeable because he simply had to wall himself off.

Steve: Yeah, in the movie he’s not that agreeable.

Corey: Yeah, he changed quite a lot, but he had to really wall himself off from people. Also, fame went to his head, all these things, but early on, he was this sort of very sensitive guy in ways that really weren’t apparent to the rest of us around. We were all pretty disagreeable and he was one of the nicest guys in the group, just because, I think, he was more sensitive than we were.

Kaja: Well, and to the degree that a writer, a genius writer in this case, one could say, needs to be or tends to be hyper-empathic and hyper-mentalizing, able to model up the minds of others, it wouldn’t surprise me that he would be unable to filter out the emotions he picks up, and he would be subject to what we call emotional contagion.

Corey: It’s funny. That’s probably partly why he lived in Bloomington, Illinois. He couldn’t stand New York City. It was just too much for him and he would basically run back home after each book tour.

Steve: Don’t you have to be a little disagreeable to function successfully in New York City?

Corey: There are some introverts in New York City who just …

Steve: … do their own thing.

Corey: They kind of run out like little mice and then they run back.

Steve: Kaja, I think one special opportunity we have with you is that you talk to a lot of people who are actually psychotherapists, right? Even without violating the patient, doctor confidentiality, they could give you some general insights about, “Oh, man, all of my patients work on Wall Street and, X, Y, Z,” or, “All of my patients are wives of guys who are CEOs and X, Y, Z.”

Steve: I’m curious, you probably have some statistical sense of whether any of what we’re talking about is true and what psychotherapists learn about this, assuming of course that their patients are telling them the truth or they can see through what their patients say to them.

Steve: Among these super successful people, are there more dark triad traits? How do they affect their own families, their relationships, et cetera, et cetera?

Kaja: My sample size is not large enough, honestly, to answer that from a clinician’s point of view. I will say about psychotherapy, generally, that what brings most people to it is not intrapsychic distress. In fact, if we’re going to stay on psychopaths, they almost never show up for therapy. If they do, it’s because they’re being forced by a partner or they want to retain a partner, so they suggest it as this expedient gambit.

Kaja: You actually don’t see a lot of psychopaths and high dark individuals in therapy for this reason, unless they’re remanded there by the courts. That’s not of their volition, so among the working well, which is what most clinicians see in New York City, what you find is, very simply, people who are struggling with, above all, relationships, just keeping their lives together. I’ll just say, briefly, that that’s what drives most people to our site, as well, and it’s one very specific type of relationship that drives, not the majority, but the single term that drives the most traffic to our site, is the term narcissism.

Kaja: Again, these are people who truly wreak havoc, and when the cognitive dissonance is such that people don’t understand, can’t compute or have been betrayed by these people, that’s when they end up in therapy and that’s when they end up on our site.

Steve: Just to clarify, the person typing that search term is worried that they themselves are a narcissist or they’re trying to figure out whether their partner in their relationship is a narcissist?

Kaja: Narcissists don’t think they’re narcissists and if they do they don’t care, so it’s very much the latter. These are people who have been caught in the crosswinds and are trying to emerge, have usually had the rug pulled out from under them in some way.

Corey: As you’re saying this, again, I can’t help but think of people in my life. My impression is that while it may be true that psychopaths are overrepresented among very successful people, I think they’re also highly represented among people who are unsuccessful.

Kaja: Absolutely.

Corey: I sense it’s a really bimodal distribution, perhaps, but it’s a style of thinking and it leads to behaviors that can really get you just kicked out of society and have people not want to be around you, even though people go on thinking it’s not their fault, there are other people manipulating them, and have all these other complaints, but it seems like in the majority of cases, it’s probably not a positive personality trait for success.

Corey: That’s just my hypothesis, that I think groups are often like organisms. They have an immune system and when they detect someone like this inside of their group, they’re often expelled, and you get expelled from a bunch of groups and you’re kind of on your own. It’s very hard to be successful on your own, so I’m just curious as to what your thought is about that idea that they’re probably overrepresented among the very unsuccessful people.

Kaja: That is 100% accurate. They are incredibly overrepresented in prisons and most of the studies that have been done on psychopaths, on psychopathy proper, are done on inmates. For that reason, we’re forced to conjecture about the really successful ones because I think the more successful, the more they [inaudible 00:32:44], perhaps, lifelong. There is this disconnect wherein a lot of them, or the violent ones, the less intelligent ones, really end up in jail, and these are the ones who are studied, but these are not the ones who are super high Machiavellian, necessarily.

Kaja: These are not the ones who are brilliantly manipulative. These are the ones who are committing violent crime and get caught.

Steve: I think your picture is plausible to me that they’re overrepresented at high and low success. I also think that if you have a little tribe and someone is caught one too many times telling falsehoods or manipulating people, that they could be voted off the island by the people in the tribe, but now imagine a different social setup where it’s a corporation with thousands of employees, maybe tens of thousands.

Steve: A small board that only interacts with the CEO a few times a year picks that CEO to rule over these tens of thousands of people, so the guy only has to fool these 10 people, 5 people on the board. Then you very often will end up with a, I think, high functioning sociopath running things.

Corey: As a result of bad information flow, right?

Steve: Yeah, yeah.

Corey: There’s not feedback coming from the bottom.

Steve: Right.

Corey: This is classically the person who kisses up and kicks down.

Steve: Exactly, right. You have somebody who is very nice to the members of their board of directors, but not so nice to their director ports or people way down anywhere, or they might be totally fine to people who are three or four levels below them in the organization, too. Who knows?

Kaja: Yeah, I think that’s a hallmark of a successful psychopath, is the fact that they attach themselves to people who are even more successful and they pass in those circles and people lower down don’t have the status to necessarily articulate what their experience or what they’re seeing. I’ve actually seen this myself in Silicon Valley, people who attach themselves to billionaires.

Kaja: There is then an essential halo effect. It’s the status halo that they accrue by being a billionaire’s right hand man or having ventures with this person. That makes them really impervious to true ousting, partly because you don’t want to get on the side of the superpower, the super person who is the psychopath’s protector.

Corey: I think that I was in the field with the most psychopaths, perhaps sociopaths, in academia. I’m pretty sure it’s philosophy. That’s my personal hypothesis. The reason’s, you might think it’s philosophy, people are fairly high IQ, they’re incredibly good at rationalizing things. That’s, in fact, what the field’s all about, is giving arguments for some often predetermined position. People have commented on some emotional underdevelopment in the field.

Corey: There’s lots of evidence that it may have more problems as regards to sexual harassment, treatment of women, things like that. What I saw in that field, in many ways, shocked me, especially with regards to primarily one person who I think was a clear psychopath or sociopath. He’s stolen people’s ideas, myriad students’ ideas over the years. People higher up the field knew about this and yet hired him, but he’s incredibly charming, and so he’s still phenomenally successful. Clear fantastic … But, it was sure shocking to me.

Corey: There’s clearly, kind of, a complicity often that goes on in a culture around a person like this that allows them to rise up, because the behavior is observed before they attain power, and so people have to tolerate it as they’re rising through the ranks in order for them to get to a very, very high level. I think, for me, it’s an interesting phenomenon that people could see this around this person and just shrug their shoulders, and actively seek him out thinking he’s a cool guy. He’s important, and blah, blah, blah. It was just stunning to me.

Kaja: Corey, to your point about hiding in plain sight, I think that the cultural moment we live in, MeToo being a prime example of this, is one in which there’s a recognition that, historically, even up till now, nobody has spoken out. People have not spoken out about psychopaths, personality-disordered individuals, sexual harassers, sexual aggressors, and we’re now living in a moment where corrections have been put in place.

Kaja: One that you don’t hear a lot about but that I’ve been seeing formulated in legal circles is the idea of bad Samaritan laws. Bad Samaritan laws basically mean that you are a problem citizen if you don’t speak up, if you don’t work as a good bystander.

Steve: So, you have to snitch. Is that what you’re saying?

Kaja: Yeah. People now are talking about trying to legislate people speaking out and the way that would be done would be to retroactively punish, prosecute, fine, whatever it would be, people who had awareness of events and failed to report.

Corey: That’s frightening. Hold it.

Steve: We have mandatory reporting requirements here.

Corey: That’s one thing, but I sense what Kaja is saying is going beyond that. If you’re aware of some behavior in the past that may not have even been illegal then but was just deeply undesirable, you are obligated to report on that.

Kaja: That’s right, and a lot of it’s hypothetical, still, so I don’t know what, for example, the statute of limitations would be, but this is an idea that’s gained steam recently, and I find it not only disturbing in some ways but also very implausible, very unlikely to ever be implemented. Again, two words, human nature. I think people act in self-protective ways for any number of reasons and you can’t punish somebody who is looking out for themselves, but it gets complicated.

Kaja: If we’re talking about maximizing one’s own looking out for oneself, first and foremost, at one point does that start to hurt other people, and that’s back to the question of D, the dark factor. We all look out for ourselves, but at what point do darker people actively circumvent or ignore harm to others?

Corey: In the case of this person I was talking about, I honestly don’t think the people around him were dark at all. I think they were, in some sense, a segment of them were just too sunny. For example, the person whose ideas he plagiarized, just took him out to lunch to discuss the issue, to kind of resolve what was going on, and I think his response, the sociopath said, “Oh, my idea is a notational variant of yours,” as if we had the same idea independently and I just presented it differently.

Corey: The guy’s idea he stole just kind of went on with life, and the people who promoted this person were definitely aware of all the stuff he had done but just, sort of, almost all guys, good-natured older guys, didn’t want to … “Why cause all this trouble? Let’s just go along and get along. Yeah, he’s a problem, but, you know …”

Kaja: [inaudible] put him in jail. No, I’m just kidding.

Corey: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m pretty sure there’s not a simple common personality trait they had. There was quite a lot of diversity, but there was a conflict-aversiveness these people had and a general sense of just, “Let’s just go on with life,” as this sociopath kind of tore his way through life, harming people below him primarily. It strikes me that for these people to succeed remarkably, as this person has done, requires that people around him mostly just not pay attention and not punish behavior that comes out.

Corey: It seems like there has to be some kind of complicity for these sociopaths to pull it off. They’ve got to worm their way up the hierarchy, and that only works if nobody cuts them off.

Steve: By the definitions we’ve been using, let’s suppose I’m very rational and I have my goals, I want to get ahead, and I don’t mind screwing people over every now and then but I know it’s counterproductive to screw everybody over so I just do it occasionally, and the main difference is, internally, I really don’t care about anybody else but myself.

Steve: What is there to say? You’re not going to necessarily easily detect that person?

Corey: No, I think people do detect this person and I think these people sort of say, “Well, you know, I don’t know. I’m not going to get involved,” or, “Just leave him alone.” I think these people only succeed because people around them don’t intervene in some way.

Steve: I would say, in a corporate setting, you could either have the case where the people on the board think, “No, Joe is a good guy. We bonded at our last retreat over the environment, so he’s actually a good guy,” or you could have a few people on the board saying, “No, I understand Joe can be a jerk, but you need a jerk in this job.”

Corey: But, long before Joe got to the CEO level, he had to rise up through the company, and he probably had to do some unpleasant things to people around him. That was hard, because I think some organizations aren’t like this, but there are organizations where people are aware of what’s happening and essentially have to become complicit or at least non-intervening.

Steve: I think that, oftentimes, you could have a situation where, remember, these are high-functioning sociopaths. Their direction is upward, so they’re harming other people when they know they can get away with it. “I steal your idea but nobody’s going to listen to you,” so they’re strategic, right? So, yes, people notice, but the people who noticed were not in any position to do anything about the guy.

Corey: What I would say is, look, I have a very small sample size. The person I’m thinking of was not particularly strategic. He probably had no reason to think he’d get away with it. Sometimes he didn’t get away with it. People called him on it periodically, but the field never reacted.

Kaja: Was he very well known? Was he respected?

Corey: Yes. He’s well known. He was intensely disliked by some people. Further out, people respected him.

Kaja: I think there is a phenomenon that captures this, and that’s the fact that the higher you are, the higher your value in your social hierarchy, academic world, in this case, academic milieu, the more your behavior can deviate from root norms without you being ostracized from that group or kicked out of that department.

Kaja: This is actually known as idiosyncrasy credit, so if you are high status, high-achieving, necessary to the organization, tenured at the university, you have a certain credit. You have certain social credit, and you can debit quite a bit before you hit zero. A lot of people will just look the other way. This has been demonstrated.

Corey: I think, at some point in his career, this kicked in. Before that, he got by on charm. He was a fun, likable guy. Philosophy is a field full of awkward people. He was a charming guy in a field full of awkward people as a grad student, and so, he got a great job coming out. He kind of plagiarized his thesis but that information didn’t spread too far, and yeah, then he got to a point where, effectively, he benefited from his status, but early on he got by on the fact that people just didn’t call him on it.

Corey: He was just very charming. That’s what I’m getting at, is I think we have to look at the fact these people do come up from a basis and there just has to be a stage at which society could stop them and doesn’t. I think it tells us something about our society that this is allowed.

Kaja: What does it tell us about all societies, though, that the behavior endures?

Steve: It could be just luck, though. Even if you have a society where people were adamantly going to beat down sociopaths as soon as we catch them, still, some guys get lucky and they don’t get caught or something intervenes and they still manage to fluctuate upward even though people are out looking for them.

Corey: I’m curious as to whether the sociopaths have the same effect in deeply communal societies where you’re really expected to reciprocate and people monitor your behavior much more. My expectation is that it would be more difficult for them to rise up.

Steve: Yeah. I think, if we’re living in some hunter, gatherer tribe where we just basically interact with the same 30 people all the time, we might even be related to each other, it’s probably very tough for the sociopath to get over on other people in that situation.

Corey: Are you familiar with Mark Hauser’s work? I think he was working on Macaques. Anyway, he got into trouble because some of his stuff was faked, but one of his most famous studies, and again, of course, the fakery cast out everything that went before, but he studied, [inaudible 00:47:23], I think it was in an island off the coast of Venezuela, but basically, if you found food, you had to call and let others know you’d found food.

Corey: But, sometimes these monkeys would try to game the system. They’d find food, start eating it, and if they saw someone, they’d start calling. If they caught you in that circumstance, they beat the crap out of you. It was just very regular, so anyway, there was a kind of immediate negative feedback to deviating. I just think there’s some societies where it’s more difficult to get away with that kind of double-dealing.

Steve: Now, the really controversial thing is that, imagine that in this Macaque population, the circumstances are such that this kind of social structure evolved and it’s very effective, so the ones that are born with the genes that predispose them to being sociopathic get beat down and they don’t reproduce as much as the ones that are just honestly good. You could have populations which diverge, and so, like, the percentage of people that are pro-social is much higher in one population than in the other population which somehow has a different equilibrium and tolerates more sociopaths.

Kaja: The rate of psychopathy is pretty consistent in all populations where it’s been measured. It’s 1% of men and a third of a percent of women. It’s harder to get data on women, but this number is a constant. That raises the question of some sort of balancing selection, right? As long as the behavior is rare, it will be advantageous, and there will be a fraction of this population that is able to get away with it.

Corey: Do we have any reason to think, though, that there could be a difference in how successful they are? Say, take Scandinavia are kind of classic … Everyone, both the left and the right, loves Scandinavia but for different reasons. The classic example of a small society, high levels of trust, et cetera, et cetera. Is there any reason to think that a sociopath might be less likely to be successful in a country like that than a country like US which is more open with teeth and blood?

Kaja: It’s a great question. I’ve actually looked at cross-cultural info on psychopathy. No clear trend is coming to mind, but what I’ll say is that I think it’s about the niche. I think it’s about the nice that they occupy in any given society. I think it’s about more than it is the super structure of the society itself, I think it is about finding and exploiting an interpersonal weakness in the school where you happen to be teaching, in the parliamentary system in which you have just been elected because you’re so charismatic. I think it’s much more ecological than it is broadly cultural, if that makes sense.

Corey: Completely. Can we turn to my general interest in Psychology Today, because I’m really curious about your readership. When you say that people tend to come to your magazine because they have questions about their own lives really fascinates me. It suggests that you’re not just writing a popular science magazine. You’re writing a popular therapy magazine.

Steve: Or self help, maybe.

Corey: Or self help. How do you think about Psychology Today?

Kaja: I’d like to think that we’re broad enough to encompass all of this. Like the field itself, like psychology itself, we have a clinical arm that includes our therapy directory which is the largest aggregator of psychologists and mental health professionals in the world, but then we address research and behavior science, as well. I don’t think I’m answering your question, though.

Kaja: I’m going to deliberately conflate our online readers and our magazine readers. I can tell you, no surprise, that the online readership is the huge lion’s share of our audience, even though the magazine, still, is better known, in a way.

Kaja: People come to us with what I call gut issues, issues that they’re struggling with, either interpersonally or intrapsychically, meaning, just, their kids, their partners, their possibly narcissistic partner. They present with very universal problems.

Corey: Do you see yourself as trying to provide answers in article story format? How do you see yourself engaging with your readers? Do you look to try to find authors, you think, have a way of delivering content that will help solve people’s problems? I guess it’s probably a mix of interesting research findings and practical articles.

Kaja: Exactly, exactly. I think that we’re very focused on clarifying terms for people, clarifying disorders that they may be struggling with, but ultimately I believe, for me, that’s the clinical psych perspective. We want to answer people’s questions about human nature. From a journalistic perspective, however, I believe that you have to offer both brain and heart, meaning you have to capture people’s attention in order to fully penetrate with the information you want to convey, if that makes sense.

Kaja: That’s where the journalistic element comes into play and comes into [inaudible].

Steve: Can I ask, since we’re no deviating into the Psychology Today publishing part of things, I’m curious, in your day to day job as editor in chief, how much are you involved in strategizing about clicks and click-bait and metrics and stuff like that? Has that come to dominate journalism now to some extent, or are you able to operate independent of that?

Kaja: I hate the word click-bait but I certainly know what you’re asking. We have to be focused on SEO. Any editorial enterprise in this day and age has to understand and focus on SEO.

Steve: For the listeners, that’s search engine optimization.

Kaja: I think there was a time, maybe, I think was in the last decade, that shifted. I think the media entities that didn’t move online fast enough or that didn’t understand SEO were the losers and didn’t endure, and I don’t want to impune any publication. It’s a very, very hard environment out there, obviously. My profession is in turmoil, and it’s not clear what the outcome will be. To your question, Steve, yes. I do think about strategize about SEO.

Steve: Can I ask, one aspect of SEO could be, like, exactly what links you have in your HTML or where you put images and just optimizing for the robot, for the search engine, but another aspect of it is, like, “Hey, Prince Andrew is really hot now. We got to have an article about the psychology of pedophiles or whatever it is.” Are you engaged in that, as well, like, basically strategizing on what topics will get the clicks as well as just making sure your site and the layout and things like that are optimized for search engines?

Kaja: I’m fortunate that we generate enough content that I do not focus on assigning for any individual news story. There are stories that we cover for the sake of covering. In that sense, we’re very old school journalistic, and I’m pleased with that fact, because we’re producing 40+ [should be 30+] pieces online a day and ultimately they are going to hit on many of the topics du jour. Therefore, one doesn’t need to strategize about it at the level of the news event, but one does need to strategize about it at the level of the term, at the level of the actual terms that are being searched. That is where we put our focus.

Corey: I guess this is a pretty obvious question to ask an editor in chief, but what are the topics that are of most interest to your readers today?

Kaja: What’s interesting is that the topics of interest today are the topics that were of interest 10 years ago. These are, for lack of a better word, the human universals, the gut issues, that people wrestle with, so, relationships is first and foremost, the thing that people want to read about. They obviously want to understand clinical developments and pathways to treatment, but, truly, most of our readership are not in any sort of clinical setting or getting therapy of any sort. They really just are struggling with what Faulkner called, very elegantly, the human heart in conflict with itself. They’re really struggling with intrapsychic problems, and this is a split readership, male and female.

Corey: What fraction of each? What’s your breakdown?

Kaja: We skew female, not necessarily as much as you might think. It’s about 55-45 [should be 60/40].

Corey: So, number one topic is relationships?

Kaja: Yes.

Corey: Can you give me the next four.

Kaja: I can give you search terms.

Corey: That’d be great.

Kaja: I will tell you this, and this is going to be no surprise to anyone listening online, as it were. The number one search word, do you want to guess?

Steve: Sex.

Kaja: Yeah, yeah. They’re inevitably disappointed when they land on us, when they land on psychologytoday.com in that, and hopefully, that’s the only arena in which we disappoint. That said, we did build out, taxonomically, and otherwise, that particular section because we understood that people were ending up here.

Corey: What’s a typical Psychology Today article about sex about?

Kaja: A lot of it’s normalizing, normalizing the things that would perturb people, or, again, that they would struggle with, so, sexual fantasies. We recently had a piece that essentially went viral, breaking down sexual fantasies and essentially reassuring people that X, Y, Z, we shouldn’t say it on an academic podcast, that X, Y, Z is all normal.

Corey: I assume, after sex, is it something like child, or children, people worried about their kids, parenting?

Kaja: It fluctuates month to month. Honestly, after that, again, we’re talking about search terms, then it’s really trying, understanding these definitional terms, understanding something like borderline personality disorder. It would be searching that term.

Corey: You’re aware, there’s a set of people out there … Sorry, I’m deviating a little bit, there’s a set of people out there who seem to have this unnaturally high levels of happiness. They’re not really impacted by negative events like the rest of us. My father has this characteristic a little bit. Negative things that would really down other people don’t seem to really affect him. Like, a couple years ago, a really good friend of his died, and he’s describing this experience to me. He says, “Yeah, a lot of my close group is really bent out of shape.”

Corey: I’m like, “Your good friend just died.” He’s like, “Yeah, I had some trouble finishing my grading last week,” but otherwise it seemed to have no effect on him whatsoever.

Kaja: I think this speaks to our discussion about compartmentalization, in fact. It’s not there’s not a drag, a grief, an affective shock, but one is able to successfully cope with it and manage it in a way that most people cannot.

Corey: It could be. Sorry, I’m fascinated by him in some ways, but he’s got these other characteristics which are interesting, like, he avoids stress like oil and water. He told me a while ago that whenever he finds someone in his life he doesn’t like, he simply can’t remember their name. It just gets erased, and so that causes no stress.

Corey: He was a grad student for a while during the age of behaviorism where you would basically put rats in a skinner box and either reward or punish them. He realized halfway through his graduate career, he had simply forgotten to do the punishment experiments. He’d only done the reward experiments, and he just kind of neglected to do the punishment ones.

Kaja: That sounds like a psychopath. I’m joking.

Corey: Yeah, but it’s kind of like the nice version of it.

Kaja: They’re hypersensitive to reward cues in the environment, and very insensitive to punishment at every level.

Steve: I think, base levels of happiness vary between people. I think there’s evidence that it’s somewhat inheritable, as well. My mom is a super positive person, is almost never not happy. Of course, she’s also a devout Christian which helps, too, but I think I inherited some of that from her, so I’m typically very positive. I was twice diagnosed as hypomanic. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that term. A lot of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are hypomanic, and once when I was in New Haven, my next door neighbor was a psychologist and she diagnosed me as hypomanic.

Corey: What does hypomanic mean?

Steve: My understanding of it is it’s somebody who’s very positive, tends to get really excited about new projects and wanting to do something and is undeterred by setbacks.

Kaja: It’s low levels of mania, or just positive affect, positive feelings and drive.

Steve: Yeah, and the other guy who diagnosed me was this Japanese theoretical physicist who I spent a lot of time with, and one day he just comes in and he says to me, “Steven, are you familiar with the term hypomanic?” I had no idea what he was talking about, and I don’t know if we had the internet then, but he shows me the definition of hypomanic and I’m reading it, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m hypomanic.”

Kaja: How do you distinguish, in your life, hypomania from high productivity?

Steve: Some people could be very productive but they’re suffering while they’re being productive. You can imagine a guy who’s like, “Oh, I got to pull …” Actually, I had a roommate like this at Caltech, this guy Will that you know. If he had to pull an all-nighter, he would pull the all-nighter, and he hated it and he was unhappy and he was glum and if you said, “How’s it going, Will?” He’d swear or something.

Steve: He was not hypomanic but he was highly productive and highly effective. I’m not like that.

Kaja: Best of both worlds.

Steve: Yeah. I think my happiness level is set pretty high.

Corey: In the case of my father, I think it’s set pretty high but I think there are features of his personality which typically avoid negative things. He simply can kind of detect negativity and just intuitively moves away from it.

Steve: Yeah, I might be coping in ways that I’m not really aware of, and people are like, “Why is Steve ignoring all these people who trying to kill him?”

Corey: This is a line from my dad. He said to me a couple years ago, the guy’s 83, and you’d think these personal revelations would have come earlier, but he turns to me like this is a new thought. He says, “Corey, there’s all sorts of bad human behavior and bad human intentions and I’ve been ignoring all of it.” It’s like it just occurred to him at age 80.

Steve: It’s great that if you can do that your whole life and you’re not knocked off and it doesn’t harm you, that’s fantastic. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where you only notice the good stuff?

Corey: He has no trouble sleeping. He falls asleep within 10 minutes every single night.

Steve: I do, too. My head hits the pillow and then I wake up, like, eight and a half hours later, most nights. Now I’m getting older, it’s changing a little bit.

Corey: Oh, man, if I could turn off all the hassle that happened during the day, I would empty my bank account. I’d put a permanent drain on my bank account, just take all the money out of my bank account any moment just to not have what happened during the day affect me.

Steve: It’s interesting. I think a lot of this is just hardwired. It’s just how you’re wired up.

Corey: My mother, I used to say, she’s magnetically attracted to negative thoughts. My dad was congenitally happy and avoiding negative thoughts, and I think I have, kind of, the bicameral brain between the two of them. Sorry to bore you with this.

Kaja: I do think that a lot of the traits and behaviors that ultimately determine, make a difference in our lives, are innate, and to that extent, I think one of the overarching goals/struggles of clinical psychology is to balance acceptance of what cannot be changed with the eternal human drive to amelioration, to improvement. I think it can be very hard for people to find that balance. I think there are a lot of messages about things that can be changed that can’t necessarily be changed, and at the same time I think there are areas that people don’t realize they can move the needle.

Corey: I’m curious, in your role, you must have to walk a pretty fine line between telling people the truth and discouraging them, because a lot of people get onto your site must have fairly deep and innate personality traits that you yourself probably think cannot be changed or changed much. You can’t write that, can you, saying, “Look, this is who you are. Sorry about that, but it’s not going to get much better.” You can’t have a magazine where that’s in your articles constantly.

Kaja: No. In all seriousness, we’re here to help anyone with it, but I just see personality a little differently and a little more positively, perhaps. [inaudible 01:05:58] accept trade-offs and there are behaviors that can look really aberrant and in fact serve an individual well, and some of the people who societally seem the most troubled, we’re back to the realm of personality disorders. I’m not going to go into psychopathy specifically, but some of the people who seem the most disturbed, the loners, people who maybe have a little bit of a paranoid streak, the paradox there is they’re not troubled at all. They actually often don’t even realize that they deviate from the norm.

Corey: But, among people who get onto your site, though, there are people coming with different kinds of issues, some can probably be changed to varying degrees by personal effort, and some can’t, but I’m just wondering whether, it’s always going to be beneficial to a magazine or even a therapist to suggest to someone that with our help you can do better. It’s probably not going to be in either a magazine or therapist’s interest to say, “Look, probably not much can be done about this trait,” so I’m wondering, do you see that as an issue that you have to face in your business, and how do you respond to that?

Kaja: Can I have an example?

Corey: Yeah. Someone writes in and you kind of see, for example, someone may be pretty narcissistic or maybe they’re just kind of a nasty person. They’ve been like that from a pretty early age. They’re pretty sensitive to people around them, and they write in and say, “I kind of want to change. I’m 55. I realize I’ve harmed people pretty much my whole life,” and you get the impression from persons writing in that they’re pretty self-centered and selfish-

Steve: Corey’s confessing right now.

Corey: Yeah, of course. That’s just me, you know. But, someone that writes in, my reaction would be to think, “I’m glad you’re coming to this realization at this age, but odds are, you’re not going to change all that much,” and even though they are coming to you, maybe that’s a good sign to some degree, but I’d be pretty pessimistic.

Kaja: If somebody’s presenting with a desire to change or to modify a behavior, I don’t want to be simplistic but I think that that’s sometimes half the battle. I do think that the people who self-select and go as far as not just being in our audience community but actually in our directory community and connecting with clinicians, have actually done the hardest thing which is, often, to take the first step.

Corey: What happens when their spouse writes in and said, “Hey, I’ve got this person in my life,” describing a long history of behavior. That’s not the person having the realization, but the spouse. In that case, again, I think that someone might be pessimistic about the possibility of saving this relationship, but there’s a sense in which, as a therapist or a magazine, you might want to tell this person something else. Are you guys inclined to say that in various points in time when you describe a certain history of behavior?

Kaja: We would never be that prescriptive. Again, we’re not dealing one on one with readers.

Corey: But, in general, say, here’s a range of personality trait. This is probably not changeable.

Kaja: Honestly, I wouldn’t be that prescriptive, because the context of the individual relationship is always so important. Privately, would I say to somebody, “Get the hell out”? Sure, but people are complicated, and even the most toxic personality types, short of psychopathy. We’re going to put the high D, very dark people aside, but even the most difficult personality types can be worked with. I do believe that, short of psychopathy and truly grandiose narcissism.

Corey: If you’re not a psychopath …

Steve: There’s hope for you.

Corey: There’s hope for you. You can improve.

Steve: I like that message.

Corey: Yeah, I kind of believe it a little bit.

Kaja: A little bit?

Corey: People are complicated. I think, as you say, it’s going to depend upon a function of your motivation and your openness to change. As you get closer to psychopath, the motivation has to go up in commensurate levels.

Kaja: Which it will not, right.

Corey: It’s going to be a function of age and circumstance and a bunch of other things.

Steve: Our guest today has been Kaja Perina of Psychology Today. Corey, it’s been fantastic to have her here. We hope to have you back again.

Corey: This has been a great conversation, Kaja, thank you.

Kaja: I really enjoyed chatting with both of you. Talk to you both soon.

Creators and Guests

Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University.
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