SocraticGadfly: #OWS: Does it help to call Wall Street 'sociopaths'?

December 03, 2011

#OWS: Does it help to call Wall Street 'sociopaths'?

This meme seems to be doing nothing but gaining energy the last couple of months. It's the claim that leaders of Goldman Sachs, JPMorganChase, top hedge fund managers, etc., are all sociopaths. But, the claim is usually much more scattershot than that. Rather, it's that about anybody who works on Wall Street is a sociopath.

First, this seems to be a pop psychology, rather than real psychology, use of the word "sociopath." In short, it's not a lot better than name-calling. Let's take a look at the actual personality disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM IV-TR), defines antisocial personality disorder (in Axis II Cluster B) as:[1]
A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:
  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead;
  4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;
B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.
Now, it's certainly possible that a fair number of people on Wall Street, or business CEOs in general, meet that definition. But, do all of the "bad ones" qualify as sociopaths?

A. Were they acting this way since high school?
B. Did they meet three of the subcategories under A in definitions? Probably not No. 1. Probably No. 2. Probably not No. 3 or 4. No. 5, maybe or maybe not, depending on exact definitions. No. 6, no, unless breach of fiduciary duty to shareholders. No. 7, yes, in many cases, as in Loyd Blankfein "doing god's work."

So, that leaves us with one semi-definite, on No. 2, one definite, on No. 7, and some maybes. That's not clear-cut. So, unless high school friends of Loyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon and others pop up with tales from their high school days of setting cats on fire or something, they're probably not sociopaths in a clinical sense.

Which is ... GOOD!

No, not good in the sense of justifying their behavior, but exactly opposite.

If they're NOT sociopaths, then, they DON'T have a clinical mental illness as an excuse for their behavior. At least not in any measurable sense. Surely, even the most latitudinarian judge, in terms of responsibility and mental health, would not allow narcissistic personality disorder to be a defense at either criminal or civil trial.

That said, this also shows the limitations of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Other than psychotic disorders being worse than neurotic ones, the DSM doesn't attempt to put disorders on any sort of gradient.

Second, a person can be greedy to the point of hypergreedy, if you'll allow me to invent a term, without being sociopathic. If, you hold along with me, that morality isn't necessarily rooted in gods, theology or metaphysics, and per the Euthyphro Dilemma, can't be, then, you should also accept that a secular equivalent of sin in general, and the "Seven Deadly Sins" in particular, is capable of being postulated.

So, let's just call these folks Greedy with a capital G. Then, let's stop trying to explain them in terms of mental illness and start explaining them in terms of immorality. Period.

Or, per a Wired story that says nice guys often do finish "last" financially, let's call them assholes. Or capital-A Assholes:
(B)eing disagreeable doesn’t mean you behave like Ari Gold. It doesn’t mean you are a sociopath or intentionally inflict pain on others. Instead, those on the disagreeable spectrum are generally pretty decent folks, described by their peers as mostly amiable. However, these disagreeable people do consistently exhibit one special trait: They are willing to “aggressively advocate for their position during conflicts.” While more agreeable people are quick to compromise for the good of the group — conflict is never fun — their disagreeable colleagues insist on holding firm. They don’t mind fighting for what they want.
Again, being an asshole is NOT the same as being a sociopath. But for men at least, it's worth an extra $7,500 a year, on average, the story says.

Anyway, psychopathologizing Wall Street leaders just doesn't fly in my book. It's not that the worst of Wall Streeters are amoral in some mental illness sense. Rather, they usually know they're being exploitative, they don't give a fuck, and they simply don't give a fuck that you're mad they don't give a fuck.

In the land where all morals are reduced to issues of mental health, the merely neurotic instead of psychotic will be kind.

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