Is successful psychopathy an oxymoron? What’s the difference between psychopaths who spend their lives in prison and those who excel in society? These are some of the questions examined in a new study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
The study, a scientific status report on early and current research, seeks to define “successful psychopathy” and compare the most common models in use today.
Most research on psychopathy involves studying people who are incarcerated — and these individuals are assumed to be “unsuccessful.”
“Nevertheless, the past decade has witnessed growing interest in an intriguing possibility: Perhaps many psychopathic individuals are thriving in the everyday world, in some cases occupying the higher echelons of selected professions,” wrote Scott Lilienfeld, corresponding author, in the study. “Indeed, [Robert D. Hare] posited that incarcerated psychopaths ‘represent only the tip of a very large iceberg.'”
Definition: What is Successful Psychopathy?
According to Lilienfeld and his colleagues, scientists disagree over how to define success.
“Some emphasize short-term success, whereas others emphasize long-term success; some emphasize the attainment of personal fame and fortune, whereas others emphasize behaviors benefiting society,” said Lilienfeld. “Still others emphasize only the absence of prominent antisocial behavior.”
This fundamental disagreement has led to three distinct models of psychopathy, all of which were examined and compared in this review.
The differential-severity model suggests that psychopathy is a single construct on a spectrum, and that successful and unsuccessful psychopaths only differ in their severity.
This model has not been statistically verified. In fact, a study conducted on 29 participants with psychopathic traits seems to refute it. “Success” was defined by whether or not the participant had been convicted of a crime.
The study found that the scores between the two groups on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) only differed in specific areas. The unsuccessful psychopaths scored higher on measures of charm and guiltlessness, for example, but lower on other measures.
This model also suggests that psychopathy is a single construct, but that successful psychopaths also possess some characteristics outside of psychopathy that help them to buffer themselves against poor consequences. Some of these factors might be intelligence or positive parenting.
Several studies lend credibility to this theory, according to the research team. One such study found that successful psychopaths exhibit higher executive functioning and more sensitive responsiveness, and are better at processing information. This study also used incarceration to define “success.”.
Several other studies have linked positive parenting with the inhibition of antisocial behaviors. Though the link has not been proven, several longitudinal studies are in the works to examine it further.
Unlike the first two models, the differential-configuration model suggests that psychopathy is a combination of several traits and factors. Successful and unsuccessful psychopaths differ in the individual traits they possess. One particular trait that many successful psychopaths may exhibit is fearless dominance.
In one study, scientists surveyed 146 psychologists, lawyers and psychology professors to describe a psychopath they knew who had achieved success. 75 percent of respondents identified colleagues; many of them were distinguished from unsuccessful psychopaths by certain traits, such as extraversion, self-discipline, and a lack of agreeableness.
Lilienfeld and his colleagues concluded: “Although successful psychopathy has long been the province of popular psychology, recent research has begun to shed light on this enigmatic construct.”
While early research has been interesting and thought provoking, more research and a better definition of “successful psychopath” are needed before any strong conclusions can be drawn.
“By attending to these [factors], researchers will hopefully achieve a better understanding of how one person with pronounced psychopathic traits can end up being the prototype of the habitual criminal, whereas another can end up being the prototype for [the successful psychopath],” Lilienfeld said.