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Is "Successful Psychopath" an Oxymoron?

Personal Perspective: There is no such thing as a "successful psychopath."

Itay Verchik/Pixabay
Source: Itay Verchik/Pixabay

The “successful psychopath” has become a trendy phrase. People talk about it and believe successful psychopaths exist. Some may even cultivate psychopathic traits because they have read that many leaders and executives who possess such traits are deemed successful.

One almost gets the sense that some people admire psychopaths because they have traits that can bring success. For example, Dr. Robert Hare, a foremost psychopathy researcher for over fifty years, has described psychopaths as “cool under fire.”1 They often have charisma and are disarmingly glib.

Pathological Personality Impairments Preclude “Success”

But the truth is that the "successful psychopath" is an oxymoron. Kent Kiehl, a preeminent psychopathy researcher and professor at the University of New Mexico, has categorically supported this position: “It is an oxymoron to suggest that someone is a ‘successful’ psychopath because by definition, to be afflicted with a personality disorder (e.g., psychopathy) one must have pathological symptoms that cause impairment in multiple domains of one’s life.”2 With such impairments present, there can be no “success.”

Aversion to Sustained Effort and Planning Preclude “Success”

When considering those who display many psychopathic personality traits, it is important to pay attention to what they do and how they do things. Having lived with two psychopaths—a mother and sister—I noticed early on that they like the quick fix. “Do it fast and get it over with” was their modus operandi. How things were done did not matter. According to Dr. Martha Stout, psychologist and author of The Sociopath Next Door, people high in psychopathy tend to have “an aversion to sustained effort and organized projects of work, and, of course, this preference for ease is extremely self-limiting where success in the real world is concerned.”3

Psychopaths Don't Often Contemplate Consequences

Dr. Hare has concluded that psychopaths much prefer “life in the fast lane,” an easy deal, a clever scheme, a convincing act, a smooth lie, and often, “the action involves breaking the rules.”4 Psychopaths care little about consequences. They often show little or no forethought about the tasks at hand. If they should be found out for misdeeds, they will rely on manipulation and lies to cover their tracks. They are egotistical and believe they get things done better and faster than anybody else. According to Dr. Hervey Cleckley, author of The Mask of Sanity: "Their behavior demonstrates an irrationality and incompetence that are gross and obvious.”5

“Partial” or ”Complete” Psychopath

Cleckley, a pioneer of psychopathy analysis from the mid-twentieth century marked a distinction between what he called a “partial” versus a “complete” psychopath. In The Mask of Sanity, Cleckley uses this distinction in his analysis of Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist of the historical novel Gone with the Wind. He stated that she was a partial psychopath, in that she had displayed characteristics and actions that separated her from being a “complete psychopath.” 6 Scarlett O’Hara, while often icily cold, calculating, and manipulative, akin to a psychopath, nevertheless successfully completed tasks with careful attention to detail. While she was often selfish and emotionally impoverished in matters of love, she shouldered many burdens to keep life going during the Civil War.

Today, using the gold standard for psychopathy measurement, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised,7 some might say that her traits would put her somewhere on a psychopathic spectrum, but they would not rise to a sufficiently high level for her to be deemed a clinical psychopath. If she had been a psychopath, she simply could not have been successful. The term is an oxymoron.


1. Hare, Robert D. (1990). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: The Guilford Press. 62.

2. Kiehl, Kent and Lushing, Julia, (2014) Psychopathy. Scholarpedia, 9(5):30835.

3. Stout, Martha. (2006). The Sociopath Next Door. New York: Three Rivers Press. 189.

4. Without Conscience. 61.

5. Cleckley, Hervey. (1982). The Mask of Sanity. St. Louis: Mosby. 1.

6. Cleckley. 191 -192.

7. Hare, R.D. (1991, 2003). Manual for the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. Toronto, Ontario: Multi-Health Systems.