While psychopathic tendencies are usually associated with villains like Hannibal Lecter, this article says that psychologists are increasingly reaching a new, more positive conclusion regarding psychopaths:

“Some psychologists argue that the focus on violent and criminal psychopathic behaviour has marginalised the study of what they call “successful psychopaths” – people who have psychopathic tendencies but who can stay out of trouble, and perhaps even benefit from these traits in some way…

“Most of what people think about psychopaths is not what psychopathy actually is,” says Louise Wallace, a lecturer in forensic psychology at the University of Derby, in England. “It is not glamorous. It is not a spectacle.” Psychopathic traits exist in everyone to some degree and shouldn’t be glorified or stigmatised, she says.”

To understand what exactly is a psychopath, the article takes us back to first principles: “In his 1941 book, The Mask of Sanity, the influential US psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley set out the personality profile of a psychopath: a superficially charming but egocentric and untrustworthy person who conceals an antisocial core.

Cleckley (who later identified the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy as a psychopath) drew his insights from people he saw in psychiatric centres. Among his descriptions of psychopaths were people who could keep a lid on the worst of their behaviour. He sketched the profile of a psychopathic businessman, for instance, who worked hard and appeared normal except for bouts of marital infidelity, callousness, wild drinking and risk-taking.”

It is this traditional model of psychopathy that experts are now challenging and is so doing, they are imbuing psychopathy with more positive connotations: “The traditional model of a psychopathic mind focuses on meanness and disinhibition. In psychological terms, meanness is aggressive resource-seeking without regard for others. Disinhibition shows itself as a lack of impulse control. People high in both traits feel little or no empathy and find it hard to control their actions, with often violent consequences.

As part of the recent rethink, psychologists have introduced a new factor: boldness, which they define as a mix of social dominance, emotional resiliency and venturesomeness.

“You can think of boldness as fearlessness expressed in the realm of interactions with other people where you’re not intimidated easily, you’re more assertive, even dominant with other people,” says longtime psychopathy researcher Christopher Patrick, a clinical psychologist at Florida State University, who highlighted the role of boldness in a 2022 article on psychopathy in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology.

A bold person is not necessarily a psychopath, of course. But add boldness to high degrees of meanness and disinhibition, Patrick says, and you could have a psychopath who’s more able to use their social confidence to mask the extremes of their behaviour and so excel in leadership positions. In fact, it may be that the degree of boldness correlates closely with whether someone with traditionally psychopathic traits can make their life a success.”

As a result some firms are now explicitly saying in their job adverts that they want to hire psychopaths! In fact, extending this view of psychopaths has given experts a new & better understanding of professionals who use office politics to further their careers: “Other research has identified people who score higher than most on meanness or disinhibition, but who don’t seem to get into trouble for antisocial behaviour. Boldness may make the difference: Some studies suggest that boldness can be protective in terms of well-being and workplace behaviour.

“They would find it easier to kind of schmooze with people and use people and so forth,” Patrick says. This type of successful psychopath may turn out to be completely untrustworthy, but they initially come across as assertive and capable, he adds.”

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