Some years back, I went to visit a friend of mine from college who was staying with a very rich author whilst completing an internship in London.   He lived in a massive house in Battersea, a rich area next to the river Thames.  Looking round his house there were many pictures on the wall, largely of the covers of his books, his family etc, but in addition there were two small gold frames, the first had a Trivial Pursuit (a board game based on quiz questions) card where his name was the answer, and the second contained a copy of a signed cheque from him to the UK tax revenue authorities for one million pounds.   I remember thinking how could anyone have an ego that big?

Immense egotism is one of the key traits of a psychopath.  The most famous checklist of what to look for when you are deciding whether someone is a psychopath was put together in a famous 1993 book by Hare.  In his view, many in the corporate world exhibited psychopathic tendencies, or what he memorably described as ‘snakes in suits’.

(Anthony Perkins in the 1960 Hitchcock film, Psycho).

Other studies concur. Between 3% and 21% of CEOs are probably psychopaths, according to a 2016 study by Bond University psychologist Nathan Brooks. This is compared to around 1.2% in the general US population, and up to 0.7% of women.

It is certainly interesting to wonder whether CEO’s and rich people generally are indeed more likely to be psychopaths, and in turn, if very rich people and indeed billionaires are even more likely to be so.

So what are some of these traits?

  1. Grandiose sense of self-worth; psychopaths have enormous egos

I don’t think the egotism shown by the author in my story is abnormal for the very rich.  It seems likely to me that if you are very rich, it becomes a lot easier to justify such riches if they are based on viewing yourself as special; that the reason you are rich is because you have a certain set of skills and talents, rather than luck.  This sense of self-worth enables you to justify why you have so much more than others.

(Donald Trumps’ portrait of himself, entitled ‘The Visionary’, which hangs at his Mar el Lago resort)

That rich people are more prone to this is born out by experiments. One brilliant one got students to play monopoly, but from an unfair starting point, where one player starts with much more money than the others. The study found that even though everyone in the game knew this was the case, within a few hours of playing, the rich player started to point to skilful steps they had taken in the game, great moves they had made.

  1. Lack of empathy

Psychopaths are found to be incapable of empathy, that is, the lack of understanding the feelings and experiences of others, and of responding appropriately.

In one study, participants were asked to watch two videos while having their heart rate monitored. One video showed somebody explaining how to build a patio. The other showed children who were suffering from cancer.

Lower class individuals, with less income and education, were more likely to report feeling compassion while watching the video of the cancer patients. Their heart rates slowed down while watching the cancer video, a response associated with paying greater attention to the feelings and motivations of others.  This did not happen as much with those from wealthy backgrounds.

I am reminded of the priceless moment, in 2021, when Jeff Bezos, having returned from his first spaceflight, gave a press conference where he thanked the many employees of Amazon for enabling him to pay for his rocket.  Some of those same staff reportedly had to urinate in bottles because they do not have time for a toilet break.

  1. Parasitic lifestyle

Psychopaths prefer not to work for a living but to live off others. At first this does not sit well with the image of the workaholic billionaire, devoting 100 hours a week building up their companies and their fortunes.  But I suspect that such billionaires are in the minority, and the majority live pretty easy lives.

For a start, according to analysis we did a few years ago of the Forbes List, one third of the world’s billionaires are heirs who simply inherited their fortunes. Another third derived their fortunes from crony connections to governments.

Even if they did not inherit their fortunes, or get them through dubious connections to the state, rich people derive most of their income from rents and returns on their capital, ‘earning money while they sleep.’

So I think that yes, parasitic is a pretty good summation.

  1. Unethical behaviour

A series of studies from the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, with thousands of participants across the country, found that upper class people are more likely to behave unethically than people from the lower classes.

One study monitored car drivers seen to be breaking traffic rules at a particular intersection and found that those driving expensive cars were four times more likely to break the rules.

Another study got participants to take several tasks to identify their social class and status.  At the end of the experiment, they were shown a jar of sweets and told that they could take some if they want, but that they were there for a separate experiment with some children in a nearby lab. Participants completed unrelated tasks and then reported the number of sweets they had taken.  Upper class participants took twice as many sweets from the jar intended for the children than those from the lower classes.

(Mr Burns, the rich evil business man in the Simpsons trying to take sweets from Maggie Simpson)

Again in our own study, we found that at least a third of billionaire wealth comes from sectors with high levels of cronyism and connections to government contracts and services.  Whilst this is not the same as saying a third of billionaires got rich through unethical behaviour, it is a reasonable proxy –  just ask one of the many Russian oligarchs.  And even billionaires who have made fortunes in so called ‘clean’ sectors – those not prone to the same level of cronyism and corruption – are often shown to have used unethical behaviour, whether it is in the treatment of workers, the use of market power to unfairly compete against others, or the use of money to buy political influence.

  1. Selfishness: Psychopaths are found to be more selfish

Much is made of the incredible philanthropy of the billionaire class. Their largesse is something often discussed and lauded.  And indeed quite a few billionaires do give away significant amounts of money.

In some ways it makes sense that the richest can afford to be more generous. But again, the evidence suggests the opposite. Studies find instead that the generosity of people increased the lower their economic status. Those in the lower class said that around 5.6% of a salary should be donated to charity, whereas those from the upper classes had a donation rate of 2.1%.  Lower class participants consistently displayed compassion spontaneously, while upper class participants had to be prompted to do so.

So it would seem that rich people do exhibit many of the tendencies identified with psychopaths.

Does capitalism itself reward and promote psychopathic behaviour?

Hare goes on in his book to suggest that in fact capitalism at its most extreme rewards and indeed promotes psychopathic behaviours.  You don’t have to agree entirely with this to at least recognise that capitalism does indeed reward and rely on some pretty distasteful behaviours, and arguably the neoliberal, mechanically rapacious version of capitalism of recent decades even more so. 

Keynes looked forward to a time where we could dispense with what he called ‘the love of money’:

‘The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. ‘

Billionaire psychopaths, should we be concerned?

Can we suppose that billionaires exhibit the same behaviours as the rich people in these studies?  If unethical behaviours increase with the level of wealth, does this mean that billionaires are even more likely to exhibit psychopathic tendencies than multi-millionaires?

Of course, it should be repeated that just because a greater proportion of rich people and of billionaires exhibit such worrying personality traits, this does not mean that they all do.

But nevertheless, even if one in ten billionaires is a psychopath, the huge power and influence they wield makes this deeply worrying, and the faith that our modern society often puts in them and their views on the world equally concerning too.

Whilst a millionaire might justify their fortune to themselves and their friends, a billionaire can do so on a much larger scale, through their ownership of the media.  Equally the ability to lie, to cheat, and to manipulate is far greater, given their immense fortunes.

It seems to me quite reasonable to say that billionaire psychopaths are something we should be very worried about. And in turn gives another good reason to campaign for a world and an economy that simply doesn’t have any billionaires at all, and is a much more equal place instead.


Author: Max is the Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host. He is also Chair of the Global People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The majority of the experiments cited in this piece are in some way connected to the Social Psychologist Paul Piff- if you want to learn more you can watch his brilliant TED talk.  Also Jon Ronson’s TED talk on Psychopaths and CEOs is also brilliant.

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