Are business and economics majors more likely to be cold-hearted psychopaths?

Are business and economics majors more likely to be cold-hearted psychopaths?

CultureJune 12, 2017 By Isabelle Kohn

We're all familiar with the stereotype of the cutthroat business-person; the ruthless, "take no prisoners" type that puts profit before people on their journey to Sports Car and Trophy Spouse Mountain.

Donald Trump is particularly tangerine example of this species; a man whose storied and supposed lack of mercy in the real estate business got him the presidential digs he has today. Another is Alec Baldwin's character Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross, a particular brand of business-psycho whose "Always Be Closing" speech still chills the bones of lazy employees 25 years after its release:

What a dick, right?

Well, that was actually the same thought a group of Danish researchers had after noticing a particular stereotype of businessmen, corporate lawyers and economists emerging as people with particularly "dark" personalities. After all, to channel the uber-successful Baldwin character in Glengarry Glen Ross, you need a certain amount of viciousness and a drive to win at any cost; one that could certainly be considered psychopathic by members of society employed in more "caring" professions such as academia, medicine or service.

So, curious if these business-types self-selected into those careers because of their more intense personalities or if the careers themselves brought these darker traits out of them, the researchers launched a study to find out how people's choice of academic major (and therefore future job) were related to their personalities.

Their findings, which they published in April in Personality and Individual Differences, reveal that people who are greedy, manipulative, cunning, ambitious and unsympathetic are already that way before they enter into careers which demand they embody those traits in order to succeed. It's not the job that makes you a dick, in other words. You're just a dick. A rich dick, though, we're sure.

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers asked 487 students at a Danish university to fill out a personality assessment that analyzed their Big Five personality trait profile (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism) as well as where they fell in terms of the three "Dark Triad" personality traits — psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, a.k.a the tendency to "focus on maintaining power and using manipulative behaviors." All the students in the sample were majoring in either psychology, economics/business, law, or political science, but they were newly enrolled and so hadn't had time to be influenced by the culture of their major yet.

To no one's shock and awe, economics and business students were the "darkest" group, scoring the highest on Dark Triad personality traits. By contrast, psychology students scored the lowest, painting a picture of students enrolled in more "money-oriented" majors as more psychopathic than the rest of the student body.

"Oh, that's what that was?" asks Natasha Stevens, a recent graduate of USC's Marshall School of Business. "I had a feeling all those people were crazy."

Citing ferociously competitive students and what she considered to be a unnecessarily cutthroat environment for a so-called learning institution, Stevens recounts several instances in which fellow classmates stole her ideas and marketed them as their own.

"I felt like I couldn't trust anyone when we were working in groups," she says. "Even people on the same team as you would be out to steal your work. Getting credit was all about who got the idea to the professor first, not who thought of it. I guess it kind of prepared me for the real world, though. Just in terms of protecting your own intellectual property ... it was competitive but I definitely learned how to own my ideas."

Not everyone had that experience, though. Lindsey Kline, a Rooster staff writer who is the only living person we know who majored in economics, had no such background with psychopathy in college.

"I double majored in economics and political science," she tells us. "So, according to this study, I should have been surrounded by twisted, narcissistic souls. But that wasn’t my experience in the slightest. Far and away, my classmates were friendly, generous, and always willing to help when I was struggling. Maybe we weren’t the kind-hearted souls necessary to pour our lives into social work, but we had to pursue something that could give us a steady paycheck ... That’s not psychotic, that’s just common sense."

So, could it be less that economics and business students are American Psycho-style money cannibals and more just ... interested in a career that profits? Totally.

And is it equally possible that the results of this study are being sensationalized in order to lure in readers who want to know if their college major means they're batshit crazy?

Uh huh. "Business and Economic Students Are All Fucking Insane" is a really good headline, after all. Of course, it's not true, but ... clickbait, we guess.

However, it's hard to argue that people's innate personality traits don't influence their education and career choices in some way. That's why the researchers concluded that the "desire for power, status, and money characterizing Dark Triad individuals may steer them towards, for example, economics, business, and law educations because these educations pave the way for a career in the corporate world," the researchers write, "and the corporate world generally rewards self-serving behavior and provides an environment in which individuals with dark personalities can make use of their qualities and succeed."

So, it's less that people interested in economics and business are psychopathic narcissists and more just that their special snowflake personalities are more aligned with the professions related to those majors. After all, being an economist doesn't exactly require to be a high-scoring compassionate empath who cries at Charmin Ultra commercials ... it just requires they know how to objectively manipulate numbers to remind us how poor we are. Great!