William Deresiewicz, "Capitalists and Other Psychopaths", NYT 5/12/2012:
THERE is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, consider the following. A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) [...]
The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising.
The only thing that puzzles *me* about such claims is that they spread so far in reputable publications, over such a long period of time, despite being complete fabrications.
Deresiewicz (or the NYT editors) do provide a link to the 10-percent-of-Wall-Streeters-are-psychopaths "study", which goes to an article in The Week, "Why is Wall Street full of psychopaths?", 3/1/2012:
One out of 10 Wall Street employees is a clinical psychopath, estimates Sherree DeCovny in CFA Magazine [pdf for purchase], compared with one out of 100 people in the general population. That statistic is "shocking," says Sam Ro at Business Insider, and, while it doesn't mean Wall Street is crawling with ax-wielding serial killers (see American Psycho), the extreme character traits outlined in DeCovny's report are certainly prevalent — and often admired — in the industry.
The article in The Week, in turn, gives us a link to what seems to be the original source of the statistic — Sherree DeCovny, "The Financial Psychopath Next Door", CFA Magazine, March/April 2012.
When I read the Deresiewicz study, my science-journalism spider sense started tingling. The fact that the "study" link went to another news report kicked the tingle up a notch; and my skepticism crossed the threshold to near certainty at the step to CFA Magazine, a "practice-based, professional member magazine" which
…contracts with professional journalists to write most articles published in CFA Magazine. Accordingly, stories are approached from a journalistic perspective, providing varying viewpoints that are representative of the CFA Institute global membership and that offer real-life, professional applications through a balance of theory and practice.
So the question was, did I care enough about this example of the science-journalism telephone game to pay CFA Magazine a few dollars for a copy of the article? Before deciding, I thought I'd look around for a copy posted somewhere on the web; and that simple web search quickly revealed that an expert job of debunking had already been done: John Grohol, "Untrue: 1 out of Every 10 Wall Street Employees is a Psychopath", Psych Central 3/6/2012:
[I]n trying to research where this statistic came from, I stumbled upon a symptom of what’s wrong with a lot of journalism today. I can summarize the problem in one word — laziness. Many (most?) journalists nowadays take “experts” words for whatever claims they make, without ever bothering to check them out independently.
Alexander Eichler, a “business reporter” at The Huffington Post, started this news cycle by making the claim in his article, “One Out Of Every Ten Wall Street Employees Is A Psychopath, Say Researchers:”
One out of every 10 Wall Street employees is likely a clinical psychopath, writes journalist Sherree DeCovny in an upcoming issue of the trade publication CFA Magazine (subscription required). In the general population the rate is closer to one percent.
Eichler isn’t suggesting 1 out of 10 Wall Street employees is a psychopath — he’s just passing along something he read in another magazine (note, it’s a magazine, like People, not a scientific journal). Eichler’s point of his blog entry is simply to regurgitate what DeCovny (2012) wrote in her article. Here’s what DoCovny, a freelancer, actually wrote:
Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare indicate that about 1 percent of the general population can be categorized as psychopathic, but the prevalence rate in the financial services industry is 10 percent. And Christopher Bayer believes, based on his experience, that the rate is higher.
When DeCovny was contacted about the statistic, she replied:
Christopher Bayer, a psychologist I interviewed for the article, told me about Hare’s study, so he should be able to point you in the right direction. Christopher provides therapy to Wall Street professionals. He’s also finishing up a book on this topic.
It’s great that Christopher Bayer is a therapist who treats Wall Street professionals. However, I could find no research he’s authored in this topic area. So while his opinion is duly noted, it really isn’t in the same league as empirical scientific data. The two should never be confused.
Hare, on the other hand, is a famous researcher who has made a career in studying psychopaths, has published dozens of scientific studies on the topic, and developed the preeminent checklist that is used in most psychopathy research. [...]
Hare did indeed co-author a paper that examined “corporate psychopathy,” with colleagues Paul Babiak and Craig Neumann (2010). It did not look at the financial services industry specifically. The research used a sample that consisted of 203 corporate professionals from 7 different companies, selected by their companies to participate in management development programs from all areas of industry.
I did what any journalist writing about a famous researcher should do before saying he said something that seems a little “out there” — I contacted Hare to ask him about this data. Here’s his response to the claim that 1 in 10 (10 percent) of financial industry employees is a “psychopath:”
I don’t know who threw out the 10% but it certainly it did not come from me or my colleagues.
The article to which you refer describes a sample of “203 corporate professionals selected by their companies to participate in management development programs.” The sample was not randomly selected or necessarily representative of managers or executives, or of the corporations in which they work.
The approximately 4% who had a PCL-R score high enough for a research description as psychopathic cannot be be generalized to the larger population of managers and executives, or to CEOs and the “financial services industry.”
So to be crystal clear here, one out of every ten wall street employees is NOT a psychopath. At least not according to any actual scientific research. DeCovny took a professional’s word (Bayer’s) that this is what the research showed; and she had no reason to doubt him. But she also didn’t verify the information for herself (like I did), or bother contacting Hare to ensure the data being attributed to him was correct. (We could not reach Christopher Bayer in time to comment on the discrepancy between what he told DeCovny, and what Hare actually researched.)
Just to clarify a small point of quantifier scope: By saying that "one out of every ten wall street employees is NOT a psychopath", Dr. Grohol does not mean that 10% are non-psychopaths, implying that 90% of them ARE psychopaths; but rather than it is not the case that 10% of them are (or at least have been shown to be) psychopaths.
Now, I'm not a reflexive defender of Wall Streeters. For all I know, 10% — or 90% — of them really are psychopaths. But I do believe that public policy debates ought to be based as much as possible on facts, and not on made-up numbers that have been given a pseudo-scientific status by a multi-step journalistic "telephone game".
Adding to the documentation of this particular stream of nonsense in the media sewer, Dr. Grohol gives a list of other sightings:
- The Huffington Post: One Out Of Every Ten Wall Street Employees Is A Psychopath, Say Researchers
- Business Insider: The Shocking Statistic About Psychopaths On Wall Street
- Current TV: Researchers: One in 10 Wall St. employees is a psychopath
- Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ): Wall Street Bonuses Larger Than Most Nonprofit Executive Directors’ Salaries
- Decline of the Empire: Psychopaths On Wall Street
Regular readers may recall some of the dozens of other examples that we've picked up on over the years, widely-reproduced stories telling us that email and texting lower IQ twice as much as smoking marijuana does; that Twitter and Facebook numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering; that women talk three times as much as men do, while men think of sex every 52 seconds on average; and so on. In an earlier post, I concluded that
… "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.
What would the [editors responsible for promulgating these stories] say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods? I imagine that their reaction would be roughly like that of an Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, confronted with evidence from DNA phylogeny that the animals of the world could not possibly have gone through the genetic bottleneck required by the story of Noah's ark. I mean, lighten up, man, it's just a story.
For those interested in following up further, the study referenced above is Paul Babiak, Craig Neumann, and Robert Hare, "Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk", Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 2010. I'll have a bit more to say about it in a later post.
Update — the New York TImes Op-Ed page, much to their credit, has posted a correction at the bottom of the original article:
Correction: May 16, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the findings of a 2010 study on psychopathy in corporations. The study found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths, not that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths. In addition, the study, in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, was not based on a representative sample; the authors of the study say that the 4 percent figure cannot be generalized to the larger population of corporate managers and executives.