Having a psychopathic personality appears to hamper professional success, according to new research published in Personality and Individual Differences. The findings cast doubt on the alleged benefits of psychopathy in the workplace.
“We were interested in the relationship between professional success and psychopathic traits as there is a hypothesis that people with higher psychopathic traits would be ideal CEOs and successful due to their ability to ignore emotions, lower empathy and reward orientation,” said study author Hedwig Eisenbarth, an associate professor at the Victoria University of Wellington and director of the Affective and Criminal Neuroscience Lab.
“We had tested that hypothesis in another study before and found some indication that this might actually not be the case for psychopathy as a unitary construct: rather than psychopathic traits being related to higher professional success, we found that only the fearless dominance aspect was related to higher professional success, but the self-centered impulsivity aspect of those traits was negatively related to professional success.”
“Thus, the two aspects of psychopathy pulling into two different directions. We wanted to see if this can be replicated in a larger sample and if that would hold also across one year,” Eisenbarth explained.
For their new study, the researchers analyzed longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample of 2,969 individuals. The data, which was collected as part of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, included measures of subjective job satisfaction and occupational prestige. Eisenbarth and her colleagues also used questions from the survey to assess three aspects of psychopathic personality: fearless dominance, self-centered impulsivity, and coldheartedness.
The researchers found that greater fearless dominance was associated greater feelings of job satisfaction and job security. Greater self-centered impulsivity, however, was associated with reduced feelings of job satisfaction and job security. Moreover, both self-centered impulsivity and coldheartedness were linked to lower occupational prestige.
“I think what we can learn from the results of this study is that psychopathy is not a simple, unitary personality trait with clear associations to behaviors or outcomes. In this case, being high on psychopathic traits is not related to better professional outcomes, but it depends: Individuals who are highly impulsive and highly psychopathic might actually have less success and individuals who are highly fearless, dominant and psychopathic might have more success.”
The researchers controlled for age, gender, education level, and time in the current job. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“This study is based only on a proxy measure for psychopathic traits, not a specific and full scale psychopathy questionnaire,” Eisenbarth said. “Although the results are in line with our previous study as well as other research which has used specific psychopathy measures, we need to replicate that result with more appropriate measures.”
“In addition, overall, psychopathic traits do not explain a lot of the variance in professional success, so there are other variables that might be more relevant than psychopathy. Next steps should potentially investigate further, what the mechanisms are, how aspects of psychopathy actually affect people’s career pathways. How those traits affect their professional life.”
“What I found striking is that even given the difference in the measurements and difference in geographical location of the sample we found matching results, with the effect on success also lasting for (at least) a year,” Eisenbarth added. “It does indeed show that psychopathy is not really an advantageous trait, in its full picture, with combine impulsive and fearless dominant aspects.”
The study, “Aspects of psychopathic personality relate to lower subjective and objective professional success“, was authored by Hedwig Eisenbarth, Claire M. Hart, Elena Zubielevitch, Tristan Keilor, Marc Wilson, Joseph Bulbulia, Chris G. Sibley, and Constantine Sedikides.