NY Times: Businessmen Are Psycho! No, Wait… [Updated]

On May 12, the New York Times published a deeply contemptible op-ed by someone named William Deresiewicz, described as “[a]n essayist, critic and the author of ‘A Jane Austen Education.’” Titled “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths,” the op-ed led with a reference to a study purporting to document the pathological nature of “capitalists”:

There is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, consider the following. A 2010 study found that 10 percent of a sample of corporate managers met a clinical threshold for being labeled psychopaths, compared with 1 percent for the population at large.

No surprise there, according to Mr. Deresiewicz:

The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior.

From there the op-ed descends into an ignorant rant, illustrated by this drawing of two men–businessmen, presumably, only with something like clown faces–setting ants on fire with a magnifying glass:

One suspects that in his career as an essayist and critic, Mr. Deresiewicz hadn’t gotten to know many actual “capitalists,” i.e., businessmen. But assuming that the Times really employs those mythical creatures called editors, wouldn’t you think that whoever decided to print this screed would have met a businessman or two around Manhattan, and might think that the claim that “corporate managers” are ten times as likely as the general population to be psychopaths merited a little fact-checking? Don’t be silly.

So yesterday the Times published this sheepish correction:

An opinion essay on May 13 about ethics and capitalism misstated the findings of a 2010 study on psychopathy in corporations. The study found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths, not that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths. In addition, the study, in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, was not based on a representative sample; the authors of the study say that the 4 percent figure cannot be generalized to the larger population of corporate managers and executives.

The truth is actually worse than the Times acknowledged. You can read all about it at Psych Central. What happened was that a legitimate, if essentially meaningless, study–with a sample size of 203, isn’t 4% within the margin of error?–was characterized and mischaracterized by liberal journalists in a game of “telephone” until it emerged unrecognizable in the pages of the New York Times. The fable started at the Huffington Post and was picked up from there. John Grohol of Psych Central telephoned the author of the original study for his reaction:

I don’t know who threw out the 10% but it certainly it did not come from me or my colleagues.

The article to which you refer describes a sample of “203 corporate professionals selected by their companies to participate in management development programs.” The sample was not randomly selected or necessarily representative of managers or executives, or of the corporations in which they work.

The approximately 4% who had a PCL-R score high enough for a research [not clinical] description as psychopathic cannot be be generalized to the larger population of managers and executives, or to CEOs and the “financial services industry.”

But when you are a liberal journalist, if it fits the agenda, it is too good to check.

UPDATE: Pejman Yousefzadeh adds a more sophisticated critique of Deresiewicz’s op-ed: he got Bernard Mandeville, the main thrust of his column, entirely wrong. Mandeville was no radical critic of free enterprise; on the contrary. Read it all. The Times editors didn’t think to check that, either.

Responses