Mention psychopathic personality traits and the mind turns to criminals. The archetype is a callous killer who entraps his victims with a smile and easy charm. However, recent years have seen an increasing recognition that psychopathic traits are on a continuous spectrum in all of us (akin to other personality factors like extraversion), that they don’t always manifest in criminality, and that in certain contexts, they may even confer advantages.
This perspective is captured in the title of psychologist Kevin Dutton’s recent bookThe Wisdom of Psychopaths, and in the article published earlier this year in The Psychologist magazine: “On the trail of the elusive successful psychopath“.
A useful consequence of this increased popular interest in the positive side of psychopathy is that it’s given researchers the chance to conduct large-scale public surveys. This summer, Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues have published the results of an online survey they ran in collaboration with Scientific American Mind magazine in 2012 (the invitation to participate appeared alongside extracts from Dutton’s book).
Over three thousand people (51 per cent were female; the sample was skewed towards the highly educated) completed a 56-item measure of psychopathic traits known as The Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised Short Form, together with brief questions about religion, occupation and political orientation.
The study uncovered several modest correlations. People in managerial positions scored higher on the inventory overall than non-managers, and particularly on the Fearless Dominance factor (measured with items like “When my life becomes boring I like to take some chances to make things interesting”).
People in high-risk occupations, such as military or dangerous sports, also scored higher on the inventory overall than those in low-risk occupations, and on all three sub-scales: Fearless Dominance, Coldheartedness (e.g. “Seeing an animal injured or in pain doesn’t bother me in the slightest”) and Self-Centred Impulsivity (e.g. “I would enjoy hitch-hiking my way across the United States with no prearranged plans”).
Turning to religion, politics and geography, the survey revealed that non-religious people scored higher on the inventory overall, as well as on Self-Centred Impulsivity and Coldheartedness; that self-identified political conservatives scored higher on the inventory overall, as well as on all three sub-scales; and that Western Europeans scored higher on the inventory overall than US citizens, on Self-Centred Impulsivity and Coldheartedness.
The nature of the research means these results must be interpreted with great caution, as the authors explained – this includes the fact the scores were self-report and therefore may be distorted by attempts at impression management; and that the results are purely cross-sectional, so perhaps working as a manager increases people’s psychopathic personality traits, rather than people with such traits being attracted to management. It’s also a shame that the requirement to keep the survey short meant that other measures of personality were not recorded. This means we can’t know whether the results are specific to psychopathic traits, or whether they might be more parsimoniously explained in terms of, say, (lack of) agreeableness – one of the Big Five personality traits.
Nonetheless, this study represents one of the first attempts to measure psychopathic traits in the general population and it raises many interesting questions for future investigation. The authors said their findings are “consistent with the hypothesis [that] at least some psychopathic traits … are linked to adaptive attributes in everyday life, including leadership positions, management positions, and high-risk occupations.”