Psychiatrists Discuss One Reason Why Psychopaths Sometimes Succeed In Society

A new study reveals how charisma and psychopathy work together to produce career success.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 12, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality highlights an important link between the trait of psychopathy and charisma. The research argues that a higher level of charisma in psychopathic individuals may make them more successful.

"Psychopathic individuals are known for being interpersonally unpleasant, callous, and abrasive," explains psychologist Emma-Clementine Welsh of the State University of New York at Binghamton, a co-author of the paper along with Professor Mark F. Lenzenweger. "However, some psychopathic individuals have been described as 'charming' or 'charismatic.' Someone with psychopathic traits can also be engaging, smooth-talking, confident, or persuasive, regardless of their intentions."

Welsh and Lenzenweger's study attempted to understand how the trait of psychopathy can produce successful outcomes (both occupational and criminal success) and whether charisma had anything to do with obtaining those outcomes.

Specifically, the aims of the study were to:

  • Comprehensively define what success means for individuals with psychopathic traits
  • Understand why many psychopathic individuals are described as charismatic
  • And, assess whether charisma helps psychopathic individuals obtain more successful life outcomes

To do so, the researchers assessed the personality traits, behaviors, and life outcomes of 315 adults. They found a positive association between psychopathy and charisma — i.e., people who scored higher on the trait of psychopathy also tended to be more charismatic. They also found that these individuals were more inclined to 'work the system' to succeed.

"Psychopathic individuals who were very charismatic were able to get away with and avoid punishment for bad behaviors (e.g., cheating on romantic partners, lying, abusing work privileges, or criminal activity) more often than less charismatic psychopathic individuals," explains Welsh.

According to Welsh, charisma is associated with interpersonal abilities like persuasiveness, social skills, confidence, and influence. Thus, it becomes easier for a charismatic and psychopathic individual to deceive, manipulate, or exploit others because of these abilities.

Not all psychopathic individuals exhibited all of the components of charisma, however. For instance, in the study, Welsh used two measures of charisma: one measuring leadership ability and another measuring a more general, 'everyday' charisma.

They found that psychopathy was associated with leadership charisma and influencing others but not with getting along with others or making them feel comfortable.

This suggests that psychopathic individuals exhibit 'superficial charm.' Charismatic psychopaths may present as confident, persuasive, and charming, but they are not necessarily 'nice' or 'warm.'

For someone in a close relationship with a potentially charismatic psychopathic individual, Welsh has the following words of caution:

"You may enjoy being around them because of their charm, confidence, and fearlessness," she says. "However, those in close contact with psychopathic individuals are also at risk for being exploited, manipulated, lied to, cheated on, or even abandoned once the charismatic psychopath gets what they want or becomes bored."

According to Welsh, the same goes for employers and coworkers of psychopathic individuals. They may be captivating, but they will also more frequently abuse work privileges, violate company policies, harass and/or exploit other employees, and even steal from their organization, often without being caught or disciplined.

A full interview with psychologist Emma-Clementine Welsh discussing her research can be found here: Is charisma the reason why psychopaths succeed in society?