The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School is offering a new course this fall: BUS 415: Concealing Your Psychopathic Identity: The Secret to Becoming a Master of the Universe by Adopting the Persona of an Empathic Individual. Intrigued by the title, I arranged an interview with Dr. Howard Roark, Dean of the Wharton School, and Prof. Maxine Moregreen, who is teaching the new course. What follows are the verbatim notes from our conversation.
Roark: This course title refers to the high percentage of our students who are clinical psychopaths. And I say that with a mixture of awe, envy and immense pride. Wharton’s MBA psychos eat the lunch of Stanford and Harvard B-School students.
Me: You’re not saying that Wharton is populating the world of high finance with serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or, god forbid, people in the mold of Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the Lambs,” are you?
Roark: (chuckling) No, no, nothing like that. Some 3-4 percent of the U.S. population can be classified as psychopaths, individuals totally incapable of feeling empathy or remorse and lacking any social conscience. These psychopaths in suits are found at the highest levels of government, business and the military. One of every ten people on Wall Street is probably a psychopath. Heck, I might be one but you’d never know it. (Roark displays an enigmatic grin.)
Me: So this is your ideal applicant pool?
Roark: Yes. We want these exceptional outliers to apply for admission to Wharton. We then try to weed out any psycho wannabes who show signs of “Empathic Distress Disorder” (EDD), or even a scintilla of genuine concern for others. We show the applicants graphic images of the loaded hold of a slave ship, pictures of torture victims at Abu Ghraib, and photos of a dead baby washed ashore from a sunken refugee boat. Any sign of empathic engagement results in immediate rejection.
Me: Professor Moregreen, tell us how your new course bears on this?
Moregreen: Sure. I try to provide students with a public face that conveys empathy. Psychopaths are almost always mistaken for normal people but we’re all about removing any risk of discovery.
Me: How do you do that?
Moregreen: The best way to manipulate consumer behavior is to leverage the message, “We really care. We want to walk a mile in your shoes.” If customers believe your brand truly cares about them, they’re likely to adopt brand loyalty, and even become brand evangelists.
In my class I invite professional stage actors to portray optimized empathetic behavior. Another day, we watch the classic 1956 zombie film “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to gain appreciation for the challenges facing “pod persons” as they try to avoid detection by normal people. Not to drop names, but former President Bill Clinton skyped with us, demonstrating the facial expressions, voice inflection and hand gestures behind “I feel your pain.” He’s a master.
Me: Your attention to detail is impressive.
Moregreen: I offer practical tips to convey undetectable “faux” empathy to obtain the inside information for establishing trust. These include: showing curiosity about their lives, asking questions about hobbies, learning the names of spouses and children, and using a mirror to practice that all-important warm smile. Depending upon the situation, a hug and even a few tears can close the deal. We caution our students not to engage in the latter behavior without sufficient practice to pull it off. It must come across as spontaneous.
Finally, passing the course requires performing a flawless impersonation of an empathetic person. This is done before a focus group of marketing and advertising executives, and, believe me, they can detect a phony from a mile away.
Me: This has been totally enlightening. Do either of you have a last takeaway for our readers?
Roark: For spring term, Professor Moregreen is offering an exciting new course, MGMT 711: Social Impact Investing: How to Do (Very) Well by Pretending to Do Good. It’s already oversubscribed!