Everything is pathology, except for indifference. —Cioran

Whilst personality disorders may lead to distress and impairment, they may also lead to extraordinary achievement. In 2005, Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey found that, compared to mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, high-level executives were more likely to have one of three personality disorders (PDs): histrionic PD, narcissistic PD, and anankastic (or obsessive-compulsive) PD.

Thus, it is possible to envisage that people may benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with histrionic PD may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and therefore at building and exercising business relationships; people with narcissistic PD may be highly ambitious, confident, and self-focused, and able to exploit people and situations to their best advantage; and people with anankastic PD may get quite far up the corporate and professional ladders simply by being so devoted to work and productivity. Even people with borderline PD may at times be bright, witty, and the very life of the party.

As the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) put it more than a hundred years ago, ‘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 exactly 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 was not only successful but also conformed to 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 that they collated, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues found that the successful psychopath matched the unsuccessful one in all respects but one, namely, conscientiousness. Thus, it appears that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the one behaves impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the other is able to inhibit, restrain, and even transform those destructive tendencies to build for the future. And this, no doubt, is no small part of genius.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

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