This study explains why psychopaths are so successful

A cursory scan of the true-crime documentaries abundant on nearly every media platform illustrates our obsession with psychopaths.  Any cultural obsession can be productivebut in this instance striking a balance is important.

Psychopathy, as a disorder, denotes various flavors of antisocial behavior. These include lack of empathy, narcissism, disinhibition, and egotistical desires. In practice, however,  the condition exists on a continuum, with each end housing the eminent and the infamous.  

According to a new study published in the journal, Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, successful and unsuccessful psychopaths are characterized by their ability to disguise their self-serving whims as charm and stability.  Those belonging to the former are uniquely positioned to curb destructive impulses compared to the rest of the population. 

When paired with an ear for social graces, their detachment enables them to survey outcomes clearly despite a cloud of urges. 

“The mechanisms underlying the formation of this ‘successful’ phenotype are uncertain. We tested a compensatory model of successful psychopathy,which posits that relatively successful psychopathic individuals develop greater conscientious traits that serve to inhibit their heightened antisocial impulses,” co-authors, Emily N. Lasko and David S. Chester write in the new paper. “Psychopathic individuals who develop greater self-regulatory control over their antisocial impulses become relatively more ‘successful’ than their less regulated counterparts. Moreover, our results speak to the importance of the Five-Factor Model for understanding psychopathy and the crucial role of conscientiousness in the form that psychopathic individuals take.”

Successful’ Anti-social tendencies  and Impulse Control as a Function of Psychopathy

 If we remove the violent tendencies that define history’s most disturbed individuals, there are behavioral features to aspire to. Most of these have to do with calculation.

Successful and unsuccessful psychopaths tend to be linked by self-motivation. Once an objective is decided upon each will commit to the math necessary to achieve it. 

By all accounts, the difference between the skin collector and the CEO cutting your check is directive. 

After analyzing data of 1,354 serious juvenile offenders with a specialized model developed at Virginia Commonwealth University, the researchers behind the new paper discovered that psychopathic criminals and wealthy elites share a lot of personality traits with one another. Further analysis proved that the latter learned to temper their aggression very early in life.  

“The compensatory model posits that people higher in certain psychopathic traits (such as grandiosity and manipulation) are able to compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their antisocial impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control,” Lasko says, explained in a media release. 

Ironically, an aversion to interpersonal dynamics forces some psychopaths to develop a  gregarious persona in the pursuit of their desires. As a result, they pick up on social cues that most of us wouldn’t, not unlike a blind man who arrives safely on the other side of the street by hearing cars several miles away.

Although there are some neurological indicators of the condition, psychopathy is ultimately a construct. As such, it can be expressed and clinically interpreted in a number of different ways. 

The authors themselves concede that the parameters that define a psychopathic individual’s success are routinely debated among psychologists. 

The researchers choose to define ‘successful psychopathy’ as antisocial traits that at once contribute to personal achievements in life domains (most notably occupational success) and prevent adverse outcomes (most notably imprisonment). Non -incarcerated membership in society versus incarceration for criminal offending.  A conscientious outlook attended the vast majority of the favorable upshot.

“There is good reason to expect that the most robust trait dimension underlying the development of ‘successful’ psychopathy is conscientiousness. Conscientiousness refers to a collection of psychological traits that are organized around the themes of planning for the future, being goal-directed, following rules, being self-disciplined, and delaying gratification,” the authors continued. “A core feature of conscientiousness is inhibitory control, through which individuals are able to stifle their prepotent impulses. This ability can assist in the inhibition of antisocial impulses that are prevalent among individuals high in psychopathy.”

This find highlights the problem with limiting mental instability to a genre. When our only insight into neurological illnesses is through an LCD screen it encourages us to engage with it from afar.  The factor of the matter is every single disease has the potential to teach us the value of normalcy.

It is undeniably thrilling to witness serial killers unravel at the hands of masterminds, but cases like Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and Jeffrey Daumher have a lot more to say. 

For a start, they remind us of how incredibly lucky we are that our compulsions rarely demand something of others. For most of the population, giving in to temptation leads to self-destruction. But for a tragic minority, giving into temptation can just as easily yield sadistic activities. 

By that same token, we can take solace in the fact that our desires and weaknesses are authored by a series of chemicals and synapses. This doesn’t mean we have to be resigned to them. As demonstrated by the new paper, any shortcoming can be converted into a strength with time and meditation. 

“Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in antisocial behaviors but what our findings suggest is that some may actually be better able to inhibit these impulses than others,” says lead author Emily Lasko, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, in a release. “Although we don’t know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know that this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more ‘successful’ than their peers.”

 CW Headley is a reporter for the Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com