Last week, more than a few news agencies and blogs picked up the story that “one out of every 10 Wall Street employees is a psychopath.” This immediately caught my attention, because as a researcher, I found the statistic intriguing because it was so out of whack with the incidence of psychopathy in the general population.

But in trying to research where this statistic came from, I stumbled upon a symptom of what’s wrong with a lot of journalism today.

I can summarize the problem in one word — laziness. Many (most?) journalists nowadays take “experts” words for whatever claims they make, without ever bothering to check them out independently.

Alexander Eichler, a “business reporter” at The Huffington Post, started this news cycle by making the claim in his article, “One Out Of Every Ten Wall Street Employees Is A Psychopath, Say Researchers:”

One out of every 10 Wall Street employees is likely a clinical psychopath, writes journalist Sherree DeCovny in an upcoming issue of the trade publication CFA Magazine (subscription required). In the general population the rate is closer to one percent.

Eichler isn’t suggesting 1 out of 10 Wall Street employees is a psychopath — he’s just passing along something he read in another magazine (note, it’s a magazine, like People, not a scientific journal). Eichler’s point of his blog entry is simply to regurgitate what DeCovny (2012) wrote in her article. Here’s what DoCovny, a freelancer, actually wrote:

Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare indicate that about 1 percent of the general population can be categorized as psychopathic, but the prevalence rate in the financial services industry is 10 percent. And Christopher Bayer believes, based on his experience, that the rate is higher.

When DeCovny was contacted about the statistic, she replied:

Christopher Bayer, a psychologist I interviewed for the article, told me about Hare’s study, so he should be able to point you in the right direction. Christopher provides therapy to Wall Street professionals. He’s also finishing up a book on this topic.

It’s great that Christopher Bayer is a therapist who treats Wall Street professionals. However, I could find no research he’s authored in this topic area. So while his opinion is duly noted, it really isn’t in the same league as empirical scientific data. The two should never be confused.

Hare, on the other hand, is a famous researcher who has made a career in studying psychopaths, has published dozens of scientific studies on the topic, and developed the preeminent checklist that is used in most psychopathy research. The latest version of this checklist is called the Psychopathy Checklist — Revised (PCL-R, Hare & Neumann, 2006).

Here’s the problem — many journalists and reporters nowadays just rely on professionals to make a claim, and don’t ever challenge or bother to verify the claim. I’m not sure why this is, but it seems to be the new defacto standard.

But this claim — a 1000 percent increase in a specific population — should’ve raised red flags everywhere. Such a huge discrepancy should be easy to verify in the scientific literature, since it screams, “This is an important finding!”

Hare did indeed co-author a paper that examined “corporate psychopathy,” with colleagues Paul Babiak and Craig Neumann (2010). It did not look at the financial services industry specifically. The research used a sample that consisted of 203 corporate professionals from 7 different companies, selected by their companies to participate in management development programs from all areas of industry.

I did what any journalist writing about a famous researcher should do before saying he said something that seems a little “out there” — I contacted Hare to ask him about this data. Here’s his response to the claim that 1 in 10 (10 percent) of financial industry employees is a “psychopath:”

I don’t know who threw out the 10% but it certainly it did not come from me or my colleagues.

The article to which you refer describes a sample of “203 corporate professionals selected by their companies to participate in management development programs.” The sample was not randomly selected or necessarily representative of managers or executives, or of the corporations in which they work.

The approximately 4% who had a PCL-R score high enough for a research description as psychopathic cannot be be generalized to the larger population of managers and executives, or to CEOs and the “financial services industry.”

So to be crystal clear here, one out of every ten wall street employees is NOT a psychopath. At least not according to any actual scientific research. DeCovny took a professional’s word (Bayer’s) that this is what the research showed; and she had no reason to doubt him. But she also didn’t verify the information for herself (like I did), or bother contacting Hare to ensure the data being attributed to him was correct. (We could not reach Christopher Bayer in time to comment on the discrepancy between what he told DeCovny, and what Hare actually researched.)

And in what Hare did find, he’s careful to note that it was preliminary research done on a small, non-representative sample, using research criteria (not clinical criteria) in just seven U.S. companies (out of the tens of thousands of companies in America). Hardly anything one should be drawing broad conclusions from, much less say something derogative about an entire industry.

Here are just a smattering of the links who repeated this information without bothering to do the journalistic legwork it would’ve required to check on these facts before re-publishing them:

(Let’s see how many of them print either a clarification or retraction of their news story.)

I publish this blog entry not because I have any specific or particular interest in psychopathy or the financial services industry (other than watching my 401k yo-yo in the past few years).

But I do have a particular interest in bad journalism, and the dumbing down of the news media. Good journalism takes a little extra work, and checking your facts. Unfortunately, these few extra steps take a few extra hours, slowing down the endless production of new news articles for consumption by the masses. It’s a problem with few easy answers, since every indicator is that ordinary people just don’t care that much about the quality of the news they’re consuming.

So what if it’s untrue? At least it’s interesting!