Psychologists have recently started taking notice of so-called “successful psychopaths”. These are people who have the same kinds of disturbed personalities as regular psychopaths — but, remarkably, they have no history of criminal prosecution. In fact, they can live seemingly successful lives in normal society.
Psychopaths among us
In 2005, British psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon at the University of Surrey interviewed and gave personality tests to a number of high-level executives. They then compared their profiles with those of criminal psychiatric patients at Broadmoor, the all-male high-security hospital, home to some of England’s most notorious murderers. The researchers found that three out of eleven personality disorders were actually more common in managers than in the disturbed criminals:
- histrionic personality disorder
- narcissistic personality disorder
- obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
This has led researchers to describe such disturbed executives as “successful psychopaths” and similarly disturbed criminals as “unsuccessful psychopaths”. 
But how have the disturbed executives managed to do so well? It seems that their disorders lend them a formidable set of personality characteristics:
- superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity, manipulativeness;
- grandiosity, self-focused, lack of empathy for others, exploitativeness, independence;
- perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, stubbornness, dictatorial tendencies.
These traits can enable individuals to rise quickly through the ranks to positions of power and influence—but without making any friends along the way. They will tend to be regarded as workplace bullies.
The accumulating evidence suggests that at least some psychopaths can do very well in organisational settings. They have been identified working successfully as senior managers, politicians, doctors, psychiatrists and scientists to name but a few!
What makes a successful psychopath?
[Update 19 August 2010]
In a recent study , researchers surveyed hundreds of criminal psychologists, criminal attorneys and professors of clinical psychology about whether they’d ever personally known an individual who was successful in their endeavours and who also matched Hare’s definition of a psychopath:
“social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”
Around two thirds of those asked said they’d previously known someone who fit this description. The examples given were predominantly male and included current or former students, colleagues, clients, and friends. One, for example, was described as follows:
Superficially charming, glib, exploitative of others, deceitful; lack of genuine empathy for others but aware enough to feign concern and empathy well when it was socially appropriate to do so; manipulative of others and would set up situations to sacrifice colleagues in order to advance himself.
The survey respondents were asked to rate the personality of the successful psychopath they’d known and to complete a psychopathy measure of that person. These ratings were then compared with the typical profile for a standard (unsuccessful) psychopath.
The key difference between successful and standard psychopaths seemed to be in the personality dimension known as conscientiousness. Providing some rare, concrete support for the ‘successful psychopath’ concept, the individuals described by the survey respondents were the same as prototypical psychopaths in all regards except that they scored highly on competence, order, achievement striving and self-discipline.
Do you know a psychopath?
If you suspect someone in your own senior management may be a psychopath, why not try the following quiz on the Fast Company website (just for fun, I hasten to add):
 ‘Disordered personalities at work‘ by Belinda Jane Board and Katarina Fritzon, published in Psychology, Crime & Law, Volume 11, Issue 1 March 2005 , pages 17 – 32.
 Mullins-Sweatt, S., Glover, N., Derefinko, K., Miller, J., & Widiger, T. (2010). The search for the successful psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality, 44 (4), 554-558 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.05.010.
Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Robert Hare and Paul Babiak (Harper Collins, 2006)
Hunting the successful psychopath, BPS Research Digest blog, 18 Aug 2010.
See also the Wikipedia entry on Workplace Bullying.