New research provides evidence that individuals with psychopathic personality traits tend to be more successful at convincing others that they are remorseful and gaining their trust. The study has been published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
“People who show characteristics of a psychopathic personality have been described as exhibiting very contradictory qualities,” said study author Kristopher J. Brazil (@brazkris), a PhD candidate at Brock University.
“On the one hand, they are usually described as having a personality pathology — and rightfully so, since they routinely perpetuate self- and other-damaging behaviors. Words like ‘maladaptive,’ ‘disordered,’ and ‘dysfunctional’ are often used to describe those with psychopathic traits, implying that there is something wrong with them.”
“On the other hand, they have also been described as engaging in excessive and even sophisticated acts of deception that suggest they may surely know how to exploit others for their own gain,” Brazil explained. “The focus on ‘disorder’ then could occlude possible interpersonal — albeit selfish — benefits that might come from having a psychopathic personality.”
“Although morally and socially discouraged, exploitation often has individual benefits from an evolutionary perspective; those who are skilled exploiters could accumulate evolutionarily adaptive benefits.”
The researchers first recruited 46 male college students and had them complete a deceptive emotion story task. In the task, the young men were asked to recall a time they did or said something hurtful to another person but did not feel remorseful about it. They were then asked to tell the story in front of a camera, but to pretend that they were remorseful as best they could. Furthermore, the participants were told that their recorded stories would later be rated and those who obtained the best ratings would receive prizes.
The young men then completed the Self-Report Psychopathy scale, a common non-clinical assessment of four psychopathic personality traits: interpersonal manipulation, callous affect, disinhibition, and antisocial behavior. These traits were measured on a continuum, meaning everyone displays relatively more or less of each.
Brazil and his colleagues then recruited a separate sample of 1,060 university students, who watched the videos and rated the men’s genuineness and trustworthiness. To obscure the true purpose of the study, the raters were told that they were participating in research about how emotional stories can influence trust in others.
“Those who had more overall psychopathic traits (i.e., not just the interpersonal manipulative traits as might be expected) were more likely to be seen as trustworthy following a deceptive story and to have their deception believed by others. This suggests they may indeed be successful exploiters,” Brazil told PsyPost.
The researchers also found evidence that the raters’ own personality traits were associated with their susceptibility to viewing men high in psychopathic traits as trustworthy and genuine.
“In particular, women who show higher levels of emotionality (dependence, sentimentality, anxiety, and fearfulness) were most likely to believe and trust the men who were the highest in psychopathy. This suggests that psychopathic men might selectively exploit women who have more traits of emotionality,” Brazil explained.
To examine the potential impact of developmental instability, the researchers also measured fluctuating asymmetry — random deviations from bilateral symmetry that are associated with environmental stressors and genetic problems. “We examined a disorder view by using a biological measure that more directly assesses disorder rather than relying on judgments about personality pathology,” Brazil said
However, “young men who have more traits in line with a psychopathic personality did not show a higher likelihood of displaying biological markers of disorder,” he noted. “In fact, psychopathic traits were uncorrelated with our measure of disorder.”
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“Our study used a sample of young men from a university population, so the findings should be examined in other populations as well, such as clinical and offender populations, where psychopathic personality traits tend to be higher,” Brazil said. “Some have argued that ‘subclinical’ psychopathy could be adaptive while ‘clinical’ psychopathy might not be. However, many of the findings that link successful manipulation and exploitation in psychopathy has come from offender and clinical populations, so we would actually expect our results to be found in these more high-risk populations as well. But further research will need to attest to that.”
“Additionally, the task we used to assess the skilled exploiter perspective specifically examined the deceptive use of the emotion remorse. This certainly has implications that people with psychopathic personality traits might be able to use remorse for their own gain even if they rarely feel it themselves. But this is one emotion. Thus, it would be useful to explore whether people with psychopathic personality might also be skilled exploiters using a variety of positive and negative emotions (e.g., joy, fear) or if they only manipulate using certain types of emotions.”
“Lastly, since we generated actual judgments from raters, the task we used was an improvement over static measures of exploitation ability (e.g., self-report questionnaires asking about one’s own exploitation abilities),” Brazil added. “A future endeavor, however, might also explore whether people with psychopathic traits are better at convincing others and gaining their trust directly in one-on-one and/or in group interactions.”
“We believe that to fully understand how and why some people become psychopathic, it’s important to clarify what might be useful and beneficial about the traits in helping people to meet their goals—even if they are short-term, exploitative, and damaging. Appreciating the possible (individual) benefits in addition to the (social and individual) costs could help researchers and practitioners better understand the goals of people with a psychopathic personality and hence work more effectively with them.”
The study, “Successful and selective exploitation in psychopathy: Convincing others and gaining trust“, was authored by Kristopher J. Brazil, Chantelle J. Dias, and Adelle E. Forth.