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Could I be a psychopath and not know it? © Dan Bright

Could I be a psychopath and not know it?

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Answer: absolutely. But that might not be a terrible thing.

If you were a psychopath in the Hollywood sense (think Hannibal Lecter), it would be odd if you didn’t realise that, at the very least, you’re ‘different’ and simply not very nice. After all, this kind of psychopath is essentially an aggressive sadist hiding behind a mask of superficial charm.

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However, psychologists are increasingly realising that you can score highly on one or more psychopathic personality traits without having criminal or violent tendencies. These traits, which we all score on to some greater or lesser degree, include ‘self-centred impulsivity’ (how selfish you are), ‘cold heartedness’ (how much you’re switched off from other people’s suffering) and ‘fearless dominance’ (being less susceptible to fear, stress and anxiety).

On average, men tend to score higher on these traits than women. And don’t tell your boss, but people in management positions also generally score higher, as do people holding far-right or racist views.

Yet ‘fearless dominance’ can be extremely useful in certain challenging or risky lines of work, such as surgery, special forces, elite sport or political leadership. If you’re completely unfazed by the prospect of cutting into a person’s flesh, parachuting behind enemy lines, performing in front of thousands, or making decisions that will affect millions, there’s a good chance that you’re a high scorer in this trait. Perhaps without realising it, you could be what psychologists call a ‘successful psychopath’.

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Authors

Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.

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