A new study has concluded that Bernie Madoff, the New York financier responsible for defrauding thousands of investors out of some $65 billion in the world’s largest Ponzi scheme, was almost certainly a psychopath – finding that the late banker and con artist had a near-100 percent hit rate on established checklists of psychopathic traits.
“Using two gauges of psychopathy […] on one (the PM-MRV2) Madoff displays all (100 percent) of the characteristics of a corporate psychopath while on the other (the CAPP) he scores about 90 percent,” reports study author Clive Boddy, Associate Professor at Anglia Ruskin University and a pioneer in the field of corporate psychopathy, in the paper. This "is well within the psychopathic range.”
On the face of it, the result may not be surprising. Over the past couple of decades, the phrase “my boss is a psychopath” has changed from a punchline to a generally accepted truism. Studies have placed the rate of psychopathy in the corporate world as anywhere between four and 21 times more prevalent than in the general population; not only that, but CEO ranks as the profession which attracts more psychopaths than any other, with various results suggesting that the personality type is particularly suited to the world of business.
But the new paper has implications that go further than simply confirming what we already suspected. Just because the corporate world is good for psychopaths, doesn’t mean that psychopaths are necessarily good for the corporate world: some are “well-bred, brought up in a professional environment, physically attractive, verbally facile, has the right schooling and contacts,” cautioned Robert Hare, a forensic psychologist renowned for his expertise in the field of psychology, in a 2016 interview with BC Business – but “once you’ve got a psychopath inside, they can manipulate, lie, cheat and swindle their way right to the top.”
Enter one Bernard Lawrence Madoff. Ever since his arrest in 2008, his name has been closely connected with the idea of corporate psychopathy – and now, new research may have proven the label correct.
“People have often wondered whether Bernie Madoff was in fact a corporate psychopath, and he certainly scored highly on the two measures of psychopathy utilized within this study,” Boddy said in a statement.
“The findings suggest that Madoff’s fraud was an outcome of his personality,” he confirmed, “and that similar personalities such as Robert Maxwell and Ken Lay, have behaved in similar ways.”
Over at least 17 years – and despite multiple investigations from the SEC – Madoff defrauded thousands of investors and nonprofits worldwide, avoiding suspicion thanks to a veneer of respectability and charm.
“We thought he was God, we trusted everything in his hands,” Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate whose Foundation for Humanity lost approximately $15 million to Madoff’s swindle, said in 2009. It was an image carefully curated by the banker over the course of his multi-decade Ponzi scheme: he had a public portfolio that appeared to stick to safe investments and established strategies such as split-strike conversions. Instead of promising outlandish returns on their investments, his clients-slash-victims received profits that were consistently high, while still being within the realm of plausibility.
Madoff "insists the returns were really nothing special,” reported the Wall Street Journal in a now-infamous interview with Madoff from 1992. “Given that the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index generated an average annual return of 16.3 percent between November 1982 and November 1992 […] ‘I would be surprised if anybody thought that matching the S&P over 10 years was anything outstanding,’ he says.”
In reality, Madoff was simply depositing his victims’ money in a bank account and letting it acquire interest. When a client chose to withdraw their investments, Madoff would pay using funds from new clients wooed into the scheme with that trademark psychopath charm.
“At the end of the day, he [was] a financial serial killer, and the reason I say that is serial killers don’t have empathy,” Joe Berlinger, director of documentary Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street, told The Guardian earlier this year.
“There’s no way you can look a widow in the eye at the Palm Beach country club and assure them that their life savings will be fine, give me your funds, I’ll take care of you, and then do that to people,” he said. “He’s somebody who lacks empathy; therefore can’t be remorseful.”
In other words, a classic psychopath – and that’s exactly what the new study has confirmed. Comparing Madoff’s actions against two established scales of psychopathy, Boddy found that the late financier embodied pretty much every behavioral trait associated with the personality profile.
Indeed, his paper explains, Madoff “owned all the trappings of a grandiose lifestyle […] characteristic of psychopaths.” He was power-hungry and self-important, while also “carefully attuned to managing his image, down to the tiniest detail […] He also dressed to impress and carefully matched his wedding rings with whatever vintage gold or platinum watch he wore on any particular day.”
He was eventually sentenced to 150 years for the scheme (a little more than the seven his lawyers originally requested), and perhaps not surprisingly died in prison. Even while serving time in prison, Madoff’s ego reportedly remained intact, never showing any remorse for the thousands of victims who lost their investments, homes, and even lives to his scam.
For Boddy, the findings hold a serious warning: psychopaths may get ahead in business, but their recklessness and greed may ultimately prove more harmful than good for organizations.
“There are likely to be plenty of people in the world of corporate finance with similar psychopathic traits to Bernie Madoff,” cautioned Boddy. “The job for financial corporations and firms, if they want to give themselves the best chance of avoiding crisis, would appear to be identifying them before they ascend to power.”
The study is published in the International Journal of Market Research.