“Successful” Psychopaths Learn To Control Their Antisocial Impulses

By Emma Young

You’ll be familiar with the concept of the “successful psychopath”. Like regular psychopaths, such people are callous and manipulative, self-seeking, and free from guilt — but rather than ending up behind bars, they are able to flourish in their careers.

However, though the concept of the successful psychopath is popular, it’s also contentious. That’s because there’s been a lack of data to substantiate it, or to explain it. But now, ten years after an initial study hinted that levels of the personality trait of conscientiousness might be important for understanding the path to “successful” vs criminal psychopathy, a new study, published in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment, provides more robust support for that idea.

The work published back in 2010 started with a survey of psychology and law specialists, criminal attorneys and professors of clinical psychology in the US. These people were asked if they’d ever known someone who matched Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath, but who was successful in life. If so, they were asked to provide personality and psychopathy assessments for them. One key difference between successful and standard psychopaths emerged: successful psychopaths were reported as having higher levels of conscientiousness. Rather than being impulsive and irresponsible, they seemed to be more self-disciplined and driven to achieve.

This conclusion was based solely on reports of people who thought they knew someone who fitted the bill, however. Now Emily Lasko and David S. Chester at Virginia Commonwealth University have studied relatively successful vs unsuccessful psychopathic individuals directly.

The pair used a total of seven years of data on 1,354 American adolescent offenders for their study. As all of these adolescents had initially committed a serious offence (such as sexual assault or a weapons offence), the “successful” vs “unsuccessful” distinction was tied to re-offending. Adolescents who did not re-offend were classed as “successful”, whereas those who’d re-offended at least once were deemed to be “unsuccessful”. Every six months during the study, the adolescents completed surveys of psychopathic traits and also separate measures of their ability to control their impulses and suppress feelings of aggression, as well as self-reporting any offences.

Lasko and Chester found that participants who’d initially scored highly for grandiose-manipulative psychopathic traits (traits associated with arrogance and self-centredness as well as manipulativeness) went on to show steeper increases over time in two forms of conscientiousness: impulse control and the suppression of aggression. Importantly, this effect was notably larger within the “successful” group. It seems, then, that successful psychopaths are those who show real improvements at controlling their impulses, to achieve their goals. “This exacerbated development of conscientiousness-defining traits is likely able to compensate for the heightened antisocial tendencies of these psychopathic individuals, bringing them into a self-regulatory balance that enables them to function in society,” the researchers write.

The team tried altering the number of re-offences that led to an individual being categorised as successful vs unsuccessful, but this did not materially change the pattern of the results. As an alternative measure of “success”, they also considered whether or not participants were enrolled in school at each time point. The link between conscientiousness-related traits and success held. “This suggests that our findings are likely to generalise across various forms of ‘success’,” the researchers write.

Clearly, more work will be needed to investigate the factors contributing to the development of greater or poorer impulse control, and how to enhance it in this population, perhaps to increase the proportion of relatively successful rather than criminal psychopaths.

Overall, though, the research supports the idea of “successful” vs regular psychopaths, as well as finding evidence for a key difference between the two. “These findings show the importance of the five-factor model to understanding the nuances of psychopathy and its various phenotypes,” the researchers write.

What makes a “successful” psychopath? Longitudinal trajectories of offenders’ antisocial behavior and impulse control as a function of psychopathy.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest