Impulse control and the ability to suppress aggression helps ‘successful’ psychopaths blend in with society, according to a study published in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. The longitudinal study was conducted among adolescent offenders and found that youth with higher psychopathy showed stronger increases in inhibitory control and suppression of aggression over time — and this was especially true of adolescents who did not re-offend.
Psychopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy, a tendency to manipulate others, and antisocial behavior. Most famously, the personality disorder is a risk factor for violent behavior. However, people with high levels of psychopathy do not always engage in violence or criminality, and many of them manage to integrate well with their community. These individuals seem to avoid giving in to their antisocial tendencies, instead taking on conventional social norms. This subset of psychopaths are often labeled as ‘successful’ psychopaths.
This distinction has led researchers to wonder what mental processes might differentiate ‘successful’ from ‘unsuccessful’ psychopaths, with some suggesting that the two groups have different combinations of psychopathic traits. One approach, called the compensatory model of ‘successful’ psychopathy, posits that ‘successful’ psychopaths are more conscientious. These individuals have developed greater inhibitory control to compensate for the negative personality traits they possess.
Study authors Emily N. Lasko and David S. Chester opted to test this model, using data from a longitudinal study of young offenders from the United States. The 7-year study included over 1,000 male and female adolescents who were 14-17 years old when they first offended. Every six months, the youth completed assessments of psychopathic traits, impulse control, and suppression of aggression. They were also asked whether they had been involved in any crimes since the previous assessment, and adolescents who reoffended were considered ‘unsuccessful’ while those who did not re-offend were considered ‘successful.’
Using a statistical method called latent growth curve modeling, the researchers analyzed the trajectories of the three variables of psychopathic traits, impulse control, and suppression of aggression. The researchers found that the youth’s initial levels of the psychopathic trait of grandiose-manipulativeness were tied to steeper increases in both impulse control and suppression of aggression over time.
Moreover, these relationships were magnified among those offenders who were ‘successful’ (did not re-offend) compared to ‘unsuccessful’ (did re-offend) — with the correlations being nearly twice as large for the link between grandiose-manipulative traits and impulse control and more than twice as large for the link between grandiose-manipulative traits and suppression of aggression.
“This exacerbated development of conscientiousness-defining traits are 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,” Lasko and Chester write, noting that these findings suggest that psychopaths’ ability to self-regulate is not as inhibited as previously thought. “Psychopathic individuals may exhibit overall patterns of impaired self-regulatory abilities when compared to their less psychopathic counterparts. However, ‘successful’ psychopathic individuals may more quickly develop such self-regulatory skills than their more prosocial peers, though ultimately falling short of them.”
The researchers note that their findings may not be generalizable given that their sample involved a specific population of adolescent offenders. Nevertheless, the findings illustrate the importance of considering the different factors of psychopathy and highlight conscientiousness and impulse control as important aspects of antisocial personality.
The study, “What makes a “successful” psychopath? Longitudinal trajectories of offenders’ antisocial behavior and impulse control as a function of psychopathy”, was authored by Emily N. Lasko and David S. Chester.