By Karolina Sorman
I still remember when he joined our team in my workplace. It was a long-needed energy injection. I had not traveled much abroad, and felt like I could experience the entire world through his vivid stories. He quickly became the center of attention at board meetings. As time went on however, he was at his desk more rarely. There always seemed to be meetings and obligations elsewhere. Rumors spread about embezzlement. Then, all of a sudden, our energetic colleague had disappeared.
Three years later, I stumbled upon a familiar face on social media. A high school friend had posted a photo from the medical clinic where she was doing her residency. There he was in the center of the photo, their newly recruited senior medical advisor.
The energetic look on his face was unchanged.
We hear similar stories in the news media again and again. The specific environments differ, the details differ, but the key elements of the story repeat themselves: a person manages to dupe others and sometimes an entire group of people, followed by devastating consequences like emptied bank accounts, professional roles taken on under faked identities and major financial or research fraud. What makes a person cause such profound damage, and how do such people repeatedly gain access to new environments to exploit?
Such people can be thought of as modern incarnations of trickers. The trickster is a mythological character who appears in various aspects of folklore, including Greek and Nordic mythology. The character is described as charming, verbally facile and smooth but at the same time slick and manipulative. Tricksters are also quite skilled at gaining access to new environments to exploit. When the deceptive behavior is revealed, the trickster moves on to another venue, seemingly unconcerned. Features typically associated with the trickster overlap considerably with some psychopathic traits.
The historical and cultural lens
That people across the world and throughout centuries seem to recognize the trickster character indicates that such people are very adaptive and flexible, and are able to turn up in various settings.
To better understand why trickster behavior is so widespread, we also need to understand how and why the trickster behavior thrives. According to the “cheater hypothesis”, in any group of individuals, honest and trustworthy behavior is the most adaptive behavior as a rule. Without this norm, the group quickly falls apart. But a certain degree of deceptive, manipulative and cheating behavior can be accepted if the majority of individuals in the group are honest and trustworthy. Other core characteristics of the trickster such as being risk-seeking, bold, and creative can be advantageous for an individual as well as for a group of people, if these features benefit the welfare of the group. For example, it could be evolutionarily advantageous for one member of a group to take the lead and explore potentially dangerous terrain.
There is probably a “tipping point”, however, at which the group turns against the cheater to exclude them. In the composite vignette above loosely based on various well-publicized real-life examples, it took time for the management group to discover the frauds and embezzlement conducted by the energetic colleague before he was fired. That the destructive process has gone quite far before the deceptive behavior is revealed also seems typical, and results from the charismatic, outgoing style of a trickster, which can help the trickster evade detection for a while.
What’s so tricky about the trickster?
The trickster character is like the double-edged sword personified: successful in many ways yet able to cause profound damage. This contradictory personality constellation echoes the psychopathy concept, in that some psychopathic traits (e.g., fearlessness) can be advantageous but co-exist with more maladaptive traits such as hostility and exploitative behavior.
In one study from a corporate setting, psychopathic traits were examined in 203 professionals from seven companies across the U.S. who had been selected to participate in a management training program. Associations between psychopathic traits were examined in relation to performance assessments by managers and co-workers. The large majority of participants had none or low levels of psychopathic traits, however there were more individuals with high traits than would be found in typical community samples. In this study, psychopathic traits were associated both with “successful” attributes (e.g., being creative and innovative, having charisma and good strategic thinking), and with maladaptive ones such as poor performance, lack of responsibility and poor team player ability. But in at least some cases the good had outweighed the bad when it came to performance reviews and promotions: some participants with high psychopathy scores already held senior management positions. Here, such individuals could theoretically cause much more damage than employees with fewer responsibilities and privileges.
Learning how to identify and manage individuals with trickster behaviors is essential for managers of any large group, including HR and recruitment personnel, as high-profile environments in particular seem to attract tricksters.
One key to identify them is perhaps to look for those who are unusually charismatic and persuasive and in whom these traits may be distracting others from their poor work performance, unreliability, or unethical behaviors.
When it all “sounds too good to be true”, it might just be.
For further reading
Babiak, P., Neumann, C.S., & Hare, R.D. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 28(2):174-93. doi: 10.1002/bsl.925
Book, A., Methot-Jones, T, Blais, J., Hosker-Field, A., Volk, A. Visser, B.A. et al. (2019).
Psychopathic Traits and the Cheater-Hawk Hypothesis. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(15):3229-3251. doi: 10.1177/0886260516669168
Hare, B. (2017). Survival of the friendliest – Homo Sapiens evolved via selection for prosociality. Annual Review of Psychology, 3(68), 155-186. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044201
Hyde, L., & Chabon, M. (2010). Trickster makes this world: Mischief, myth and the art.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Raine, A. (2014). The anatomy of violence. The biological roots of crime. New York: Vintage
Sörman, K., & Kristiansson, M. (2019). Psykopaten – verkligheten bortom myten.
Stockholm: Natur & Kultur: https://www.nok.se/titlar/akademisk-psykologi/psykopaten/
Karolina Sorman, PhD., has a Master’s degree in neurosciences from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She received her PhD in 2015 from Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Dr. Karolina Sörman’s main research interest is studying psychopathic traits in adults and youths in different contexts, criminal and non-criminal.