The Corporation is Not a Psychopath

Readers may already be familiar with documentary that came out a few years ago, called The Corporation. The film has many flaws; I can’t show it to my students without pausing frequently to correct misleading assertions and half-truths. But the key problem with the film lies in its attempt to arrive at a single, simple diagnosis for the many problems we see in the corporate world. The central conceit of the film is that the corporation fits the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy — that corporations, quite generally, act in destructive ways that demonstrate an utter lack of empathy or remorse. The problem is, the claim is utter bunk, and is utterly unsupported by what the film shows to viewers. But it’s also an idea that has struck a chord with a lot of people, seemingly summing up their darkest fears about corporations.

Part of the problem is that the film is sloppy with language. The film is called The Corporation, and the makers of the film clearly intend to refer to ‘the corporation’ in the abstract, corporations as a group, the very idea of them. It’s not referring to any particular corporation — like, that one over there. But in building its case, it cites diverse behaviours by various particular companies, and uses those to check off, one by one, the diagnostic criteria that psychologists associate with psychopathy in humans.

Here’s the list of diagnostic criteria that the film uses:

1) callous unconcern for the feelings of others;
2) incapacity to maintain enduring relationships;
3) recklessness with others’ health & safety;
4) deceitfulness;
5) inability to feel guilt;
6) failure to follow social norms.

The problem is that in order to use this list as a diagnostic tool, you need to apply it to a single ‘patient.’ But the film doesn’t do that, not ever; instead, it cherry-picks examples of heinous behaviour from across dozens of corporations over dozens of decades. It finds an example of Callous Unconcern on the part of one company, Recklessness on the part of another, and Deceitfulness on the part of others still. And so on.

The result is a kind of sleight of hand, and not very subtle sleight of hand at that. You can do the same trick with any ‘patient,’ of course, when your ‘patient’ is an entire category. If you cherry-pick examples from across many many particular cases, you can easily arrive at a diagnosis of psychopathy not just for The Corporation, but also fo The Government, The University, The Church, The Union, The Charity, The Newspaper, or even — *shudder!* — The Highschool Volleyball Team.

Now it is crucial to note that by pointing out this flaw in the argument put forward by the film, I’m not defending any of the companies that it mentions. Many of those companies have done terrible things, including things that are outright criminal. The point is that the film fails utterly in its attempt to prove that the corporation as a whole is a “psychopath,” or anything like it. And the result is much more than a documentary that fails to make its point. The result is a distraction, as viewers duped by the film are told to write off the very notion of profit-seeking corporations, a prescription that ignores the enormous amount of human wellbeing that has resulted directly from the activities of corporations, and also diverts attention from a more focused critique of the very real flaws that exist in the way particular corporations are governed and regulated.

13 comments so far

  1. Adrian on

    A corporation is composed of many individuals, so the actions of the corporation should not be judged as a single?

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks for your comment…but sometimes corporate behaviours *cannot* be reduced to the behaviours of individuals. Take the BP oil spill, for example: no single person “did” that. BP is clearly responsible, even if no individuals inside BP are.


    • Steve on

      Watch the film. The point is related to the 14th Amendment, which, today, as applied to the corporation by the courts, holds that the corporation indeed IS a person. You can criticize the film all you want, but you have to watch it first.

      • Chris MacDonald on

        I’ve watched the film quite a few times. And yes, courts in all countries treat corporations as persons–if they didn’t, there would be no way of suing corporations, or of forcing them to honour contracts or warranties.

  2. Yafang on

    Anyway, I believed what has been done is by people in the corporation, but not corporation itself… corporation might disappear in the future(I just guess), then what about human’s frailties?greed, selfishness, would people overcome their shortcomings?

  3. Mischa on

    I think that the documentary particularly shows that there is a intersection between the public interest and the business. Are the corporations becoming too large to control? They have access to he kind of information that no consumers would ever lay their hands on. For who do you think the corporation exist? The documentary ” The corporation” might be wrong in some of their assumtions but i also think that they also show how complex the corporation gets when it grows, and as it shows sometimes even the top-managers are as scared of this progress as the public

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Sure, it does show some of that stuff. But none of that is news. Overall, it’s a movie that:
      – makes use of a flawed overarching metaphor (psychopathy);
      – leaves out important facts in a misleading way;
      – offers no real solutions.
      I think that’s enough to overshadow any useful contribution the film might make, unfortunately.

  4. martina on

    I agree with Chris, people know and can easily judge when corporations behave bad, and that’s ok. But the point is they only know part of the story. Until something very bad happens, consumers don’t mind about the origin of the products they buy. An “enlightened egoism” from corporations can also benefits the society. That’s what happens when they understand that they will earn different kinds of benefits from investing in sustainability issues.

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  6. Chris on

    I have seen the movie and agree. The film itself is very biased and that some may get a skewed view of what a Coporation actually is, and may not address/forget all the positive things business contribute with to society and to us as consumers of their goods. Even tough a lot of ethical problems arise due to corporations actings and actions, they still provide the society with a lot of benefits.

  7. Bob on

    When I saw the documentary, I viewed it as being dubious. The psychopathy checklist can be incorporated to cherry-picka loaded verdict as this film does. I do think that the track-record was cherry-picked as well. I used to also agree with robert hares’ psychopathy hypothesis but figured thats’ it bunkum that was propagated from the absurd dichotomy of “normal” and “weird”.

  8. Psychopathy @ ST on

    My understanding was that The Corporation is based on acceptance of the notion of “corporate personhood.” Mitt Romney says “corporations are people, my friend.” and the idea that corporations have personhood is deeply entrenched in our system.

    Now if you want to challenge the idea that we can analyze corporations with criteria meant to apply to individual human beings, that’s fine. But then you must challenge just as strongly any notion of corporate personhood or the benefits that corporations obtain from that notion. The two arguments seem to me to go together.

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