A group of psychologists have made a film titled I am Fishead which discusses some interesting hypotheses. The team consists of some big fish in the world of psychology including the highly influential Gary Greenberg, Phillip Zimbardo (known for the infamous “prison experiment”), Robert Hare and Paul Babiak. The film addresses the following questions:
- Did anti-depressants play a role in the financial crisis?
- Are bankers and executives more likely to be psychopaths than the rest of the population?
- Do financial institutions behave in the same way as psychopaths?
The ideas that the film presents are certainly worthy of discussion but the conclusions that the film draws appear to somewhat overstate the case. Despite the big names, it has a decidedly brain-washy feel and is extremely light on evidence, instead taking a speculative approach. The film also fails to reach a satisfactory conclusion (simply concluding with that age old happy ending that we should do on to others as we would like done to ourselves).
The film alludes to the idea that the bankers who caused the financial crisis were loaded on anti-depressants and as such, felt no “prick of conscience” that would have prevented them from speculating their businesses in to the ground. It turns out there is little in terms of research evidence to directly support this hypothesis, but admittedly the hypothesis does make sense theoretically – “emotional blunting” and “reduced sympathy and empathy” are serious unfortunate side effects of most popular anti-depressants. I was surprised given the theme, that the film failed to mention that the next edition of the diagnostic manual (DSM-5) is set to expand the definitions and lower the thresholds of both depression and psychosis, which will result unequivocally in more prescriptions of both anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. If the hypothesis the film presents is correct, this will worsen the situation.
Another theory proposed in the film is that bankers are themselves, more likely to be psychopathic. This claim is based on one study (Babiak, Neumaan and Hare, 2010), which incidentally is authored by two of the leading contributors to the film (Babiak and Hare) who in the film describe the paper as:
It’s an idea born to go viral, given our current international public past-time of banker-bashing but the study in question in fact tells us very little. The study was only tiny – looking at 203 “supervisors, managers or executives”, it did not look specifically at banking and used only a research description of psychopathy rather than a clinical description. The sample was not randomly selected nor was it representative – looking at only seven companies. The experimenters were not blinded – (far from it – they were the authors) and to top it off there was no experimental control group. If you read the (paywalled) paper (none of this information is included in the abstract) you’ll see that the percentage of “supervisors, managers or executives” who met the research definition of having “potential or possible psychopathy” was actually 5.9% which is only 4.7% higher than in the general population. The average psychopathy rating in the experiment was in fact lower than in the general population. This study alone really isn’t strong enough evidence to draw the conclusions made in the film, the findings are certainly well within the margins of error. It is an interesting finding that warrants further study but to describe it as anything other than this is somewhat misleading. This has not stopped such “reputable outlets” as The Huffington Post, Current and Business Insider misreporting otherwise (needless to say, none of the publications have corrected the mistakes in their print – the 10% figure that has been plucked from the sky for example).
This would certainly be an interesting area of research, it just seems odd that the film has been made before any remotely conclusive research has been done. Admittedly this is no simple task, Hare’s study was the first of it’s kind and the banking industry isn’t exactly begging to open their doors to researchers asking to study their executives to see if they are a bunch of psychopaths. Even if they did achieve this on a large scale, a truly representative population would be near impossible to achieve – one can’t help but think that a psychopath at the very top of their game in the corporate world might not reply to an email asking them to participate in a psychology study. Even if they did, by definition – they would be very good at hiding the traits that make them a psychopath. I can’t help but feel that these researchers face the same problem as Henry the VIII did when he wrote up the Witchcraft Act of 1542.
In conclusion, this film presents some fascinating speculative ideas, it’s a pity the research is so weak. That is not necessarily the fault of the researchers – I just feel they could have done a better job of making this clear. It’s certainly a film worth watching, though the conclusions drawn should be taken with a heap of salt.
Babiak, P., Neumann, C., & Hare, R. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk Behavioral Sciences & the Law DOI: 10.1002/bsl.925 (£)
Price J, Cole V, & Goodwin GM (2009). Emotional side-effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: qualitative study. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 195 (3), 211-7 PMID: 19721109 (PDF)Follow Simon on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, RSS, or join the mailing list.
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