Psychopaths could hold key to success, research suggests

Psychopaths could hold the secret to success, according to new research.

Most aren’t cold-blooded killers such as the Yorkshire Ripper, Dennis Nilsen or Harold Shipman, suggests the study.

Instead they hone their propensity for charm, lies, manipulation and a lack of empathy and remorse to get ahead.

Psychologist Emily Lasko said: ‘Our findings support a novel model of psychopathy that we propose.

‘It 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.

‘Psychopathy is not a personality trait simply composed of deficits – there are many forms that it can take.’

It has been claimed some of the world’s most powerful and high-achieving people – including US presidents – exhibit traits of the behavioural disorder.

It’s been estimated one in five business leaders have psychopathic tendencies – such as glibness and a willingness to ride roughshod over people in their way.

Now a study has shed light on the mechanisms behind the phenomenon of the ‘successful psycho’.

Despite the popular perception most psychopaths are not coldblooded or deranged killers, say the US team.

Many individuals refrain from anti-social or criminal acts – but understanding what leads them to do well in life has been a mystery.

Ms Lasko, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), said: ‘Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in anti-social behaviours.

‘But what our findings suggest is some may actually be better able to inhibit these impulses than others.

‘Although we don’t know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more ‘successful’ than their peers.’

An analysis of data collected on 1,354 serious juvenile offenders in Arizona and Pennsylvania identified the ‘compensatory model of psychopathy.’

This states that relatively ‘successful’ psychopathic individuals develop greater conscientiousness that serves to inhibit their heightened anti-social impulses.

Ms Lasko said: ‘Although these participants are not objectively ‘successful,’ this was an ideal sample to test our hypotheses for two main reasons.

‘First, adolescents are in a prime developmental phase for the improvement of impulse control.

‘This allowed us the longitudinal variability we would need to test our compensatory model.

‘Second, offenders are prone to anti-social acts, by definition, and their rates of re-offending provided a real-world index of ‘successful’ versus ‘unsuccessful’ psychopaths.’

Higher initial psychopathy was linked to steeper increases in general inhibitory control and the reduction of aggression over time.

That effect was magnified among offenders who went on to have successful life trajectories – and re-offended less.

Ms Lasko added: ‘A ‘successful’ psychopath, for example, might be a CEO or lawyer high in psychopathic traits, whereas an ‘unsuccessful’ psychopath might have those same traits but is incarcerated.

‘The compensatory model posits people higher in certain psychopathic traits – such as grandiosity and manipulation – are able to compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their anti-social impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control.’

She is a researcher in VCU’s Social Psychology and Neuroscience Lab which seeks to understand why people try to harm one another.

Ms Lasko and co-author Dr David Chester, director of the lab, hope the findings will be useful in clinical and forensic settings.

They could lead to the development of effective prevention and early intervention strategies by identifying psychopathic individuals and deterring future anti-social behaviour.

The study is to be published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment.

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