Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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How to unmask a psychopath

Published 25 September 2012 06:30, Updated 11 October 2012 05:00

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How to unmask a psychopath

The nose knows ... Both psychopathy and a poor sense of smell have been independently traced to dysfunction in part of the brain called the orbito-frontal complex. Photo: Ron Chapple

Psychopaths make up only 1 per cent of the population, yet we all seem to have worked with one at some stage.

Actually, make that, we have worked for a psychopath. Psychopaths are remarkably successful in corporate life, so they are massively over-represented at the top echelons of organisations.

You may recognise the characteristics: no guilt, no remorse, no conscience, superficial charm, excessive sense of self-worth, pathological liar, cunning and manipulative, lack of empathy, promiscuous sexual behaviour, lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsive and irresponsible.

You might just want to print that list out and stick it to your tearoom wall just so people can work out how to get on the “high potential” program.

Another thing about psychopaths, because they can be clever and crafty, they dodge being identified through psychometric testing. In fact, they may very well come out looking like an exemplar of emotional IQ.

So how can you tell whether your boss is a psychopath, or merely unpleasant? Well, apparently, you can sniff them out.

Mehmet Mahmut and Richard Stevenson of the Department of Psychology at Sydney’s Macquarie University waved “sniffin’ sticks” under the noses of 79 young people, diagnosed as non-criminal psychopaths. The sticks were pens containing different scents, such as orange, coffee and leather.

The researchers found the participants had problems in correctly identifying the smell and then discriminating against a different odour, according to AFP.

Both psychopathy and a poor sense of smell have been independently traced to dysfunction in part of the brain called the orbito-frontal complex.

“The OFC is a front part of the brain responsible for controlling impulses, planning and behaving in line with social norms,” according to AFP.

“It also appears to be important in processing olfactory signals, although the precise function is unclear, according to previous research.”

So ask them to sniff your steaming beverage and tell you if it is tea or coffee, or get their advice on which perfume they prefer (and only dab it on one wrist), or hide an uncooked prawn in their office and see how long it takes them to realise that something is wrong.

Of course, having a poor sense of smell doesn’t automatically mean your boss a psychopath. The study helpfully reveals that it can also occur in schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Or, your boss could have a cold.