The Surprising Benefits of Some Psychopathic Traits

A new study investigates police officers and adaptive psychopathic traits.

Posted Jun 20, 2018

A recent study on male police recruits found that police officers are more likely to have psychopathic traits.1 The study’s authors, Falkenbach and colleagues, begin by asking the reader:

“How might one describe a person who personifies traits such as superficial charm, callousness, coldness, grandiosity, and calculated behavior; indulges in substance abuse and adventure-seeking to stave off boredom; conceals evidence and lies to the police; and is marked by detachment from others and a narcissistic display of intellect?”

Some people would refer to such a person as immoral. Some, as a psychopath. And those who enjoy reading fiction, might label such a person a villain. But surprisingly, Falkenbach et al suggest that this description also applies to one of the greatest heroes in all literature — Sherlock Holmes.

Readers of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective fiction may agree that Holmes displays a number of psychopathic traits, such as narcissism, coldness, and the tendency to get bored easily. And as fans of BBC's Sherlock TV series recall, Sherlock himself once said, “I'm not a psychopath...I'm a high-functioning sociopath.” Holmes could have also said that he is a successful psychopath, the kind whose psychopathy is more socially and culturally adaptive and less likely to be channeled into criminal behaviors.2

OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay (modifications: Arash Emamzadeh)
Source: OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay (modifications: Arash Emamzadeh)

But could the line between villainy and heroism really be that thin? It can. The authors point to a well-known real-life rivalry in 1960s between detective Chuck Adamson and the notorious criminal Neil McCauley:

“These two men, pitted on opposite sides of the law, shared a professional fascination with one another and even once met and discussed their parallel traits, including their longstanding detachment from others.”

This relationship was depicted in the 1995 movie Heat, with Robert DeNiro playing McCauley, and Al Pacino playing Adamson.

Fearlessness and psychopathy

Psychopathy is often understood to have several higher-order dimensions. Based on a popular self-report psychopathy personality test—The Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised (PPI-R)—these dimensions include Self-centered Impulsivity, Coldheartedness, and Fearless Dominance.3

The first dimension, Self-centered Impulsivity, is associated with impulsiveness, aggressiveness, and egocentricity. Coldheartedness is related to the inability to experience important social emotions like love or remorse. Fearless Dominance, which is associated with fearlessness and social dominance, is perhaps the most curious of the three because it has sometimes been implicated in socially adaptive behaviors―even acts of heroism.4

The authors of the present study note, “Hallmarks of the law enforcement profession, such as heroism, risk-taking, and authority/power...make it conceivable that certain psychopathic traits predispose individuals” to consider joining the police force.1

The study

To check this assumption empirically, Falkenbach et al conducted a study on 679 male police recruits from a metropolitan city police force. The participants were age 21 to 40. They were 62% Caucasian, 20% Hispanic/Latino, 9% African American, 8% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% other.

For comparison purposes, the researchers also used three other samples — 96 male undergraduates; 172 age-matched men from the community and other colleges; and 98 age-matched men from an offender sample at a pre-release facility.

The measures used in the study included the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

The results showed that, in comparison with other samples, the police officers had significantly lower scores on Self-centered Impulsivity, but higher scores on both Fearless Dominance and Coldheartedness.

Source: parameciorecords/Pixabay

These findings illustrate that police officers are more likely to possess those components of psychopathy associated with successful or socially adaptive psychopathy. Specifically, fearlessness can help officers handle high-risk and dangerous situations.

And the right level of coldheartedness allows officers to deal with criminals effectively, meaning that officers can do their job without feeling a high level of emotional involvement, which might result in a loss of composure.

I would repeat a clarification offered by Falkenbach and colleagues twice in their paper, that their goal was to reach a better understanding of the role of psychopathic traits in police officers, and not to suggest that police officers are psychopaths.


1. Falkenbach, D. M., Balash, J., Tsoukalas, M., Stern, S. B., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (in press). From theoretical to empirical: Considering reflections of psychopathy across the thin blue line. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. doi:10.1037/per0000270

2. Lilienfeld, S. O., Watts, A. L., & Smith, S. F. (2015). Successful psychopathy: A scientific status report. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 298–303.

3. Lilienfeld, S. O., & Widows, M. R. (2005). Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised: Professional manual. Lutz, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

4. Smith, S. F., Lilienfeld, S. O., Coffey, K., & Dabbs, J. M. (2013). Are psychopaths and heroes twigs off the same branch? Evidence from college, community, and presidential samples. Journal of Research in Personality, 47, 634–646.