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Despite decades of research into the core traits of psychopathy, substantial disagreement about the structure of the psychopathic personality remains.
Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) stands out as one of the most prominent.6,7 But PCL-R has received its fair share of criticism, for instance, for not giving proper weight to the lack of fear of consequences, a trait many psychopaths embody.1, 12
To further complicate matters, the psychopathy literature distinguishes between pathological, clinical psychopathy, and successful or socialized subclinical psychopathy, a distinction originally due to Cleckley (1941).2, 3, 16, 17
This distinction has been employed to classify a long list of real and fictional characters as either pathological or successful psychopaths.8, 9, 10, 11
In a new study, Crego and Widiger set out to identify the core psychopathic traits of six of these alleged (real or fictional) psychopaths to shed light on the personality of psychopaths in their pathological and successful embodiments. The six alleged psychopaths at the center of the study include:
Ted Bundy: A cold-blooded serial killer with superficial charm who abducted, raped, and murdered between 30 to 100 young women and girls in the 1970s. Bundy also engaged in necrophilia with the bodies and decapitated heads of some of his victims.
Clyde Barrow: Described as a schoolboy who changed to a rattlesnake, Barrow went on a robbery spree with his girlfriend Bonnie Parker and his gang to collect money for a raid on a prison where Barrow had previously been sexually assaulted. During their rampage, they killed at least nine police officers and four civilians.
Bernie Madoff: Nicknamed a “snake in a suit,” Madoff executed the largest Ponzi scheme in history, defrauding thousands of investors of tens of billions of dollars from as early as the 1970s until his arrest in 2008.
Chuck Yeager: A death-defying aviator, first serving as a fighter pilot during World War II and later setting world records as an experimental test pilot for the US Air Force. He lent inspiration to the Maverick character in the movie Top Gun,
James Bond: A fictional spy portrayed as assertive, charming, and fearless in the James Bond movies.
Sherlock Holmes: A fictional detective depicted as heroic and meticulous in his pursuit of truth in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
The researchers asked 76 participants to read the case histories of the six characters and then score them on three personality scales: 30 facets from the five-factor personality model, Cleckley’s 12 criteria3and 39 criteria not included in Cleckley from other psychopathy scales such as PCL-R and Paulhus.15 Definitions were provided for all items.
The Traits of Psychopaths
The findings revealed the traits that rose to prominence in all or nearly all six alleged psychopaths. They included boldness, fearlessness, assertiveness, dominance, excitement-seeking, thrill-seeking, feeling invulnerable, low self-consciousness, and low anxiousness.
Antagonistic traits associated with pathological psychopathy such as angry hostility, meanness, callousness, manipulativeness, dishonesty, arrogance, and cruelty were prominent only for Bundy, Barrow, and Madoff. Yeager, Bond, and Homes scored closer to the average for the general population on these facets.
Heroes Vs. Psychopaths
Crego and Widiger also calculated how well the five-factor, Big Five, scores of the six individuals correlated with those found for the prototypic pathological Cleckley psychopath.4, 14 Contrary to what has been alleged in the psychopathy literature, Yeager, Bond, and Holmes didn’t correlate with these prototypes.
The authors suggest that these heroes may mistakenly have been identified as psychopaths because of their fearlessness, boldness, assertiveness, and dominance. But this constellation of traits is not exclusive to psychopaths. The traits indicative of fearless heroism differ from those suggestive of clinical and successful psychopathy.
This result seems to fit Cleckley’s original conception of the successful psychopath as possessing core psychopathic traits.3, 16, 17 Cynical, egocentric, and uncongenial individuals in influential positions may be better examples of successful psychopaths, in Cleckley’s sense.
The Successful Psychopath
The authors furthermore found that only Bundy and Barrows’ five-factor scores correlated with those obtained for the prototypic pathological Cleckley psychopath,4, 13 whereas Madoff’s scores correlated with those obtained for the prototypic successful Cleckley psychopath.14
This latter finding is surprising, given that the successful psychopath, in Cleckley’s sense, is someone who embodies some core psychopathic traits but who refrains from serious criminal or antisocial behavior.3, 16, 17 Yet Madoff’s pyramid scheme was undoubtedly criminal.
Crego and Widiger’s results reveal other anomalies. Clyde Barrow’s five-factor scores correlated to a higher degree or matched those obtained for the prototypic pathological Cleckley psychopath.4,13 Furthermore, Ted Bundy’s five-factor scores correlated to a higher degree than Clyde Barrow’s with those obtained for the prototypic successful Cleckley psychopath.14
No doubt that both Bundy and Barrow were psychopathic. But we should expect Ted Bundy’s five-factor score to correlate to a higher degree than Clyde Barrow’s with that of the pathological psychopath and to a lower degree than Clyde Barrow’s with the profile of the successful psychopath.
Although Cleckley’s theoretical descriptions of psychopathy seem to accurately fit our assessment of psychopaths like Bundy, Barrow, and Madoff, the anomalies in Crego and Widiger’s findings indicate that Cleckley’s lists of psychopathy criteria may be inadequate.