From clinical to Institutional Psychopathy

by TheEditor

Categories: Investigative, Mental Health

Further to my recent post ‘Untangling a confused mess: motives and psychopathy‘, I dig deeper and extend further. This post does not mean that any organisation I know or have been connected to is Institutionally Psychopathic.

I separate out dysfunctional organisational behaviours, then later in the post I bring them back under the umbrella of Institutional Psychopathy.

In 2010 I coined the term Institutional Psychopathy. Evidence in screenshot below. At that time there were no publications containing the words together.

From that time to now the term has not found wide usage. Only a small handful of publications on the internet today contain the words “Institutional Psychopathy” together.

This post will cover some institutional syndromes that mirror individual dysfunctional behaviours.  Then I will drill down into Institutional Psychopathy. For the avoidance of doubt I am not creating a diagnostic system to diagnose institutions. The following is a map of concepts. 

The concept of institutional or organisational behaviours that mirror individual dysfunctional syndromes is a fascinating area of study. While Institutional Racism is a well-recognised example, there are several other institutional syndromes that can be analogised with individual dysfunctional behaviours. Here are some categories of institutional syndromes that cohere with or borrow from individual syndromes of dysfunctional behaviours (click on the table below for larger view):

It is important to note that while these analogies provide a framework for understanding institutional behaviours in the context of individual syndromes, the dynamics at play in organisational settings can be more complex due to the interplay of multiple individuals, power structures, and external factors. Additionally, the above categorisations are based on theoretical extrapolations and may not have extensive empirical research to support them in all contexts.


I am very cautious to explain that whilst psychopathy is considered widely by lay populations of people to be a ‘diagnosis’, that it does not exist in any recognised diagnostic manual of mental health disorders as a diagnosis. The similarities of antisocial or dissocial personality disorders to psychopathy ought not to be taken as equivalence i.e. not everything with four legs is a horse, and not every horse is a race-horse. 


In the vast landscape of human personalities, Dr Robert Hare’s exploration into the realm of psychopathy stands as a beacon, illuminating the dark corners of the human psyche. Dr Hare’s journey began with a simple yet profound question: What makes a psychopath? Reference: Hare, R. D. (1993). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. Guilford Press.

Through years of meticulous research and observation, Dr Hare discerned a pattern of behaviour and traits that defined the core of psychopathy. At the heart of this enigma lies a paradoxical blend of charm and malevolence. Psychopaths, as Hare discovered, possess a magnetic charisma, drawing people into their web with ease. Yet, beneath this alluring fa├žade lies a chasm of emotional emptiness and a profound lack of empathy.

Dr Hare’s findings revealed that psychopaths are not bound by the usual ties of emotion and morality. They can lie without a hint of guilt, manipulate without a twinge of remorse, and harm others in pursuit of their goals without a second thought. Their relationships are mere tools, devoid of genuine affection or commitment.

But what truly sets psychopaths apart, according to Hare’s research, is their inability to form genuine emotional connections. While they can mimic emotions and understand them on a cognitive level, they do not truly feel them. This emotional detachment allows them to engage in behaviours that most would find unthinkable.

Over time, Dr Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), an assessment tool that has become the gold standard in assessing psychopathy. Through a series of criteria, ranging from superficial charm to a lack of empathy, the PCL-R provides a comprehensive overview of the psychopathic personality. [Note carefully there is no personality disorder called psychopathic personality – and it is not a diagnosis, as I explained here Untangling a confused mess: motives and psychopathy‘.]

In the end, Dr Robert Hare’s work on psychopathy serves as a stark reminder of the complexities of the human mind. His insights not only shed light on the nature of psychopathy but also challenge our understanding of morality, emotion, and the very essence of human connection.

Core features

A word of caution – the features below may be seen in many ‘normal’ people. The following should not be used to label of diagnose anyone. 

  1. Interpersonal Deceptiveness: Psychopaths are often described as being charming, but this charm is typically superficial. They are adept at manipulating others and are often pathological liars.
  2. Affective Deficits: Psychopaths exhibit a profound lack of remorse for their actions, regardless of the harm they cause. They lack empathy, which means they do not understand or care about the feelings of others. This deficit is not due to an inability to recognise emotions in others but rather an inability to care about them.
  3. Impulsivity: Psychopaths often act without thinking about the consequences of their actions. This impulsivity can manifest in various ways, from interpersonal aggression to criminal versatility.
  4. Antisocial Behaviour: While not all psychopaths engage in criminal activity, many do. Their antisocial behaviours are often persistent, starting in childhood and continuing into adulthood.

Neurological underpinnings: Research, including that by Dr Hare, has shown that psychopathy may be linked to specific brain abnormalities. For instance, studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown reduced activity in areas of the brain related to empathy, moral reasoning, and processing of emotional stimuli in individuals with high psychopathy scores.

Nature vs. Nurture: The aetiology of psychopathy is complex and likely involves both genetic and environmental factors. While there is evidence to suggest a genetic predisposition to psychopathy, environmental factors, especially those in early childhood, play a crucial role in its development.

Differentiation from other disorders: It is essential to differentiate psychopathy from personality disorders, especially antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). While there is overlap, especially concerning antisocial behaviours, ASPD focuses more on behaviours, whereas psychopathy emphasises specific personality traits and interpersonal-affective features.

Conclusion: Hare-psychopathy, as conceptualised by Dr Robert Hare, offers a comprehensive understanding of the psychopathic personality, emphasising the unique interpersonal and affective traits that set psychopaths apart. While tools like the PCL-R provide a means to assess these traits, they are derived from the broader concept and do not define it.

Institutional psychopathy

I extracted from Hare’s psychopathy and other accepted descriptions, many of the core features of individual psychopathy. I think that Institutional Psychopathy is the big concept because it overlaps, includes and is connected to many of the other institutional syndromes.

I considered how the core aspects of individual psychopathy may be mirrored into organisations. [Click tables below for larger views] 

Manifestations compared

Risks compared

Self-protection against Institutional Psychopathy

Individuals afflicted with psychopathy will find it difficult to gain insight and take self-corrective measures. There are no queues of psychopaths seeking help outside the offices of psychologists and psychiatrists. Individual psychopaths are too busy doing what they do to stop, think and become more self-aware. The mechanisms in the mind-brain of the individual psychopath are largely unknown to the individual. They won’t be aware of which neurons on neuronal pathways in their brains lead to psychopathic behaviours – and even if mysteriously they made such discoveries, they cannot simply command parts of their brains to behave. 

The problem of Institutional Psychopathy is similar but far more serious. Here we do not have ‘neurons’ – instead we have people. The organisation may function in a psychopathic way but it does not mean that each individual or even an majority of its workforce are individual psychopaths. In unpublished research I know of one situation where a certain (nameless) health organisation found 27% of a random sample of its staff were psychopaths. But that doesn’t mean that every health organisation will concentrate such high percentages (above a rough general population prevalence of around 1%). Even if an organisation has say 5% of its workforce with psychopathy, that does not mean that it is bound to be Institutionally Psychopathic. There may be no proportionality effect because organisations may have checks and balances. Many social experiments have shown that it is the characteristics of culture and organisational expectation that can drive people unknowingly to themselves, to behave within a psychopathic envelope of behaviour, where no one individual is actually behaving like a psychopath. 

Organisations do not have any closely matching equivalents of psychologists or psychiatrists to help them. However, they can take proactive measures to have self-scrutiny from outside and from within their organisations. It depends on transparency and commitments to evolution of organisational character towards social and financial gains. 

Seeking insight from external sources and valuing dissenting voices from within are crucial strategies for organisations aiming to maintain ethical standards and avoid institutional psychopathy. The following ideas may be useful:

  1. Value of External Insight:

    • Objective Perspective: External entities, whether they are auditors, consultants, or industry watchdogs, can provide an unbiased view of the organisation’s practices. They are not influenced by the organisation’s internal culture or politics.
    • Benchmarking: External sources can compare the organisation’s practices against industry standards or best practices, highlighting areas of concern or opportunities for improvement.
    • Regulatory Compliance: External entities can ensure that the organisation is compliant with industry regulations, laws, and ethical standards, preventing potential legal and reputational risks.
    • External Audits: Engage third-party organisations to conduct independent assessments. This provides an unbiased view and can highlight areas that internal teams might overlook.
  2. Importance of Dissenting Voices:

    • Early Warning System: Employees or stakeholders who voice concerns often do so because they’ve noticed something amiss. Their feedback can act as an early warning system, allowing the organisation to address issues before they escalate.
    • Diverse Perspectives: Dissenting voices bring diverse perspectives, which can lead to better decision-making. Different viewpoints can highlight potential pitfalls or alternative solutions that might not have been considered.
    • Cultural Health Indicator: If employees feel safe to voice dissenting opinions without fear of retaliation, it indicates a healthy organisational culture that values open communication and feedback.
    • Internal Reviews: Regularly conduct ethical and operational reviews to identify any behaviours or practices that might align with institutional psychopathy.
  3. Strategies to Foster Insight and Value Dissent:

    • Open Door Policies: Leaders should promote an open-door policy, encouraging employees at all levels to share concerns, feedback, or alternative viewpoints.
    • Feedback Mechanisms: Implement mechanisms like suggestion boxes, anonymous hotlines, or regular town hall meetings where employees can voice concerns.
    • External Collaborations: Collaborate with external entities, NGOs, or industry groups to gain insights into best practices and emerging trends.
    • Whistleblower Protections: Ensure that those who voice concerns are protected from retaliation. This not only encourages more people to come forward but also reinforces a culture of integrity.
    • Training and Workshops: Conduct training sessions and workshops that emphasise the value of diverse opinions and teach employees how to constructively voice and handle dissent.
    • Engage with External Critics: Instead of being defensive, organisations should engage with external critics, understanding their concerns, and using the feedback as an opportunity for improvement.

In conclusion, by actively seeking external insights and fostering an environment where dissenting voices are valued, organisations can maintain a high ethical standard, adapt to changing circumstances, and ensure long-term sustainability and success.

Final reflections

Psychopathy, traditionally understood at the individual level, is characterised by traits such as superficial charm, grandiosity, impulsivity, pathological lying, manipulativeness, lack of remorse, and callousness. These traits in individuals can lead to harmful behaviours like manipulation in personal relationships, engagement in criminal activities, habitual deceit, and a general lack of empathy.

Drawing a parallel, the concept of institutional or organisational psychopathy has been introduced. This refers to organisations exhibiting behaviours analogous to individual psychopathic traits. For instance, an organisation might present a polished external image, masking unethical practices, akin to an individual’s superficial charm. Organisations might also exhibit a corporate culture of superiority, similar to an individual’s grandiose sense of self-worth. Other manifestations at the organisational level include a lack of corporate social responsibility, prioritising profit over ethical considerations, and an absence of genuine commitment to societal or environmental well-being.

The dangers posed by both individual psychopaths and institutionally psychopathic entities were compared. While individual psychopaths can cause significant harm on a personal level, institutional psychopathy can lead to widespread societal, economic, and environmental damage. Specific offences or crimes resulting from these behaviours were detailed, ranging from personal fraud by individual psychopaths to market manipulation by institutionally psychopathic entities.

A crucial strategy for organisations to maintain ethical standards and avoid institutional psychopathy is to seek external insights and value internal dissenting voices. External entities, like auditors or consultants, offer an unbiased view of the organisation’s practices, ensuring compliance with industry standards. Internally, dissenting voices, often employees who voice concerns, act as an early warning system, highlighting potential issues. By fostering a culture that values these voices and external insights, organisations can ensure ethical behaviour, adapt to changes, and ensure long-term success.

In summary, while individual psychopathy is a well-defined concept with clear behavioural manifestations and consequences, the idea of institutional psychopathy offers a lens through which the behaviours and impacts of organisations can be analysed and understood. The emphasis on external insights and internal dissent further underscores the importance of vigilance and proactive measures in maintaining organisational ethics.

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