Nobody wants to be called a psychopath. Despite the fact that we all fall somewhere on the spectrum, people who have more psychopathic traits—like callousness, impulsivity and a lack of remorse—tend to get a bad rap. And unsurprisingly so, considering the spokespeople for psychopathy we get in popular media: Norman Bates, the guy from “A Clockwork Orange,” et cetera.
But there is a very well-respected type of person in the real world for whom it pays to have the traits of a psychopath: entrepreneurs. Specifically, female entrepreneurs.
Weird? Not really, said Lou Marino, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Alabama. Think about what it takes to become an entrepreneur. You have to be willing to do almost anything to make your business work, including shutting out the opinions of people who say it’s not possible. The same single-mindedness is considered a psychopathic trait.
In other areas of life, like relationship building, these traits aren’t ideal. But psychopathy “is more about getting ahead than getting along,” Marino said. And so, you could argue, is entrepreneurship.
Marino and Reg Tucker, assistant professor of management at East Carolina University, discovered the link between female entrepreneurs and traits that would normally work against them.
“Many times, entrepreneurs do see things differently,” Marino said. “And because they do see them differently, that’s why these traits that don’t normally fit in corporate America can work in your own business.
“These people go out and they create occupations according to their strengths, which in other situations would be weaknesses.”
When Marino and Tucker were first examining their study’s findings, they were surprised to see no link between psychopathic traits and entrepreneurship. Going into the experiments, they had expected those two things to go hand in hand.
It wasn’t until they separated the entrepreneurs by sex that they saw the pattern. The women who exhibited more psychopathic traits tended to be more entrepreneurial. For men, it was the opposite, though to a lesser extreme.
Marino thinks that has everything to do with gender expectations. Both patterns “support the idea of psychopathy as being a way to liberate themselves from gender role stereotypes,” he said.
Even though our society has made leaps and bounds when it comes to equal workplace representation, some professions continue to be gendered. Entrepreneurship is still considered to be masculine, Marino said. That stereotype subtly, and sometimes overtly, discourages women from getting on the playing field.
But “the women that have these (psychopathic) tendencies don’t care what anybody thinks and eschew gendered stereotypes,” Marino said. Their psychopathic traits “allow them to get around gender role stereotypes” and maintain belief in their ideas and in themselves, despite the naysayers.
“Part of what women entrepreneurs do well is they are able to manage multiple things,” serial entrepreneur Sandra Powers Murphy said in an interview for the Entrepreneur and Innovation Exchange. “They’re able to stay cool-headed, they’re able to separate the emotions in general.”
She said it makes sense that small levels of psychopathy help with that, though she had never thought about it in those terms.
“If you’re heavily emotional or not looking out in the best interest of your company and also not making sure you’re planning carefully, those companies tend to burn out,” Powers Murphy said. “I think those characteristics are important for all of us to have a little touch of, and if women have that, all the better.”
On the other hand, men with psychopathic tendencies want to buck the assumption that they want to be entrepreneurs just because they’re men, the study found. If entrepreneurship is the expectation, they want to do the opposite.
About 1 percent of the population exhibits psychopathic traits. There’s an even higher rate in the business world. But having psychopathic tendencies doesn’t make you a psychopath, Marino said.
In the case of entrepreneurs, “these are just traits and these traits are more about getting ahead,” he said.
The moral of the story: When it’s used for good, a touch of psychopathy is nothing to feel bad about.
“Many times, people see these labels and feel bad about who they are and what they do, and in many circumstances they shouldn’t,” Marino said. “They should embrace who they are and play to their strengths.”