Acting like a psychopath is great for male CEOs, not so much for women

Think <em>Wall Street</em>'s Gordon Gecko, not Hannibal Lecter, when it comes to psychopathic tendencies among CEOs.

Enlarge / Think Wall Street's Gordon Gecko, not Hannibal Lecter, when it comes to psychopathic tendencies among CEOs. (credit: 20th Century Fox)

With all the corporate scandals of late, chances are you've heard the statement that one in five CEOs is a "psychopath." But a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology concludes that figure may be overblown. Corporate leaders are only slightly more likely to have strong psychopathic tendencies than other groups—and CEOs that exhibit those tendencies are less likely to be viewed as effective leaders.

More significantly, there is a pronounced gender gap between how men and women are perceived when they exhibit psychopathic traits. It can give men a slight advantage when moving up through management ranks. But women are perceived much more negatively because those traits run counter to social gender norms, and thus women don't reap the same benefits in terms of career advancement.

The term "psychopath" often conjures up images of fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter or similar violent personas. It actually describes a cluster of personality traits: namely, bold aggressiveness, seeking to dominate others, a lack of empathy, and uninhibited impulsiveness. All of those traits must be present to warrant a diagnosis of clinical psychopathy. Think Gordon Gecko, the proudly unethical, frequently abusive trader in the 1987 film Wall Street, whose mantra was "Greed is good."

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