March 5, 2020

Why the World Is So F*cked Up and What You Can Do About It

The Psychopath Epidemic author Cameron Reilly joined Midas Letter to discuss the subject of why the world is so f*cked up, and what you can do about it. Cameron Reilly is an Australian entrepreneur who runs a marketing consulting business and a podcast network. Mr Reilly developed an interest in psychopaths while working at Microsoft. His latest book looks into how society encourages psychopathic behaviour and what average citizens should do to thrive when living among the sociopaths within business and politics. There are estimates that 1% of the entire worlds adult population is comprised of psychopaths. Watch the full interview to find out why Mr. Reilly believes the number one problem facing today’s society is the number of positions of power held by this 1% of the population.


James West: I’m joined now by Cameron Reilly. He is the author of The Psychopath Epidemic, a book that deals with the subject of why the world is so fucked up, and what you can do about it. Cameron, welcome.

Cameron Reilly: Hi, James. Thanks for having me.

James West: You bet. Cameron, what caused you to write this book?

Cameron Reilly: I was trying to encapsulate my thoughts on why it is that almost every day, it seems, in the news, I read about people in positions of power and wealth, leadership in business, politics, religion, law enforcement, the military, the media, etcetera, just doing deplorable things. Like, I expected these people to be leading the world and building a vision, leading us forward to a better place. And yet, too often, we see them just doing things that most of us would never consider.

And then so trying to come up with a theory for explaining that, I ended up reading a couple of books on psychopaths, and realized that when you look at the behavioural tendencies that are innate to psychopaths, according to psychiatrists, which are, for example, their empathy centre is broken. They don’t feel guilt when they hurt other people; they have a lack of conscience, they have a very high appetite for risk. They have the ability to charm people around them, and they have an innate feeling of superiority and a belief that they deserve to have wealth and power, and are willing to do whatever it takes to get that wealth and power.

You take those and you overlap them with the sorts of behaviours that many of our organizations tend to incentivize, it becomes quite clear that psychopaths, if they land in these organizations – and again, I’m not just talking about business organizations; all sorts of organizations on the left and the right – a number of them will probably do quite well, and will rise into positions of senior management.

And so if you think that we have a certain number of psychopaths in positions of senior management and all these sorts of different types of organizations, who are single-mindedly pursuing their own power and wealth and don’t really care what happens to the people around them, either in their organization or externally in the general public or what they do to the environment, or what they do to the broader economy, as long as they do well out of it, everything just seemed to snap into place.

James West: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think you’ve just described me perfectly there, unfortunately, and so that was my great fear, is that I might fall into that category. Now, I’m kidding, of course – however, I do work in capital markets, and I do notice that the more successful participants in the capital markets exhibit a number of the qualities which you’ve just described, particularly those associated with a high-risk tolerance and a apparent disregard for the outcomes of others around them as a result of their actions.

So then, what is the cause, then, of this presence of psychopathy in the human population?

Cameron Reilly: Well, I don’t think anyone really knows, James. I work on the assumption that it’s a natural malfunction in the production of human psychopaths tend to be born that way. Something broken with the development of their brain, the empathy centre part of their brain. I mean, look: all of us can do bad things. We all lie, and cheat, and steal, betray the faith of others on occasion. But when we do that, evolution has engineered us to feel bad about it. We worry about the consequences, we worry about getting caught and what that’s going to mean for our relationships or our business. We worry about being exposed, and consequently, we have guilt, we have anxiety, we lose sleep, etcetera.

When psychopaths do those things, on the other hand, they go to bed and have the best night’s sleep they’ve ever had. They do those things and feel like a winner; they don’t feel that sort of anxiety. So I think these people have probably always been around. I’m an historian by profession; I study ancient history, and I study the leaders, the people that have dominated our histories going back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome through to Napoleon and the Cold War, and it’s quite easy to see that a lot of these people may have been psychopaths.

I think what’s happened today, though, the reason why I called the book The Psychopath Epidemic, is I think that capitalism over the years has made it much easier for psychopaths to rise into positions of wealth and power. You think about it: 500 years ago, if you were born a psychopath in a small little village in the middle of Europe somewhere, your ability to get yourself into a position of power and wealth was relatively limited. If you weren’t born into the nobility, your ability to get out of your circumstances was quite tough. Not that it was impossible, but it was extremely difficult to do if you were born to a poor farmer somewhere in the middle of Europe.

Today, though, it doesn’t matter really where you’re born; it’s quite easy to get on a bus, get on a train, go to the nearest major metropolis, get a low-level job, get an education, get a low-level job and work your way up through the ranks, hacking and slaying your way as you go to achieve a position of power. So I think it’s much easier, and consequently, I think more – let’s say that 1 percent of the population rank highly in the psychopath scale; a lot more of that 1 percent are able to get their hands on power and wealth today than ever before in human history.

James West: That’s a good point. Okay, let me ask you this: so, if you were to say that the existence of the competitive impetus versus the cooperative impetus were represented in sort of juxtaposing Darwinism versus, call it, Christian values for want of another term, do you think that psychopathy is a natural expression of the Darwinistic impetus of survival of the life force, whereas the Christian sort of empathy and emotional sort of concern for the wellbeing of others is a result of an evolved personality that has moved away from the survival instinct and therefore has the luxury of being concerned for others, because they are not daily faced with their own survival?

Cameron Reilly: No, I think – I operate on the basis that evolution has built empathy into us. If you think about a tribal scenario, 10,000 years ago, 20,000 years ago, if you were the kind of person that was regularly screwing over the other people in your tribe, just being a bad person to the other members of the tribe, you probably weren’t going to survive very long. You would have got kicked out of the tribe or pushed over the edge of a cliff.

James West: Or you’d be made the king.

Cameron Reilly: Well, in some instances, yes, and obviously psychopaths did survive, and did manage to put together coalitions of tribes and build armies and civilizations. But they, I think, would have been the rarity that managed to survive the early years. Because psychopathic behaviour becomes evident in your teenage years, and if you were a 15 year old in a tribe that was just causing havoc and trouble, your survival chances probably weren’t very high. And so the people that did have a normal empathy centre were more likely to survive and copulate and pass on their empathy genes to the next generation.

But some psychopaths did make it. So I think that’s probably always been the situation, that there was a small percentage of people – very small, so 1 percent of people – that were born with broken empathy centres, and the majority of them still, today, probably get weeded out of the population. Like, not every psychopath rise to a position of white-collar power. A number of them probably burn too many bridges along the way. They may not have the IQ to succeed; they may not navigate the maze successfully early on, and destroy their reputation and people get wind of them.

But enough, like 1 percent of the population of the United States is a couple million people. In Australia, it’s a few hundred thousand people; globally, it’s probably 60 million people. It doesn’t take more than a small percentage of those psychopaths to rise to positions of power, and we have a very big problem on our hands.

James West: Sure. So your conclusion in the book is interesting in that you don’t, you make it very clear that you don’t have all the answers, and that we have to work this out together. But before you can have any sort of positive impact, my interpretation of your conclusion is that you’ve got to have your own shop very much in order, which is a really refreshing sort of place to wrap it all up, is to say that, you know, like, you’re not necessarily perfect, you’re working on, obviously, achieving a better self, and you want to achieve a better self, thus the motivation for this book, I think, I if I was to, you know, sort of draw a conclusion.

But so what – do you think that the ratio of psychopaths is rising and this is something that we have to actively and consciously combat collectively as a society? Or do you think that this just sort of like a persistent feature of the bad side of humanity?

Cameron Reilly: Well yes, and yes. I argue in the book that the number one problem facing the world today is psychopaths in positions of power. You know, I think if you look at all of the existential issues that we’re facing as a species, whether it’s climate change or nuclear proliferation or the differential in wealth or just the tensions, the global tensions that we have around the world between fundamentalists, etcetera, you can trace all of them back to psychopaths being in positions of power.

If we can limit the ability of psychopaths in all of our organizations to lead us down dangerous paths, I think we’ll be able to solve all of these existential problems a lot faster. They’re always going to be here, but the reason I wrote the book is, I think most people still associate psychopaths with serial killers. And we can thank Hollywood for that variety of TV shows and movies over the years that have painted out psychopaths to be serial killers.

I like to point out in the book that I think the garden variety psychopath, your average psychopath, is more likely to be the movie studio bosses or the directors of those films and TV shows than actual serial killers. So the main point of the book is to get people to recognize the existence of psychopaths in positions of power and the threat that we are faced with if we leave them with this unchecked power.

James West: Sure. Okay, well, that’s great, Cameron. We’re going to leave it there for now; if I wanted to buy this book, could I go to

Cameron Reilly: You could! Amazon, Bubble, every good bookstore online, offline, should have it on the shelf. A very prominent place in the window, and if they don’t, I think you should complain.

James West: [laughter] Okay, Cameron, well, we’ll come back to you for another conversation every time a psychopath inflicts some damage on our society in a position of leadership, we’ll come to you for an interpretation. So thanks very much for joining me today, I really appreciate your time.

Cameron Reilly: My pleasure. Thanks, James.


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