Does it Take a Psychopath to Make a Good CIO?

Any CIO needs a certain number of job characteristics to survive; intelligence, experience and business savvy, for example. But thanks to a recent study, there’s one more attribute that could be thrown into that mix: psychopathic tendencies.

At least, within limits, according to a study published two weeks ago by a team of researchers from Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Iowa.

Researchers were primarily trying to find out what personality traits are markers for success in high-stress, high-stakes jobs like financial brokers; they discovered that the best market traders often showed an almost pathological emotional impairment that made them comfortable gambling for high stakes.

Based on previous research, the team speculated that people with lesions on the area of the brain that affect emotions would perform better on investment tasks than those without brain damage.

And, indeed, the study found that patients labeled "functional psychopaths" consistently outperformed those who had no emotional impairment. Because emotions play such a critical adaptive role in decision making, the lack of fear would naturally give traders whose emotional centers are damaged an advantage over those that are emotionally healthier.

Translating the results to the larger business world is a bit tricky, admitted study co-author Antione Bechara, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Iowa. But, he noted, there are some lessons to be learned about how emotions affect executive performance.

"Lack of emotion can be helpful in corporate decision-making," said Bechara. "With some people, emotion plays a negative role. It can cause fear or anxiety, and prevent them from reacting in a way that’s effective."

In some cases, executives might be giving themselves the characteristics of functional psychopaths without realizing how detached they’re becoming.

"Our speculation is that individuals who constantly face emotion-triggering events–like people in finance dealing with the uncertainties of the market–learn over time to suppress their emotions," said another of the researchers, Baba Shiv of Stanford Graduate School of Business. "This, in turn, helps them to make better decisions in their tasks."

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