While psychopathy is traditionally associated with violent behavior, there are many individuals who, even though they may display psychopathic traits, never commit criminal acts. So what leads some psychopaths to become “successful”, say a CEO or a lawyer, while others end up incarcerated? A new study from Virginia Commonwealth University titled “What Makes a ‘Successful’ Psychopath? Longitudinal Trajectories of Offenders’ Antisocial Behavior and Impulse Control as a Function of Psychopathy” hypothesizes that while all psychopaths experience antisocial impulses, those deemed “successful” have developed “greater conscientious traits that serve to inhibit their heightened antisocial impulses,” according to a release from the University.
“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,” lead author and doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology Emily Lasko said. “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.”
To test their hypothesis, researchers studied data collected from over 1,300 serious juvenile offenders who were adjudicated in court systems in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
While these participants may not be objectively “successful”, the researchers argue this sample set was ideal to test their hypothesis for two reasons. “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,” the researchers write. “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 researchers found that higher initial psychopathy was associated with greater general inhibitory control and the inhibition of aggression over time.
“Our findings support a novel model of psychopathy that we propose, which runs contradictory to other existing models of psychopathy in that it focuses more on the strengths or ‘surpluses’ associated with psychopathy rather than just deficits,” Lasko said. “Psychopathy is not a personality trait simply composed of deficits - there are many forms that it can take.”
Read the full study in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment.