Psychology in the city

Growing pains.

In these times of global financial crisis and banking scandals, some understanding and solutions may come from the science previously frowned upon: psychology.

Since 2008 the financial world and banks in particular have been in crisis. The reaction in the public has been fierce, angry and accusing. Bankers are now shamelessly being called all sorts of names, even in the quality press. The man in the street feels dissociated with people in banking as they perceive them. That uncomfortable feeling of dissociation is a normal coping strategy where understanding fails. “These people aren’t like us,” most seem to feel. A lot of people are now looking at psychology to help them understand.

The question of what was going on and what the people in banking are like is a very valid one, but one that will take a long time to answer. The answer will evolve with time and perspective. Right now, arrows are pointing at a few individuals: the big bosses with big bonuses. They came under scrutiny in the first round of this on-going crisis and it seems that many didn’t understand the prevailing mood building up against them. That led to speculations of many of them being psychopaths. There is in fact quite a bit of scientific research to support that thesis. Several scientists have found similarities in personality traits between psychopaths in hospitals and prisons and top executives. Some personality disorders were found to be even more common in managers than in criminally or psychiatrically monitored psychopaths: histrionic PD (using superficial charm, being insincere, egocentric and manipulative), narcissism and compulsive PD (being perfectionist, rigid, stubborn and dictatorial). That makes nice headlines and always draws in lots of comments, but it is worth looking into it deeper. The scientist Hare has developed a questionnaire for measuring psypathology and found 1 per cent of the average population to show psychopathic tendencies. In executives it was 4 per cent. He presumes it might be a lot more in the financial world, but he has no data to back that up. He made a guess of 10 per cent.

It makes you wonder if only 4 to 10 per cent of a population can make such a difference. They can, with a majority of people being of a more neurotic disposition and therefore enjoying being shown the way. We have few leaders; but leaders have many followers. It is just how it is; it has always worked like that. Outspoken leaders, decision makers, trendsetters, psychopaths: they show a doubting crowd how things should be done and they have an impact. In a corporate world they set the tone for culture and competition. If 20 colleagues fight for one promotion, and one of the colleagues gets the knifes out, the others are likely to follow. However, having worked as a coach and employee wellbeing professional for nearly two decades it is my observation that such corporate culture is still strongly dictated from above. The knife-fighters make promotions more easily; the corporate arena has been moulded around ruthless fighting. The competition between companies was and is a hard-fought and ruthless one; that favours ruthless personalities inside the company.

Top-bankers have been called all possible insults, but we do need to take a step back. This hard-paced competitive world of banking did manage to get the absolute most out of people. With their locomotive pulling power they did manage to keep economies thriving. Progress and developments have been made in the financial world. Moreover, it is not unusual to find surprising and frightening character traits in groups of perfectly integrated and non-criminal people. Typically surgeons and butchers could find in their jobs outlets for a deeper rooted aggression. Extreme personality traits can therefore be applied perfectly functional and acceptable. In psychology we call it sublimation. No one less than Friedrich Nietzsche came up with the term first; Freud and Jung developed the concept further.

Our financial world is certainly driven by success. It feels however like things have gone too far and that shouldn’t surprise. Success breeds the desire for more success. Neuroscience teaches us how success heightens the release of testosterone in brain, which in turn hightens the release of dopamine. Dopamine triggers the reward centre in the brain. No wonder they now call it casino banking: people on a winning streak in the casino turn into strange creatures as well, just like some of your relatives do when playing certain board games. In the past I have raised the argument for having both a reward and punishment system for our top executives. One does not work without the other, major psychologists like Pavlov and Skinner teach us. It seems there are too many rewards for the top guys, and not enough punishments foreseen in their contracts. A reward-only system will breed greed, and I believe that is exactly what people perceive in bankers right now.

In the very competitive lower echelons of financial institutions and certainly on the trading floor, employees are approved of on the basis of how much money they bring in rather than how they behave. Such lack of control invites border-crossing behaviours. People are a lot more likely to do the wrong thing or eat the sugary bun when they think or know nobody is watching. And when they are ordered to hurt others, many are likely to obey that order, we know from the very famous Milgram experiments. We now know that orders were giving by executives operating in a psychopath-dominated environment. The ones that got hurt, I guess, are the customers and even whole national economies. I feel absence of supervision works a silent approval of behaviours that are potentially damaging to others.

Companies are money-making machines; talent is their fuel. They have learned over the years to use the ultimate strategies to get the talent in and to get most out of talents. Up until recently they gambled massively on satisfaction. It was a game of seduction, lust and gratification. The carrot on the stick was the Ferrari-and-champagne-lifestyle, the ultimate almost mystical goal the boardroom. Since the crisis, I see in more and more companies how that strategy has made way for one of fear. Many people have been sacked and anyone can be the next one at any time. As such, our companies play on what Freud found to be the two main drives of humans: libido and fear of death, Eros and Thanatos. Cunningly they play on insecurities and family-relationships as they lure highly talented people at the end of university time and offering them a chance to show mum and dad they can stand on their own two feet. Parents are constantly worried about how their kids will survive after they are gone; they are seeking proof that their kids will be all right. Our big financial centres offer that. That the reality for these young people often turns out quite differently is a message that can difficulty be disclosed to anyone, let alone the home-front.

No crisis is endless, and we will get out of this complicated cluster of crises too. And as with every crisis, we will come out damaged but stronger, better, smarter and more mature. We will not have a revolution; I don’t feel we are ready for that nor need that. Revolutions are too often sign of immaturity. Through all the criticism the British and global financial world have been bestowed upon The City in the past few weeks, it is all too easy to lose track of the fact that the financial heart of London has been a trendsetter in corporate culture for decades. Through the avalanche of criticism, that is made to sound like a bad thing. It isn’t. Through the competition driven evolutions of the past decades, also technical ones, we have developed a banking sector that has been propelled forward in complexity but also ability. Our financial sector and corporate world are now advanced and outstanding; it will take us some time to learn to manage and control it efficiently. The desire to just get rid of the existing system is a kneejerk reaction, a flight reaction. We are going to make do with the one economic system we’ve got and the millions of bright, talented and righteous people working in it. We will have to learn and live with it, even though right now many of us have lost sight of how excellent it all is. It is through the basic psychological drives upon which our economy has played so cunningly that a more mature personality develops. It is probably that more mature personality our corporate world is searching for now.

Our professional sectors will come out changed; I feel it will all be less extreme, a bit more boring. There will be more morals and less champagne, more mainstream and less party. The economy is a long winding road. Going too fast, we seem to have run off the road –again. On a very bendy road, even with a Ferrari, it is better to slow down and stay in the middle of the road as much as you can. It takes you to through the curves and to your destination much faster and much safer.  As with all evolving sectors in our day and age, the economy will find inspiration for growth in non-economic fields like philosophy, psychology, mathematics, physics, biology, electronics provided they accept those sciences for what they are. As a psychologist, I feel the corporate world has not always wanted to understand and correctly implemented my beloved science. They seem sometimes to have opportunistically tamed psychology and created a processed version, foregoing many potential benefits of such rich and innovative science. Incorporating insights from non-economic fields in an open and accepting way will reconnect the financial and hard corporate world with a wider socio-economic and global reality, sense of which appeared to have been lost.

The fact that the pimple burst so publicly in London could prove to be the best news for London in the end. It may not look good right now, but London will hopefully see itself forced to become the most ethical and trustworthy financial centre in the world. The others will be lagging behind. If London gets this exercise right, it will remain the most important financial centre in the world for decades to come. But the exercise might hurt a lot: growing pains.

City workers in london. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Sioen is a career & management coach and psychologist working for Mvantage Ltd in London; and international TV, radio & news media commentator with a self-coaching book in preparation. Blogging on http://petersioen.tumblr.com/

Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era