Why you should care
Because calling the current White House occupant a psychopath might be a compliment.
How does one go about identifying a psychopath?
It’s not easy, but researchers have made significant headway in answering that question. It’s now common knowledge that men are likelier to have psychopathic tendencies than women. For example, one study on a prison population found 31 percent of men met the criteria, while only 11 percent of women did so.
Psychopathy has a number of higher-order dimensions, including self-centered impulsivity, heartlessness and fearless dominance. The first dimension, self-centered impulsivity, is associated with impetuosity, belligerence and narcissism. Heartlessness is related to an inability to experience important social emotions like love or remorse. Fearless dominance, the third dimension of psychopathy, is associated with impudence and a desire for social influence.
Because they lack empathy, psychopaths are at a disadvantage in human society — or so the thinking goes. However, empathy requires walking in other people’s shoes, so to speak. Luckily for psychopaths, no “walking” is required, unless it involves walking over other people to get what they want. The psychopath, freed from his emotional shackles, is well-equipped to act in an unrestrained, ruthless manner. This is bad news for society … but not for a psychopath, especially one consumed by thoughts of power and prestige.
The “successful psychopath” embraces the darkness to achieve real-life success.
Contrary to popular belief, fearless dominance comes with a number of socially adaptive behaviors. Equipped with a sense of physical fearlessness, interpersonal poise and potency, and emotional resilience, some psychopaths go on to do great things. Some even become heroes.
A 2015 paper titled “Successful Psychopathy” introduces readers to a man by the name of Forest “Tommy” Yeo-Thomas, a real-life daredevil. By employing a number of disguises and fake documents, the World War II British spy regularly evaded capture by the Nazis. According to the paper’s authors, Yeo-Thomas once pretended to be a corpse while traveling in a coffin.
Known as “White Rabbit” to his enemies, Yeo-Thomas once leaped from a moving train. In a move that could be straight out of a Liam Neeson movie, our hero (antihero?) strangled a prison guard with his bare hands. When Yeo-Thomas wasn’t busy strangling Nazis, he was busy seducing beautiful women.
Most people, I assume, are unfamiliar with the life and times of Yeo-Thomas. However, most are familiar with James Bond, his fictional incarnation. Yes, Yeo-Thomas was one of the inspirations for novelist Ian Fleming’s ostentatious, sex-crazed, martini-gulping hero.
The World War II spy is typical of what we in the profession call a “successful psychopath.” Unlike malignant psychopathy, which often involves criminal acts and imprisonment, the successful psychopath embraces the darkness to achieve real-life success.
Do successful psychopaths avoid breaking the law because it’s “right”? No, they avoid breaking the law because it makes sense. By reining in their impulses, or at least channeling them in a more lucrative direction, successful psychopaths often go on to occupy positions of real significance. It will come as no surprise, then, that research shows psychopaths tend to gravitate toward positions of power: Think CEOs, surgeons, lawyers, celebrities … and politicians.
In 2004, scientists asked 121 presidential biographers to rate 43 American presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, on their pre-office traits of fearless dominance, one of the three dimensions of psychopathy. The findings made for interesting reading. According to the report, fearless dominance was strongly correlated with overall presidential performance, guidance, public perception, persuasiveness and, rather predictably, a willingness to take risks. In other words, critics — and some psychologists — who have labeled President Donald Trump as a psychopath might actually be complimenting him: It’s a trait that’s helpful in succeeding in the White House.
OK, we know a lot about who is likely to be a psychopath, but what about where? Are there certain places in the United States where psychopaths are more likely to gather?
Luckily, a June 2019 study published in the scientific journal Heliyon provides us with an unambiguous answer. According to the authors, who estimated psychopathy prevalence based on Big Five personality patterns (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, or OCEAN), Washington, D.C., has the highest prevalence of psychopaths. They’re master swindlers, Svengalis of the highest order. So, it makes sense that psychopaths flock to an area of the U.S. synonymous with political power and influence.
The old adage has it that we’re never more than 6 feet from a rat. Maybe the same thing can be said, at least in the nation’s capital, for psychopaths.
Dr. John Glynn is a professor of psychology at the University of Bahrain in Manama.