CamFest Speaker Spotlight: Professor Clive Boddy

Leading corporate psychopath expert, Dr Clive Boddy from Anglia Ruskin University, discusses the incidence rates of female psychopathy in the adult population and how there are far more female psychopaths than anyone has previously imagined. His event, Is the female psychopath more hidden than the male? is on 16th March.  

silhouette of person sitting on window

Photo by Bethany Zwag on Unsplash

Photo by Bethany Zwag on Unsplash

What interests you so much about psychopaths?
Firstly, and most importantly, I believe psychopathy in political and organisational leadership is highly consequential for the longevity and sustainability of all types of global socio-economic and environmental systems.  

Secondly, psychopathy is the only personality which has been well-studied by neuroscientists like Kent Kiehl, Robert Blair, and James Fallon and others, and where there is a clear link between commonly found brain anomalies in the psychopathic brain with the areas of the brain linked to emotional processing, and the callous and unemotional traits of the psychopathic character.

Thus, it is the only personality of those we study in management research, which is grounded in the physical sciences as well as the social sciences and psychology. 

Furthermore, in my professional career I have come across people with the traits connected to psychopathy such as ruthlessness, untruthfulness, callous indifference to the fate of other people, remorselessness, sociability, seductiveness, promiscuity, and the ability to manipulate others like puppets.

This is an intriguing and paradoxical set of characteristics and I decided to study them further via doctoral research among corporate psychopaths – if I could identify any.  

In those days (2008) no quantitative studies using a measure of primary psychopathy had been used among businesspeople and so the research was speculative and in many people’s eyes – questionable. I didn’t know whether my research would identify any corporate psychopaths or not. At that time the consensus was that psychopaths were all either in, or bound for, jail or other institutions and certainly not to be found in the corporate sector. It took years for the idea of the corporate psychopath to be accepted, especially in academia.  

I also believe that psychopaths are the darkest of the trio of dark personalities – narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths – who management researchers’ study. They are therefore the most interesting and consequential to study because their behaviour is the most extreme and influences all of us whether we know it or not.

In terms of female psychopaths, why have the incidence rates been so under-estimated?  
From a practical point of view, there are several reasons why the incidence rates of female psychopathy seem to have been underestimated: 

  • There are almost no large studies involving measuring psychopathy among large random samples of the adult population. This would be the best way to get accurate incidence rates for both male and female psychopathy.  
  • There haven’t been many dedicated studies of female psychopathy and so less is known about them than male psychopaths. 
  • Psychologists rarely mention incidence rates in the papers they produce.  
  • Many early studies of psychopaths were among samples of male, criminal psychopaths and the instruments developed in order to identify psychopaths from these studies are not necessarily suitable for identifying non-criminal or non-male psychopaths. 
  • Many of the characteristics of psychopathy are seen as male characteristics so when women display the same characteristics they are seen as out of place and are attributed to other personality types such as being narcissistic.  
  • Because of stereotypical views of women being more caring, nurturing, and gentle than men, assessors may be reluctant to attribute psychopathy to women.  

So, what do you think is a true reflection? 
My view is that measures of primary psychopathy, such as the 16-item primary scale in Levenson’s Self-Report Psychopathy measure, capture the essential characteristics of psychopathy without the confounding variables related to criminality and masculinity.

Therefore, primary measures of psychopathy should be equally adept at identifying male and female psychopaths. When this research is undertaken then the incidence rates become about 1.14:1 rather than the 5:1 or 4:1 or even 10:1 quoted in the literature. This means the incidence of female (at least primary) psychopath could be around 1% - the same figure that is often quoted for male psychopathy. 

Brain scans among women from the general community of adults (rather than from scans of criminal psychopaths) could also help determine what percentage of women have brains that react along the lines of the non-emotional, coldly rational and philosophically utilitarian manner of the typical psychopathic brain.  

How does this impact on employees, business and society as a whole?
The impact of workplace male and female psychopaths on employees, business and society is profound. Employees are sidelined, abused, bullied, and yelled at and as a result they lose motivation, pride in their job, engagement in their work and job satisfaction.

Their well-being suffers and they get stressed, depressed, and despondent resulting in some retaliatory behaviour in the form of counterproductive work behaviour such as sabotage and resulting in increasingly severe levels of withdrawal from the workplace which often results in a final resignation.  

Businesses lose direction as the psychopathic leaders fail to communicate a believable vision of the future and move instead on a self-oriented path which rarely coincides with what is good for the organisation.

Additionally, organisations lose experienced staff as people start to vote with their feet and leave. Newcomers thus lack the ability to gain knowledge about what to do and how to do it because experience managers have left and the psychopathic have no interest in directing people or helping new employees. Productivity therefore diminishes despite the glowing and misleading reports that the psychopathic present to those above them.  

Society suffers because abused staff take their stress home with them, and their family shares their pain. The economy suffers because productivity declines and resource misallocations result from the self-oriented decision of psychopathic leaders.

Further, people lose their trust in large organisations as they see the greed, untruthfulness and ruthlessness of those at the top and this undermines democracy and the rule of law. 

Are there specific traits female psychopaths exhibit and how do these differ from male traits? 
Gender differences stemming from biology and socialisation appear to mean that the characteristics of psychopathy, and its expression in behaviour, are different for females. 

A small but mounting body of evidence describes female psychopaths as prone to expressing violence verbally rather than physically, with the violence being of a relational and emotional nature, more subtle and less obvious than that expressed by male psychopaths.

For example, as women, on average, have lower upper body strength than males then the option of physical violence to achieve desired ends may be less available to them and they may rely instead on relational aggression, flirtation, manipulation, coercion, and seduction.  

Female psychopaths are reported to be more manipulative, to use impression management techniques to create a good impression more than male psychopaths do and utilise deceit and sexually seductive behaviour to gain social and financial advantage, more than males do.

As an example, psychopaths are prone to fraud and female psychopaths have been found to commit more fraud than male psychopaths, meaning that a full understanding of fraud may not be obtainable without considering the role of female psychopaths as one antecedent.

This evidence is from a limited number of studies and not from my own research. There is thus a need for further investigations in this area. 

What makes female psychopaths ‘tick’? 
Psychopaths are driven by a need to have power over and control other people via whatever resources they have available to them. For male psychopaths, this may veer towards physical domination through violence, bullying and threats.

For female psychopaths, this may veer towards manipulation through seduction, relational aggression, and spreading rumours and lies about people aimed at gaining personal advantage and preferment over those people.  

Psychopaths like to hold on to the money, power and resources available to them. They would think nothing of, for example, wrongly and knowingly prosecuting innocent sub-postmasters, as in the UK’s current Post office Scandal, to keep their salaries, bonuses and positional status for as long as possible.

In my view, celebrating (as they are reported to have done) the imprisonment of an innocent, pregnant female sub-postmaster to defend their pretence of an accurate accounting system is so ruthless, callous and uncaring that it can best be described as psychopathic.  

There is, as yet no reason to believe that female psychopaths have different drivers and motivations than their male peers do. They both like to hurt people, but they do it in different ways. 

Do you think psychopathy can be treated successfully? If not, how can we mitigate the damage female or male psychopaths can cause in the corporate world? 
The treatment of psychopaths is well out of my area of expertise. However, according to the literature there is no successful treatment for psychopathy.

Interestingly, it has recently been referred to as a neurodevelopmental condition, which develops through childhood and remains relatively stable over time, only declining in severity with old age.  

Treatments for criminal psychopaths are reported to be counterproductive – they give the psychopath information relating to how they will be assessed at various evaluation events including for criminal psychopaths, for parole and reduction of sentence hearings, thus enabling them to convincingly fake remorse and claim character redemption conversions. Criminal psychopaths appear to find God and redemption when in prison but seek further victims after they are released.  

In organisations, they present themselves as never to blame, instead finding subtle, elaborate and convincing explanations for the disruption and decline that follow in their wake while simultaneously, falsely claiming the good work of others as their own. 

Damage mitigation may be via increasing the awareness of what are psychopathic characteristics at work so that the cunning and scheming of corporate psychopaths is less invisible than it has been. People who are psychopathic or have highly developed psychopathic personalities should be steered away from organisational positions where they have control of other people’s futures, resources, or destinies.

At the topmost leadership selection procedures, testing for psychopathy is appropriate to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of their leadership. 

The Cambridge Festival is a unique festival of events brought to you by the University of Cambridge. With over 350 events from exhibitions, walks, talks, workshops, performances, hands-on activities, films and more!

Sign up to our mailing list here or keep up to date by following us on social media.
Instagram: Camunifestivals | Facebook: CambridgeFestival | X: Cambridge_Fest | LinkedIn: cambridge-festival