Primary Psychopathy – The Successful Entrepreneur’s Most Characterizing Personality Trait

Primary Psychopathy – The Successful Entrepreneur’s Most Characterizing Personality Trait

You have surely seen my articles and posts about the Entrepreneurial Mindset. Yes, there are measurable personality traits that make it more likely for certain people to be successful entrepreneurs. That research resulted in me being named as a co-author in a presentation about how to apply this knowledge to employees, at the prestigious International Congress of Psychology (ICP), 2021, in Prague, Czech Republic (click here).

Employees and Psychopathy

For the employees’ application, we have started with a hypothesis – based on the general data on psychopathy – according to which the two main facets of psychopathy also correlate negatively with well-being, and lo and behold, it only applies to secondary psychopathy. And NOT to primary psychopathy.

In very short words, secondary psychopaths – as employees – perceive themselves as less performing on the job, they experience less positive and more negative mood, and they are generally discontent with their job, career, and life. Primary psychopaths experience equally low job satisfaction, but there are no negative effects on performance and other well-being outcomes. This can explain why not all psychopaths are unsuccessful psychopaths. Those primary psychopaths that are not secondary psychopaths can thrive well in a company and successfully make it to the board of directors.

Just to re-fresh your knowledge, primary psychopathy characterizes the affective aspects of psychopathy. This goes back to how we are internally wired up. Whatever happens or whatever training you undergo, this aspect almost never changes, similar to your eye color. Primary psychopathy materializes as a lack of empathy for other people and tolerance for anti-social orientations. And secondary psychopathy are the anti-social aspects of psychopathy. It is all about rule-breaking and lack of effort towards socially rewarded behavior. People with a high degree of secondary sub-clinical psychopathy often had a bad upbringing. Secondary psychopathy can change during the course of a life.

People with secondary psychopathy often have visibly bad behavior in general. Consequently, people with extremely high secondary psychopathy quickly end up in jail. Where they are looked after by people with relatively low secondary psychopathy. And here comes the important point: both the inmates and their guards often have a relatively high degree of primary psychopathy, while they differ in their respective degrees of secondary psychopathy.

Entrepreneurs and Primary Psychopathy

I am fully convinced that successful entrepreneurs need a high degree of primary psychopathy in order to be able to cope with various situations that entrepreneurs encounter on a daily basis, such as in the following picture

And this is what a successful start-up founder writes about his life (click here)

You have to be willing to sleep in your car and laugh about it. You have to be able to laugh at many things, because when you think of the worse things in the world that could happen to your company, they will happen.

Every successful entrepreneur will confirm that they went through such situations and that often: entrepreneurship involves alienating people. And this is why entrepreneurs need primary psychopathy in order to not break under such situations.

Here is some scholarly backup for my position, by Akhtar, R., et al. in “Greed is good? Assessing the relationship between entrepreneurship and subclinical psychopathy. Personality and Individual Differences” (2012, click here) write the following

Secondary psychopathy did not predict entrepreneurial activity; primary psychopathy predicted some entrepreneurial outcomes, albeit modestly, providing partial support for the corporate psychopath’ stereotype. Implications for entrepreneurship research and practice are discussed.

And if you want to do the Levenson test yourself, here is the FREE online version:

Entrepreneurs and How to Train Secondary Psychopathy

I am fully convinced that successful entrepreneurs need a low to medium degree of secondary psychopathy in order to be able to successfully rake in new business from clients and to work together with successful employees.

And here comes the important point: while you cannot train primary psychopathy because it is engrained in the DNA, one can train secondary psychopathy. Some entrepreneurial success strategies follow the teachings of Tim Robbins by applying Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and they may or may not work. I prefer reading books when I can avoid taking courses.

The most important book that I am aware of for training one`s secondary psychopathy is “How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie (click here).

A good and short review of “How to Win Friends & Influence People” is found here and I recommend that you read it.

People with a high degree of primary psychopathy will find it in general difficult to apply the principles, except those in the Machiavellist sector of the Dark Triad personality area. That is because it is in the first place a book about salesmanship, and not about winning friends: the basic idea of Dale Carnegie is that you win friends and influence people in order to sell them something. This is often overlooked in practice: if someone has a high degree of primary psychopathy this someone will not easily make friends with others, and surely not if this someone is an introvert. And this will not change, even if this someone can train himself to a socially acceptable degree of good manners.

Carnegie wrote his book in the Great Depression because he saw that salesmen needed to gain insight in order to improve sales. His book is not a good book for learning how to run a business as an entrepreneur, it is a book on how to become a successful salesman. Please note that just like NLP, the “How to Win Friends & Influence People” can be used to manipulate people in ways that will be bad for them and good for the manipulator.

Another book that I recommend for cranking up secondary psychopathy numbers is “Pre-Suasion – A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade” by Robert Cialdini (click here). Cialdini’s book is very different from Carnegie`s book. The difference between the goals of the two books is that Cialdino´s book is not based on the desire to get money out of people but his book is based on the desire to gain cooperation from people.

This is the core of Cialdini´s teaching: before you get to the element of persuasion, you have to begin a process of pre-suasion. You set up an environment that leads the person to respond more favorably to your offer than he would have responded, had you not set up the environment. The two elements “Thoughts” and “Trust” of the “TiTTA” marketing concept come to mind, and I have written about it earlier (click here).

Cialdini’s book teaches how to set up that environment, and how to do it such that the target does not perceive that he has been set up. Again, these techniques are so powerful that they can be misused. Dark Triad Machiavellists will appreciate that. And while these techniques are proven successful in the advertising industry, Cialdini did not write his book for this purpose. He is a scholar and not a businessman. What a waste.


Entrepreneurs, Psychopathy, and Popular vs. Scholar Personality Tests

There are many popular personality tests out there, such as the MBTI, “The Strength Finder”, just to name a few.

While these popular tests work nicely to a certain degree, they are never good for determining personality traits that can be compared among various persons.


Here are the results of two popular personality tests done on, applied to two different people: N. and F.



The two tests above seem to suggest that N. and F. have similar personalities, but they cannot be more different from each other when it comes to entrepreneurship. N. is a entrepreneur with a track record of 30+ years, while F. is a computer scientist that gave up her shareholder position in a start-up, “because somehow it did not work out”.

Here are N.`s and F.`s Levenson test results (click here for taking the test yourself):

Primary Psychopathy: N. 3.8/88% and F. 1.4/16%

Secondary Psychopathy: N. 2.4/44% and F. 1.7/13%

While N. shows a significantly elevated degree of primary psychopathy, F.´s primary psychopathy is located almost at the exact same position at the opposite tail end of the distribution curve.

F.´s degree of secondary psychopathy is extremely low, while N. – from the outside – appears like a “normal” average human being when it comes to that personality trait.

F. is definitely not cut out for initiating and running a company, while N. is. I have tested over 200 individuals so far, and I can confirm that that the psychopathy values are indicative of that.


Popular Vs. Academic Self-Assessment Personality Tests

The above example tells you everything: don´t trust popular personality tests for predicting how a person will act. Go for the scholar tests instead, and learn how to interpret them yourself.

Here are two articles about comparing popular personality tests with academic personality tests

And the following scholar article seems to be quite accepted in the field (it comes with a neutral title and the authors are known):
Furnham A, Mouttafi J, Crump J. “The Relationship between the Revised NEO-Personality Inventory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator”, Social Behavior and Personality. 2003, 31(6), 577-584


Public Teaching

I have given a lecture about entrepreneurs and psychopathy, on 30 October 2018, at the Nanyang Technical University (NTU) of  Singapore.

Here is the recorded lecture:


And here are the slides of my talk Entrepreneur short version NTU Talk 301018



This is only an intermediate step in my investigations towards what makes successful innovators and entrepreneurs.

Check out my ongoing book project “The 4×4 Entrepreneur Assessment” if you like that topic (click here).

Enter the members-only discussion forum (click here), or email me at . You can be part of my book project and as an early contributor, you will get credited in the book. You will also receive a free copy when it is published, as well as all future upgrades. Bonus: if you aren’t a member already, you get 1-year membership to the community. You can then discuss your question in the forum (click here).


Martin “Entrepreneur Assessment” Schweiger


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