Researcher: Some highly psychopathic individuals have more adaptive traits than maladaptive traits

Psychopathy is often associated with fearlessness and blunted emotions. But new research in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences has found that some psychopaths have higher levels of anxiety and stress.

The study highlights the importance of taking different types of psychopaths into account.

“What interest me the most is successful psychopathy; that is highly psychopathic individuals who possess core traits of psychopathy (e.g. lack of empathy) and who not only do not engage in criminal activities (e.g. drug taking, theft), but who also possess peripheral adaptive psychopathic traits (e.g. stress and anxiety immunity, social potency, boldness),” explained study author Guillaume Durand of Maastricht University.

“Currently, the research in the field of psychopathy is divided in two camps, with one arguing that by default psychopathy cannot include any form of adaptive traits, while the other side argues that adaptive features can be found, to some extent, in psychopathic individuals.

“Several instruments have been developed to investigate psychopathic traits based on these two points of views, resulting in a lot of discrepancy between the results, whereas when some instruments are used, adaptive traits are found to be correlated, while with other instruments we do not observe any form of adaptive behaviors attached to it,” Durand said.

The researchers ran 529 participants through a series of psychological tests that measured psychopathy, fear of pain, anxiety, and stress.

They used a test that looks for two different types of psychopathy: Fearless Dominance and Impulsive Antisociality. The former is associated with boldness and fearlessness, while the latter is associated with egoism, blaming others, and impulsivity.

The researchers found individuals who scored high on the measure of Fearless Dominance tended to have less fear of pain, anxiety, and stress. Individuals who scored high on the measure of Impulsive Antisociality, on the other hand, tended to have higher levels of anxiety and stress.

“The present study suggests that the definition of psychopathy given by the media (mass murderer deprived of any form of morality) is quite a stretch from the truth,” Durand told PsyPost. “While such people obviously exist, there are other highly psychopathic individuals who have more adaptive traits than maladaptive traits, making them perfectly adaptable in the society.”

“I think laypeople interested in reading studies in the field of psychopathy should always consider which of the two camps the researchers are from, as results on a same topic (for instance, psychopathic traits and the relationship with fear, stress, and anxiety) can highly differ based on the model (with or without adaptive traits) used by the researchers.”

A diagnosis of psychopathy is often made using a test known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. But this test mostly focuses on maladaptive behaviors and traits.

“The focus of the present study was to examine the discrepancy in the results in the field of psychopathy, where the adaptive traits from the questionnaire were negatively correlated with fear of pain, anxiety, and stress, while the opposite was found with the maladaptive traits,” Durand explained. “Considering a ‘highly psychopathic individual’ needs to be high on both adaptive and maladaptive traits from the instrument we used in this research, it leaves open the problem of identifying those people.”

“To solve this problem, I recently published an article describing the Durand Adaptive Psychopathic Traits Questionnaire (Durand, 2017; Journal of personality assessment), which exclusively assesses adaptive psychopathic traits. Following its development, my future studies will concentrate on using this instrument in individuals considered highly psychopathic, which hopefully will enable researchers to clearly tell apart the adaptive psychopathic individuals from the maladaptive ones.”

The study, “The effects of psychopathic traits on fear of pain, anxiety, and stress“, was also co-authored by Erika Matsumoto Plata.