Free market economics “rewards psychopathic personality traits,” say leading psychologists

Neoliberalism is not just impacting on our values but on our very personalities – with chilling results, says Paul Verhaeghe, senior professor of psychoanalysis and clinical psychology at the University of Ghent.

Writing in the Guardian, Verhaeghe said: “Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative.”

Success in these conditions requires distinct personality traits, according to Verhaeghe. First, he says, you must be articulate, prone to exaggerating your own abilities, and highly persuasive to the point of manipulation; “you can like lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.” This human interaction may well be entirely superficial.

In addition, Verhaeghe says, you must be flexible and impulsive, always looking for new stimuli and challenges, including those that carry great risk.

If this sounds familiar, it could be because personalities like this are common in the finance industry as well as the higher echelons of business. It could also be because these traits all feature on the “psychopathy checklist” of respected criminal psychologist, Professor Robert Hare.

It stuns me, as much as it did when I started 40 years ago, that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern,” said Hare in a recent interview.

In the context of free market economics, however, these characteristics can be seen as an asset, adds the University of California neuroscientist James Fallon. In particular, psychopaths commonly exhibit a strong grasp of “cognitive empathy,” where you can tell what someone is feeling, but struggle with emotional empathy, where you feel what they are feeling. “This all gives certain psychopaths a great advantage, because they can understand what you’re thinking, it’s just that they don’t care, so they can use you against yourself,” Fallon explains.

What’s more, the cut-throat nature of the free market actively nurtures these traits, Verhaeger claims. Solidarity, loyalty and emotional commitment are all supplanted by “temporary alliances” that necessitate charm and deception in order to pull them off. The culture of fear created by the uncertainty and performance anxiety in turn leads to workplace bullying, or “displaced aggression,” intensifying feelings of isolation and unease.  The narrative of neoliberalism, as Verhaeger summarises in his “Hedgehogs United” TED Talk, below, is that “greed works” and should be fed at the expense of all our conflicting instincts towards community, closeness and trust.

There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed,” says Verhaeger. “And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.”



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