Wednesday Live: Successful Psychopaths

For October’s Wednesday Live Breakfast Club, we were joined by clinical psychologist Dr. Amory Clarke, who discussed the myth of ‘pure evil’, and whether the notion of the successful psychopath is indeed a reality.

The notion of the ‘successful psychopath’ has become a popular one. Those figures who are heralded as the archetypal high achievers – the Steve Jobses of this world – are brought under the microscope, so to speak, and the extraordinary nature of their achievements are used to identify some form of abnormality in their character. Their personalities are scrutinised and often they are labelled as possessing some kind of psychopathic streak. People have been taken in by, and become fascinated with, the ‘American Psycho’ idea of psychopaths living amongst us, their tendencies going unspotted as these ‘Snakes in Suits’ rise further and further up the high-powered food chain.

For our latest Wednesday Live Breakfast Club, we were joined by clinical psychologist Dr. Amory Clarke who gave the full-house audience of Obelisk clients a rare insight into the world of psychology. There had been much excitement in the Obelisk Attic in the days leading up to the talk. In preparation, we had taken Channel 4’s ‘Psychopath Test’, to work out which of us had the most psychopathic inclinations – although Amory himself was a little sceptical about the accuracies of such tests, highlighting in particular the fallibility of self-assessment.

Dr. Clarke discussed the facets of psychopathy, citing in particular a lack of capacity for sympathy and remorse, often coupled with tendencies to lie, bully and manipulate even from childhood. As far as personality traits go, these are certainly not desirable ones, and thus there has been a recent trend for using the term psychopath as a ‘sophisticated putdown’. Removing a person’s behaviour from the spheres of ‘normality’ and associating it with the realms of disordered personality is certainly an effective insult. The casual use of the phrase and the consequent normalisation of the notion of the ‘everyday psychopath’ has served to create a culture of curiosity, and indeed speculation, around those with perceived psychopathic tendencies.

Amory stressed his disbelief in the idea of a successful psychopath, arguing that the phrase is in itself oxymoronic, since ‘successful’ and ‘psychopathic’ ought to be, by definition, mutually exclusive. So too, he warned against the blurring of three different personality disorders: psychopathy, Machiavellianism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. There is certainly some overlap in the qualities which define each disorder, but it seems as though most people jump to the catchier and more well-known of the three when seeking to categorise someone with a personality disorder. In many cases, therefore, this evaluation is incorrect.

Amory addressed another complex question which is often posited in the evaluation of mental health and personality disorders: is psychopathy innate, or is it a product of formative upbringing? The answer is that most cases are triggered by a nuanced cocktail of nature and nurture, with upbringing and genetics coming together to create such a personality. The audience were surprised to hear that, of the triad of personality disorders discussed, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the one which is most informed by genetics.

We hope our audience left reassured by Amory’s assertion that the popular stereotype of the pure evil psychopath hiding in plain sight and charming their way to the top is, in fact, a myth, and that it is unlikely that such a character is lurking in every successful office!