Inside the mind of the well-adjusted deviant.

succpsycho.jpg Credit: James Boulette

A decade ago, when I was an undergraduate at Duke University, athletes in the top sports programs—lacrosse, soccer, basketball (we were never very good at football)—had a certain swagger. It was not necessarily a bad thing, but in their prouder moments, the attitude smelled a little like narcissism and contempt for everyone around them—local residents and fellow students alike. Sadly, it probably seemed inevitable to many in the Duke community that some of its athletes would eventually find themselves in serious trouble with the law.

Whether the young men that have been accused of raping an exotic dancer at a rowdy party are found guilty or not, the whole ugly episode stands as a product of a privileged, consequence-less environment that allowed the lacrosse team (unlike the heavily scrutinized basketball team) to adopt dangerous masculine attitudes. According to many accounts, the team regularly ignored university rules, local laws and the rights of other people, but was never seriously disciplined. But a moral compass so skewed that it can move from arrogance and beer to kidnapping and rape may have roots deeper than the team’s apparently foul culture. It may be more closely associated with the psychopathic mind.

“[Classically,] true psychopaths were not successful,” said Chris Patrick, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and editor of the recently published Handbook of Psychopathy. “For the most part, they were major screw-ups.”

Still, some people could score reasonably high on the Psychopathy Checklist, or PCL—a clinical tool most often used to study seriously hardened criminals—without being “screw-ups.”

As researchers tease apart the pieces of the psychopathy puzzle, a new category, the “successful psychopath,” has emerged. Some consider the successful variety to be criminal psychopaths who manage to stay out of jail due to intelligence, luck or rich parents, while others use the term to refer to highly successful people who display psychopathic traits.

But identifying and studying a group like this is difficult.

“These people have never been successfully studied, even if they exist,” said Kent Kiehl, a psychologist at Yale University.

Hervey Cleckley first described psychopathy—an illness typically associated with serial killers and maniacal dictators—through case studies of regular people collected in his 1941 book The Mask of Sanity. Refined by Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, who authored the PCL, in the 1980s, the behavior encompasses two broad factors: One is aggressive narcissism characterized by glibness, superficial charm, callousness, fearlessness, social dominance and lack of empathy. The other is a socially deviant lifestyle characterized by being antisocial, hotheaded, habitually unreliable and impulsive. In addition, psychopathic individuals also appear to lack anxiety and be largely free of depression.

Comparing the grandiosity and social dominance of Duke lacrosse players against the traits on the PCL shows some significant overlap. However, the Duke lacrosse players implicated in the case, even if guilty, would probably not qualify as full psychopaths.

The latest view of psychopathy—successful or otherwise—is that it is dimensional, less a disorder than a perfect storm of unpleasant but natural traits. 

“It’s more a confluence of factors that all people have in different degrees,” said Neil Malamuth of UCLA, who studies sexual aggression in college students and other populations.

If a person is high in some of the narcissistic traits but relatively low in the antisocial ones, they may typify the successful psychopath.

“Ruthless, strategic in their behavior, exploitive of other people, but not reckless,” Patrick said, describing the social construct’s character. “Not self-destructive, capable of maintaining an occupation, capable of achieving wealth or status.”

Hare estimates that something like one in 100 people qualify as at least mildly psychopathic, but that would include a wide range of presentations. Among the many flavors of people who have a heavy dose of psychopathic traits would be hardened criminals—but also some people we might consider truly successful. Such a person, according to Patrick, could climb the business ladder by being able to make hard decisions with little remorse (Ken Lay), gain high political office by being able to lie or manipulate people effectively (Bill Clinton), excel by ignoring fear and anxiety in stressful situations (Chuck Yeager) or be driven to fame by relentless narcissism (Madonna). 

Some of the characteristics, such as fearlessness, assertiveness, lack of anxiety and the desire to dominate, could also be useful in elite college-level and professional athletics. But success is a relative term, said Hare, who coauthored an upcoming book, Snakes in Suits, about psychopaths in business.

“If you take successful and redefine it to mean somebody who is actually able to go through life without causing distress and discomfort to other people, then would these people be successful?” he said. “The answer is no.”

In a sense, these traits may be more related to evolutionary success—one can see the reproductive benefit of being sexually aggressive, charming and fearless. Evidence for a biological basis for psychopathy begins to emerge. Tests have shown that psychopaths don’t startle easily and don’t sweat under stress, reflecting differences in autonomic brain functioning.

Using MRI, Adrian Raine‘s research group at USC found that criminal psychopaths appear to have less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex—which is responsible for executive function and controlling impulses—and other neurological differences when compared with controls and successful or non-criminal psychopaths.

“Actually, the successful psychopaths seem to be more like normal, healthy folks—biologically speaking,” said Robert Schug, a graduate student in Raine’s lab.

And maybe the accused Duke students are relatively normal. Frightening, sexual aggression is a fixture on college campuses. According to Ray Knight, a psychologist at Brandeis University, around 15% of male college students have committed rape or something close to it. Both Knight and Malamuth study sexual aggression in college students and have found a suite of psychological traits—including promiscuity, impersonal sex, hostility toward women and lack of empathy—that are predictors of sexual offenses.

The sorry situation at Duke is no doubt the result of a frothy brew of alcohol, peer pressure, biology, psychopathology, socioeconomics, race and an administration that failed at discipline.

“Everything is probabilistic,” said Patrick. “But if there’s a group process like that going on, there’s almost certainly one or two individuals who tend to exemplify some of [these] kind of characteristics.”

“There has to be that force pulling people over the line.”

Originally published April 27, 2006

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