Psychopath. Successful psychopath.

Forest “Tommy” Yeo-Thomas was a real-life swashbuckler, charismatic and daring. The World War II British spy, known as the “White Rabbit” to the Nazis, employed an array of disguises and fake documents to elude the enemy in Vichy France, once pretending to be a corpse while traveling in a coffin. He withstood severe torture by the Gestapo, leapt from a moving train, and strangled a prison guard with his bare hands. He was also known as a seducer of beautiful women.

Most people have never heard of Yeo-Thomas, though most are familiar with his fictional incarnation. He was the inspiration for novelist Ian Fleming’s flamboyant hero Bond. James Bond.

I read about Yeo-Thomas for the first time just recently, in a forthcoming paper in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Three Emory University psychological scientists—Scott Lilienfeld, Ashley Watts and Sarah Smith—use the adventurous spy’s life to illustrate a clinical type they call the “successful psychopath.” Long the stuff of clinical lore, the successful psychopath displays many of the core features of the malignant psychopathic personality—but with real-life success rather than crime and imprisonment. Although most of what’s known about psychopathy comes from failed criminals locked up in prison, the Emory scientists raise the intriguing possibility that many psychopaths are actually thriving in the real world, perhaps occupying the higher echelons of professional life.

In this current literature review, the scientists review the existing evidence supporting the idea of a high-functioning psychopath, and they attempt to answer some basic questions about the concept: Is the successful psychopath simply a milder version of the clinical psychopath? Or is he—almost always a man—an atypical manifestation of the disorder, in which the unsavory traits have been tempered by protective factors like intelligence and effective parenting? Or is the adaptive version of psychopathy an altogether different constellation of personality traits, such as boldness and conscientiousness?

The quintessential psychopath is a paradoxical mix of traits: On the one hand, the psychopath is superficially charming, articulate and devoid of anxiety, but he is also guiltless, callous, self-centered and aimless. These traits allow psychopaths to dupe others into believing they are trustworthy. In an early attempt to identify successful psychopaths in the community, scientists advertised in a Boston underground newspaper for “charming, aggressive, carefree people who are impulsively irresponsible but are good at handling people and looking out for number one.” This yielded a sample of 28 individuals with similarities to psychopaths previously studied in prisons. They had low scores on empathy, and elevated scores on psychopathy traits. But they had normal executive functioning, including impulse control. Two in three had been arrested at least once, and most were at the low end of professional achievement.

This early, inconclusive study suggests that successful psychopaths may be lower on certain psychopathic traits and higher on others—a conclusion supported by more recent studies as well. One study, for example, recruited men from temporary employment agencies in Los Angeles, and compared those who had been convicted with those who had not. The successful ones had significantly lower scores on antisocial behaviors, but the unsuccessful men—that is, those convicted of crimes—had higher scores on traits like superficial charm, narcissism and guiltlessness.

Are successful psychopaths “protected” in some way from their more unsavory tendencies? A few studies point this way. Comparing imprisoned and non-imprisoned subjects, these investigations suggest that successful psychopaths have higher autonomic nervous system reactivity—they are not as emotionally cool—and higher executive function. These assets may be protective, allowing successful psychopaths to channel their traits into socially adaptive behavior. Similarly, other scientists have examined the protective role of parenting for children who are callous and lacking in guilt and empathy. In some but not all of these studies, positive parenting practices, like warmth and reinforcement, seem to act as a buffer, diminishing antisocial behavior in kids at risk for adult psychopathy.

Many of these studies have used a loose definition of “successful”—basically those who have avoided imprisonment. By contrast, a recent study asked lawyers, psychologists and academics to identify a psychopath—defined as a charming and guiltless social predator who had achieved personal success. They were asked to describe their high-achieving psychopath’s personality traits. There were some noteworthy differences between successful and unsuccessful psychopaths (characterized from previous studies): The successful ones showed higher levels of assertiveness and excitement-seeking, and also conscientiousness, including self-discipline. They were also lower on agreeableness. (Interestingly, three out of four clinical psychology professors identified a current or past academic colleague as a successful psychopath.)

Recent work has focused on what’s called “fearless dominance”—encompassing physical fearlessness, interpersonal poise and potency, and emotional resilience. Such boldness is not sufficient in itself for psychopathy, but it may be a marker for the successful features of psychopathy—and may have implications for leadership. Scientists asked 121 presidential biographers and other experts to rate 42 U.S. presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, on their pre-office traits of fearless dominance. They found that fearless dominance was significantly associated with overall presidential performance, leadership, public persuasiveness, communication ability and willingness to take risks. Scientists have examined the relation between fearless dominance and “everyday heroism”—that is, altruism entailing social or physical risk, like administering CPR to a stranger in need. Fearless dominance was associated with such everyday heroism, and it was also associated with early wartime heroism among U.S. presidents.

So are psychopaths and heroes simply “twigs from the same branch”? Perhaps, although the successful psychopath remains something of a scientific enigma. This provisional evidence points to some tantalizing possibilities, but we still do not know for sure why one person with pronounced psychopathic traits ends up as a habitual and cold-blooded criminal, while another ends up as the prototype for Agent 007.

Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.

Comments

Criminology is a very interesting topic, why are some people “deviants” and others are not? I have never actually seen a James Bond movie but I do hear all about them, although, I’m sure that anyone who has watched a Bond’s film wouldn’t think him to be a “successful psychopath” either. The concept of a successful psychopath sounds very much like the concept of a functioning alcoholic and I couldn’t help thinking that the definition given for a successful psychopath sounds a lot like business men and women. Another interesting thing- ” three out of four clinical psychology professors identified a current or past academic colleague as a successful psychopath” as well as what was mentioned about the “more successful” presidents having successful psychopathic tendencies. The whole idea of a successful psychopaths is really interesting, I also like the idea of “heroes” and everyday heroism being associated with Psychopathy- makes you look at “heroic” people a little differently.

Psychologists will be hard-pressed to find enough psychopaths outside prison walls to form a proper sample size because most simply don’t want to be found. A successful psychopath isn’t determined by diluted traits but by realizing early enough that the stigma society holds against even the term is enough of a deterrent against revealing oneself. Most people have no inclination to do proper research, so they accept the conditioning that to be a psychopath is to be a monster in a movie or a killer behind bars. It’s anathema to be without the empathy most hold so dear. Therefore, to avoid the judge, jury, and executioner with a targeted bloodlust, successful psychopaths stay below the radar in exchange for continued freedom. There are problems with this approach, however; for instance, many self-aware psychopaths would like to learn more about themselves and their comparisons to neurotypicals, but I’ve yet to come across a study of psychopathy that doesn’t fall prey to convenience sampling of prison populations. It’s a shame that one of the more efficient means by which to both gather information from real, successful psychopaths and reduce the gross misinformation of the average person is to invite oneself to the gallows. Thus, the masks remain, slipping only when no trace of a neurotypical can be found, when the false personalities can be lifted to reveal the fleeting, faded individuals beneath.

I couldn’t have said it better myself…

“….but I’ve yet to come across a study of psychopathy that doesn’t fall prey to convenience sampling of prison populations…”

Psychopaths are 15% to 25% of the prison population and are only 1% of the general male adult population.
That’s a profound and significant number and much more than just a convenient sampling.

I was agreeing with your overall opinion in my prior reply/post.

Are Betrayal and deceits the byproducts or outcome of the psychopath behaviour ?

Boldness is adaptive trait may be adaptive by psychopath this trait , fearless dominance may be neurotypical trait

Boldness also occur in extrovert personality

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