Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Hunting the successful psychopath

Put aside the dramatic Hollywood portrayals. Suited, married, high achieving, some of them walk among us. No, not vampires or super-heroes but 'successful psychopaths'. Like their criminally violent cousins - the standard psychopaths - these people are ruthless, callous, fearless and arrogant. But thanks to their superior self-control and conscientiousness, rather than landing in prison, they end up as company chief executives, university chancellors and Queen's Council barristers. Well, that's the idea anyway. But it's an idea that's proven difficult for psychologists to investigate. After all, if you advertise for volunteers for a study of successful people who are psychopathic, you're not likely to get many responses.

Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt and her collaborators tried a different tack. They surveyed hundreds of members of the American Psychological Association's Division 41 (psychology and law), criminal attorneys and professors of clinical psychology about whether they'd ever known personally an individual who was successful in their endeavours and who also matched Hare's definition of a psychopath: 'social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life ... completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.'

Of the 118 APA members, 31 attorneys and 58 psychology professors who replied, 81, 25 and 41, respectively, said they'd previously known a successful psycho. The examples given were predominantly male and included current or former students, colleagues, clients, and friends (sample descriptions here). The survey respondents were asked to rate the personality of the successful psychopath they'd known and to complete a psychopathy measure of that person. These ratings were then compared with the typical profile for a standard (unsuccessful) psychopath.

The key difference between successful and standard psychopaths seemed to be in conscientiousness. Providing some rare, concrete support for the 'successful psychopath' concept, the individuals described by the survey respondents were the same as prototypical psychopaths in all regards except they lacked the irresponsibility, impulsivity and negligence and instead scored highly on competence, order, achievement striving and self-discipline.

'The current study used informant descriptions to provide information about successful psychopaths,' the researchers concluded. 'Such persons have been described in papers and texts on psychopathy but only anecdotally. This was the first study to conduct a systematic, quantitative analysis of such persons.'

ResearchBlogging.orgMullins-Sweatt, S., Glover, N., Derefinko, K., Miller, J., & Widiger, T. (2010). The search for the successful psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality, 44 (4), 554-558 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.05.010

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


GeorgeM said...

Apparently some of them knew Dick Cheney.

Dr. CiarĂ¡n Mc Mahon said...

This is still bunkum research.

Asking people if they remember meeting someone who matched a certain profile falls foul of the confirmation tendency cognitive bias.

The descriptions could easily have been instead titled 'people I am jealous of, bear a grudge against and who are more successful than me.'

It's still lightyears away from a clinical interview, case study or anything which actually involved these psychopaths themselves.

There's absolutely no way in the world that this category can be said to be viable until someone actually gets a hold of one of these individuals, or better still, their diary.

Anonymous said...

Dr., you should know that diaries in and of themselves present cognitive bias!

Unknown said...

Well, a snake in the grass by any other name would slither yet. Successful psychopaths or sub-criminal sociopaths or whatever they're called, we've all known a few at least; they exist. Their very art itself makes qualifying them by objective means a difficult task.

Anonymous said...

Ironic that criminal attorneys should be enlisted to ferret out those who make up a large proportion of their own profession.

Anonymous said...

She's about 20 years behind. Check out :

by ANSEVICS, NANCY LEAH Educat.D., University of South Dakota, 1986, 167 pages; AAT 8616583

This publication found the same thing and more through serendipity.

Anonymous said...

How does the research differentiate Psychopaths from Narcissists- or do they subsume both under Psychopathy?

How does the research seperate out other forms of bias such as projection?

Anonymous said...

She just needs to sleep with a ridiculously successful one for five years and she'll stop questioning the obvious. They do exist and they are the most fascinating beings on earth. They bend and mould the system precisely to their liking. They will take without remorse, carve their own path and rejoice in their successes with... yes... successful friends like themselves. I have been there, got the T-shirt, and know more than I ever wanted to know.

Anonymous said...

The world could not exist and function without people who think instead of emote. Get over yourselves.

Anonymous said...

The successful predator recognizes emotion, recognizes the emotional baggage tied to "right" or "wrong." A succesful psychopath recognizes a conscience. And a succesful psychopath chooses to ignore it. Compassion is a normal persons greatest weakness. Emotions cause nothing but mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Yes, they do exist and are likely more prevalent than their criminal cousins. Once acquainted with the criminal variety, it is not difficult to recognize them. i.e., by patently false vocal quality, and pathological lies -- such as a dentist, practicing successfully for 30 years, who repeatedly tells patients that they need invasive (and expensive) procedures on teeth which are in reality perfectly sound. Most patients either suspect nothing, or are vaguely uncomfortable and leave without really knowing the full extent of what is wrong. Someone educated in the field of psychopath understands what he/she is up against.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget about the female sociopath. They can be the most dangerous. Ruining so many lives. Because society views woman as mothers, caregivers, nurturers. But the female sociopath is none of those. She is ruthless, relentless, wreaking havoc on ex husband, using guilt and manipulation and threats to control him-- even tho she has remarried she feels sharing children with her ex, entitles her to control his life. Making it almost impossible to move on and live his own life. I am married to a man who's ex wife is a sociopath. She has made my life and his life unbearable a since we married. She has alienated the kids from their father. She has gone on a rampage slandering me and telling disgusting lies about me to everyone who will listen and cyber stalking me, impersonating me, making fake facebook,
MySpace pages, creating websites specifically to ruin my reputation. Sending my boss links to these sites and I have has to show him that it was her doing this not me. He is actually the one who helped me most. After he saw the defamatory things she has done to me online. He helped me to get the sites taken down. So her attempts to get me fired, back fired because my boss and his wife felt that the remarks were so horrible and untrue they helped me get it to removed. She to this day still stalks me online and peronsally. She has her children tell her every detail that goes on at our home when they are there. It's been hell. Sad thing is, no matter want I have done to ignore, filed police reports, she is still continuing this. She use to be a respected attorney (DA) in our town until she was forced to resign for throwing murder cases for her lover ( the man she was cheating on her at the husband with). He was the attorney for the murders and she was the prosecutor. And a fling started and last for 4 years before my husband had enough and finally filed for divorce. And she hates him more than she loves her children. She is determined to ruin his life and cause so much chaos, I have seen a once Postive, happy, optimistic man , then into a workaholic, who seems to have no hope left things will get better. And I don't know how to help him but support him and be there for him

Unknown said...

Oh ya, I've known a few. From my experience educated psycos take their que from the catholic church.
ie., "Blame all the bad things they do on someone else and take credit for all the good stuff they are in no way responsible for."

Unknown said...

Spot on George. He is a prime example.

Anonymous said...

Emotional deficiency is a clinical condition that impairs thinking. Thank you very much but the world would be much better without the adolescent minds of psychopaths.

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