For eminently obvious reasons, calling someone a psychopath is not meant as a compliment. But a recent spate of scientific research suggests that maybe, just maybe, there’s an upside to it. This isn’t to say that a vast number of doctors are suggesting that you channel your inner Patrick Bateman, minus the murdering — far from it. Instead, as David Adam of Knowable Magazine writes (via Smithsonian Magazine), a growing number of scientists are seeking out the reasons why psychopathic tendencies have served some people well in work and life.
This isn’t necessarily a new line of thought. In his 2011 book The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, Jon Ronson explored the idea that some leading corporate and political leaders may well be sociopaths. In her review of the book for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that Ronson “does find an interesting correlation between the empathy-free, grandiose, callous attitude of the corporate honcho who shut down a large toaster factory and the criteria on the Hare checklist, a widely used diagnostic tool.”
Adam’s article focuses on the scientific debate over the existence of “successful psychopaths,” described by Adam as “people who have psychopathic tendencies but who can stay out of trouble and, perhaps, even benefit from these traits in some way.”
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Adam points out that the early study of psychopaths focused more on amoral or ruthless business leaders — but gradually, more of the subjects studied were incarcerated, which led to the term being associated with violent acts. The article describes a shift away from associating being a psychopath with violent or criminal behavior. “Most psychopathic individuals just live around us,” psychology researcher Désiré Palmen told Adam.
Adam goes on to describe a growing debate over whether or not part of being a psychopath involves boldness, which could help explain the correlation between this quality and success in certain avenues of life. The whole article is well worth reading — and it might just make you rethink what you believe about the meaning of the word “psychopath.”