Do People With Psychopathic Tendencies Achieve More Career Success?

Victoria University of Wellington's Hedwig Eisenbarth discusses her new research on psychopathic personality traits and professional success.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 7, 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, unsympathetic, and callous individuals are more likely to rise to the top of the corporate ladder. If anything, the data suggests the opposite.

I recently spoke with Hedwig Eisenbarth, an associate professor of psychology at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and lead author of the research, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of psychopathic personality tendencies and professional success and what did you find?

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. 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 after we found some interesting results in a first small scale study (Eisenbarth et al., 2018). We were able to work with a large population-based sample from New Zealand (Sibley, 2020), collaborating with Chris Sibley, Joseph Bulbulia, Elena Zubievich, Marc Wilson and Tristan Keilor to investigate the relationship between psychopathic personality traits and professional success, both cross-sectionally, so measuring both at the same time, as well as with a one-year lag. We measured professional success in two ways: one was to ask how participants view their own professional success, so a subjective evaluation, and a second by a measure for occupational prestige, which was a census-weighted score for their socioeconomic status.

Importantly, we measured not only overall psychopathy but differentiated between three aspects of psychopathic traits: fearless dominance, self-centered impulsivity, and coldheartedness, based on one of the dominant measures for psychopathic traits (Lilienfeld & Widows, 2005). We found that — controlling for gender, education level, age, and duration of job tenure — individuals higher on the fearless-dominance aspect reported higher subjective professional success, but individuals higher on self-centered impulsivity reported lower subjective professional success, and those higher on coldheartedness showed lower occupational prestige.

This was not only the case when measured at the same time, but also when relating psychopathic traits at one-time point with professional success variables one year later.

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

What percentage of the population has psychopathy or psychopathic traits?

Psychopathic traits are personality traits that are described by a normal distribution, much so like the Big 5 personality traits like Extraversion, Openness, or Agreeableness. Therefore, everybody has psychopathic traits, but to various degrees. Furthermore, there is no threshold for "high psychopathy" based on assessment tools. Therefore, it is hard to describe a percentage, although few reports try to approximate this (De Brito et al., 2021).

However, in the clinical and correctional area, thus when assessing individuals who have committed offenses, the clinical assessment measures' scores can be interpreted as high, mid, and low. These measures are however not usable in the general population, as they require (criminal) records for the scoring.

Is it possible for someone with psychopathic personality traits to be a good person or to change their personality?

That's a tricky question. How do you define a "good person"? Individuals high on psychopathic traits tend to cause negative effects on others in their environment, in their relationships, at work (Boddy, 2015; Forth et al., 2021; Mathieu et al., 2014; Stewart et al., 2021). And some with high expressions of those traits have a significant negative impact on people through violent behavior (Roberts & Coid, 2007).

To my knowledge, there is no study that investigated if that impact changes over time. However, these traits seem to be rather stable across lifetimes, so their effects could be similarly stable. And if we consider the research in individuals who have committed offenses, their negative impact has been repeatedly shown in terms of repeated offending across a lifetime (Muris et al., 2017).

On the other side, therapeutic interventions in the correctional space can have some positive effects on behavior, even if those effects are smaller than in individuals with lower psychopathic traits.

What are the upsides, if any, to psychopathic traits in professional settings?

From most of the research, for example also on leadership, it seems like psychopathic traits rarely have any positive effects (Boddy, 2014; Kranefeld & Blickle, 2021; Spurk et al., 2016). 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 antisociality leads to negative effects that might outweigh such effects.

Is there more than one way to define what it means to be a psychopath?

There are different measures to measure the construct of psychopathic traits, which are sometimes (mis-)used to define psychopathy. However, most researchers go back to Hervey Cleckley's description (Cleckley, 1941) of psychopathic personality when defining this personality construct. That description includes characteristics such as superficial charm, lack of remorse, guilt and fear, poor impulse control, emotional detachment, and impairment in building solid relationships, as well as high levels of manipulativeness, dishonesty, low empathy, and callousness.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences in your study?

We did find differences in occupational prestige, with lower occupational prestige scores for female participants, for those with lower education, for lower age, and for less time on the job. However, subjective professional success was only related to shorter duration of job tenure. We did not report the relationship between demographic variables and psychopathic traits in the publication, but as expected, female participants showed lower psychopathic traits, individuals higher on Self-centered impulsivity were younger and had lower education levels, and individuals higher on Coldheartedness also had lower education levels.

What other personality traits are related to, but not necessarily a defining feature of, psychopathy?

We would not consider other personality traits as being a part of psychopathic traits, but we do find that some personality traits correlate with psychopathy. Individuals high on psychopathic traits tend to be lower on agreeableness and conscientiousness, as well as higher on narcissism and extraversion (Sellbom & Drislane, 2020).

After conducting your research, are you more likely to view even low to moderately psychopathic personalities as a threat to workplace harmony?

The variables that we included in this research are more related to outcomes for the individual, not so much with the direct impact on the workplace. However, there is some interesting research targeting this question from several colleagues, which finds negative effects on co-worker's/employee's mental health and productivity as well as negative effects on companies due to counterproductive work behavior. Relatedly, we found in another study (Testori et al., 2019) that in groups with a higher density of high psychopathic individuals there is less cooperative behavior, which is showed that psychopathic traits not only affect that individuals' behavior but also the behavior of the people they are teamed up with.

Do you have plans for follow-up research?

Yes, we do, this is such an interesting area. We have just finished a new study that investigated the effects of psychopathic traits of romantic partners on each other's professional success, to see if the negative impact those personality characteristics have on professional success and partners also spill over into their partner's professional success. Stay tuned for the results to be published soon. The other follow-up study from this will be to investigate more the longitudinal change of both psychopathic traits and their effects on professional success.


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