The Journal of Social Psychology, 1982, 117, 135-142.
SOME APPARENT ADVANTAGES OF SUBCLINICAL PSYCHOPATHY*
University of New South Wales, Australia
J. J. RAY AND J. A. B. RAY
Classical descriptions of the psychopathic personality include a number of highly desirable characteristics in addition to the obviously undesirable ones. Following Eysenck, it is hypothesized that this personality type is not a type at all but merely an extreme of normal personality traits. Subclinical manifestations of psychopathy are therefore studied. The MMPI "PD" scale was administered together with other scales to a random postal sample of the Australian State of New South Wales. The resulting sample of 128 people showed a representative demographic structure. High "PD" scores were found to be associated with honesty (low lie scale scores), permissiveness, good perceived relationships with others, denial of being tough and rejection of punitiveness. They were also correlated with Machiavellianism and lesser education. It was concluded that as long as psychopaths can keep out of trouble, they may have many advantages over others.
"Likeable," "Charming," "Intelligent," "Alert," "Impressive," "Confidence-inspiring," and "A great success with the ladies": These are the sorts of descriptions repeatedly used by Cleckley (2) in his justly famous case-studies of psychopaths. They are also, of course, "irresponsible," "self-destructive," and the like.
These descriptions highlight the great frustrations and puzzles that surround the study of psychopathy. Psychopaths seem to have in abundance the very traits most desired by normal persons. When so many so-called normal individuals attend assertiveness training, the untroubled self-confidence of the psychopath seems almost like an impossible dream. When many young persons are feeling the need for social skills training, the magnetic attraction of the psychopath for members of the opposite sex must seem almost supernatural.
Cleckley's seminal hypothesis concerning the psychopath is that he suffers from a very real mental illness indeed: affective deficit. He feels emotions of only the shallowest kinds. He does bizarre and self-destructive things because consequences that would fill the ordinary man with shame, self-loathing, and embarrassment move the psychopath only to a trivial degree. What to others would be a disaster is to him merely a fleeting inconvenience. Cleckley also gives grounds for the view that psychopathy is quite common in the community at large. He has collected some cases of psychopaths who generally function normally in the community as businessmen, doctors, and even psychiatrists.
Perhaps the most notable of the theories connecting psychopathy with normal behavior is that of Eysenck (e.g., 3), who regards the primary psychopath as being very largely someone who is a high scorer on his "P" scale, though all psychopaths are also said to be neurotic and extroverted. The main point here, however, regardless of the particular scales, is that Eysenck sees criminal psychopathy as an extreme of a "normal" personality dimension (or dimensions). Widom (9) also characterizes criminal psychopaths as unsuccessful psychopaths. The implication, of course, is that many psychopaths may exist in society who cope better than do those who come to the attention of the judicial and welfare systems. Harrington (6) goes so far as to say that the psychopath is in fact the man of the future. He is the new man being produced by the evolutionary pressures of modern life. Smith (8), however, sets out a number of criticisms of this view generally focusing on the real disabilities that the clinical psychopath also suffers.
The study of "ambulatory" psychopaths has, however, hardly begun. Very little is known about subcriminal psychopathy. Eysenck's work appears primarily to be concerned with psychoticism, with psychopathy being included as merely an (arguable) subcategory. Given the lengths to which Cleckley goes in stressing the vast differences between psychotics and psychopaths, Eysenck's approach seems at least unnecessarily confusing. Nonetheless, the concern and the approach in the present study are thoroughly Eysenckian: It is desired to study psychopathy not as an artificial clinical category but as a general personality trait in the community at large. With that approach, the guiding question will be whether subclinical psychopaths might not have the advantages of the institutionalized psychopath without the otherwise-observed very severe disadvantages.
The major barrier to the study of psychopathy as a normal personality trait has been doubt about how it might be measured. The most widely used index of the psychopathic personality is the MMPI "PD" scale. Like all the MMPI scales, however, this scale was created solely by reference to the responses of a clinical group. Its claim therefore is to measure clinical psychopathy. Subclinical psychopathy might be quite different.
In her pioneering study of "normal" psychopaths, however, Widom (9) found the PD scale useful. Some exploration of what it might measure among a general population sample is therefore of some potential interest. It seems logical that if the scale measures psychopathy at all, normal psychopaths should show at least some elevation of scores on it. It is therefore the PD scale which forms the basis of the present work.
The scale was included in a questionnaire together with four exploratory scales, two of which were designed to measure psychopathic self-perceptions (toughness and ability to relate to others) and two to measure psychopathic attitudes (permissiveness towards children and punitiveness towards criminals). Also included because of its apparent conceptual relevance to psychopathy was the Christie and Gels (1) Likert-form "Machiavellianism" scale. Finally, a short social-desirability scale (4) was added to check on any artifact from this source. Given the almost destructive honesty of the psychopath when he is not explicitly trying to manipulate people, the prospects for a study free of this artifact seemed, however, unusually good.
The attributes chosen for measurement represent only a small selection of those that could have been included. Although any selection is of necessity highly arbitrary, the chosen attributes are thought to be ones that are implied in much discussion of clinical psychopathy. It was desired to see whether the correlates of psychopathy among normals would differ.
A question that might arise concerns the validity of the first four of the six additional scales mentioned above. Why were four exploratory scales used in addition to the two well-established personality scales? The two scales of self-perception were used because it was thought that how things seemed from the person's own point of view was the most relevant area of enquiry. Whether or not one actually relates well to others may be a matter of some dispute and considerable value judgment, but if the person himself is happy with his own relationships, that surely is of itself of some importance. By concentrating on how things seemed from the person's own point of view, then, it was hoped to avoid disputes about what constituted good interpersonal adjustment. From Cleckley's case studies, it would seem that clinical psychopaths do see themselves as getting on well with others and as being tough, with both perceptions having some element of truth.
Can any scale of self-perceptions be validated? It is here contended that validation in most senses is irrelevant. A valid scale of self-perceptions would of course be an ordinary personality scale and such validation may have interest in its own right, although many self-perceptions will inevitably have little correspondence to any objectively measured reality. For validation purposes, then, a scale of self-perceptions has to be treated like an attitude scale. Since a personality scale is generally one which asks about a person's characteristic behavior, its validity can be checked by comparing the responses on it with behavior observed in some other way. This is not true with attitude scales. Attitudes cannot directly be observed. The person himself is the only authority on what his attitudes are. Nor can we test his attitude report (as courts of law try to do) by comparing his attitudes with his behavior. The attitude-behavior discrepancy is well-known among social scientists (7). The only validity check we can usually carry out on an attitude scale is to observe whether or not the responses are internally consistent. To this end, all scales in the present study were item analyzed before use and assessed in terms of Cronbach's "alpha" (an internal reliability statistic which corresponds in fact to the mean of all possible split halves). If internal consistency is low, alpha will be depressed. "Alpha" is preferable to a direct measure of homogeneity (such as mean inter-item correlation) because it has the additional feature of making some allowance for test length (number of items in the scale). When alpha is adequate, the ultimate interest in use of an attitude scale is the particular items which are grouped together in it. The items of the present scales are therefore available gratis from the authors.
The PD scale followed by the other scales was put into a single questionnaire and mailed to a sample of Australians chosen at random from the electoral rolls of the State of New South Wales. Because electoral enrolment (voter registration) is compulsory in Australia, the sampling frame was unusually comprehensive. The major omission would be recent immigrants. It should be noted, however, that the Australian franchise is so expansive that even many non-citizens are allowed to vote and appear on the rolls (i.e., if they are citizens of some other British Commonwealth country).
Before inclusion in the questionnaire, all PD items were examined for suitability in a postal administration. Only two out of 50 (dealing with sex practices) had to be revised.
Of the 500 questionnaires despatched, 128 were returned. The distribution of demographic characteristics observed in the resultant sample was indistinguishable from that observed in contemporaneous random doorstep samples carried out in the Sydney (the New South Wales State capital) metropolitan area. Thus although the final sample was certainly not random, it was at least representative in terms of age, occupation, and education.
On the assumption that psychopathy might be sex-related, the questionnaire had been sent to males only. Thirty-five of those returned, however, had been answered by females. Analysis showed, however, that PD score was fortunately not sex-related (r = -.140). All subsequent analyses are therefore based on the combined group.
Under item-analysis, 18 PD scale items were found not to correlate significantly with the scale total. This left a 32-item scale with a reliability of .85. Because of its clinical origin, the number of PD items that had to be deleted was not unexpected. It might be noted, however, that shortening a scale from 50 to 32 items could seriously alter its validity properties. That this is highly unlikely in the present case can be seen from the correlation between the two forms of the scale. At .937 the correlation is high enough to warrant the claim that whatever the 50-item scale measures, the 32-item scale measures also. Reliabilities for the remaining (much shorter) scales were as follows: Toughness .63, Social Desirability .58, Relationships .'76, Permissiveness .60, Punitiveness .78, and Machiavellianism .70.
Psychopathic tendencies in the normal population then were found to be associated with a perception of one's self as not tough (r = -.20) and as relating well to others (r = .22). Such tendencies were also associated with attitudes of permissiveness towards children (r = -.24) and rejection of punitiveness towards criminals (r = -.22). Psychopathy also was related to Machiavellianism (r = .48) and poorer education (r = -.21). Best of all, however, psychopaths were exceptionally truthful about themselves. The correlation between PD score and Social Desirability was -.32. All correlations mentioned are significant at the .05 level. The correlations with the 50-item scale closely paralleled those (derived from the 32-item PD scale) given above.
Finally, it seemed appropriate to attempt to give consideration to the view that psychopathy is not a continuous variable but rather an isolated clinical category with no "normal" counterparts. One way of taking at least a preliminary look at this proposition is to test whether or not the observed relationships would survive a division of all PD scores into "highs" versus "lows." Since dividing a continuous variable into two categories normally throws away a great deal of information, the significance of relationships can only survive such a procedure relatively unscathed if most of the discrimination is in any case grouped in a category rather than in a continuous way: e.g., if most of the discrimination derived from the characteristics of a small atypical group of high scorers.
To this end, the top third of the sample in terms of their PD scores has been divided from the bottom two-thirds and compared for differences in their mean scores on other variables. Only the relationships with perceived toughness and Machiavellianism survive, with ts of 2.03 and 4.23. Clearly, much of the discrimination available from continuous scoring of the PD scale is lost. Since, then, the PD scale gives substantial discrimination throughout its range, the view that this scale works only to discriminate very high scorers is counterindicated. Category-type treatment of the data was then inappropriate.
Generally, the correlations reveal the subclinical psychopath as a person rather remarkably like many people's ideal self-conception. Who would not like to be honest, to be happy with one's relationships, to feel sensitive rather than tough, to be permissive and impunitive? Only the correlations with education and Machiavellianism provide a jarring note. Perhaps, however, even the amorality of the Machiavellian fits in rather well with a defensible rejection of absolute moral standards.
Is not in fact the psychopath too good to be true? Could what we are seeing in the above correlations be just another example of psychopathic dissimulation? While this explanation cannot be absolutely ruled out, the evidence of the social-desirability correlation is against it. The questionnaire method in general is rather limited by its reliance on the honesty of the respondent; yet in the case of the psychopath it is precisely this limitation which is largely absent. Exceptional honesty in self-description on the part of the psychopath was both expected on the basis of previous observations and obtained on the present occasion. Perhaps, then, the validity of the Marlowe-Crowne social-desirability items should be questioned in their present application. Could it not be that psychopaths are acquainted with the tricks of the psychologist? Perhaps they can see through lie scales and fake an honest response on them. Again, the evidence is against this explanation. Far from being an exceptionally sophisticated group, psychopaths have been shown to be on the whole a, rather poorly educated group.
Is it, then, the PD scale which is at fault? Does it really measure psychopathy? Since even clinical cases of psychopathy can often not be uncontroversially diagnosed, this is an unanswerable question. Only a much greater level of agreement about what constitutes psychopathy than that which prevails at the moment could enable a definitive answer. Given the in-built criterion-groups validity that arises from the scale's method of construction and the homogeneity of the items observed on the present occasion, we can, however, say that the scale measures something consistently and that what that is must have at least something to do with what is clinically described as psychopathy.
Overall, then, the most parsimonious explanation of the present results may be that we have here again an example of an inverted U function. Both extremely high and extremely low levels of psychopathy may be maladaptive, with intermediate levels being most adaptive. The basis for saying that high levels of psychopathy are maladaptive is, of course, the trouble into which clinical psychopaths often get themselves. The basis for saying that low levels of psychopathy may also be maladaptive stems from the common observation of the role of anxiety in psychopathy: Psychopaths do not seem to show any anxiety (5, 6). The debilitating function of high levels of anxiety hardly needs to be stressed. In a normal, non institutionalized population, therefore, their relative immunity from anxiety may give psychopaths an advantage. While anxiety as such was not studied in the present paper, this well-documented relationship between psychopathy and anxiety may at least serve as a hypothesis to explain the relatively favorable picture of the psychopath that emerged from the present study.
1. CHRISTIE, R., & GEIS, F. L. Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic, 1970.
2. CLECKLEY, H. The Mask of Sanity (5th ed.) St. Louis, Mo.: C.V. Mosby, 1976.
3. EYSENCK, H. J., & EYSENCK, S. B. G. Psychopathy, personality and genetics. Chap. 12 in R. D. Hare & D. Schalling (Eds.), Psychopathic Behavior: Approaches to Research. Chichester, England: Wiley, 1978.
4. GREENWALD, H. J., & SATOW, Y. A short social desirability scale. Psychol. Rep., 1970, 27, 131-135.
5. HARE, R. D. Psychopathy: Theory and Research. New York: Wiley, 1970.
6. HARRINGTON, A. Psychopaths. St. Albans, England: Panther Books, 1974.
7. RAY, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.
8. SMITH, R. J. The Psychopath in Society. New York: Academic, 1978.
9. WIDOM, C. S. A methodology for studying non-institutionalized psychopaths. Chap. 5 in R. D. Hare & D. Schalling (Eds.), Psychopathic Behaviour: Approaches to Research. Chichester, England: Wiley, 1978.
School of Sociology, University of New South Wales P.O. Box 1, Kensington, New South Wales, 2033, Australia
* Received in the Editorial Office, Provincetown, Massachusetts, on July 31, 1981. Copyright, 1982, by The Journal Press.
APPENDIX -- STATEMENTS PRESENTED
Scale of perceived toughness
1. I can stand pain more easily than other people generally seem to be able to do.
2. People usually walk all over me. (R)
3. I generally give in rather than fight. (R)
4. I usually get what I want in life.
5. I tend to be a bit of a coward. (R)
6. There are few obstacles I can't get around if I really want something.
7. Even as a child I was a pretty tough customer.
8. I would never be able to withstand torture. (R)
Scale of perceived social ease
1. I don't get on with other people very well.
2. I make friends easily (R)
3. I feel that my relationships with other people are generally rather shallow.
4. I find it hard to get really close to anybody.
5. I generally feel comfortable with other people (R)
6. I like people (R)
7. People are an open book to me. (R)
8. My friendships don't generally last very long.
Scale of attitude to children (Permissiveness versus discipline)
1. Spare the rod and spoil the child.
2. Children should be seen and not heard.
3. Physical punishment of children should be outlawed. (R)
4. Children need plenty of discipline.
5. Children respond well to a firm hand.
6. Children should be left to do pretty much as they please. (R)
7. Sometimes physical punishment is the only thing children seem to understand.
Scale of attitude towards criminals (Punitiveness)
1. Punishment does not deter crime. (R)
2. Prison sentences today are not long enough.
3. The life sentence far serious crime should mean life.
4. More criminals should be made to do hard labour when they are in prisons.
5. Prisons should be more like hospitals or schools than they are today. (R)
6. What criminals need is guidance rather than punishment. (R)
7. Prisons should be more humane than they are today. (R)
8. Flogging should have no place in a modern prison system. (R)
9. Hanging should be brought back as a penalty for serious crime.
10. Violent crime should be harshly punished.
11. All prisons should be pulled down. (R)
12. A lynching party may be the best way to deal with rapists.
Note: Agreement with an item marked "R" is scored the same as disagreement with an item not marked "R".
Replication is one of the cornerstones of science. A new research result will normally require replication by later researchers before the truth and accuracy of the observation concerned is generally accepted. If a result is to be replicated, however, careful specification of the original research procedure is important.
In questionnaire research it has been my observation that the results are fairly robust as to questionnaire format. It is the content of the question that matters rather than how the question is presented (But see here and here). It is nonetheless obviously desirable for an attempted replication to follow the original procedure as closely as possible so I have given here samples of how I presented my questionnaires in most of the research I did. On all occasions, respondents were asked to circle a number to indicate their response.
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