Everything is pathology, except for indifference. —Cioran
While personality disorders may lead to ‘severe impairment’, they may also lead to extraordinary achievement. A 2005 study by Board and Fritzon found that histrionic, narcissistic, and anankastic personality disorders are more common in high-level executives than in mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high security Broadmoor Hospital.
This suggests that people often benefit from non-normative and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For instance, people with histrionic personality disorder may be more adept at charming and cajoling others, and therefore at building and exercising profes- sional relationships. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, and self-motivated, and able to employ people and situations to maximum advantage. And people with anankastic personality disorder may get quite far up their career ladder simply by being so devoted to work and productivity. Even people with borderline personality disorder may at times be bright, witty, and the life and soul of the party.
In their study, Board and Fritzon described the executives with a personality disorder as ‘successful psychopaths’ and the criminal offenders as ‘unsuccessful psychopaths’, and it may be that highly successful people and disturbed psychopaths have more in common than first meets the eye. As psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) put it, ‘When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce... in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.’
More recently, in 2010, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues carried out a study to uncover how successful psychopaths differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked a number of members of Division 41 (psychology and law) of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify, and then to rate and describe, one of their acquaintances (if any) who could be counted as successful and who also conformed to psychologist Robert 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."
From the responses they collated, Mullins-Sweatt and her team found that successful psychopaths matched unsuccessful ones in all respects but one, namely, conscientiousness. So it seems that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the former behave impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the latter are able to inhibit or restrain those destructive tendencies and build for the future.
Board BJ and Fritzon KF (2005): Disordered personalities at work. Psychology, Crime and Law 11:17-23.
James W (1902): The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 1 ‘Religion and Neurology’, Footnote 6.
Mullins-Sweat S et al. (2010): The Search for the Successful Psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality 44:554-558.
Hare RD (1998): Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us, opening lines. Guilford Press.