Psychopathy Is Bad, M’Kay?

Apparently, per David Adam for Knowable Magazine, there’s some sort of psychological movement afoot to (checks notes) redefine psychopathy as good, maybe? I can’t help but notice a consistent problem with the argument.


Cleckley (who later identified the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy as a psychopath) drew his insights from people he saw in psychiatric centers. Among his descriptions of psychopaths were people who could keep a lid on the worst of their behavior. He sketched the profile of a psychopathic businessman, for instance, who worked hard and appeared normal except for bouts of marital infidelity, callousness, wild drinking and risk-taking.


Other psychopathic traits can also benefit people in certain careers: Meanness, for example, often shows itself as a lack of empathy. “Within the corporate world, you want someone who can perform under pressure and make quick decisions, perhaps without displaying high levels of empathy, because they need to be able to make those cutthroat choices,” says Wallace.


A 2016 study of employees in an Australian advertising agency, for example, found that senior executives scored higher than more junior staff on measures of behaviors linked to psychopathic traits — such as being initially charming, poised and calm, but also egocentric, remorseless and lacking in self-blame.


“They would find it easier to kind of schmooze with people and use people and so forth,” Patrick says. This type of successful psychopath may turn out to be completely untrustworthy, but they initially come across as assertive and capable, he adds. “That’s what boldness brings to the table.”

All of this comes in the context of certain psychologists looking at how we view psychopathy and wondering why we don’t pay more attention to the “positive” traits and “good things”. Not all psychopaths are violent killers, after all: some are highly-successful corporate leaders!

So, yeah.

What’s happening here is an attempt to redefine terrible, antisocial behavior as “good, really” simply because these characteristics can be shown to yield success in our economic system. Unspoken is an unquestioned and tautological first premise that such success is a de facto good simply because it is successful.

What if—and bear with me here—the fact that psychopathy seems to serve the interests of capital instead is telling us that capitalism is rotten, shitty way to treat people?

I’ve talked a lot about how psychology either can be social work or social control. It seems pretty clear that these particular psychologists are engaged in the latter, seeking to depathologize traits simply because they serve capitalistic success.


  1. David Adams’ piece of fucking miserable bullshit now has been syndicated by Yahoo!, Ars Technica, and Nautilus.

  2. David Adams’ piece of fucking miserable bullshit now also has been syndicated by Smithsonian Magazine.