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Brief Report

The search for the successful psychopath


Stephanie N. Mullins-Sweatt
a,
*
, Natalie G. Glover
b
, Karen J. Derenko
b
, Joshua D. Miller
c
,
Thomas A. Widiger
b
a
Department of Psychology, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74074, United States
b
Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506, United States
c
Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602, United States
a r t i c l e i n f o
Article history:
Available online 23 May 2010
Keywords:
Psychopathy
Five-factor model
General personality
Successful psychopath
a b s t r a c t
There has long been interest in identifying and studying successful psychopaths. This study sampled
psychologists with an interest in law, attorneys, and clinical psychology professors to obtain descriptions
of individuals considered to be psychopaths who were also successful in their endeavors. The results
showed a consistent description across professions and convergence with descriptions of traditional psy-
chopathy, though the successful psychopathy prole had higher scores on conscientiousness, as mea-
sured within the ve-factor model (FFM). These results are useful in documenting the existence of
successful psychopathy, demonstrating the potential benet of informant methodology, and providing
an FFM description that distinguishes successful psychopaths from unsuccessful psychopaths studied
more routinely within prison settings.
2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
There has long been interest in studying successful psycho-
paths (e.g., Hall & Benning, 2006). Successful psychopaths are, in
theory, individuals who t the criteria of a psychopath, having cer-
tain fundamental traits (e.g., callousness), but largely succeed in
their exploitation. Several psychopathy theorists have made anec-
dotal references to psychopathic lawyers, professors, businessmen,
and politicians who have not committed crimes that warranted ar-
rest or have successfully avoided investigation (e.g., Cleckley,
1988; Hare, 2003). It also has been argued that certain psycho-
pathic traits (e.g., fearlessness) might be assets within some pro-
fessions (e.g., Lykken, 1995).
There has been little empirical research characterizing such per-
sons. Widom (1977) recruited participants using advertisements
requesting charming, aggressive, carefree people who are impul-
sively irresponsible but are good at handling people and at looking
after number one (p. 675). Characteristics associated with psy-
chopathy (low empathy, psychopathic deviance, and hypomania)
were found, though participants scores on impulsivity and Machi-
avellianism did not differ from scores of community members.
Widom and Newman (1985) replicated this work using the same
strategy. Hall and Benning (2006), however, argued that it might
not be accurate to characterize these participants as successful as
a substantial portion of participants in both studies had signicant
arrest records, and most were of low socio-economic status.
Ishikawa, Raine, Lencz, Bihrle, and Lacasse (2001) examined the
correlates of psychopathy among successful and unsuccessful
psychopaths within a community sample. They dened successful
psychopaths as community-based psychopaths who escape con-
viction for the crimes they perpetrate (Ishikawa et al., 2001, p.
423). Psychopathy status was determined with the Revised Psy-
chopathy Checklist (PCL-R; Hare, 2003) and collateral measures.
Unsuccessful psychopaths had higher PCL-R total scores than suc-
cessful psychopaths (possibly due to criminal acts) but the two
groups did not differ on traits considered to be central to the disor-
der. Ishikawa et al. though acknowledged that they might not have
identied truly successful psychopaths, as participants were re-
cruited from temporary employment agencies. Therefore ndings
cannot be extrapolated to socioeconomically successful psycho-
paths functioning in industry, public ofce, the criminal justice
system, or academia (Ishikawa et al., 2001, p. 431).
A difculty in studying successful psychopaths is recruitment.
Research with the more socially successful psychopaths is badly
needed, although it is recognized that there are real difculties in-
volved in obtaining suitable subjects (Hare, 1975, cited by Widom
(1977), p. 675). It would be difcult to sample enough individuals
within a respective profession to nd the rare psychopath. Once
found, it is possible that this psychopathic person would not be
forthcoming or would refuse to participate.
Although successful psychopaths may not be willing to partici-
pate in studies, individuals who are closely familiar with him/her
may be able to provide useful information regarding his/her
0092-6566/$ - see front matter 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2010.05.010
* Corresponding author. Address: 116 North Murray Hall, Department of
Psychology, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078, United States. Fax:
+1 405 744 8067.
E-mail address: stephanie.sweatt@gmail.com (S.N. Mullins-Sweatt).
Journal of Research in Personality 44 (2010) 554558
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Journal of Research in Personality
j our nal homepage: www. el sevi er. com/ l ocat e/ j r p
personality. Kirkman (2005) sampled women who had been vic-
timized by a partner who evidenced psychopathic characteristics.
Participants described their partners using the Hare P-SCAN (Hare
& Herve, 1999). These descriptions were compared to ratings of
partners provided by women in a comparison group. The ratings
of the former group indicated signicantly greater levels of psy-
chopathy than the comparison group.
The current study sampled persons within professions likely to
come in contact with psychopathic individuals. We asked if they
had ever known anyone whom they would characterize as a suc-
cessful psychopath and, if so, to describe him/her in terms of traits
associated with psychopathy and the personality traits of the ve-
factor model (FFM; Costa & McCrae, 1992). Lynam and Widiger
(2007) integrated ndings from three approaches describing psy-
chopathy in terms of FFM traits (i.e., expert ratings, empirical cor-
relations and translations of psychopathy measures) in order to
generate a consensus psychopathy prole. Prototypic psychopathy
was described across the approaches as low in ve facets of agree-
ableness (all except trust), three facets of conscientiousness (duti-
fulness, self-discipline, deliberation), and one facet of neuroticism
(self-consciousness) and extraversion (warmth) as well as high in
impulsiveness from neuroticism and excitement-seeking from
extraversion. Several traits appeared across two of the three ap-
proaches. This expanded prole included high angry hostility,
assertiveness, and openness to actions, and low anxiousness,
depressiveness, vulnerability, trust, and openness to feelings.
In the current study, we hypothesized that successful psycho-
paths would be described with the Lynam and Widiger (2007) con-
sensus prole, except that successful psychopathy would be
associated with high, rather than low, scores on conscientiousness
(i.e., competence, achievement-striving, discipline and delibera-
tion). Similarly, the successful psychopath would be characterized
as high in such psychopathic traits as callousness, dishonesty,
exploitative, and remorseless, but low in irresponsibility and
impulsivity.
2. Method
Participants were provided with a denition of a psychopath;
social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow
their way through life. . .. Completely lacking in conscience and
feeling for others, they selshly take what they want and do as
they please, violating social norms and expectations without the
slightest sense of guilt or regret (Hare, 2003, p. xi). They were then
asked if they had known any such person it could not be someone
they knew of (e.g., a person within the media or literature); it had
to be someone they knew personally. Equally important, this per-
son must be someone whom you felt was actually successful in his/
her psychopathic endeavors. It can not be someone who has largely
failed (at least to this point) in his/her psychopathic pursuits. Tar-
gets consisted of 120 males and 26 females (M = 43.48 years old,
SD = 11.63; 86% Caucasian). Respondents indicated they had
known the targets on average for 10.65 years (SD = 11.04 years).
2.1. Psychologists
Psychologists were drawn from the directory of the American
Psychological Associations (APA) Division 41 (psych-law), the
organization that promotes applying psychology within the legal
system. Seven hundred and fty-two persons were solicited by
postal mail, 83 envelopes were returned by the postal service, sug-
gesting that 669 probably reached their intended recipients. From
that number, 118 returned the survey (18%) and 81 indicated they
knew someone they would describe as a successful psychopath.
Respondents (53 males, 29 females) were doctoral level psycholo-
gists (78% Ph.D., 16% Psy.D., 2% Ed.D.). Experience of participants
ranged from 2 to 55 (M = 23) years since earning their degree. Par-
ticipants indicated they knew the target strongly (M = 3.61;
SD = 0.90).
2.2. Attorneys
Attorneys who practice criminal law (N = 642) were surveyed.
One hundred and forty-three envelopes were returned, suggesting
that 499 probably reached their intended recipients. From that
number, 31 returned the survey (6%) and 25 indicated they knew
someone they would describe as a successful psychopath. Respon-
dents (18 males, 7 females) had been in practice from 2 to 43
(M = 22) years since earning their degree. Participants indicated
they knew the target moderately well (M = 3.36; SD = 1.11).
2.3. Professors
Clinical psychology faculty members (n = 1000) were surveyed.
Two hundred and thirty-two envelopes were returned, suggesting
that 768 probably reached their intended recipients. From that
number, 58 returned the survey (8%) and 41 indicated they knew
someone they would describe as a successful psychopath. Respon-
dents (24 males, 17 females) were doctoral level psychologists
[95% Ph.D. (4% Ph.D. and J.D.), 2% Psy.D.]. Experience of participants
ranged from 1 to 58 (M = 20) years since earning their degree. Par-
ticipants indicated they knew the target strongly (M = 3.57,
SD = 0.98).
2.4. Materials
Beyond demographics of oneself and the target, and how well
they knew the person (1 = slightly, 5 = extremely well), partici-
pants were also asked to indicate the extent to which they consid-
ered the person to be psychopathic (1 = only slightly to
5 = complete match/prototypic case). Participants then described
in their own words attributes that made the person psychopathic
and why the person was successful.
2.5. Five factor form (FFF)
Participants completed the FFF, an updated version of the ve-
factor model rating form (Mullins-Sweatt, Jamerson, Samuel, Ol-
son, & Widiger, 2006), a one-page form consisting of 30 items rep-
resenting the facets of the FFM. Participants described the
individual where 1 = maladaptively low, 2 = normal low, 3 = neu-
tral, 4 = normal high, and 5 = maladaptively high. For example,
for competence, maladaptively low competence was disinclined,
lax, low was casual, high was efcient, resourceful and mal-
adaptively high was perfectionistic (a copy may be obtained from
the authors).
2.6. Psychopathy rating form (PRF)
Participants described the target in terms of 15 traits commonly
cited in psychopathy literature (e.g., callous, exploitative, irrespon-
sible). For example, for carefree lifestyle the description was
lacking in long term plans or commitments; lives day-to-day;
happy-go-lucky. Participants described the individual where 1
represented extremely low and 5 represented extremely high
(a copy may be obtained from the authors).
S.N. Mullins-Sweatt et al. / Journal of Research in Personality 44 (2010) 554558 555
3. Results
The modal choice of target for the professors and psych-law
psychologists was a current/former colleague (75% and 34.5%,
respectively). Of the psych-law psychologists 18.5% described a
current/former client, 7.5% of the professors described a current/
former student, and just as many described a friend (16% and
7.5%, respectively). The modal choice for the attorneys was a client
(48%), which may reect that they considered these clients to be
successful in avoiding convictions.
There were no differences between the three samples with re-
spect to length of relationship or how well the participant knew
the target. Attorneys were signicantly less familiar (M = 3.87,
SD = 0.94) with the concept of psychopathy than the psych-law
sample (M = 4.55, SD = 0.90) and clinical psychology professors
(M = 4.48, SD = 0.75), F(2, 134) = 4.83, p < .01. Participants indi-
cated that the extent to which the target met the description of a
prototypic psychopath fell close to a strong match (M = 3.92,
SD = 0.67). Attorneys described their targets as slightly more psy-
chopathic (M = 4.16, SD = 0.67) than the psych-law sample
(M = 3.80, SD = 0.72) and clinical psychology professors (M = 3.80,
SD = 0.72), F(2, 134) = 2.34, p < .05.
Narrative descriptions of the targets were consistent with the
presence of what we would consider successful psychopathy (a ta-
ble of descriptions is available online, see Supplementary Table A,
or from the rst author). For example, indicators of success in-
cluded a top notch police detective, a hero, dean from a major
university, successful retail business, made large sumof money
and was mayor for three years, managerial position in govern-
ment organization, full professor at two major universities,
and endowed professor with numerous federal grants. Qualita-
tive descriptions of psychopathy included utter absence of empa-
thy; manipulated women and children despite pain/damage
caused, dishonest in business, supercial/forced emotionality;
absence of remorse; chronic deceitfulness.
Narrative descriptions also were consistent with ratings of
these persons with respect to psychopathic personality traits
(Table 1). Members from all three professions described the suc-
cessful psychopath as being dishonest, exploitative, low in re-
morse, minimizing of self-blame, arrogant, and shallow. The
mean proles generated by the three samples using the PRF were
strongly related (r = .86, p < .001), using the average of the three
possible correlations. The Wilks-lambda multivariate test of overall
differences among the samples was not signicant [F(30, 152) =
1.38, p = .106]. We completed univariate between-subjects ANOVA
comparisons for each of the PRF variables to verify minimal group
differences. Attorneys described targets as engaging in signicantly
more criminal behavior than the clinical psychology professors and
the psych-law samples [F(2, 139) = 6.03, p < .01].
A table of the FFM proles generated by the samples may be ob-
tained online (see Supplementary Table B) or from the rst author.
These proles were highly correlated (r = 0.96, p < .001), using the
average of the three possible correlations. The Wilks-lamda multi-
variate test of overall differences among the samples was not
signicant at p < .01 [F(60, 166) = 1.58, p = .012]. Univariate
between-subjects ANOVA comparisons indicated no signicant dif-
ferences in how the professions described successful psychopaths
on any FFM facets.
Table 2 provides the mean scores reported for the successful
psychopaths averaged across samples in terms of facets of the
FFM. In order to provide a quantitative indication of the extent that
present results match the predictions of Lynam and Widiger
(2007), we correlated the mean FFM prole with the consensus
prole using dummy coding (i.e., L = 1, H = 1, 0 if not included).
The correlation between the mean prole of successful psycho-
paths with the consensus prole of the prototypic psychopath
was .49, p < .01. The correlation between the mean prole with
the expanded prole was .66, p < .01 (i.e., 2 = L, 1 = l, 2 = H,
1 = h). Consistent with expectations, the successful psychopaths
were rated high in assertiveness, excitement-seeking, and activity,
and especially low in agreeableness traits like straightforwardness,
altruism, compliance, and modesty. Most importantly with respect
to the hypotheses of the study, successful psychopaths were high
in competence, order, achievement-striving, and self-discipline.
We also correlated the mean successful psychopathy prole
with FFM descriptions of prototypic personality disorders (PDs; Ly-
nam & Widiger, 2001). Pearson correlations ranged from .15
(obsessive compulsive PD) to .86 (narcissistic PD). It is worth not-
ing that the correlations with antisocial PD and narcissistic PD (.80
and .86) were higher than with the consensus proles, due to the
use of dummy coding for the latter analysis. Finally, the mean suc-
cessful psychopathy prole was not signicantly related to an
average personality prole based on NEO PI-R norms (r = .07).
4. Discussion
The current results suggest that the successful psychopath is
distinguished from the unsuccessful (or prototypic) psychopath
Table 1
Psychopathy rating form.
Psych-law Attorneys Clinical psychology professors F
a
Mean Standard deviation Mean Standard deviation Mean Standard deviation
Callous 3.22 1.46 3.91 1.31 3.85 1.11 4.220
Dishonest 4.28 1.00 4.43 0.90 4.36 0.71 0.325
Exploitative 4.46 0.93 4.78 0.42 4.64 0.63 1.701
Criminal behavior 2.89 1.41 3.78 1.24 2.61 1.13 6.029
*
Low remorse 4.03 1.29 4.26 0.92 4.42 0.60 1.771
Low anxiousness 3.54 1.17 4.26 0.96 3.63 0.91 4.132
Minimizes self-blame 3.99 1.21 4.30 0.63 4.54 0.72 3.971
Arrogance 4.25 0.85 4.39 1.03 4.46 0.76 0.731
Shallow 4.23 0.89 3.91 1.21 4.03 1.04 1.153
Impulsive 3.16 0.99 3.26 1.25 3.03 1.13 0.373
Excitement-seeking 3.68 1.17 3.68 0.99 3.28 0.88 1.805
Carefree lifestyle 2.81 1.01 2.91 1.41 2.46 1.19 1.540
Irresponsible 3.09 1.16 2.91 1.44 3.03 1.22 0.184
Aggressive 2.53 1.35 3.26 1.29 2.57 1.30 2.775
Childhood delinquency 2.72 1.27 3.64 1.22 2.50 1.32 6.343
a
df ranged from (2, 129) to (2, 139) for all variables except childhood delinquency (df = 2, 95).
*
p < .01.
556 S.N. Mullins-Sweatt et al. / Journal of Research in Personality 44 (2010) 554558
via differences in conscientiousness. Unlike the current successful
psychopaths, prototypic psychopaths are said to be high in irre-
sponsibility, impulsivity, and negligence, and perhaps these traits
contribute to their arrests and convictions for crimes. In other
words, the prole switches from being low in conscientiousness
to being high in conscientiousness. This nding is consistent with
a considerable literature that documents the importance of consci-
entiousness to a variety of positive life outcomes (e.g., Ozer & Ben-
et-Martinez, 2006). Conversely, studies have demonstrated a
signicant negative relationship between conscientiousness and
number of arrests (e.g., Clower & Bothwell, 2002).
The current study also demonstrates the benet of a compre-
hensive model of PD that includes adaptive traits within its classi-
cation system (Widiger & Mullins-Sweatt, 2009). The DSM-IV PDs
are conned to maladaptive traits, not recognizing that persons
with PDs can also have personality strengths. Some more recent
models of psychopathy include traits that may represent adaptive
strengths. The psychopathic personality inventory (PPI), for in-
stance, includes such scales as Stress Immunity (remaining calm
in spite of stress), Social Potency (interpersonal impact and skill
at inuencing people), and Fearlessness (lacking anticipatory anx-
iety) that could have considerable benets toward achieving suc-
cessful life outcomes (Lilienfeld & Fowler, 2006). These scales
largely dene the PPI psychopathy factor Fearless Dominance,
which has been associated with educational attainment, sociabil-
ity, and executive functioning (Patrick, 2006). Similar to the cur-
rent ndings, Fearless Dominance has been associated with low
neuroticism and high extraversion (Ross, Benning, Patrick, Thomp-
son, & Thurston, 2009). However, Fearless Dominance has not cor-
related with conscientiousness and it is this particular domain of
the FFM that distinguishes in the current study the successful from
the unsuccessful psychopath.
One might questionwhether the persons describedinthe current
study should be described as psychopaths, given they did not t tra-
ditional descriptions (e.g., theywere not irresponsible or impulsive).
Though a diagnostic measure was not administered, the psycholo-
gists, attorneys, and professors, who were moderately to highly
familiar with the psychopathy construct, considered these persons
to be psychopathic. Further, these individuals were identied as
having traits of dishonesty, exploitation, low remorse, minimizing
self-blame, arrogance, callousness, and shallow affect (often said
to be among the core features of psychopathy; Hare, 2003).
Cleckley (1988) suggested that the psychopathic businessman,
physician, psychiatrist, and scientist described anecdotally repre-
sented incomplete manifestations or suggestions of the disorder
(p. 188). However, as Patrick (2006) indicated, he did not mean it
would be inaccurate to describe them as psychopaths. Cleckley felt
that these individuals probably have the core traits and underlying
pathology of psychopathy seen within prison settings. Though
there are a number of studies that have examined noninstitution-
alized psychopathy, these persons may not be described as suc-
cessful. The current study suggests that psychopathy also may
exist in a manner quite different from that of the unsuccessful
psychopaths routinely studied within prison settings.
The current study used informant descriptions to provide infor-
mation about successful psychopaths. An advantage of this method
was the ability to obtain descriptions on persons who would have
been difcult to research (e.g., college dean, university president,
police detective, mayor, and director of a medical center). Such
persons have been described in papers and texts on psychopathy
but only anecdotally. This was the rst study to conduct a system-
atic, quantitative analysis of such persons.
Nevertheless, there are potential limitations to the informant
approach. One concern would be whether the informants knew
the person sufciently well. Informants will not have access to
all relevant data. To combat this, raters were encouraged to leave
a specic question blank if they had insufcient knowledge of a
trait. This option was rarely chosen except for the childhood
delinquency item, indicating the informant methodology is per-
haps more difcult for assessing a targets history. An additional
limitation was the relatively low response rates. Low response
rates have perhaps occurred in other successful psychopathy stud-
ies [Ishikawa et al. (2001) did not report how many declined and
Widom (1977) cannot report who considered advertisements but
declined participation]. Individuals in the current study may have
chosen not to respond because they were not interested or because
they did not know anyone who would be characterized as a suc-
cessful psychopath. Mitigating response rate concerns was the con-
sistency of ndings across the different professions that were
surveyed. Nevertheless, the current results should be interpreted
with caution given possible response bias. Future informant sur-
veys might benet from efforts to increase response rate (e.g.,
payment).
Appendix A. Supplementary material
Supplementary data associated with this article can be found, in
the online version, at doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2010.05.010.
Table 2
Average scores across three samples and Lynam and Widiger (2007) consensus
prole.
Average across
samples
Consensus prole
psychopathy
Neuroticism
Anxiousness 2.51 l
Angry hostility 3.55 h
Depressiveness 2.07 l
Self-consciousness 1.69 L
Impulsivity 3.77 H
Vulnerability 1.65 l
Extraversion
Warmth 3.06 L
Gregariousness 4.04
Assertiveness 4.45 h
Activity 3.95
Excitement-seeking 3.99 H
Positive emotions 3.62
Openness
Fantasy 3.43
Aesthetics 3.24
Feelings 3.43 l
Actions 3.49 h
Ideas 3.23
Values 3.07
Agreeableness
Trust 1.54 l
Straightforwardness 1.46 L
Altruism 1.77 L
Compliance 1.93 L
Modesty 1.59 L
Tender-mindedness 1.66 L
Conscientiousness
Competence 3.42
Order 3.44
Dutifulness 2.63 L
Achievement-striving 3.72
Self-discipline 3.38 L
Deliberation 2.76 L
Note. Based on integrated ndings from three approaches describing psychopathy
in terms of the FFM (i.e., expert ratings, empirical correlations, translations of
psychopathy measures): L = traits consistently identied as low in the consensus
psychopathy prole according to the three approaches. l = traits included in the
expanded prole, consistent across two approaches. H = traits consistently identi-
ed as high in the consensus psychopathy prole according to the three approaches.
h = traits included in the expanded prole, consistent across two approaches.
S.N. Mullins-Sweatt et al. / Journal of Research in Personality 44 (2010) 554558 557
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