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So You Want to be a “Successful” Psychopath?

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

Within the past two years, the media has followed the recent turn toward exploring the characteristics of a “successful” psychopath. A simple Google search on “successful psychopathy” now renders a slew of attention-grabbing articles ranging from How to Protect Yourself from a Successful Psychopath to Why Psychopaths are More Successful to Is Your Boss a Psychopath? Together, these articles reference some of America’s more fascinating psychopathic fictional characters, such as Dexter, Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street, and Frank Underwood from House of Cards, to create a case for an adaptive psychopath. The recent discussion about the successful psychopathic personality in the media most certainly raises questions about the nature of psychopathy and the ethical implications of concluding that some psychopathic tendencies may be adaptive.

From iDigitalTimes

Before delving into the nuances of successful psychopathy, one must first understand the basic characteristics of psychopathy more generally. Psychopathic personality, or psychopathy, is a disorder often characterized by a constellation of affective, interpersonal, and behavioral deficits. Psychopaths have been known to be especially callous, cold-hearted, impulsive, and superficially charming. This subset of people has also often been characterized as not possessing empathy and as unable to feel remorse for their actions. Criminal anthropologist Havelock Ellis (1890) portrayed psychopaths as “instinctive criminal[s]” and “moral monsters” (p.2.). Furthermore, in his pioneering work The Mask of Sanity, Hervey Cleckley (1941) described a psychopath as unable to “accept substantial blame for the various misfortunes which befall him and which he brings down upon others” (p. 343).

This characterization of psychopaths is largely negative. It is hard to think about how an uncaring, impulsive, cold-hearted person could seemingly flourish in any endeavor in life. The debate over whether certain psychopathic qualities could manifest adaptively remains a question that will largely be decided through refining the measurement techniques for assessing psychopathy. Of course, this will not be an easy debate to resolve. Throughout the history of psychopathy research, there has also been significant controversy over the criteria required for a psychopathy diagnosis. In an effort to elucidate some confusion, Robert Hare (1991/2003) developed the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL). The PCL is the most commonly used method to measure psychopathy traits. Factor analytic measures on the PCL have shown that psychopathy is supported by two factors: (1) interpersonal and affective traits and (2) disregard for social conventions. The first factor more closely aligns with typical conceptions of psychopathy, whereas the second factor captures a tendency to engage in maladaptive antisocial and lifestyle behaviors.

Aside from merely discerning the characteristics of a psychopath, researchers have also debated whether psychopathy is a categorical or dimensional construct. More recent scholarship suggests that there are not “psychopaths” or “non-psychopaths,” but individuals possess varying degrees of psychopathic tendencies (Lilienfeld, 1998). In my opinion, viewing psychopathy on a continuum helps to frame a case for the successful psychopath because one psychopath will vary from another.

People with psychopathic personality disorder may express certain personality tendencies to differing degrees and these differences are usually captured and clarified though developing more precise measuring tools and examining different underlying factors of psychopathy. The range of characteristics associated with psychopathy run the gamut from boldness, heightened levels of focus, superficial charm, intelligence, and carelessness. The quality most closely related to successful psychopathy is perhaps boldness and fearlessness (Smith, Watts, & Lilienfeld, 2014). Psychopaths that exhibit these qualities may perform exceedingly well in stressful business, legal, or academic environments. Nonetheless, more research is needed to examine what arrangement of traits is correlated with adaptive outcomes in psychopathic individuals.

To better illustrate the theoretical possibility of a successful psychopath: say that there exists a type of person that is especially bold, devoid of anxiety, and manipulative in a way that helps her advance in her career. It is not hard to envisage this type of person succeeding in her professional life because she may more readily engage in risky yet potentially profitable business ventures and exude a great deal of self-confidence in the face of uncertainty. This combination of traits may even appear enviable. There are most certainly times in which I wish I were less anxious about an important meeting or more bold when making important decisions. However, the successful psychopathy discussion must be careful not to venerate the notion of a so-called high-functioning psychopath. Just because a successful psychopath may very well exist does not mean that psychopathy in many other cases is not associated with highly problematic behavior.

In discussing successful psychopathy, we must be clear about what successful means and who makes that determination. For instance, a successful psychopath could be considered adaptive because she hasn’t been caught engaging in inappropriate actions, but other people may not think of her as successful if her behaviors were uncovered. Take Dexter the so-called “Avenging Angel” for example—he could be considered a very successful psychopath because he kills people without getting caught and subsequently punished. I would argue that he is successful in a sense, but not in an enviable way. Frank Underwood from House of Cards serves as another example: he is an especially astute political manipulator and lacks remorse for many of his morally questionable actions. I find these individuals fascinating, but I am not so sure many people would want to possess the characteristics of these individuals.

From Erwin Reviews

Alternatively, another conceptualization of a successful psychopath may stem from the idea that a psychopath recognizes her psychopathic tendencies but channels them in societally appropriate ways, such as acting in a heroic manner or taking necessary risks in the face of uncertainty or having great economic success. For instance, a person with a variant of psychopathic personality may find the job of a firefighter fitting for her fearlessness. Society would likely deem this person’s choice to seek out an occupation that matches with her interests admirable and respectable. This existence of such a person is still contentious and more research is needed to determine which underlying factors of psychopathy manifest into adaptive behaviors (Smith, Watts, & Lilienfeld, 2014). In the end, the intentional firefighter differs from sly, undercover serial killer, and we must be careful not to throw the word successful around without defining what one means by its use.

Regardless, the media’s portrayal of successful psychopathy ought to include a discussion of these nuances because these differences in the definitions of successful psychopathy are distinctions that make a difference in how the public perceives mental disorders, such as psychopathy. On one side, it would be problematic for the media to perpetuate a stigma against psychopaths or stigma against mental illness in general. It would be equally problematic if the media framed a successful psychopath as having a desirable personality disorder. The truth of the matter is that we simply do not know enough about successful psychopathy to make any generalizations about successful psychopathy. Just because a psychopath need not always be equivalent to Ted Bundy does not necessarily mean that a non-criminal psychopath is the type of person our society ought to deem “successful.”

Or does it? Only further research and time will begin to shed light on the curious character of a successful psychopath.


Ellis, H. (1916). The criminal (Vol. 7). W. Scott.

Cleckley, H. (1941/1976). The mask of sanity; an attempt to reinterpret the so-called psychopathic


Hare, R. D. (1999). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised: PLC-R. MHS, Multi-Health Systems.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (1998). Methodological advances and developments in the assessment of

    psychopathy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 36, 99-125.

Smith, S. F., Watts, A. L., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2014). On the trail of the elusive successful

    psychopath. Psychological Assessment, 15, 340-350.

Successful Psychopathy Books of Potential Interest

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work

The Psychopath: A Journey Through the Madness of Industry

The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success

Want to cite this post?

Marshall, J. (2015). So You Want to be a “Successful” Psychopath? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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