Is Charisma The Reason Why Psychopaths Succeed In Society?

Psychologist Emma-Clementine Welsh explains why charisma is an important part of a psychopathic personality.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 25, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality sheds light on an important link between psychopathy and charisma. The research suggests that higher levels of charisma in psychopathic individuals may make them more successful.

I recently spoke to psychologist Emma-Clementine Welsh from the State University of New York at Binghamton to understand the relationship between psychopathy and charisma. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the relationship between successful psychopathy and charisma, how did you study it, and what did you find?

Psychopathic individuals are known for being interpersonally unpleasant, callous, and abrasive; however, some psychopathic individuals have been described as "charming" or "charismatic."

Prior to our study, no other research had investigated the relationship between charisma and psychopathy, nor whether/how charisma contributes to the manifestation of successful psychopathy.

We wanted to understand how psychopathy can be conducive to successful outcomes (both occupational and criminal success) and whether charisma plays a role in obtaining those outcomes.

This study was conducted in partial fulfillment of my Master's degree at the State University of New York at Binghamton under the direction of my laboratory head and coauthor, Professor Mark F. Lenzenweger.

Our aims were to:

  1. Comprehensively define what "success" means for individuals with psychopathic features
  2. Understand why many psychopathic individuals are described as "charismatic"
  3. And, assess whether charisma helps psychopathic individuals obtain more "successful" life outcomes

To do so, we distributed a battery of questionnaires assessing personality and behavioral outcomes to 315 Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers.

A critical finding of this study was that there is a positive association between psychopathy and charisma, such that psychopathic individuals can display some of the same qualities that characterize charisma.

This means that someone with psychopathic traits may also be engaging, charming, smooth-talking, confident, or persuasive, regardless of their intentions.

The other major finding of our study was that 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 psychopathic individuals who were less charismatic.

Your research identifies the differential severity, differential configuration, and moderated expression models of successful psychopathy. In your opinion is one (if any) more beneficial than the other? Is one particularly helpful in creating a successful psychopath?

These three models of successful psychopathy are theoretical in nature. They attempt to model how and/or why successful psychopathy is possible.

Our review of the existing literature and the findings of our study suggest that the moderated expression model has the most empirical support.

The moderated expression model suggests that other characteristics (independent of psychopathy) protect against the more problematic features of psychopathy (e.g., low behavioral inhibition, recklessness, and inability to plan ahead) and facilitate psychopathic individuals' ability to achieve success.

This model emerges as the strongest because, unlike the differential severity and differential configuration models, the moderated expression model does not suggest that high levels of psychopathy and high levels of success are mutually exclusive.

The moderated expression model also maintains the theoretical integrity of the psychopathy construct, whereas the others do not.

What are some of the dangers that a very charismatic psychopath might present, especially for people who are close to such individuals?

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

Employers and coworkers of psychopathic individuals may be similarly captivated by a charismatic and psychopathic individual. Employees who exhibit this combination of traits may more frequently abuse work privileges, violate company policies, harass and/or exploit other employees, or even steal from their organization without being caught or disciplined.

Your research speaks about how narcissism on its own cannot explain psychopathic success. What then makes these relationships between the concepts of narcissism, psychopathy, and charisma so important?

Narcissism was a construct of interest in this study because psychopathy and narcissism have a considerable degree of overlap, as most psychopathic individuals are inherently self-centered and grandiose.

We wanted to make sure that our results were specific to successful psychopathy, rather than being attributable to narcissism. When we removed the influence of narcissism from the moderation models we were testing, the models remained significant.

This suggests that our findings are, in fact, specific to psychopathic features (independent of narcissism).

How does charisma aid a psychopath in evading detection and evading punishment in society?

The literature suggests that charisma is related to persuasiveness, social skills, confidence, and influence. These interpersonal skills may facilitate the manipulation and exploitation of others by individuals with psychopathic traits.

It may be easier for a charismatic and psychopathic individual to deceive, manipulate, or exploit others because of their interpersonal abilities. Additionally, it is possible that they use their charm, influence, and persuasiveness to get out of being punished for bad behaviors even after they are caught.

Is it possible for an individual to be a 'successful" psychopath while lacking charisma? What would this look like?

The findings of this study indicate that high levels of charisma strengthen the association between psychopathic features and success in the form of evading detection and punishment for "bad behavior."

This does not suggest that a psychopathic individual must be very charismatic in order to get away with antisocial and criminal behaviors, only that charisma makes this more likely.

Bernie Madoff is a well-known example of an individual who was both occupationally and criminally successful for a very long time. He likely exhibited some psychopathic traits (e.g., callousness, lack of remorse, conning/manipulative, parasitic behavior), yet he was not considered particularly charismatic.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

Interestingly, our findings suggest that psychopathic individuals do not necessarily exhibit all of the components of charisma.

We used two measures of charisma: One entrenched in leadership ability, and another that captured more general, "everyday" charisma.

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

These findings are consistent with prior literature suggesting that psychopathic individuals exhibit "superficial charm."

Charismatic psychopaths may present as confident, persuasive, and charming, but they are not necessarily "nice" or "warm."

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?

This study was based upon self-report measures of personality and behavior. Future research should include more objective, laboratory-based measures so as to replicate and strengthen these findings.

We are currently conducting research to replicate and extend the findings of this study by incorporating a non-self-report, laboratory-based measure of charisma.