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A common trope in popular culture regarding psychopaths is that they are above average to extremely intelligent. Granted, smart psychopaths make for a more interesting villain (or anti-heroes), but this seems to be a common assumption even in reality.

In The Mask of Sanity (5th ed.), Dr. Hervey Milton Cleckley claims (p. 339):

Very often indications of good sense and sound reasoning will emerge and one is likely to feel soon after meeting him that this normal and pleasant person is also one with high abilities. Psychometric tests also very frequently show him of superior intelligence.

This was written in 1941 and it's very likely more thorough studies have been made since then.

So what is, if any, the correlation between psychopathy and intelligence?

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    Isn't it just selection bias? Psychopaths which are not intelligent would be caught faster, maybe even before they could carry out their "evil plans". – vartec Mar 14 '12 at 11:14
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    Why is it assumed psychopaths are evil? Aren't psychopaths, or sociopaths, people who essentially lack empathy and are self-centered in their motivations, and emulate empathy? I seem to recall reading that many people driven to positions like CEO's of companies have sociopathic tendencies and the label for most people brings to mind murderers and rapists when that's not the case... – Bart Silverstrim Mar 15 '12 at 13:36
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    Being a CEO and being evil are not mutually exclusive :-) – Zano Mar 19 '12 at 0:34
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    I've actually heard the opposite, that they think they are more intelligent than they really are. Psychos also tend to make it appear they are because they manipulate others so well and often make others feel worthless. Worth having a look at this book: jonronson.com/psycho.html Hope a psychologist can answer this question, as I have spoken to some about this and they have a lot of data on psychopaths. – Tim Scanlon Mar 22 '12 at 12:48
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    @BartSilverstrim: “A criminal is a person with predatory instincts without sufficient capital to form a corporation.” – Clarence Darrow – Mason Wheeler Feb 8 '16 at 20:20
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TL;D/R: Psychopathic criminals are no more intelligent than non-psychopathic criminals, but the highly intelligent ones are more likely to commit serious crimes.


The connection between psychopathy and intelligence is slight complicated. There were conflicting reports about whether psychopaths were more intelligent, or the same intelligence, as other criminals. [Note: They were compared to non-psychopathic criminals, not the general population which is what the question was about; I hope this is close enough.]

A Swedish study tried to tease out some of the complexity.

In the abstract, they explain the conflict:

Empirical studies using the PCL-R (Hare, 2003) have shown no intelligence differences between psychopaths and nonpsychopaths. However, Cleckley (1976) argued that psychopaths often show superior intelligence.

The study explored whether:

the correlation between intelligence and severity of criminal development is the opposite in psychopaths than in nonpsychopathic criminals using a sample of 370 men sentenced for violent (nonsexual) crimes. That pattern would provide a way of explaining the discrepancy between Cleckley's view and later empirical work.

And concluded:

for nonpsychopaths, higher total IQ and particularly verbal intelligence meant a later start in violent crime. For those diagnosed as psychopaths, however, this association was reversed.

The paper was further written up in Crime Times where they had more quotes from the authors.

"The key finding in this study is that psychopathic and non-psychopathic criminals, although not different in overall levels of intelligence, did differ in how high intelligence was related to the seriousness of misbehavior. For non-psychopaths, higher intelligence, particularly verbal intelligence, meant a later start in violent crime. For those diagnosed as psychopaths, however, high intelligence meant an early start in violent offending and more problematic behavior in and outside of institutions."

(Emphasis mine)

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    What about psychopaths that are not criminals? Your answers focus completely on criminals, while question is about psychopaths in general it seems like. – Wertilq Aug 31 '13 at 21:58
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    Psychopathy is no longer used as a diagnosis but replaced by diagnosing a combination of various disorders (f.ex. dyssocial, anti-social, narcissistic and others). – epistemex Sep 4 '13 at 6:06
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    @Wertliq: That's a fair criticism that limits the power of the result. In my defence, it is one I point out myself in the second paragraph. – Oddthinking Sep 4 '13 at 9:11
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    Given the issues that psychopaths have with impulse control, I wouldn't be surprised if there's natural selection going on too in that the less bright psychopaths have probably gotten locked up or killed with reckless behavior. – Sean Duggan Feb 5 '16 at 13:13

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