Marketing lessons from psychopaths

psychopath booksLike millions of you, I’ve been reading about the psychopaths in our midst. A slew of books posit the theory that roughly one in every 100 of us scores extremely highly in diagnostic checklists of certain personality traits – highly enough to be identified as a card-carrying psychopath.

This doesn’t mean one per cent of the population might, at any moment, extract their neighbour’s spleen and store it in the fridge next to the blancmange. Just because you are a psychopath, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to kill people.

But you are very likely to be overflowing with characteristics like stress immunity, superficial charm, narcissism, social influence, a tolerance of punishment and lack of empathy, remorse or shame. No surprise then there are likely to be relatively higher numbers of psychopaths among FTSE 350 chief executives than in the general population. It turns out psychopaths also make good heart surgeons, bomb disposers and political careerists.

Now I’m no expert on psychopathy and I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to try and educate you about the disorder – the books above are a good starting point – but it occurs to me that psychopathy should be interesting to marketers. By exposing the eccentric decision-making of the psychopathic one per cent, it necessarily reminds us how we, the ‘normal’ 99 per cent, make decisions, including the decision to spend money.

We go shopping with our lizard brain

A clear difference, it seems, is that psychopaths have an underactive amygdala.

This is the small, ‘ancient’ part of the brain (Seth Godin calls it the ‘lizard brain’), which, in most of us, produces emotional reactions, like fear, love, and loyalty – the things we needed to survive when we were covered in hair, hunting our food on the African savannah and at constant risk of violent death in the jaws of wild animals.

Because psychopaths don’t use their amygdalae, it would be pointless trying to make them feel warm about your brand – they don’t feel warm about anything. To sell them something, you’d have to talk to the frontal lobe, the more recently evolved part of their brain; the area that gives rise to reasoning, planning and language. In other words, you’d need to explain how the trainers can protect them from injury, how the kettle is less prone to limescale…or how the meat cleaver will slice more cleanly into human flesh.

Not so for most of us. You need to get the blood racing. Accordingly, inspired brands, like Apple, have realised that often it is not as simple as telling consumers how, practically, a product or service will solve a problem efficiently. You need to tell them how that item fits in with their worldview, re-affirms how they see themselves, or supports their cause, purpose or beliefs. This is emotional, not logical. These things stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, excite the amygdala, as opposed to the modern, reasoning frontal lobe.

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it

This idea was, in my view, most ably explained by Simon Sinek in his 2009 Ted talk – “How great leaders inspire action”. Throughout the presentation, which is 20 well-spent minutes if you have the time, he proposes that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”.

So if you want people to buy your product, you might be wasting your time explaining what it does. Sometimes you need to convince your potential customer that you share with them a belief, a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

To paraphrase a Sinek example, if Apple were talking to the psychopath, a marketing message might read: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed and user-friendly. Want to buy one?”


But Apple talks to the 99 per cent of us who shop with our amygdala. The company’s marketing narrative boils down to this: “In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed and simple to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

See the difference?

So next time you bump into a psychopath, ask them what factors might make them buy your product or service – then, if you survive the encounter, do the exact opposite.

Michael Taggart is director of digital at MRM. You can follow him on Twitter at @michael_taggart


    lol, apple is utterly controlling and psychopathic…it just says it isnt, thats the psychopathy.
    steve jobs? who would fire a man for spilling his coffee?
    duh guess w hat he was?
    learn the subject before you use the term


    psychopaths have a structurally deformed abnormally reacting amygdalae, not an underactive one, this structural difference is profound and the primary dictator for recidivism in the clinical adult psychopath and for an inability to modify antisocial behaviour in the non clinicakl psychopath.
    Those with relatively neurotypical brains who behave “psychopathically” are only exhibiting traits , they are not psychopaths, we call all this behaviour “sociopathic” in reference to how it damages the social and moral order by corrupting it with violence and more importantly in the psychopath both clinical and noncklinical is the active deceit as a fundamental part of their personality and the ability to read and manipulate emotion to further their narcissistic desire foir power over emotional beings.
    Psychopaths have an enormously powerful ability to influence people naive on the subject- like this author i supect……..once again learn your subject.
    They are vastly inferior in every way as humans- its terrible to say but they have an emotional deficit – a need to negatively influence, to control for its own sake, to mould others in their oqwn or their chosen image.
    yet their perceoption of themselves is one of superiority, they are conscienceless and seek only power and to ultimately cause pain by exerting this power.
    Not all callous conduct disordered children are doomed to become psychopaths but they will always present a relative risk to an emotional person in rather an active way.
    it is not to be confused with autism….the key component is callous behaviour, enjoyment of anothers pain.
    or an enjoyment and thrill of the con such as the psychopaths do when you find them in marketing.
    Social effect of these psychopaths can be seen in the playstation war in the congo…a war started by corporate advertisers – possibly the first of its kind.
    For details on how iresponsible marketing can result in children of the world happily begging their parents and winning thus creating a bloodbath see the film “blood coltan”
    and if you havent seen that one and your in marketing?
    or they live? perhaps??
    then you should be in my opinion be tied down with your eyes wedged open and be forced to watch it a la clockwork orange.
    marketing is one of five professions with a high proportion of psychopaths, the others? broadcasting, lawyers, police and surgeouns.
    irresponsible sociopathic culture is what the advertising industry is.
    the psychopaths amongst you run the show.
    sex and fear sell.
    control is what advertising does, do that responsibly?
    well that would be fuckin nice woudnt it?


    if you didnt market to psychopaths then you wouldnt sell porches, foie gras, shares in oil companies and tech megaliths or anything markete to anyone in those five professions…ike ferraris , overpriced wtches.
    the whole idea of luxury sales is elitist and psychopathic….article is as much about psychopaths as it is about shellfish.
    wind yer nerck in. read withoput conscience again and the read dr hares open letter to jon ronson which i translated as “hes a fucking psychopath -did i say they were able to con the best reseachers sometimes?”
    its in the references ion wikipedia on both john and r hares pages.
    its a lot kinder than it could have been.
    the other ones nastier from 12 psychiatrists all objhecting to his books misrepresentation.
    they owe me a medal so they do.


    then weve got the psychopathic entiy that is the corporation, you suppose the corporeal legal postion of a corporation is in fact real and psychoanalyse its behaviour as such, as an individual?
    ?, you dont only come up with a perfect score of 40 nearly every time using levenson or hare that indicates cluster b or primary psychopathy, but you in fact often find death in their wake carried out with the mo of indifference and recidivism to boot, if corporations are people they are psychopathic serrial killers,
    marketers the sociopathic henchmen who will similarly shirk responsibility for their role in a similar psychopathic way.
    psychopaths wioll never carry crds eirther – if only…thats precisely the problem with them.
    but we hve their numvber, and if you dont see rob hare as the witchfinder general even slightly? then good…its you we are hunting.


    i hate my job , so does bob hare hate his i suspect.