“The Unscrupulous”: Invariably and Unalterably Criminals? (Part II)

-By Akanksha Singh

[The article is the 2nd part of a two-part series]

Not all psychopaths are criminals/serial killers

If we again consider the example of the above mentioned fictional characters of Sheldon Cooper and Villanelle, for anyone who has watched the shows, it is evident that Sheldon Cooper is far from engaging in any criminal activities, his life’s focus being the Nobel Prize, whereas Villanelle is supposably ‘born to kill’. So, how is it possible that out of two people who have almost all of the same psychopathic traits, one turns out to be a violent criminal and the other one does not?

This concept of differential outcomes of psychopathic traits is not as uncommon as it seems. Not surprisingly, psychopathic individuals are more likely than other people to commit crimes. They almost always understand that their actions are morally wrong, it just doesn’t bother them. And contrary to popular belief, only a minority are violent, hence all of them are not necessarily criminals. In the cinematic world, psychopaths are often depicted as serial killers or serious, violent criminals. This leads to the wide misconception of the common population of the society where they consider psychopaths to be highly dangerous and delinquent folks. This upholds the adage “All psychopaths are criminals if you look for them behind the bars”. However, psychopaths can be having different traits based on the degree of psychopathy (that can be assessed through the PCL-R and many other tests) and the choices they make. Numerous psychopaths refrain from anti-social and criminal activities.   

As mentioned in an article published by The Conversation (written by Scott Lilienfeld and Ashley Watts) this misconception of ‘all psychopaths are criminals’ is largely due to researchers who have tended to seek out psychopaths where they can be located in large numbers, i.e. prisons. This means a lot of research on psychopaths is solely focused on the decidedly “unsuccessful psychopaths,” who are convicted criminals. But a lot of people on the psychopathic continuum aren’t in prison. In fact, some individuals may be able to use psychopathic traits, to achieve professional success. There is also an article published in Health24 that’s centered on the growing realization that many psychopaths thrive in the workplace.

Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in antisocial behaviours but what our findings suggest is that some may be better able to inhibit these impulses than others. Although we don’t know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know that this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more ‘successful’ than their peers.” ~Emily Lasko

So, basically, successful psychopaths (psychopaths with no past or future criminal history) are those who learn to restrain their antisocial impulses. This critical role of impulse control supports the results of research conducted by psychopathy experts that rated conscientiousness as the key differentiating factor between successful and unsuccessful psychopaths. One of the important implications of the findings of this research is that interventions that teach teens how to better control their impulses may help reduce the amount of adolescent criminal offending, but it may do so by helping psychopathic individuals learn to make their aggression more covert and insidious. Therapies and treatments that reduce antisocial impulses in the first place may be a more effective approach to reduce the likelihood of harm-doing by the psychopaths in our midst.

Considering the previously mentioned Primary and Secondary Psychopathy; Primary psychopathy has also been named as the “successful” psychopathy, as having low guilt and empathy could be a great tool for achieving power in the society. Secondary psychopathy, in turn, is the “unsuccessful” psychopathy facet, leading to crime and imprisonment rather than a career in the parliament.[1]

Developing into a ‘successful’ psychopath– In the study conducted by Emily Lasko and David Chester, published in the journal Personality Disorders, the authors tested whether a very specific psychological process, impulse control, contributed to the development of ‘successful’ psychopathy. They analyzed data that followed over 1,000 adolescents (who were convicted of serious criminal offences) over multiple years to examine what factors predicted who would get convicted for re-offences and who would not. As adolescent participants in this study aged into young adults, their impulse control improved, a well-established trend in psychological development. But they went on to find that the more psychopathic traits these individuals had, the more quickly they developed impulse control. They even replicated this finding specifically at how they suppressed their aggressive urges, finding that more psychopathic individuals learned to inhibit their aggression at a faster rate.

The line between success and criminality- Few investigators have explored this “Goldilocks” hypothesis.[2] Moreover, we know surprisingly little about how psychopathic traits forecast real-world behaviour over extended periods.

The charm of the psychopath is shallow and superficial. With that in mind, we would argue that boldness and allied traits may be linked to successful behaviours in the short term, but that their effectiveness almost always fizzles out in the long term.   


Psychopathy is widely recognized as a risk factor for violent behaviour, but many psychopathic individuals refrain from antisocial or criminal acts. Understanding what leads these psychopaths to be ‘successful’ has been a mystery.

As stated in The Cut: “My Life as a Psychopath”, “Psychopathy is a lot more complex than people realize. It’s important to hold people responsible for their actions, not brain formation. People make choices. Psychopathy is not an excuse, and it’s definitely not a reason why someone does bad things. People do bad things because they make bad choices. So instead of looking at psychopathy as this constellation of things that represent evil, just look at it as a different way of experiencing the world, and what a person chooses to do with that is on that person.”

[1] Lyons, Minna, 2019. The Dark Triad of Personality, Ch 1: Introduction to the Dark Triad, Pg. 1-37. 

[2] In cognitive science and developmental psychology, the Goldilocks effect or principle refers to an infant’s preference to attend to events that are neither too simple nor too complex according to their current representation of the world, i.e. the concept of ‘just the right amount’.

[The author is a 5th year law student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s