10 Careers With the Most Psychopaths

Are you a psychopath? Happens to the best of us. James Fallon, a neuroscientist studying Alzheimer’s effects on the brain, accidentally discovered that he was a psychopath and then he wrote a book about the experience. Fallon, like most people with psychopathic brains, wasn’t a violent person or a serial killer. But after discovering his brain pathology, he began interviewing friends, relatives and loved ones to see if there had been signs of psychopathy in his behavior all along. It turned out there were plenty. The diagnosis befuddled Fallon, but made total sense to pretty much everyone else in his life.

Just 1 percent of the overall population qualifies as psychopaths; in prison, that number skyrockets to 25 percent. Robert Hare developed the Hare Psychopathy Checklist in the 1980s, and it’s since become a tool widely used for assessing and diagnosing the condition. Contrary to popular notions, lots of psychopaths aren’t raging lunatics or violent criminals; in fact, most of them get along perfectly well in society. As Scientific American explains:

Superficially charming, psychopaths tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal. Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behavior for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it. Largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love, they have casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships. Psychopaths routinely offer excuses for their reckless and often outrageous actions, placing blame on others instead. They rarely learn from their mistakes or benefit from negative feedback, and they have difficulty inhibiting their impulses.

Kevin Dutton, an Oxford psychologist and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, believes that psychopathy can actually be advantageous in some careers. Using (not the most scientific) survey, he compiled a list of careers in which psychopaths are overrepresented. Mostly, they’re fields where the hallmarks of psychopathy allow people not just to get by but to thrive and succeed. (It’s been suggested more than once, for example, that corporate psychopaths caused the most recent financial crisis.)

In keeping with Dutton’s findings, here’s a list of the top 10 careers with the most psychopaths working in them. There are some surprises—the biggest of which is that politician isn’t number one.

1. CEO.The corporate lexicon is full of bloodthirsty metaphors. Business is cutthroat; those who succeed are sharks; and they make a killing. What better place for a psychopath to really shine? Lots of CEOs are perfectly lovely, I’m sure, but study after study suggests that 4 percent of them—four times as many people as in the general population—qualify as psychopaths.

The characteristics that define psychopathy, “being [a] risk seeker, impulsive and fearless,” also help entrepreneurs lead and succeed. But as Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry points out, the other markers of psychopathy—lacking “empathy, remorse” and personal accountability—can result in CEOs whose reckless behavior leaves corporate carnage in their wake. Among those tagged as psychopaths are Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom (now serving 25 years on charges including conspiracy and securities fraud), as well as Jeff Skilling (sentenced to just over 24 years for counts including insider trading) and Andrew Fastow (who served six years for “fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy”), both of Enron.

But “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap takes the prize. While head of Scott Paper, Dunlap laid off 11,000 employees (he is described as having fired people with “apparent glee”), earning Wall Street’s adoration and sending stock shares up 225 percent. He also reportedly threatened his wife with a knife while saying he’d always wanted to taste human flesh, skipped out on both his parents’ funerals, and wrote a bestseller titled Mean Business. Dunlap finally lost his footing after his questionable financial tactics as CEO of Sunbeam got a bit too murky. He is currently “serving time” at his palatial Florida estate.

2. Lawyer.Almost every joke about lawyers relies on the stereotype that they are, essentially, psychopaths: liars and cheats, bereft of morals, obsessed with profiteering at any cost. This, even though your average public defender is hardly getting rich off billable hours, and I know an awful lot of great people with JDs (she wrote, veering dangerously close to, “Some of my best friends are lawyers” territory). Still, Dutton’s research found lawyers landed second only to CEOs in the number of psychopaths in their ranks, and it certainly makes sense that some lawyers (say, litigators) would benefit from the ability to turn on the charm and lie without conscience.

Dutton also interviewed a successful psychopathic lawyer who, chillingly, said, “Deep inside me there’s a serial killer lurking somewhere. But I keep him amused with cocaine, Formula One, booty calls, and coruscating cross-examination.”

3. Media (television/radio). This one seems like kind of a no-brainer. Is it any surprise that the sort of person who might imagine herself so important that everyone should be exposed to her, is a person who might have some narcissistic tendencies? Obviously, not everyone in film, television or radio scores high on the Hare meter, but if you think of some of the most glaring psychopathic personalities in both media, it all sort of makes sense.

4. Salesperson.Remember the “Always Be Closing” scene from Glengarry Glenross when Alec Baldwin shows up and basically tells a roomful of salesmen their lives are meaningless because he makes more money than they do? (Choice quote: “Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you, go home and play with your kids!”) Psychopaths in the sales industry probably consider that guy a role model. In his bookWorking With Monsters: How to Identify and Protect Yourself from the Workplace Psychopath, John Clarke highlights how having a psycho on the sales team can be a real asset. “The psychopath is very likely to be a good salesperson, if they are intelligent as well as glib and superficial,” Clarke writes. “In fact, a study done in 2001 by Marc Hamer found that superior sales performance was associated with higher levels of narcissism (egocentric and grandiose), sociopathy and cognitive empathy.” 

The problem with psychopathic salespeople, though, is that you’re bound to run into issues with their “me, me, me” attitude. As Clarke points out, “[i]n the long term [psychopaths] let clients down. In addition, the psychopath who is a salesperson is likely to exploit the system in some way to benefit themselves. For example, they may steal products or sell them at ‘discount rates’ to their friends.”

5. Surgeon.Interestingly, while doctor and nurse made the list of careers with the fewest psychopaths, surgeons were among the most psychopathic. As surgeon Wen Shen stated in a 2014 Pacific Standard piece, “the trouble with surgeons [is]…[m]any are abrasive, abusive, and wildly self-centered—so much so that observers have speculated that they suffer from psychiatric disorders.” Shen speculates this attitudinal tendency might be traced back to the horrible, pre-anesthesia days of surgery, when the field necessarily attracted a breed of person who could operate “to a soundtrack of screams” while keeping a cool hand. That may be changing—there’s a push for a kinder, gentler surgeon afoot—but doctors in other fields and other healthcare professional still seem to hold surgeons in unique regard.

One podiatrist on a message board I visited wrote that one of his college professors informed the class that “every surgeon is really a serial killer that has found a socially acceptable way to express their desire.” And psychoanalyst Carl Sword recounted a conversation with an anonymous neurosurgeon who makes the callousness of psychopathy sound like just what the, uh, surgeon ordered, sayin, “I have no compassion for those whom I operate on…. In the theater I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw. When you’re cutting loose and cheating death high above the snowline of the brain, feelings aren’t fit for purpose. Emotion is entropy, and seriously bad for business. I’ve hunted it down to extinction over the years.”

6. Journalist. A musician friend once said to me that you have to be a complete narcissist, totally delusional, or both to get up on a stage and essentially expect a room (to say nothing of a stadium or an arena) full of people to listen to you. To consider your own emoting so worthy of being heard that you essentially, and completely willingly, make a spectacle of yourself. It’s an abstract way of looking at things but there’s a grain of truth to it. (The fact that you might be charming and engaging enough for that audience to want to watch you is itself another psychopathic trait.) Which is why this one isn’t exactly a spoiler, especially after number three. (And no, the irony is not lost on me as write these words.)

Freelance writer Jeff Cash wrote that, “a hint of psychopathy is actually a prerequisite for public purpose journalism.” As Cash put it, “Psychopathy can creep in all too easily in the world of journalism, as any reporter who’s had an after-hours fight with some obnoxious public relations officer can attest to. (That’s pretty much all of them, by the way). Seeing your name in a national newspaper on a daily basis is enough to turn even the most humble being into a fountain of narcissism. And if you think that’s bad, just imagine how much appearing on national television would contribute to one’s superiority complex.” So yeah. Maybe there’s something to this.

7. Police officer.In an era where police abuse and brutality is a topic of national discourse like never before, much has already been written about the psychological profiles of police officers. It’s an enormous conversation, and anything I write here would likely be repetitive. But I was fascinated  to learn about Diane Wetendorf’s Police Domestic Violence: Handbook for Victims, which finds that “women suffer domestic abuse in at least 40 percent of police officer families.” Compare that with the already troubling national average of 25 percent for American women in general. What’s more, “police families are two to four times more likely than the general population to experience domestic violence,” according to the Advocates for Human Rights. The implications of these numbers are even more disturbing when you consider that victims of domestic violence perpetrated by cops are probably less likely to report their abuse to the police and more likely to have difficulty getting proper protection when they do.

8. Clergy.The Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal has cost the church a staggering $3 billion in payouts to victims. The Church’s efforts to hide abuse, often moving sexual predators from parish to parish, is now well known, and is a stain on the church’s reputation that will likely never be erased. But psychopathy knows no denominational boundaries, and there are plenty of non-Catholic religious leaders who seem to be, at the least, narcissists, and at the worst, diabolical psychos.

Joe Navarro, formerly of the FBI, created a list for Psychology Today of the myriad reasons psychopaths might be attracted to the clergy. Religious organizations provide easy access to victims, a source for financial rewards and easy legitimacy based on having an ordained position. Also—as if the other reasons aren’t creepy enough—in the case of organizations where confessions of “wrongdoing” are required, churches provide opportunities for excellent blackmail material to use on potential victims. (Bravo, Scientology!) Among some of the most popular preachers and televangelists who have exhibited megalomaniacal/psychopathic behavior are Bill Gothard, Creflo Dollar, Geronimo Aguilar and mutiple megachurch leaders.

9. Chef.In an interview with Vanity Fair, Gordon Ramsay (not exactly the picture of sanity) said, “Chefs are nutters. They’re all self-obsessed, delicate, dainty, insecure little souls and absolute psychopaths. Every last one of them.” And boy, would he ever know. I’m not sure about every attribute he lists, but I’ve met a lot of chefs in my day and like most creative people, they’ve all had inventive, innovative minds, often accompanied by drinking problems. (Just the messenger here, folks.) Plus, they work in a profession that requires them to work crazy hours, often for long stretches, in conditions that would drive most of us mad. (Have you ever seen a busy restaurant kitchen at a peak hour? Absolute madness.)

Anthony Bourdain (again, a seemingly awesome guy, but not someone I would cite as a pillar of sanity) chalked it up to a sort of dogged, single-minded drive and perfectionism, combined with having to deal with assholes. “Some chefs borrow money, they do everything they can, they kill themselves, it’s the culmination of a career working 100 hours a week or more. They finally open a place and within eight minutes of opening, some asshole has posted on Yelp, ‘Worst meal ever.’ You can understand why they go insane, and do everything they can to ameliorate that.”

10. Civil servants.It can often feel like being a sadist is a prerequisite for working at the DMV. Harold Schechter’s The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderersnotes that “[i]t has become part of popular lore that certain kinds of government workers are particularly prone to mass murder; a perception reflected in the phrase ‘going postal.’”

There’s certainly power in certain civil service roles, which psychopaths single-mindedly crave, and the ability to make other people’s lives hell. While your garden variety civil servant likely isn’t a psychopath, as Schechter notes, several notable serial killers have worked in the area. Notorious British murderer Dennis Nilson worked as a civil servant (not to mention briefly serving as a cop for a period), and ascended the ranks to leadership in just a few years. For more than two decades, Thomas Lee Dillon was an employee of the water department in Canton, Ohio. David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, worked as letter sorter at the post office. And Dennis Rader, the self-dubbed BTK killer, was a census field operations supervisor in his home state of Kansas in the late 1980s. He later was hired as a dogcatcher. According to Wikipedia, “neighbors recalled him as being sometimes overzealous and extremely strict; one neighbor complained that he euthanized her dog for no reason.”

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