RICHMOND, Va. — When one hears the word “psychopath,” bloodthirsty villains like Norman Bates or Patrick Bateman usually come to mind. The unsettling truth, however, is that you’ve probably come across far more psychopaths in your life than you realize. Not all psychopaths turn out to be crazed killers, and many use their penchant for self-interest to gain great levels of success.
Now, a new study from Virginia Commonwealth University has uncovered some key traits that help certain psychopaths use their unique disposition to their advantage. In a nutshell, successful psychopaths develop more pronounced conscientious traits that allow them to better control their impulses and antisocial tendencies.
“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.”
When determining whether or not a single psychopath is “successful” or “unsuccessful,” the researchers looked at long-term life trajectories and outcomes. For example, the CEO of a major company and an inmate serving a life sentence may be quite similar in terms of psychopathic tendencies, but the CEO is obviously much more capable of controlling his or her actions and impulses.
“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, explaining the specialized model developed by her team for successful psychopathy.
To test their model, the study’s authors analyzed data on 1,354 serious juvenile offenders from Arizona and Pennsylvania.
“Although these participants are not objectively ‘successful,’ this was an ideal sample to test our hypotheses for two main reasons,” the study reads. “First, adolescents are in a prime developmental phase for the improvement of impulse control. Allowing us the longitudinal variability we would need to test our compensatory model. Second, offenders are prone to antisocial acts, by definition, and their rates of recidivism provided a real-world index of ‘successful’ versus ‘unsuccessful’ psychopathy phenotypes.”
The ensuing results indicated that successful psychopaths were able to control their impulses and aggression more effectively from a young age.
“Our findings support a novel model of psychopathy that we propose, which runs contradictory to the other existing models of psychopathy in that it focuses more on the strengths or ‘surpluses’ associated with psychopathy rather than just deficits,” Lasko concludes. “Psychopathy is not a personality trait simply composed of deficits — there are many forms that it can take.”
The study is published in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment.