Life Wellbeing The upside for psychopaths: How some turn out nice enough

The upside for psychopaths: How some turn out nice enough

By drawing on feelings of grandiosity, psychopaths can control their anti-social tendencies. Just to spite the world. Photo: Getty
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Why aren’t all psychopaths hiding bodies in the basement or leading vulnerable innocent souls into lives of depravity?

Or just routinely stealing expensive cuts of meat from the supermarket?

The short answer: According to a new study from Virginia Commonwealth University, the control freak tendencies that are used so effectively by malevolent psychopaths against their victims, can be deployed against themselves – for the sake of keeping their predatory nature at bay.

“Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in anti-social behaviours, but what our findings suggest is that some may actually be better able to inhibit these impulses than others,” said lead author Emily Lasko, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Although we don’t know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know that this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more ‘successful’ than their peers.”

In a prepared statement, Ms Lasko explained that when describing certain psychopathic individuals as “successful” versus “unsuccessful”, the researchers are referring to life trajectories or outcomes.

Drawing on one set of traits to hold down another

A “successful” psychopath, they suggest, might be a CEO or lawyer high in psychopathic traits, whereas an “unsuccessful” psychopath might have those same traits but ends up in jail.

The study tests a compensatory model of “successful” psychopathy, which theorises that relatively “successful” psychopathic individuals develop greater conscientious traits that serve to inhibit their heightened anti-social impulses.

In other words, the successful psychopath uses one set of traits, largely their sense that they rule the world, to hold down the impulses that could ultimately ruin their lives.

“The compensatory model posits that people higher in certain psychopathic traits (such as grandiosity and manipulation) are able to compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their anti-social impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control,” Ms Lasko said.

The researchers found their theory held up after studying data collected about 1354 serious juvenile offenders who were adjudicated in court systems in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

“Although these participants are not objectively ‘successful’, this was an ideal sample to test our hypotheses for two main reasons,” the researchers write.

“First, adolescents are in a prime developmental phase for the improvement of impulse control.

“Allowing us the longitudinal variability we would need to test our compensatory model. Second, offenders are prone to anti-social acts, by definition, and their rates of recidivism provided a real-world index of ‘successful’ versus ‘unsuccessful’ psychopathy phenotypes.”

They found that many of the young prisoners with higher levels of grandiosity – perhaps something like self love – indeed managed over time to control their aggression and reoffended less.

“Our findings support a novel model of psychopathy that we propose, which runs contradictory to the other existing models of psychopathy in that it focuses more on the strengths or ‘surpluses’ associated with psychopathy rather than just deficits,” she said.

“Psychopathy is not a personality trait simply composed of deficits – there are many forms that it can take.”

The study’s findings could be useful in clinical and forensic settings, Ms Lasko said, particularly for developing effective prevention and early intervention strategies in that it could help identify strengths that psychopathic individuals possess that could deter future anti-social behaviour.

The curious case of James Fallon

A  2017 report from The New Daily found you can be a full-blown psychopath and not even know it.

But when you do finally work it out, it’s possible to become nicer by working at it. This lends support to the new research.

In October 2005, neuroscientist James Fallon was studying the brain scans of serial killers, as part of a research project at the University of California Irvine.

He was also doing a study on Alzheimer’s that included scans of his brain – and it matched the low activity in areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control.

He said: “I’ve never killed anybody, or raped anyone. So the first thing I thought was that … these brain areas are not reflective of psychopathy or murderous behaviour.”

Genetic tests for aggressive behaviour, however, confirmed the truth: His family line included seven alleged murderers.

And, really, he knew himself to be motivated by power and manipulating others. Family members also reported him to be lacking empathy.

He put down his relative harmlessness to being loved and protected as a child. Professor Fallon said he now tries to be more caring and responsive to others’ feelings.

But as he told the Smithsonian magazine: “I’m not doing this because I’m suddenly nice, I’m doing it because of pride – because I want to show to everyone and myself that I can pull it off.’’