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Book Review: Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work

This is a book I had been reading for a while, and which I have been sharing quotes about. Hare and Babiak’s (2006) Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work attempts to draw the similarities between clinical psychopathy, corporate psychopathy, and the general dark side of business. It also delves on topics such as personal relationships, and every day business contexts. It speaks to both, those who see themselves as psychopathic, and those who do not. It also speaks to victims of narcissistic relationships who have been played by callous and unemotional people, and brings the context back to the faculty of social sciences:

‘Indeed, this diffusion of responsibility is big business; witness the large number of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and counsellors ready and eager to explain or exculpate criminal behaviour. This is good for criminals in general and for psychopaths in particular’.

Robert D. Hare & Paul Babiak (2006, p. 277)

Indeed, forensic psychology is a science that begins its investigative journey with the question: ‘what is a psychopath?’, and this is why books such as The Mask of Sanity, Without Conscience, and Snakes in Suits are relevant to wrapping up a general view about the label; and it is precisely because the label ‘psychopath’ is so controversial and so sensationalised that real experts on the topic, or students of the discipline feel like forensic psychology can be quite the depressing career. I mean, what to do with all this understanding about how psychopathy works when mainstream society finds researching the topic an insult itself? In regards to this, Hare and Babiak (2006, p. 278) state:

‘Perhaps this is why so many of those in the helping professions find themselves in big trouble by trying to help a psychopath’.

Robert D. Hare & Paul Babiak (2006, p. 278)

There are many troubles that can arise from trying to understand psychopathy. First of all, generally speaking, people perceive research which is focused on attempting to comprehend callous or unemotional behaviour as a dark behaviour itself. Second, many people think that when forensic psychologists speak of psychopathy as a scale, the majority of people are exempt from it. Third, most people associate the label ‘psychopathy‘ with criminal behaviour. However, this is not always the case. Hare and Babiak (2006) truly manage to capture this idea that psychopathy can happen in everyday contexts. Moreover, the book provides- so to say- a behavioural anatomy of traits associated with the label, and these traits (according to the authors) are very commonly found in business and organisational settings; as well as corporations. The title of the book (in my opinion) challenges the criminal stereotype often associated with the label, and although the authors do include such a behaviour too; it becomes clear that what is deemed as psychopathic can also appear dressed in a suit with a tie; an allusion to how seemingly ‘normal’ people can be psychopathic or have psychopathic traits.

Critical Note

I think Hare and Babiak (2006) risk sensationalising and stigmatising what is considered helping, validating, or empathic behaviour. Some parts of the book also paint a picture of a therapist’s approach as threatening:

‘The psychopath will try to convince you that he or she accepts you as you are’.

Robert D. Hare & Paul Babiak (2006, p. 275)

Yet, the book also states:

‘Some avoid talking to psychologists because they fear they will learn something uncomfortable about themselves. Psychopaths are well aware of these concerns and capitalize on them.

Robert D. Hare & Paul Babiak (2006, p. 271)

Considering that validating behaviour is constructed as potentially psychopathic, it is no wonder that some avoid therapy! The demonisation of helping behaviour is precisely what leads people to become paranoid when someone takes a collectivist approach to social interaction. In reverse, it can also lead to people not helping in order to avoid risking impression management. This can be problematic.

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