The James Bond Paradox

The wife and I saw Skyfall over the holiday weekend, and I have to say we were pleasantly surprised. A lot of folks disliked Quantum of Solace, but I think that commonly held opinion ignores just how atypically good Casino Royale was. Skyfall continues the reboot’s emphasis on the development of Bond as a character, which the trope-heavy pre-Daniel Craig films failed to accomplish in any meaningful way.

After perusing a few articles on the sartorial persuasions of our favorite international assassin (can you blame me?), I stumbled across a citation for a piece published in the academic journal Individual Differences Research on, of all things, James Bond. Author Peter Jonason makes the argument in his article “Who is James Bond?: The Dark Triad as an Agentic Social Style” that, despite going through life as a high-functioning psychopath, Bond possesses a trait triumvirate which proves highly predictive of achieving success in life.

Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, and a University of Cambridge research psychologist, illustrates how some of society’s most effective leaders and professionals score uncommonly high on the clinical psychopathic spectrum. For example, of our former presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton exhibited the greatest number of psychopathic traits, findings borne out by a study conducted by psychologist Scott Lillenfield, who surveyed and analyzed the responses of a collection of presidential biographers and subsequently contributed to Dutton’s research.

Dutton notes that psychopathy, like many things, operates on a sliding scale, and that certain psychopathic traits have been shown to provide evolutionary advantages to those who possess them. WIth respect to James Bond, psychologists have deemed the personality make-up of of our favorite super spy The Dark Triad. Per Wikipedia:

The Dark Triad [of] Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, all of which are interpersonally aversive. . . refers to three theoretically distinct but empirically overlapping personality constructs. The term reflects the perception that these three diagnostic categories have at least some common underlying factors:

The narcissistic personality (in the clinical sense) is characterized by a grandiose self-view, a sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and egotism. Some theories, such as those of Heinz Kohut, associate it with the protection of a radically weak, shamed, or damaged self.

The Machiavellian personality is characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, with a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and deception.

The psychopath, or antisocial personality, is characterized by impulsive thrill-seeking, and in its “primary” form by selfishness, callousness, lack of personal affect, superficial charm, and remorselessness

The paradox here, of course, is that these three traits together in fact prove beneficial in spite of their being interpersonally aversive! Jonason’s paper teases out a story that shows that the high levels of openness, self-esteem, and extraversion Bond exhibits because of these personality constructs, when combined with his correlating low levels of conscientiousness and anxiety, give him an advantage in social situations and the wont to “persist in the face of potential social rejection and retaliation.”

As argued by Jonason, men with “a specific triumvirate of personality traits–the stratospheric self esteem of narcissism; the fearlessness, ruthlessness, impulsivity, and thrill-seeking of psychopathy; and the deceitfulness and exploitativeness of Machiavellianism–can actually do pretty well for themselves out there in the echelons of society.”

For the aspirational among us who drive toward success every waking moment of every day, there is a certain level of ‘crazy’ associated with such behavior. I couldn’t help but think of the inherent duality that marks great leadership when reviewing Jonason’s article, and the way in which opposing ideas and forces can lead us to ever greater heights despite intrinsic antagonisms.

As discussed in earlier posts, power and influence are necessary to get things done, but it is what you do with them that ultimately determines whether you fulfill your higher purpose and live a meaningful life. In the same way, the personality traits affiliated with the Dark Triad are in of themselves neither good nor bad, but rather are constructions for understanding the nature of why we do what we do. Humans are incredibly complex, and while psychology can give us clues, we have to ultimately bring a critical eye to these sorts of frameworks and avoid the temptation to take them as gospel.

Jonason concludes that, in a world where others may seek to manipulate to get what they want, the best defense is a good offense:

In a world where individuals want to avoid being taken advantage of, those high on the Dark Triad, like James Bond, who tend to be more agentic than others, have a particularly difficult task at hand. How to get what they want without rousing the suspicions or retaliations of others? The answer is to be extraverted, open, high on self-esteem, and low on conscientiousness and anxiety while being individualistic and competitive.

Food for thought, to be sure. Oh, and remember, you want your martini stirred not shaken, that is, unless you want cold water, some chipped ice, and a dash of gin and dry vermouth.

Asking The Right Questions

Being successful often means asking the right questions. It doesn’t mean having the answers or even having answers at all.

Asking the right questions helps refine hypotheses, leads to new avenues of inquiry, and expands perspective. People have a tendency to get too caught up in having answers, and of course they believe their answers are correct. Human nature drives us to confirm our beliefs and makes us unconsciously avoid information that contradicts those beliefs. In my experience, it’s when I say, “I don’t know,” that I seem to learn the most.

If we all spent a greater proportion of our time studying the problem, conceptualizing the problem, investigating and questioning and manipulating the problem, then we’d be getting somewhere. As we acquire more answers, we stuff more knowledge into faulty, compartmentalized notions of understanding and we lead ourselves astray. If one takes a look at the financial crisis that began in 2008 and sent markets worldwide into varying states of recession, it is easy to see how, after the fact, systemic risk underpinned the unraveling of global markets and resulted in the expeditious retraction of credit.

Had risk analysts and economists and investment bankers and Wall Street quants been asking the right questions about risk, specifically system risk, the efficacy of financial models to disperse and innervate a society-wide confirmation bias on the trajectory of markets could have been attenuated. But even if the magnitude of the issue was known, with everyone making so much money I’m not sure if it would have made much of a difference.