They walk among us — psychopaths.
These individuals possess a unique constellation of traits: callousness to others’ suffering, a grandiose sense of self-worth, and a manipulative approach to dealing with others. Typically, such antisocial tendencies result in incarceration and other forms of exclusion from society. Yet some psychopathic individuals are able to suppress their psychopathic impulses enough to remain members of society. Many even rise to the upper ranks of business, law, and government.
Yet, what allows some psychopathic individuals to wind up as ‘successful’ versus those who find themselves incarcerated for their harmful and impulsive behavior?
In a recently-published article in the journal Personality Disorders, Emily Lasko, M.S., and I tested whether a very specific psychological process, impulse control, contributed to the development of ‘successful’ psychopathy. We analyzed data from the Pathways to Desistance study, which followed over 1,000 adolescents (who were convicted of serious criminal offenses) over multiple years to examine what factors predicted who would get convicted for re-offenses and who would not.
As adolescent participants in this study aged into young adults, their impulse control improved, a well-established trend in psychological development. But we went on to find that the more psychopathic traits these individuals had, the more quickly they developed impulse control. We even replicated this finding when we looked specifically at how they suppressed their aggressive urges, finding that more psychopathic individuals learned to inhibit their aggression at a faster rate.
We then compared participants who were relatively successful (they didn’t commit future criminal offenses) versus those who were relatively unsuccessful (they re-offended), we saw striking differences. Specifically, the successful individuals showed a link between psychopathy and impulse control development that was over twice as strong as those who continued to re-offend.
The data were clear, successful psychopaths are those who learn to restrain their antisocial impulses. This critical role of impulse control supports the results of a survey of psychopathy experts who rated conscientiousness (a cluster of personality traits characterized by self-discipline and self-control) as the key differentiating factor between successful and unsuccessful psychopaths.
There are a few important implications of these findings. One of which is that interventions that teach teens how to better control their impulses may help reduce the amount of adolescent criminal offending, but it may do so by helping psychopathic individuals learn to make their aggression more covert and insidious. For example, learning impulse control may help steer a psychopathic person away from grand theft auto and towards a Ponzi scheme. Therapies and treatments that reduce antisocial impulses in the first place (for example, teaching compassion for the self and others) may be a more effective approach to reduce the presence and harm-doing of the psychopaths in our midst.
Lasko, E.N., & Chester, D.S. (in press). What makes a ‘successful’ psychopath? Longitudinal trajectories of offenders’ antisocial behavior and impulse control as a function of psychopathy. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment.