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The Dark Triad

The quintessential elements of the dark triad: a desire to win at all costs – machiavellianism, high self regard – narcissism and a disregard for others – psychopathy.

Lack of empathy

The third and final of the dark triad characteristics is psychopathy. Psychopathy is present when someone has little concern for others and their welfare. When we hear this word though we often imagine a serial killer, knife in hand sneaking up on an unsuspecting victim.

The reality is far less dramatic. Most people who display signs of psychopathy are not violent and very few ever commit violent crime. The more accurate depiction of a psychopath is the rare individual who is not particular concerned about the feelings or welfare of others.

This lack of empathy means that those individuals have fewer constraints on their behavior, so they’re more likely to end up doing mean or hurtful things. This particular trait has been studied in detail by Prof. Robert Hare, who developed the clinical checklist that is commonly used to diagnose psychopathy.

The term psychopathy

I should note, by the way, that the term psychopathy is not recognised by the psychiatry, who prefer the term antisocial personality disorder, but in social and organisational psychology the term psychopathy is very much part of the research vocabulary.

While we’re clearing up details I should note that Hare conceptualises psychopathy to include narcissism, but this is really a matter of how one prefers to slice the pie of dysfunctional personalities. More often when someone displays one, they display the others, the whole pie as well.

In a 2011 book about Hare’s checklist called The Psychopath Test, author John Ronson describes his journey to Florida where he meets Al Dunlap the former CEO of Sunbeam Ronson was interested to explore whether Dunlap met the criteria on Hare’s checklist of a psychopathic personality.

Hare’s checklist

Upon arriving at the home Ronson looked around he noted that Dunlap had a particular theme to his decorating. Dunlap’s home was adorned with statues and paintings of lions and eagles and all types of predators. In an interview with Ronson Dunlap explains that he believes in carnivores.

His record at Sunbeam which involved a series of ruthless decisions to fire people leading to the nickname Chainsaw Al seems to supports the idea that he likes carnivores. Dunlop, for the record, also engaged in shady accounting practices that artificially boosted Sunbeam’s stock price.

Although Dunlap fitted many of the characteristics on Hare’s checklist, he didn’t fit all of them and he certainly denies being a psychopath because he says he does feel sadness and remorse such as when his dog died when he was a kid. Although, if you listen carefully to his interview, as described by Ronson, it’s easy to wonder just how much remorse he feels.

Disregard for others

Certainly, Dunlap continues to feel justified in making ruthless and sometimes unethical decisions in the context of helping Sunbeam return to profitability. In the end, however, Sunbeam ended up in bankruptcy because of the questionable business and accounting practices the Dunlop supported.

So as with Bernie Madoff the primary beneficiary of Dunlap’s behaviour was Dunlop himself or those lucky individuals who did not trust him and sold all their stock before the truth came to light. Peter Jonason and Gregory Webster statements to measure psychopathy are: “I tend to lack remorse” and “I tend to be callous or insensitive”.

And in Al Dunlap we actually see all of the quintessential elements of the dark triad: a desire to win at all costs – machiavellianism, high self regard – narcissism and a disregard for others – psychopathy.