The simplest definition of a psychopath is someone who appears normal but, underneath the surface, lacks empathy and a conscience. Psychopaths are not to be confused with antisocial people as psychopaths are generally more manipulative and volatile. Although this sounds problematic, a possible advantage to psychopathy is resilience against anxiety.

A psychology professor at University of Bergen (Norway), Asle M. Sandvik, professor of psychology in the Department of Psychosocial Sciences at University of Bergen, explored another term - psychological hardiness, which he found to be a characteristic common in leaders. It's a trait that enables them to remain healthy under extreme stress. This ability to remain strong under pressure suggests that those with psychological hardiness also have a resilience against anxiety.

In a study set to publish in the January 2015 volume of Personality and Individual Differences, Sandvik and his team investigated the relationships between psychopathy, psychological hardiness, and anxiety. Sandvik hypothesized that psychological hardiness mediates traits of anxiety and those of psychopathy. To examine each manifestation of each behavior, Sandvik monitored the mental health of 74 male inmates at Bergen Prison in Norway.

Psychopathy, Psychological Hardiness, and Anxiety in a Prison Setting

All of the inmates that participated came from a variety of backgrounds. Some had been sentenced for as short as six weeks, while others were serving up to 20 years. The average age of the participants was 33.41 years.

Sandvik used three instruments to measure mental health in the participants:

  • Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (PCL-R): A 20-item checklist used to assess psychopathic behavior.
  • The Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS): A self-report designed to measure general symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Dispositional Resilience Scale (DRS-15-R): This is a questionnaire that consists of 15 questions that asked participants how much they could relate to positive and negative statements. It measured psychological hardiness in the domains of of control, commitment, and challenge.

Commitment is a Partial Mediator between Psychopathy and Anxiety

No significant relationships were found between the PCL-R and anxiety data. However, total psychological hardiness and all its domains correlated significantly with anxiety. Of the three domains, commitment contributed significantly in mediating the relationship between psychopathy and anxiety. “Our finding of commitment as a mediator suggests that a sense of purpose and engagement in life might be important," concludes Sandvik.

In hopes of future experiments, Sandvik points out that the “explorative nature of the study means that more research will be necessary before any conclusions can be drawn about the relationship, but the resiliency previously linked to psychopathic personality does seem to overlap somewhat with the resiliency linked to psychological hardiness."

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Date of original publication:

Updated: October 23, 2015