Are Psychopathy and Heroism Two Sides of the Same Coin?

A new study looking at first responders yields some intriguing results.

Posted Nov 16, 2017

What is the difference between a hero and a psychopath?  

Though they seem like polar opposites, the difference may not be as great as you think. Many of the character traits linked to psychopathic behavior, including brashness, fearlessness, and a willingness to take risks, have also been associated with the kind of behavior we admire.  Behavioral geneticist David T. Lykken even went so far as to say that "the hero and the psychopath may be twigs off the same genetic branch," and researchers are finding new evidence to support that hypothesis.

There are even some intriguing historical examples of larger-than-life individuals who showed many of the characteristics associated with both psychopaths and heroes. Andrew Jackson, a.k.a. "Old Hickory," has been described as a "successful psychopath" who distinguished himself as the seventh President of the United States despite a long history of antisocial behavior – including numerous barroom brawls and duels. Even as President, he was known for his fiery temper and once nearly beat an attempted assassin to death with his cane before alarmed witnesses managed to stop him.  Not surprisingly, Jackson ranked third in a 2012 study looking at 42 U.S. presidents evaluated for key traits of psychopathy displayed during their lifetime.   

But how many other "successful psychopaths" are out there, and how are they able to succeed when so many other psychopaths run afoul of the law? Certainly, there has been intriguing new research looking at the various traits associated with psychopaths (eg., fearlessness, narcissism, Machiavellianism, sensation seeking, etc.) and how it could lead to success in business, extreme sports, law, and the military. For that matter, many of the traits identified by Tom Wolfe in his 1979 book, The Right Stuffabout the first Project Mercury astronauts, can be found in psychopaths as well.   

To explore the question of how psychopathy can be linked to heroic behavior, a new study published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment examined a sample of first responders and how they scored on standardized tests of personality and psychopathy. Christina L. Patton of West Virginia University and Emory University researchers Sarah Francis Smith and Scott O. Lilienfeld focused on first responders (i.e., police officers, military personnel, member, emergency medical technicians [EMTs], and firefighters) because they are prototypes of the kind of heroism that can be guided by personality. In particular, first responders are known for the acts of "small h heroism" they carry out on a daily basis. These are easier to measure than the more infrequent acts of "big H heroism" that often come down to being in the right place at the right time. 

Along with looking at psychopathic traits in general, the researchers also looked at leadership skills, since many heroic actions require the ability to organize groups to help others in emergency situations. They also examined transactional leadership skills (promoting compliance through rewards and punishments) since this leadership style is thought to work well in a crisis.

The study participants were recruited using Amazon's Mechanical Turk online platform. To weed out "wannabes" who might only claim to be a first responder, potential participants were asked questions to ensure they had the necessary insider knowledge. The final participant sample consisted of 138 first responders and 104 civilians who acted as a control group. The first responders consisted of 41 military members, 18 police officers, 22 firefighters, and 57 EMTs.

All participants completed questionnaires consisting of items related to demographic information, employment history, and specific scales measuring workplace performance and workplace deviance (problem behaviors at work). They also completed standardized tests of personality, psychopathy, sensation-seeking, Machiavellianism, and leadership as well as measures of heroic behavior and altruism that have been used in previous studies.

As predicted, personality traits such as Fearless Dominance and Boldness were strongly correlated with everyday (small-h) heroism as well as traits such as sensation-seeking and having a history of antisocial behavior. Many of these traits were also strongly correlated with altruism toward strangers and transactional leadership skills. Traits specifically linked to psychopathy (boldness, narcissism, interpersonal workplace deviance, workplace conduct problems, and sensation seeking) also showed a strong correlation with everyday heroism and altruism. Many first responders reported a history of behavioral problems in the workplace (being arrested or charged with a felony or other offense, undesirable off-duty conduct, etc.).    

While these results shouldn't be used to suggest that heroes and psychopaths are the same, they do suggest that they can share key traits such as boldness and fearlessness. On the other hand, many traits commonly seen in psychopaths (lack of empathy, inability to feel guilt, meanness, lack of inhibition) are definitely not associated with heroism or altruism.

Christina Patton and her co-authors do acknowledge some important flaws in their research, including that they relied on self-reports of heroic/altruistic behavior, which may not be as accurate as purely objective measures of heroism.  For this reason, they strongly recommend more research looking at different ways heroism and psychopathy can be linked. Still, this study does provide some insight into why people who might be antisocial in certain situations may carry out heroic actions in others.

References

Patton, C. L., Smith, S. F., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017, November 9). Psychopathy and Heroism in First Responders: Traits Cut From the Same Cloth?. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/per0000261

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