There's A Reason High-Stress Jobs Are Full of Psychopaths

University of Notre Dame research suggests employees with psychopathic traits feel happier when they work in abusive conditions. Baer Tierkel/Flickr

If you work in a high-stress field and feel like you’re always surrounded by a**holes, some new scientific research may help confirm your suspicions.

A study published in the Journal of Business Ethics suggests that people with primary psychopathy – those who commit antisocial acts due to a lack of empathy or fear – not only fare better under abusive management styles than non-psychopaths, they actually thrive in these negative work environments.


These conclusions were drawn from two surveys given to 419 adult workers in the United States.

To begin, the participants' level of psychopathy was determined using established questionnaires that prompted responses to statements like "I enjoy manipulating other people's feelings" and "Looking out for myself is my top priority" on a 1 to 5 scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree).

"Primary psychopathy is a tendency to be cold, callous, and manipulative," lead researcher Charlice Hurst told IFLScience. She explained that approximately 100 of the participants displayed notable psychopathic tendencies by scoring over a mean value of 3. However, "because the psychopathy scale is continuous, there is no cutoff score."

Next, participants were given a survey, which asked them to describe their reactions to both constructive and abusive managerial profiles. The volunteers who harbored psychopathic personality traits reported feeling happier when imagining themselves working for a demanding boss.


The second phase of the investigation asked participants to rate the “abusiveness” of their actual supervisors. Behaviors falling under this umbrella of unpleasantness included rudeness, gossiping, not giving credit for work performed, invasion of privacy, and breaking promises made to subordinates.

Subjects with higher psychopathy scores felt less anger, more engagement, and more positive emotions under abusive supervisors, compared with non-psychopathic participants. Furthermore, the psychopathic volunteers felt less engagement and more negative emotion if they worked for less abusive superiors.


Though it is difficult to draw conclusions from a study so small, the authors believe these findings support the theory that psychopaths have innate tendencies and abilities that allow them to succeed in the types of difficult work environments that drive neurotypical employees away.

Hurst further hypothesizes that a workforce full of happy Patrick Batemans are in fact enabling bad managerial styles, ultimately contributing towards the toxic cultures surrounding some fields. 


"I don't know whether companies seek out employees who are psychopathic, but some companies seem to prioritize people who are strongly motivated by power, status, and personal gain, which tends to be truer of people high in psychopathy than those who are not," said Hurst. "That's one of the ways organizational cultures evolve over time so that the people within the organization are relatively similar."

Some companies, such as financial institutions, may purposefully utilize hostile techniques to drive productivity, whereas others may just be unwilling to address or correct systemic negativity. Either way, according to Hurst, the company might continually lose non-psychopath employees who can't handle the strain, while the employees with psychopath traits stay onboard long-term.

"At the extreme, they could end up with a highly engaged workforce of psychopaths.”


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