Unfortunately, very little is known about successful psychopaths. This is because most of the psychological research conducted on psychopathic tendencies has been done on psychopaths who are incarcerated. For instance, Kent Kiehl has done some interesting research using fMRIs to examine the brains of incarcerated psychopaths. His research shows that such individuals suffer from significant impairments that affect their ability to detect emotions in others and to feel emotions themselves.I take issue with the way "prototypic" psychopaths are described here. People have been aware of the existence of sociopaths for millenia, across many cultures. The common conception of the ne'er-do-well violent criminal sociopath has been around for only the past century or so. That sociopaths have survived (and thrived) this long suggests that the sociopaths who are capable of putting the brakes on their dangerous impulses and showing a certain level of self discipline are the prototypical sociopaths, not the ones rotting away in prison.
But what makes a successful psychopath different than an unsuccessful or "prototypic" psychopath? My colleague, Dr. Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt, recently examined this idea in an article just published in the Journal of Research in Personality. Dr. Mullins-Sweatt, along with her coauthors, asked experts in the areas of psychology and law to describe an individual they knew personally who matched the description I gave above regarding a successful psychopath. These experts were then asked to rate this individual on a variety of personality characteristics. From these responses, a clear, consistent description emerged that matched the typical characteristics of a prototypic psychopath in all ways but one: Conscientiousness.
In the personality literature, conscientiousness refers to the tendency to show self-discipline, the act dutifully, and to aim for achievement. People high in conscientiousness prefer planned, rather than spontaneous, behavior and are able to effectively control and regulate their impulses. Prototypic psychopaths are quite low in this trait, unable to put the brakes on their dangerous impulses and incapable of learning from their mistakes. Given this, it is no surprise that such individuals are often arrested and convicted for their heinous crimes. However, the personality ratings of the successful psychopaths depicted a dishonest, arrogant, exploitative person who nevertheless was able to keep their behavior in check by controlling their destructive impulses and preventing detection.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
There has been some interesting research on successful sociopaths by, among others, Dr Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt, who gets interviewed by the BBC here. Here findings are summarized and referenced here: