Corporate Psychopathy: A Psychiatric Analogy

Montague Ullman, M.D.

In psychiatry there is a diagnostic entity variously known as psychopath, sociopath and antisocial personality disorder. The outstanding feature is that the psychopath has a natural talent for using and exploiting others and does so with such skill that true motives remain concealed by ingratiating ways and apparent normality. It is the most malignant mental illness because of its dehumanizing character, its life-long projectory of resistance to change, its parasitic nature and the trail of the victims left behind. The title of Hervey Cleckley's classic volume, The Mask of Sanity, says it all. The psychopath is someone who appears comfortable with himself and his surroundings, often is of superior intelligence, is capable of turning on the charm and generally creates a positive impression. The problem is it's all fake. There is no genuine empathy, no sense of responsibility or concern for anyone but himself.

In the recent past, corporate corruption has been unmasked on a grand scale. Money churned out by these corporations has influenced legislative and executive functions to the point where the former has surrendered to its unique power to declare war and the latter to begin a war based on falsehoods fed to the American public.

A limited but meaningful analogy can be drawn between the individual psychopath and the corporation behaving in a psychopathic fashion. The diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association cites seven criteria for antisocial personality, the current term in use, any three of which warrants the diagnosis. The following three criteria speak to both individual and corporate psychopathy.

- Deceitfulness as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.

Comment: For corporations, substitute "outsourcing subsidiaries" for aliases.


- Lack of remorse as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

Comment: When a giant corporation goes belly up, how much remorse is there for the thousands who are left financially stranded?


- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others consistent with irresponsibility as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.

Comment: This is a basic feature of corporate psychopath. Once greed takes over, honesty goes out the window.


Corporate psychopathy subsists on money and power. The money ultimately comes from the general public through consumption and from the U.S. Treasury for the services they have to offer. The power comes from successfully maneuvering all three branches of the Federal government. With regard to the legislative branch, the members of Congress are prime targets for excessive lobbying and generous financial contributions. Recent legislation, for example, designed to offset the growing costs of drugs to the public, protects the exorbitant prices set by the drug companies. The judiciary is involved to the extent that white collar crime more often results in fines or jail sentences not commensurate with the large number of people adversely affected by corporate failure. At the executive level the most effective path to power results from insuring that the Office of the Presidency is filled by someone protective of corporate interests such as awarding a no-bid contract to Halliburton in Iraq.

Although the virus responsible for corporate psychopathy has been endemic at least since Theodore Roosevelt's time, it has now risen to epidemic proportions. We are dealing with a virus that wreaks havoc on people and the environment and has caused a palpable degree of moral fallout. Robert Hare, in his book, Without Conscience, refers to this latter change as resulting in a "camouflage society," He cites the role of corporate power as fostering a cultural atmosphere "where egocentricity, lack of concern for others, superficiality, style over substance, being cool, manipulativeness and so forth are tolerated and even valued."

Our country is more divided along party lines than it has been in a long time. If we, the people, can come together in the recognition of this deepening illness in our midst, we can more effectively strive to eliminate it. After all, doctors don't work along party lines in their efforts at healing.