What Makes a "Successful" Psychopath?

A psychopath's high impulsivity may facilitate success in crime.

Posted Mar 21, 2019

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People who study psychopathy have long speculated about whether there might be “successful” psychopaths—that is, people who have the core characteristics of psychopathy, yet somehow manage to succeed in exploiting others while avoiding punishment. However, despite great interest in them, real-life examples of “successful” psychopaths have remained elusive. Although there is little evidence that being a psychopath is conducive to success in a conventional sense, one study found that having psychopathic traits may be helpful in succeeding in crime (Aharoni & Kiehl, 2013). Although not usually beneficial, traits associated with psychopathy, such as low conscientiousness, may be adaptive in certain limited respects, especially for people to whom criminality comes naturally.  

The term psychopathy encompasses a range of personality traits, mostly related to offensive antisocial characteristics. There is a debate about which traits should be included in the concept, but most experts agree that the core traits include both interpersonal antagonism and general impulsivity (Lynam & Widiger, 2007). In terms of broader personality traits, antagonism and impulsivity can be considered manifestations of low levels of agreeableness (consideration for others) and conscientiousness (socially responsible self-control), respectively.

Psychopathy is also believed to consist of various component traits (Coid, Yang, Ullrich, Roberts, & Hare, 2009). For example, one scheme divides it into primary and secondary varieties, related to callous/manipulative traits on the one hand and a reckless, irresponsible lifestyle on the other. These have each been divided further into two narrower factors. Primary psychopathy consists of (1) an interpersonal factor related to glibness/superficial charm, grandiose sense of self, and conning/manipulative behavior, and (2) an effective factor related to shallow emotions, lack of remorse, callousness/lack of empathy, and inability to take personal responsibility; secondary psychopathy adds (3) a lifestyle factor related to a desire for excitement, parasitic lifestyle, lack of realistic long-term goals, irresponsibility, and impulsivity, and (4) an antisocial behavior factor related to juvenile delinquency and poor behavioral control. In terms of normal personality traits, all four factors are associated with low agreeableness, while all except the interpersonal traits are associated to some extent with low conscientiousness, especially the lifestyle factor (Lynam & Widiger, 2007).

Several studies have assumed that psychopaths who go to jail can be considered “failures,” and have therefore attempted to identify “successful” psychopaths living in the community. However, various studies have found that people high in psychopathic traits living in the community tend to have high arrest and conviction rates, so the line between “successful” community-dwelling psychopaths and “failed” incarcerated psychopaths seems rather blurred (Hall & Benning, 2006). Additionally, some authors have speculated that if there were “successful” psychopaths, they might possess only some of the above-mentioned psychopathic traits, but not others. For example, it has been proposed that “successful” psychopaths might be characterized more by primary traits, such as callousness, deceit, and lack of remorse, without having prominent secondary traits, such as irresponsibility and impulsivity. One could also say that they would tend to be very low in agreeableness, but average or even high in conscientiousness (Mullins-Sweatt, Glover, Derefinko, Miller, & Widiger, 2010). This is based on the idea that impulsivity would impair their ability to plan their activities and contribute to them being arrested and convicted. However, a study on criminal success, defined as getting away with crimes, suggests that, on the contrary, secondary psychopathy traits may in some ways facilitate criminal success (Aharoni & Kiehl, 2013).

Although past studies have considered that incarcerated psychopaths represent criminal failures, a more nuanced view suggests that success in criminality might be considered in relative rather than all-or-nothing terms (Aharoni & Kiehl, 2013). Specifically, success can be defined as the ratio of crimes committed without conviction to the total numbers of crimes committed. That is, criminals often commit many more crimes without detection than those that are discovered. Hence, the more crimes someone has gotten away with, the more relatively “successful” they can be considered to be. In the study by Aharoni and Kiehl, the authors recruited over 300 inmates (including both men and women) from two U.S. prisons. They were asked about crimes they had committed as an adult, and to encourage honesty were informed that their responses would be strictly confidential. For each crime, they were asked how many times they had been convicted and how many times they had gotten away with it. Based on this, a criminal success score was calculated. They were also assessed for psychopathy using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, which provides information on the four psychopathy factors mentioned earlier, as well as an overall psychopathy score. The checklist includes an assessment of pathological lying, which is common in psychopaths, so the authors considered this in their analyses to account for the possibility that some participants might falsely boast about their criminal success. Additionally, inmates were assessed on IQ using standard intelligence tests.

The findings of the study were that participants with higher psychopathy scores tended to have higher criminal success rates generally. When crimes were classified as either violent or non-violent, it was found that psychopathy was associated with criminal success in violent, but not non-violent, crimes. To account for possible non-linear relationships between psychopathy and criminal success, the authors also divided inmates into three groups, based on those who scored high, medium, or low on psychopathy. They found that the medium and high psychopathy groups had higher criminal success than the low psychopathy group, but did not significantly differ from each other. For the four psychopathy factors, interpersonal traits were unrelated to criminal success, while, contrary to expectations, affective traits were negatively related to criminal success. That is, inmates who tended to be high on callous, remorseless traits actually tended to have less criminal success than those who were low on these traits. For the secondary psychopathy factors, both the lifestyle and antisocial behavior traits were positively associated with criminal success. That is, inmates who were high on traits such as impulsivity and poor behavioral control actually had the most criminal success, contrary to expectations. Furthermore, pathological lying was associated with less criminal success, suggesting that the relationship between psychopathy and criminal success was not likely due to false boasting. Additionally, IQ was unrelated to either psychopathy scores or criminal success, counter-intuitively suggesting that one need not be particularly smart to get away with crime.

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In the heat of the moment, there's no time to hesitate.
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The results of this study run counter to the idea that “successful” psychopaths, at least in terms of criminal success, are more likely to be high on primary psychopathy and low on the impulsive traits associated with secondary psychopathy. On the contrary, interpersonal traits did not seem to facilitate criminal success, while affective traits seemed to actually be a drawback. Regarding interpersonal traits, the authors suggested that, although people high in these traits are manipulative and deceitful, in practice they might not always be as skilled as they would like to be at manipulating and conning others. Affective traits in psychopathy are sometimes considered to represent a deficit in processing emotional information, and it is possible that such deficits might impair one’s ability to learn from one’s mistakes. For the secondary psychopathy traits, which were positively associated with criminal success, the authors suggested that high impulsivity might facilitate risk-taking, which may be conducive to criminal success. Previous research suggests that secondary psychopathy is more consistently associated with a wide range of risk-taking behaviors (Lyons, 2015). Hence, it may be that while acting impulsively can lead to bad outcomes in conventional contexts, in the context of a criminal endeavor, particularly a violent crime, acting on impulse and taking risks improves one’s chances of success. Additionally, although it has been suggested that “successful” psychopaths would be average or high on conscientiousness, because it is associated with better impulse control, secondary psychopathy, especially the lifestyle factor is associated with low conscientiousness, while interpersonal traits are not. Hence, this might suggest that in “successful” psychopaths, at least in terms of criminal success, low conscientiousness is not necessarily a drawback and may actually help them succeed in their chosen endeavors. On the other hand, while high conscientiousness tends to be beneficial in mainstream society, for violent criminals and psychopaths it may actually be unhelpful. Aharoni and Kiehl’s findings are comparable to the results of another study (Morselli & Tremblay, 2004), which found that criminals who scored low in a measure of self-control reported higher earnings from criminal activities. Similar to Aharoni and Kiehl’s finding that psychopathy apparently facilitated success in violent rather than non-violent crimes, Morselli and Tremblay found that low self-control was associated with higher earnings from predatory crimes (e.g., theft, robbery, fraud) rather than “market” crimes (i.e., criminal activities involving consensual transactions, such as drug dealing, smuggling, fencing stolen goods, illegal gambling, etc.). Low self-control is essentially equivalent to low conscientiousness, so this provides further evidence that low conscientiousness may actually be adaptive to some extent in criminal contexts, rather than a liability, especially for violent, predatory crimes.

Just as there has been debate about the features that comprise psychopathy, there has also been debate about whether psychopathy is purely a pathology, that is, a disorder that does not confer any benefits for the individual, or whether it might be adaptive in an evolutionary sense. For example, it has been suggested that psychopathy might be an evolved “cheater” strategy, in which individuals aim to extract resources from others for their own benefit, as opposed to more socially acceptable, cooperative social strategies in which people mutually assist each other (Book & Quinsey, 2004). The finding that psychopathy seems to facilitate criminal success, particularly in violent crime, seems to support the view that psychopathy might be an adaptive social strategy in some respects. Additionally, it could turn out that the elusive “successful” psychopath might not be some special variant who has only a limited number of psychopathic traits, but a regular psychopath who has found a role that best fits their personality and abilities. There is also a broader theory that the reason that people have different personality traits is because specific traits may be adaptive in some environments and not others (Penke, Denissen, & Miller, 2007). Hence, while high conscientiousness seems to confer many benefits to individuals in mainstream society, it may be that even low conscientiousness might be adaptive in the right circumstances, at least in some limited respects.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

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