Put aside the dramatic Hollywood portrayals. Suited, married, high achieving, some of them walk among us. No, not vampires or super-heroes but ‘successful psychopaths’. Like their criminally violent cousins – the standard psychopaths – these people are ruthless, callous, fearless and arrogant. But thanks to their superior self-control and conscientiousness, rather than landing in prison, they end up as company chief executives, university chancellors and Queen’s Council barristers. Well, that’s the idea anyway. But it’s an idea that’s proven difficult for psychologists to investigate. After all, if you advertise for volunteers for a study of successful people who are psychopathic, you’re not likely to get many responses.
Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt and her collaborators tried a different tack. They surveyed hundreds of members of the American Psychological Association’s Division 41 (psychology and law), criminal attorneys and professors of clinical psychology about whether they’d ever known personally an individual who was successful in their endeavours and who also matched Hare’s definition of a psychopath: ‘social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.’
Of the 118 APA members, 31 attorneys and 58 psychology professors who replied, 81, 25 and 41, respectively, said they’d previously known a successful psycho. The examples given were predominantly male and included current or former students, colleagues, clients, and friends (sample descriptions here). The survey respondents were asked to rate the personality of the successful psychopath they’d known and to complete a psychopathy measure of that person. These ratings were then compared with the typical profile for a standard (unsuccessful) psychopath.
The key difference between successful and standard psychopaths seemed to be in conscientiousness. Providing some rare, concrete support for the ‘successful psychopath’ concept, the individuals described by the survey respondents were the same as prototypical psychopaths in all regards except they lacked the irresponsibility, impulsivity and negligence and instead scored highly on competence, order, achievement striving and self-discipline.
‘The current study used informant descriptions to provide information about successful psychopaths,’ the researchers concluded. ‘Such persons have been described in papers and texts on psychopathy but only anecdotally. This was the first study to conduct a systematic, quantitative analysis of such persons.’
Mullins-Sweatt, S., Glover, N., Derefinko, K., Miller, J., & Widiger, T. (2010). The search for the successful psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality, 44 (4), 554-558 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.05.010