Last Thursday morning, my husband informed me that Larry Kudlow, a supply-side economist and television personality, had just called Bernie Madoff a “sociopath” on The Call, a financial news show on CNBC.
“This guy, Madoff, who has caused everybody so much grief, why is he not in jail now?” Kudlow asked, practically apoplectic. “He had a smirk on his face. This guy’s a sociopath.”
There it was—the term “sociopath” on a financial news TV show.
Then there was Andy Serwer, managing editor of Fortune magazine. Serwer is an excellent business reporter; I’ve always been impressed with his work. He’s not one to be tossing psychological terminology around lightly. Yet he referred to Madoff, and Marc Dreier, who cheated investors out of $380 million, as “financial psychopaths.”
Two writers for the in-crowd at the Huffington Post equated Madoff with sociopathy.
Mona Ackerman, a clinical psychologist in New York City, wrote The psychology behind Bernie Madoff. She said:
“A sociopath feels no real love toward others. They feel power over others precisely because they are capable of lying without any remorse or second thoughts. Many sociopaths are also quite intelligent and quite charming. So they, or any rogue, can convince people to trustingly hand over their life savings, which is what Bernie Madoff did.”
Dan Agin is emeritus associate professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago. In Political Corruption, Wall Street Frauds, and Sociopaths, he talks about “social cognition”—our awareness to our connections to the people around us. “Sociopaths in general usually have social cognition problems, especially with empathy,” he writes. “They are people who feel nothing when viewing or imagining the pain and suffering of other people.”
Then he makes what I consider to be very important points:
Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is a serial killer. Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is in prison. Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is autistic or psychotic.
One can have enough empathy to refrain from homicide, but not enough empathy to refrain from fraud or political callousness that causes harm to many thousands of people.
Bernie Madoff was even described in as a sociopath in the gossip blogs. David Parick Columbia’s New York Social Diary wrote,
Bernie Madoff may be what is popularly known as a sociopath, someone who, in the words of Mr. Random House is “a person who, as a psychopathic personality, whose behavior is antisocial, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.” Unusual but not, we all know the kind. … In the case of Bernie Madoff, scores of bright and intelligent individuals didn’t know and now are truly confounded. Men, brothers, who knew him, who were grateful to know him not because he could make them and so many others so much money but because they liked him, they respected him; some even admired him.
Betrayal is a sociopathic condition, kids.
Value in the tragedy
This is the real value of the Bernie Madoff story to those of us who didn’t lose everything we had because of him: The term “sociopath” is finally being applied to someone other than a serial killer or mob hit man. Bernie Madoff doesn’t look like a wild-eyed murderer. He looks like a Jewish grandfather in a business suit.
The story also proves that anyone, absolutely anyone, can be fooled by a sociopath. The list of people taken by Madoff is filled with people who should have known better: sophisticated investors, international banks, the Securities and Exchange Commission.
I am shocked and appalled at the scope of Madoff’s fraud. But I hope that the story, and all the attention it is getting, has the beneficial effect of teaching people how sociopaths really operate, and how devastating they are.