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Enhancing Organizational Performance

My Fellow Rats…

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There is an old folktale that begins with two travelers, strangers walking down a long dusty road.  As they walked, one of the strangers asked the other “What say you, shall I carry you or shall you carry me?” The second traveler ignored the statement for he was not about to carry the other. Later on the traveler asked a second question as they passed a field of barley, “Has this barley been eaten or not?” Once again the second traveler ignored the first for it was obvious for all to see that the barley was still growing in the field. Later on they passed a funeral procession and the one stranger said to the other “What do you think, is the person in the coffin alive or dead?” The second traveler could no longer contain himself and asked the first why he was asking such ridiculous questions. The first one said, “When I asked if I should carry you or if you should carry me, what I meant was shall I tell you a story or shall you tell me one to make this long journey easier for us. When I asked about the barley, what I meant was has the growing barley already been sold to a buyer, for if it was already sold, it is as though it has already been eaten for the farmer and his family cannot eat it themselves. And when I asked about the person in the coffin, being alive or dead, what I meant was, do you think they have descendents, for if they have descendents who will carry on their legacy it is as though they are alive, but if they passed away with no one to remember them and carry on their work they are truly dead.”

Sometimes there is meaning within meaning and vast misunderstanding.

One recent research study looked at whether one laboratory rat would be motivated to ease the suffering of another. The question was would rats feel any moral obligation to help another rat? Or in the rat world, is it every rat for themselves? In this experiment one rat was placed inside a clear cage that could be opened only from the outside. A second rat was allowed to freely roam around the caged one for one hour at a time. After about 7 sessions where a roaming rat encountered a trapped rat, 23 out of 30 roamer rats learned how to open the cage and set the second rat free. (Some rats are simply not that smart). Once learned, a roamer rat upon the start of the experiment would immediately proceed to the cage and set the trapped rat free. After setting the rat free there would be a “frenzy of excited running”. Inbal Ben-Ami Bartel, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who ran the experiment stated, “It’s very obvious that it is intentional. They walked right up to the door and open the door.” Only 5 of 40 rats learned to open the cage door when the cage was empty and similar findings were observed upon placing a stuffed animal in the cage instead of another rat. When 2 cages were set up, one containing five chocolate chips and the other a trapped rat, the rats were equally likely to free their trapped companion as to go after the chocolate first. Freeing a trapped companion was equally as motivating for the rat as obtaining the chocolate. But here is where it gets really interesting. Those rats who went after the chocolate first, slightly more than half the time, left one or two chips for the other rat to eat after freeing them. Sometimes the chips were taken out of the cage and left near where the other rat was going to be set free, so it was not as though the rat missed a chip or two. He ain’t heavy….

Clive Boddy a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University has been collecting data on the incidence of psychopaths in Wall Street firms related to the 2008 financial collapse. He posits that at least some of the individuals involved in the behaviors that led to close to total economic collapse were psychopaths.

Psychopaths, estimated at perhaps one percent of the general population, and five percent of business executives (Babiak & Hare 2006) are individuals who due to chemical imbalances or physical abnormalities in their brains lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.” When you think of what often gets rewarded by corporate boards and investors it is not the executive that holds onto people in the midst of a downturn, even though there is a lot of research that suggests that is the best long-term financial strategy (cf. Casio), but rather it is the executive that ruthlessly downsizes, restructures and streamlines operations. Who better to cold-heartedly cut and reshape an organization than someone who is without emotion, a task which many executives find themselves unable to undertake? I say that sarcastically as there are many drawbacks to having psychopaths in positions of power. Psychopaths cannot feel regret for their actions and are bewildered when asked about the human toll of their actions. No one for instance would want a psychopath anywhere near a nuclear trigger, or in charge of a powerful military force.

I want to describe how psychopathology is measured in an individual and scored to illustrate a point, so please bear with me. Whether or not someone is psychopathic is often measured using the Hare PCL-R.

“The Hare PCL-R contains two parts, a semi-structured interview and a review of the subject’s file records and history. During the evaluation, the clinician scores 20 items that measure central elements of the psychopathic character. The items cover the nature of the subject’s interpersonal relationships; his or her affective or emotional involvement; responses to other people and to situations; evidence of social deviance; and lifestyle. The material thus covers two key aspects that help define the psychopath: selfish and unfeeling victimization of other people, and an unstable and antisocial lifestyle.”

The twenty traits assessed by the PCL-R score are:

  • glib and superficial charm
  • grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  • need for stimulation
  • pathological lying     
  • cunning and manipulativeness
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • poor behavioral controls
  • sexual promiscuity     
  • early behavior problems
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • many short-term marital relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • revocation of conditional release
  • criminal versatility

“When properly completed each of the twenty items is given a score of 0, 1, or 2 based on how well it applies to the subject being tested. A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5. Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.”

The point of describing in detail the way psychopathology is measured and scored illustrates an important point, like many traits that humans exhibit, psychopathology is not an all or nothing condition. It is not binary. Even though the diagnosis is often stated as the person is psychopathic or not, the condition like many others exists along a continuum. At a certain point along a continuum of behavior we switch from calling someone mentally healthy to mentally ill or psychopathic, but the reality is there may not be all that much difference between a score of 28, 29, 30, and 31 other than a diagnosis.

Similarly, the rat behavior described above could be thought of as also existing along a continuum. Think of the rats that first freed the trapped rat before going for the chocolate as being at one end of a continuum of caring, feeling empathy, for their fellow rats. The next point on the continuum would be the rats that went for the chocolate first, but left some for the other rat to also enjoy. The next point on the continuum would be the rats that ate all the chocolate before freeing their brethren, next the point is the rat that ate all the chocolate and never bothered to free the other rat.

I would bet heavily that should rats that freed the trapped second rat before going for the chocolate, be rewarded for their behavior, perhaps by doubling the amount of chocolate they ultimately got, that you would see a dramatic rise in rats first taking care of their fellows before taking care of themselves (from the roughly 50/50 odds that were seen in the experiment). I would also argue that we have a decision to make about what we want to be as society, perhaps what we have been evolving to anyway (see Hope…). Do we want to reward people for taking care of themselves, perhaps to the exclusion of taking care of others, or do we want to reward people for taking care of others first and then themselves? What would our moral code suggest?

I don’t mind feeling that by taking care of others first I may be in good company, the company of a few good rats. I also believe that with the exception of those far away enough from the norm that we consider them mentally ill, that we all, by and large, want to live in similar worlds, where people feel safe, secure and respected, where they feel they can have a bright future for themselves and their children, but I also worry that as we humans walk down the long road that we are on together, as we talk we sometimes really don’t understand what we are saying to each other.



© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 4, 2012 at 8:34 pm

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog and commented:

    On Psychopaths, Rats and Presidents. The phrase “You are a Rat, or to Rat someone out” may need to be rethought. This was first written in 2011, but is more relevant now than ever.

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    December 29, 2018 at 7:42 am

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