One of the most interesting psychological trends over the last four or five decades is a marked increased in the population’s self-esteem. According to psychologist Jean Twenge, who studies longitudinal trends in Americans’ mental dispositions, in 1950 12 percent of teenagers agreed that “I am an important person.” Three decades later, that percentage was 80 percent.
But among those who assert their own self-worth, psychologists found two distinct personality types. One group are those who report high self-esteem and also high levels of happiness, fulfilling friendships, and social relations. The other group report high self-esteem but also display a host of antisocial tendencies, including violence, racism, and lack of empathy. In their book The Spirit Level, authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett describe this latter kind of self-esteem as “primarily defensive, a kind of internal attempt to talk oneself up”:
People with insecure high self-esteem tend to be insensitive to others and to show an excessive preoccupation with themselves, with success, and with their image and appearance in the eyes of others. This unhealthy high self-esteem is often called “threatened egotism,” “insecure high self-esteem,” or narcissism.
At its most extreme, the constant perception of competition rather than privilege, the need to insulate one’s psyche from the possibility of failure, produces a tendency toward this kind of threatened egotism. No achievement is ever enough, status is never fixed, no success is ever final. It means always looking at the next rung up on the social ladder, a posture that makes it very difficult to empathize with those on the rungs below. Twenge’s long-term data show a marked increase in precisely this psychological profile.
In a survey of 500 senior executives in the United States and the UK, 26 percent of respondents said they had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace, while 24 percent said they believed financial services professionals may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct to be successful. Sixteen percent of respondents said they would commit insider trading if they could get away with it, according to Labaton Sucharow. And 30 percent said their compensation plans created pressure to compromise ethical standards or violate the law. The March/April issues of CFA Magazine notes that the rates of psychopaths in Wall Street is much higher than the general population, and reports:
These “financial psychopaths” generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think. At the same time, they display an abundance of charm, charisma, intelligence, credentials, an unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation, and a drive for thrill seeking. A financial psychopath can present as a perfect well-rounded job candidate, CEO, manager, co-worker, and team member because their destructive characteristics are practically invisible. They flourish in fast-paced industries and are experts in taking advantage of company systems and processes as well as exploiting communication weaknesses and promoting interpersonal conflicts.
A senior UK investment banker and I [were] discussing the most successful banking types we know and what makes them tick. I argued that they often conform to the characteristics displayed by social psychopaths. To my surprise, my friend agreed. He then made an astonishing confession: “At one major investment bank for which I worked, we used psychometric testing to recruit social psychopaths because their characteristics exactly suited them to senior corporate finance roles.”