Are Some Psychopaths Helpful, Even Nice?

People diagnosed with psychopathy have a reputation for being callous, cold, unrepentant, dishonest and impulsive. At work, there are terrible tales of psychopathic co-workers who will scheme, manipulate and sabotage to help themselves get ahead.

But is such behavior always the case?

A new analysis by scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany has found that some people with the primary psychopathic trait of “fearless dominance” can actually show a nicer side, and in fact, be quite helpful and cooperative. There is one catch, however; this person must also have excellent social skills.

“Persons with a high degree of fearless dominance can even be selfless heroes in everyday life, such as life-savers, emergency physicians, or firefighters,” said Dr. Gerhard Blickle.

Not all “psychopaths” are the same, explain the researchers. There are least two different facets of personality that can come together in psychopathy: fearless dominance and self-centered impulsivity. These can occur together, but not always.

“We speak of independent personality dimensions,” said researcher and doctoral student Nora Schütte of the Institute of Psychology at the university. “The first is referred to as fearless dominance. People with this character trait want to get their way, have no fear of the consequences of their actions, and can withstand stress very well.”

She adds that these are those with “primary psychopathy.”

“The second dimension is self-centered impulsivity: Persons with high values here lack an inner brake. Their self-control is thus weak, and they therefore do not have any consideration for others. They are referred to as secondary psychopaths.”

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Schütte and doctoral supervisor Blickle were able to show that fearless-dominant employees can be completely inconspicuous and quite helpful in the social area.

For the study, 161 participants answered questions about their personality, their social skills, and their work performance. In addition, they were asked to name two colleagues who in turn would assess the performance and behavior of the respective participant in the workplace.

The findings show that participants whose questionnaires indicated a high level of fearless dominance were sometimes described by their colleagues as helpful, cooperative and pleasant associates.

“But that was true only when these primary psychopaths also had marked social skills,” said Schütte. “Above all, that included skills that are generally important at work, such as the gift of making others feel well.”

For employees that scored high in self-centered impulsivity, however, the study showed a completely different picture: Their co-workers consistently described them as destructive in their dealings, not very helpful, and weak in performance, regardless of their social skills.

“These persons with high values in secondary psychopathy thus really do have the postulated negative effects upon their work environment,” said Schütte. “And to a much greater degree than when we examine both groups together.”

“Even persons with marked psychopathic traits do not necessarily exhibit antisocial behavior,” said Schütte.

The study is published in the Journal of Management.

Source: University of Bonn