July 15, 2014: Personality Matters: Of Explorers and Politicians

Over breakfast a few mornings ago, my husband said, “You should read this.” Bleary-eyed, I peered over my coffee at the newspaper page Rob was showing me. Something about explorers. “Definitely,” I replied (code for “Oops, it went into the recycling before I had a chance to read it”).

At Rob's insistence, I started reading Jennifer Hunter’s Toronto Star interview with Martin Dugard. Dugard has written a book about Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, who embarked on a quest to find the source of the Nile River. It would be riveting stuff if you were interested in history, geography, explorers, or all kinds of things that are not exactly in my wheelhouse. Finally, Rob pointed to the relevant paragraph.

“There are actual scientific, motivational theories that I leaned on. Curiosity, courage, passion, independence, perseverance, hope and self-discipline are what’s needed to make a good explorer,” is what Dugard told Hunter. Finally, I got it. Personality psychology is everywhere!

Because my personality research often focuses on psychopathic traits, I was particularly interested in Dugard’s suggestion that explorers would be “oddballs” who would have difficulty with the mundane routine of most people’s lives. In his interview with Hunter, he says, “They would be a person who is not afraid to risk something that you would think of as crazy. They (would) also be hard to be around. They would not be punctual. They would be prone to impulse.”

Impulsivity, resistance to social norms, lack of punctuality, and risk-taking fit pretty nicely with what we know of psychopathic traits. However, the perseverance and self-discipline that Dugard claims are part of being a successful explorer are inconsistent with psychopathic traits, which comprise reward-driven behavior with a total lack of any kind of life plan. An explorer who was truly high in psychopathic traits would likely abandon the quest when the opportunity for immediate pleasure arose. I have no first-hand experience, but I’m pretty sure that exploring is awfully hard work, and that temptations might appear along the tedious route to new discoveries. Obviously, successful explorers would possess the very unpsychopathic tenacity and self-discipline to carry on with the plan.

Although it turned out that explorers might not be high in psychopathic traits, the story made me think of a favorite colleague, who tends to be a wee bit of a conspiracy theorist. Despite having a psychopathy researcher on hand, he still tends to refer to politicians, CEOs, and powerful others as “psychopaths.” I suspect that you and I understand exactly what he’s getting at. He believes that many of the individuals who have some authority over decisions that affect our lives are self-serving and manipulative.

However, if these individuals were genuinely high in psychopathic traits, could they actually stick with a plan? Much clinical work and research suggests that they probably couldn’t.  Paul Babiak and Robert Hare’s 2006 book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work suggests that there may be certain workplace conditions that allow a psychopath to flourish, such as an organizational climate of rapid change, secrecy, and distrust. A rapidly transitioning organization allows the individual with psychopathic traits to move from position to position, making false promises and blaming others when things go wrong.

In most cases though, I suspect that the kind of individual who is deceptive and self-serving and who also has the capacity to succeed in politics or business is probably more Machiavellian than psychopathic.  Although the Machiavellian individual shares duplicity and callousness with the psychopath, Machiavellians possess sufficient impulse regulation to carry out a long-term strategy. Thus, the Machiavellian just might make it as an explorer or CEO, whereas the psychopath would be more apt to carelessly abandon the plan as soon as there was an opportunity for short-term gain.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that all CEOs, explorers, or politicians are Machiavellians or psychopaths. I suspect that the vast majority are perfectly decent people who find their talents and personalities well suited to their professions.  In his Toronto Star interview, Dugard says, “Most explorers are unemployable. Can you imagine Columbus with a 9-to-5 job? They are outcasts in society. There is no place for them in the mundane aspects of life. A lot of them, like (Robert) Scott, who explored Antarctica, come back but they don’t fit in. They become alcoholics, they are bad with their money.”

Clearly, when choosing one’s profession, personality matters.