Mapping the Darkness and Finding the Light: DSM-5 and Assessment of the “Corporate Psychopath”


As Guenole (2014) discussed, contemporary research has established that personality disorders are best conceptualized from a dimensional (vs. categorical) perspective. This approach views personality psychopathology from its constituent maladaptive traits rather than a fixed number of individual symptoms required to meet diagnostic threshold. Dimensional models incorporate basic research on normal personality functioning (e.g., Five-Factor Model [FFM]), which is linked to well-established self-report measures (e.g., NEO-PI-R). As Guenole indicates, there is growing interest in examining the “darker” side of personality in the workplace. We focus on the application of a constituent trait model approach to one of the darkest forms of maladaptive personality—psychopathy—in the work domain.

Psychopathy is a personality syndrome characterized by a constellation of traits that impact affect (e.g., impaired fear-processing, callousness), interpersonal relations (e.g., grandiosity, deceitfulness), and behavior (e.g., impulsivity, criminality). Psychopathy has been primarily examined in the criminal justice system, and is a robust predictor of criminal behavior, recidivism, violent behavior, and sexual aggression (Hare & Neumann, 2008). More recently, the construct has been discussed in the corporate world, although little systematic empirical research has been conducted in this area.

Psychopathy in the Workplace

Smith and Lilienfeld (2013) provide an overview of the scholarly literature examining psychopathy in the workplace. One theme they offer is the need to examine the elemental traits of psychopathy in the workplace, as opposed to the broad construct, in order to better understand the implications for workplace behavior. This is particularly important in light of more recent research that views psychopathy as a constellation of personality characteristics rather than a categorical taxon (Edens, Marcus, Lilienfeld, & Poythress, 2006).

Although inconclusive, some findings suggest that components of psychopathy may be related to both negative and positive workplace outcomes. In their meta-analysis, O'Boyle, Forsyth, and O'Boyle (2011) found a positive (albeit weak) relationship between psychopathy and counterproductive workplace behaviors; however, one component trait of psychopathy, termed fearless dominance, has been linked to adaptive behaviors in some contexts (e.g., Lilienfeld et al., 2012a). Researchers have even found that while fearless dominance was related to positive aspects of presidential performance (including leadership and crises management), other psychopathic traits, such as impulsivity were related to negative outcomes (including Congressional impeachment resolutions and negative character; Lilienfeld et al., 2012b).

Taken together, the available findings suggest that while individuals may possess basic components that comprise psychopathy, positive and negative outcomes stemming from psychopathy are influenced by additional factors such as intelligence, socialization, and socioeconomic status (Hall & Benning, 2006). We propose that adopting a constituent trait approach to studying psychopathy in the workplace can help industrial–organizational (I–O) psychologists better understand the implications of this form of maladaptive personality—both the negative and positive; thus helping to map the darkness and find the light. Adopting this approach also allows for the consideration of characteristic adaptations—such that certain traits can be adaptive for some individuals in certain settings.

Characteristic Adaptations

McCrae and Costa (1996) argued that basic tendencies, including personality traits, influence the development of characteristic adaptations. Characteristic adaptations are thought to be the result of the interaction of basic tendencies and the environment, and include factors such as habits, skills, attitudes and beliefs, and social roles and relationships. Characteristic adaptations develop as our basic tendencies direct us to situations and shape the responses we make in them; such responses can then become ingrained as we make similar responses across situations. These adaptations then function to guide our behavior.

There may be several potential characteristic adaptations for any given basic tendency; thus not all psychopathic traits may lead to criminal behavioral patterns in all situations for all people. For example, some psychopathic traits, such as Boldness, or Fearless Dominance, may lead to “positive” characteristic adaptations in some settings (e.g., the military, public safety personnel, corporate leadership) where a moderate degree of these traits is necessary to perform one's job successfully. Furthermore, a moderate level of Callousness may result in a life of crime for one individual, but lead to the ability to make necessary tough boardroom decisions for another.

Diagnosing the Psychopath

Diagnostically speaking, psychopathy has been most closely represented as Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) since the DSM-III, with very little change in DSM-IV. The criteria for ASPD, however, are inadequate for indexing the full psychopathy syndrome (Hare, 1996), which is a much more useful construct to consider in workplace settings. The DSM-IV ASPD criteria are heterogeneous and reflect non-specific behavioral deviance rather than the affective and interpersonal characteristics representative of psychopathy. Of focal importance to our topic, the diagnostic criteria for ASPD heavily emphasize criminal behavior and are likely to be less useful in characterizing the non-criminal, or “successful” variants of psychopathy that are more applicable in the workplace setting.

The DSM-5 trait model was ultimately relegated to Section III of the manual (Emerging Measures and Models) and the categorical system of classifying personality disorders from the DSM-IV was retained. Delaying full implementation of the trait model likely owes to the considerable debate regarding the exact nature of the trait model and its clinical utility (see Widiger, 2011). Nevertheless, the trait model that was included in DSM-5 Section III provides a frame of reference to begin empirically analyzing the applicability of capturing personality psychopathology with various maladaptive traits. As Guenole discussed, the DSM-5 trait model incorporates deficits in both self and interpersonal functioning, as well as evidence of maladaptive personality. The five trait domains include Antagonism, Psychoticism, Disinhibition, Negative Affectivity, and Detachment, which are closely aligned to the Five Factor and Personality Psychopathology Five models. Furthermore, each domain includes a number of subordinate facets, which allows for greater specificity in phenotypic description. A self-report measure was developed alongside the trait model to aid in assessing and researching it: the Personality Inventory for DSM-5 (PID-5; Krueger, Derringer, Markon, Watson, & Skodol, 2012). Readers interested in research on the PID-5 are directed to the June 2013 special issue of Assessment.

The DSM-5 trait conceptualization of ASPD has the possibility to capture psychopathy better than previous DSM versions, primarily owing to the emphasis on dimensional personality traits that define the disorder. DSM-5 ASPD criteria will require the presence of a series of personality traits reflecting facets of Antagonism (specifically, Callousness, Deceitfulness, Manipulativeness, Hostility) and Disinhibition (specifically, Impulsivity, Irresponsibility, Risk Taking). These traits cover a wider range of the psychopathy construct than the DSM-IV criteria. Moreover, FFM variations of these traits have already been found to be effective in capturing psychopathy (Miller, Lynam, Widiger, & Leukefeld, 2001). In addition, impairment in both self and interpersonal functioning is required. The DSM-5 Section III diagnosis of ASPD includes a Psychopathy Specifier, which comprises additional evidence of low levels of Anxiousness (Negative Affectivity domain) and Withdrawal (Detachment domain), and high levels of Attention Seeking (Antagonism domain). These additional traits reflect a socially persuasive interpersonal style and higher levels of stress immunity, which is consistent with fearless-dominance or boldness qualities of psychopathy.

Preliminary research has already illustrated how the traits delineated in the DSM-5 Section III have utility in capturing psychopathy. In a direct comparison of DSM-IV and DSM-5 trait versions of ASPD, Wygant (2013) examined 150 inmates who were assessed with a structured rating of DSM-IV ASPD criteria, the DSM-5 clinician trait rating form and PID-5, as well as various measures of psychopathy, including the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003). The results convincingly illustrated better convergence for the DSM-5 trait model of ASPD with various models of psychopathy relative to DSM-IV ASPD. Anderson et al. (in press) compared the DSM-5 trait model and DSM-IV variants of ASPD in community and college samples. In both samples, the DSM-5 Section III ASPD (and Psychopathy Specifier) traits were more strongly correlated with various measures of psychopathy than DSM-IV ASPD.

To date, the only instrument specifically designed to assess psychopathy in corporate settings is the B-Scan 360 (Babiak & Hare, 2012). Preliminary research with the B-Scan 360 suggests that it exhibits the same 4-factor model as the PCL-R (Mathieu, Hare, Jones, Babiak, & Neumann, 2013). Consequently, in light of the previously discussed findings, the DSM-5 ASPD trait model should show utility in capturing psychopathy in the workplace as conceptualized by the B-Scan 360, although this needs to be established empirically. It is important to note that psychiatric diagnosis is not a typical competency of I–O psychologists. Thus, while these constructs have relevance to workplace assessments, the practice of psychiatric diagnosis should not be undertaken without appropriate training or consultation with a qualified clinical psychologist.

DSM-5 and I–O Assessment

On the basis of these and other findings in the clinical domain, it is logical to suggest that assessing the DSM-5 trait model of psychopathy could lead to better understanding of how these maladaptive personality traits might prime one for malfeasance in the workplace. Although potentially useful in a selection context, we also suggest that this assessment may be important from a training and development standpoint. For example, determining that an employee is high on the trait domain of Disinhibition may suggest this individual is not well suited for a position where the likelihood of workplace accidents is high. This individual may benefit from additional work-related safety training that may act to alter one's characteristic adaptations, as trait facets associated with this domain (e.g., Irresponsibility, Distractibility) are correlates of workplace accidents (see Clarke & Robertson, 2005). Furthermore, although an individual high in Fearless Dominance may demonstrate some positive characteristic adaptations in a leadership context, extreme levels may result in recklessness (Lilienfeld et al., 2012b). Through the appropriate training, these individuals could be coached to harness the positive outcomes associated with that trait and avoid the negative manifestations.

Future Research Suggestions

Future I–O researchers should consider that ratings of these inherently maladaptive traits may be positive to some degree in certain business contexts. For instance, employees working in settings that require tough decisions be made at the management level will likely be served well by a moderate degree of Callousness. Additionally, it may be fruitful to not only consider DSM-5 trait ratings but to also identify factors related to the workplace environment that might shape the characteristic adaptations of these traits. For example, in a military setting, many individuals may score high on the Disinhibition facet traits, as a moderate level of these traits is likely necessary to seek out and perform well in this setting. However, the training received in this context likely influences and limits the characteristic adaptations of this basic tendency.


In conclusion, we suggest that by mapping a constituent trait model approach (utilizing DSM-5 Section III traits) relevant to the work domain, I–O practitioners can gain insight into the potentially maladaptive aspects of employees' personality that might prime them to engage in corporate malfeasance, whether that be in the form of workplace aggression or bullying, incivility, safety violations, unethical decision making, or other counterproductive workplace behaviors. This approach can also aid researchers in determining which traits are linked to particular negative (and potentially positive) workplace outcomes. This information can then be used in screening and selection contexts where applicable (feasible, legal, etc.), in addition to training and development contexts.