After watching a fairly engaging 2016 TEDx talk titled "Psychopaths and three reasons why we need them" I was hoping to read more systematic/traditional research output from its author, Armon Tamatea. But looking through his publications list I was rather disspointed there wasn't anything obvious since that talk. So, in my vague summary of the talk (I didn't take notes), he mentioned that psychopaths have some useful traits, including

  • coolness under pressure
  • being good at spotting vulnerabilities in people or organizations
  • superficial charm that can oil the social machinery in many occasions

and probably some I've missed.

I see there's a pretty similar talk "Your Friendly Successful Psychopath", which makes reference to The Wisdom of Psychopaths, but I'm not familiar with the book... but a summary in The Guardian goes like:

Dutton's book at any rate supports the idea that to thrive a society needs its share of psychopaths – about 10%. It not only shows the value of the emotionally detached mind in bomb disposal but also the uses of the psychopath's ability to intuit anxiety as demonstrated by, for example, customs officials. Along the way his analysis tends to reinforce the idea that the chemistry of megalomania which characterises the psychopathic criminal mind is a close cousin to the set of traits often best rewarded by capitalism. Dutton draws on a 2005 study that compared the profiles of business leaders with those of hospitalised criminals to reveal that a number of psychopathic attributes were arguably more common in the boardroom than the padded cell: notably superficial charm, egocentricity, independence and restricted focus. The key difference was that the MBAs and CEOs were encouraged to exhibit these qualities in social rather than antisocial contexts.

Of the one more clearly identified research, the analogy with the CEOs sounds a bit doubtful to me in view of research of Fred Kiel finding the opposite being true, i.e. psychopathic-like CEO traits producing negative outcomes in business. So, yeah, I'm curious of the meta-analytical status of such claims, assuming there's enough research for review-like works.

Is there some systematic research that finds there [or other potentially desirable traits] are really more common in psychopaths? Of course for some of the traits one needs to ask "advantageous for who?" or "in what context?", because they may be advantageous in the short run for the self, but might harmful for society/others, so there may be negative consequences for the self in the long run as a result. So I'm guessing a more sophisticated question would be if there's some kind of evolutionary stable strategy that favors a percentage of psychopathic traits...


2 Answers 2


While the term Psychopath is often employed in common usage along with "crazy", "insane", and "mentally ill", according to criminal psychologist, Robert Hare, there is a distinction between those with psychosis and psychopathy (Hare, 1999).

Something to bear in mind though, is that no psychiatric or psychological organisation has sanctioned a diagnosis titled "psychopathy" (WikiPedia, n.d.), yet assessments of psychopathic characteristics are widely used in criminal justice settings in some nations and may have important consequences for individuals. In psychology and psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) written by the American Psychological Association (APA) and International Classification of Diseases (ICD) written by the World Health Organisation (WHO) introduced the alternative and more accepted diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) (APA, 2013 p.659) and dissocial personality disorder (DPD) (WHO, 2010) which is also covered in ICD-11 under 6D10 Personality disorder (WHO, 2018).

Antisocial personality disorder is a pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others (APA, 2013 p.645).

Picking apart the Guardian's review (Adams, 2012) mentioned in the question talking about the book The Wisdom of Psychopaths (Dutton, 2013; Wisdom of Psychopaths, n.d.) the idea that they would be the only ones who can have an

emotionally detached mind in bomb disposal

would brand all bomb disposal teams as psychopathic. The same could be said for doctors, nurses and paramedics dealing with medical emergencies, yet they "detatch" through the use of compartmentalisation.

Compartmentalization is a subconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person's having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self states (Leary & Tangney, 2011).

Carolin Showers (1992) described compartmentalisation as

the tendency to organize positive and negative knowledge about the self into separate, uniformly valenced categories (self-aspects). As long as positive self-aspects are activated, access to negative information should be minimized.

Similarly the

psychopath's ability to intuit anxiety as demonstrated by, for example, customs officials

could also brand doctors and therapists as psychopathic.

Whilst questions like this opens up a good debate on psychopathy, I also believe that just like the above, the idea of psychopaths in business hierarchy is open to opinion. I have also heard of the idea that there are narcissists in high ranking positions within organisations (Live Science, 2008).

These opinions form interesting debates as psychopathy may become accepted in more branches of psychology other than criminal psychology. It may also shape the criminal psychology viewpoint.


APA (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: 5th Edition (DSM–5) Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing

Dutton, K. The Wisdom of Psychopaths. London: Arrow Books.

Hare, R. D. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Guilford Press. p. 22.

Leary, M. R., & Tangney, J. P. (Eds.). (2011). Handbook of self and identity. Guilford Press.

Live Science (2008). Narcissists Tend to Become Leaders. [Online]
Retrieved from: https://www.livescience.com/5128-narcissists-tend-leaders.html

Showers, C. (1992). Compartmentalization of positive and negative self-knowledge: Keeping bad apples out of the bunch. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(6), 1036-1049.
DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.62.6.1036

WHO (2010). International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision (ICD-10): 2010 Version [Online]
Retrieved from: http://apps.who.int/classifications/icd10/browse/2010/en#/I

WHO (2018). **International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 11th Revision (ICD-11)* [Online]
Retrieved from: https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-m/en#/http%3a%2f%2fid.who.int%2ficd%2fentity%2f941859884

WikiPedia (n.d.). Psychopathy. [Online]
Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy

Wisdom of Psychopaths (n.d.). Are you a Psycopath? [Online]
Retrieved from: http://wisdomofpsychopaths.com


Despite common belief, being a psychopath doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a criminal, let alone a serial killer like Hannibal Lector. The characteristics of psychopaths are:

  • Ruthlessness;
  • Fearlessness;
  • Mental toughness;
  • Charm;
  • Persuasiveness;
  • Lack of conscience and empathy.

Combined with a violent personality and low intelligence, these characteristics will culminate in a dangerous psychopath. However, when this person is intelligent and peaceful, it becomes a different story. Then you’re more likely to make a killing in the market rather than anywhere else. Marked positive psychopath traits are:

  • Assertiveness;
  • Not procrastinating;
  • Positive focus;
  • Not taking things personally;
  • Not sensitive to mistakes, even if they’re to blame;
  • Insensitive to pressure.

Those kinds of characteristics aren’t just important in the business arena, but also in everyday life.

In a national survey in the UK, some professions tended to score particularly high on the psychopath scale:

  • Navy seals;
  • Surgeons (not doctors per se).

The above characteristics apply a great deal to these people. Surgeons should not blame themselves if a patient dies. Military personnel shouldn't be thinking about the well-being, or the poor family of an enemy in their vizier.

- Crawford, Smithsonian Magazine, 2012

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting reading. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 8:51
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    $\begingroup$ True. The thing that needs to be born in mind on top of what I said in the comments under the question is that due to the fact there isn't a consensus on what psychopathy entails within general psychology it is still open to opinion. Nevertheless these opinions form interesting debates as it may become accepted in more branches of psychology other than criminal psychology. It may also shape the criminal psychology viewpoint. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ People are more often labeled psychopaths for their actions rather than the hidden underlying processes that govern their actions. One might for example kill in what is seen as a ruthless manner, but only because it is the most humane or efficient way to do something that needs to be done, that is not to say it happens without regret or disgust or even empathy. Also, there are many psychopaths out there, if not most, that are actually fairly frail and lacking mentally, which is the very reason they go to commit their acts. $\endgroup$
    – dtech
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ Same with this one @dtech. If you can combine this comment with the other one under the question, and put some references with it you could turn these comments into a good answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ I've been torn whether to accept you answer which is better a summarizing the material... or Chris' which went through a few more sources. In the end I accepted his because he related with some other work which frames some of the same traits differently, or at least names them differently. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 21:26

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