Uncommon Knowledge

It’s true, your boss is a psychopath

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
June 20, 2010

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Watching the news some days, you’d think a lot of companies were run by psychopaths. And, according to a recent study, some might well be. One of the authors of the study was hired by companies to evaluate managers — mostly middle-aged, college-educated, white males — for a management development program. It turns out that these managers scored higher on measures of psychopathy than the overall population, and some who had very high scores were candidates for, or held, senior positions. In general, managers with higher scores were seen as better communicators, better strategic thinkers, and more creative. However, they were also seen as having poor management style, not being team players, and delivering poor performance. But, apparently, this didn’t prevent some of them from being seen as having leadership potential. The authors conclude that “the very skills that make the psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in business even in the face of negative performance ratings.”

Babiak, P. et al., “Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk,” Behavioral Sciences & the Law (March/April 2010).

Why women get the tough assignments
In one of the most famous lines from Shakespeare, King Henry V urges his men “once more unto the breach.” Nowadays, though, it looks like women are the ones who are urged unto the breach. British researchers analyzed data from the 2005 parliamentary elections and found that, among candidates challenging the incumbent party, women were chosen to run for seats that were seen as more difficult to win. The researchers also conducted an experiment asking people to rate several political candidates, two of whom had essentially the same qualifications, except that one was a man and the other was a woman. When the election was portrayed as hard to win, most people — regardless of gender — preferred the female candidate, while only a quarter preferred the female candidate when the election was portrayed as winnable.

Ryan, M. et al., “Politics and the Glass Cliff: Evidence That Women Are Preferentially Selected to Contest Hard-To-Win Seats,” Psychology of Women Quarterly (March 2010).

A touch builds confidence
If you have the Midas touch, everything you touch — figuratively, in most cases — turns to gold. If you’re a woman, everyone you touch — literally — goes for the gold. In several experiments, researchers found that both men and women were more willing to take a gamble after being touched briefly on the back of the shoulder by a woman. A regular handshake with a woman did not have the same effect, nor did touching or handshakes by men. However, the effect was attenuated when people were feeling secure (after writing an essay about a secure time in their lives). According to the authors, “a simple pat on the back of the shoulder — by a female — in a way that connotes support may evoke feelings that are similar to the sense of security afforded by a mother’s comforting touch in infancy.”

Levav, J. & Argo, J., “Physical Contact and Financial Risk Taking,” Psychological Science (June 2010).

They aren’t playing our song
One of the major grievances of people living outside the United States, especially in the developing world, is that they are at the mercy of American cultural imperialism. To what extent is this actually true? Two economists at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed music singles charts around the world going back decades. There’s little evidence that countries are favoring foreign artists. Moreover, language and geographical barriers are still important, notwithstanding the rise of MTV and the Internet. Each country’s share of music in the global market is roughly proportional to the size of its economy. In fact, Sweden, Canada, Finland, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand contribute more to the global music market, relative to the size of their economies, than the United States.

Ferreira, F. & Waldfogel, J., “Pop Internationalism: Has A Half Century of World Music Trade Displaced Local Culture?” National Bureau of Economic Research (May 2010).

Can I have a few minutes to myself?
There’s no “I” in team, and, unfortunately, there may not be as many good ideas in a team either. A recent study found that a hybrid individual-team process generates better ideas than a purely team process. Students in an upper-level product design class at the University of Pennsylvania were asked to generate ideas for two different kinds of products. For one kind of product, they brainstormed and selected ideas in teams. For the other kind of product, they worked separately as individuals before coming together into teams. The resulting ideas for both kinds of products were then assessed independently by MBA students and potential customers. The hybrid process generated significantly more and better ideas.

Girotra, K. et al., “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea,” Management Science (April 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at