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Why Some Psychopaths Succeed

New findings on the "successful psychopath" phenomenon.

Key points

  • Psychopathy is characterized by callous and unemotional traits.
  • People with more psychopathic traits may be more susceptible to engaging in immoral or criminal acts.
  • A subset of people with psychopathic traits could use these to their advantage and be more successful in their lives.
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The concept of psychopathy conjures up stereotypes from films of aggressive and callous individuals willing to inflict harm on unsuspecting strangers purely for their own amusement. However, the science of psychopathy is somewhat less exciting than this and has tended to focus on measurement issues and the degree to which it is accurate to label somebody a "psychopath" at all.

More recently, however, attention is being turned toward the notion that people can have relatively high levels of psychopathic traits while still living productive and socially-meaningful lives.

Defining Psychopathy

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy, guilt, and remorse, and a tendency towards impulsive and risky behavior. Traditionally, psychopathy has been seen as a negative and maladaptive trait, and individuals with psychopathic tendencies have often been associated with criminal behavior and social dysfunction.

There are several tools that are commonly used to measure psychopathy and its associated traits, including the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), which is currently the gold-standard assessment method. These tools assess various aspects of psychopathy, including traits such as manipulativeness, lack of remorse, and grandiosity.

The PCL-R is scored on a scale from 0 to 40, with higher scores indicating a greater presence of psychopathic traits. Each item on the checklist is scored on a 3-point scale, with 0 being "not present," 1 being "presently or possibly present," and 2 being "definitely present."

The total score is calculated by summing the scores on each item. Although not a diagnostic tool, the summed score can be used for assessing psychopathic traits and for providing information that can be used in treatment and management decisions in clinical or forensic contexts.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychopathic traits are characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others, as well as a lack of remorse or guilt. These traits can manifest in a variety of ways, including manipulation, impulsivity, and a lack of empathy or concern for others. Individuals with such traits may be more likely to engage in criminal or unethical behavior, and they may struggle with relationships and other aspects of life.

"Successful Psychopaths"?

Despite the negative framing of the DSM, there have been recent investigations into the concept of "successful psychopathy," as researchers have begun to explore the ways in which individuals with psychopathic traits might be able to achieve success in society. Successful psychopathy refers to the ability of individuals with psychopathic traits to achieve success in their careers or other areas of life, despite their lack of empathy and other traditionally negative traits.

There are a variety of factors that might contribute to successful psychopathy, including intelligence, charm, and a lack of fear or anxiety. People with psychopathic traits may also be more likely to take risks and be more confident and decisive, which can be valuable qualities in certain careers or situations.

These ideas were recently investigated by a team of psychologists led by Louise Wallace, a lecturer in forensic psychology at the University of Derby (U.K.). The researchers reviewed data from 18 published studies of psychopathy and were looking for things that might associate psychopathy with positive outcomes, rather than the negative issues reported within the traditional literature.

What they found was particularly interesting. Writing in their paper, Wallace and colleagues suggest:

"The combination of fearless dominance and affective-interpersonal traits (e.g., charm, manipulativeness, and grandiosity), which are more consistently associated with success, but an absence of impulsivity and an erratic lifestyle... could suggest that moderate levels of psychopathy could enable an individual to become more successful, but extremely high levels could be detrimental to successful outcome."

This may mean that those with more immunity to stress and a willingness to take risks within their personal and professional lives—despite these being indicators of subclinical psychopathic traits—may be at a unique advantage for living successful lives. The authors take aim at the existing psychopathy literature within their paper, identifying how a research focus on violence and antisocial behavior from those working within forensic psychology has obscured the presence of the "successful psychopathy" construct.

The Multifaceted Nature of Psychopathy

It is important to recognize that psychopathy is a complex and multifaceted concept, and that successful psychopathy does not necessarily mean that individuals with psychopathic traits are healthy or well-adjusted. In fact, many people with psychopathic traits may struggle with relationships and other aspects of life, and may also be more prone to engaging in unethical or criminal behavior.

That said, the concept of successful psychopathy highlights the ways in which individuals with psychopathic traits may be able to achieve success in society. It represents an exciting development in the psychological literature on psychopathy, describing how psychopathic traits may be associated with certain advantages in certain situations. It is important to recognize the limitations and complexities of the concept of psychopathy and to approach it with the nuance that this new research identifies as being necessary.

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Wallace, L., Fido, D., Sumich, A. L., & Heym, N. (2022). A systematic review on the current conceptualisations of successful psychopathy. Forensic Science International: Mind and Law, 3. 100076.

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