Are Heartless People More Successful In Business?

A new study explores the association between psychopathic personality traits and success.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 21, 2021

A new article published in the academic journal Personality and Individuals Differences casts doubt on a widely held assumption in the professional world — that cold and unsympathetic individuals are more likely to rise to the top of the corporate ladder. If anything, the data suggests the opposite.

"There is this public opinion or belief that psychopathy is related with higher success — that individuals high on psychopathic traits would be successful CEOs or politicians," says Hedwig Eisenbarth, a psychologist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and lead author the research. "People often think so because they associate the cold-bloodedness, fearlessness, and low empathy that psychopathy is characterized by with high-income positions. So, with my colleagues Claire Hart and Constantine Sedikides from the University of Southampton, we wanted to find out if this actually has an empirical basis."

To test this proposition, the researchers explored data from a representative survey of over 2300 New Zealand adults. They keyed in on three specific question areas from the survey, described below:

  • First, they measured three aspects of the psychopathic personality — fearless dominance, self-centered impulsivity, and coldheartedness — from a series of questions supplied in the survey.
  • Second, they measured participants' opinions regarding their professional success by combining participants' answers to the following two questions: "How satisfied are you with your current job?" (1 = not at all, 10 = very much) and "How secure do you feel in your current job?" (1 = not at all, 7 = very much).
  • Third, they measured occupational prestige by calculating participants' socioeconomic status combined with employment type (for example, legal professionals versus food preparation assistants).

From these measures, the researchers were able to test their core hypothesis — that people with psychopathic personality tendencies would be less likely to achieve high levels of professional success. They found this to be mostly the case. Individuals higher on the fearless-dominance aspect reported higher subjective professional success while individuals higher on self-centered impulsivity reported lower subjective professional success. Furthermore, those higher on coldheartedness showed lower occupational prestige. These associations held true even when the researchers accounted for other variables that might have influenced their predictions, such as gender, education level, age, and duration of job tenure.

"Thus, mostly, psychopathic personality traits have a negative effect on subjective professional success and occupational prestige," says Eisenbarth. "The fearless-dominance aspect of psychopathy, however, seems to contribute to higher subjective success."

In other words, the popular conception of the cold and ruthless personality rising to the top of the corporate world is more likely fantasy than fact.

"From most of the research, it seems like psychopathic traits rarely have any positive effects," says Eisenbarth. "Even if we think that low empathy and being less distractable by emotional reactions might be helpful for making hard economic decisions, the combination with impulsivity and anti-sociality leads to negative effects that might outweigh such benefits."

A full interview with Hedwig Eisenbarth discussing this research can be found here: Do people with psychopathic tendencies achieve more career success?