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The ‘Orphanhood Effect’ And Related Phenomena – Childhood Trauma Recovery

The ‘Orphanhood Effect’ And Related Phenomena

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Many exceptionally successful people (in terms of personal achievement) can trace the source of their success to their childhood suffering.

One example of this is the so-called ‘orphanhood effect.’ Of course, losing a parent as a child is a terrible experience. but, for some, as alluded to above, the loss can act as a spur to great achievement.

This phrase ‘orphanhood effect’ was coined to reflect this link between devastating early loss and later great success. 

Gladwell, in his book, David And Goliath, Underdogs, Misfits And The Art Of Battling Giants (published by Little Brown and Co, 2013) refers to several studies of relevance to the ‘orphanhood effect.’ One study that provides supportive evidence for such an effect looked at 700 hundred eminent individuals and found that 45 per cent had experienced the death of a parent before they’d reached the age of twenty-one. Another study focused specifically upon authors and found that over half had similarly experienced the death of a parent, but, in their case, even earlier – before they had reached the age of 15 years. A third study (conducted by the historian Iremonger) found that 67 per cent of prime ministers who were in office between the start of the nineteenth century and the Second World War had suffered the loss of a parent before they reached the age of 16 years. Furthermore, nearly a third of American Presidents lost a parent while they were young. Numerous other studies have produced similar findings (e.g. Silverman, 1974; Eisenman, 1995).

Childhood Trauma, Personality Disorder And High Achievement

Many articles that I have already published on this site discuss the link between severe and protracted childhood trauma and the later development of personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), anti-social personality disorder (APD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCPD). 

Whilst, as we have seen, such disorders lead to much suffering, they can, in some instances, also give rise to high or exceptional achievement.

For example, Board and Fritzon looked at 3 types of personality disorder: narcissistic, histrionic and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and found that the incidence of these disorders was greater in top-level executive business people than they were in psychiatric patients incarcerated in Broadmoor Hospital (a high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire, England).  Why should personality disorders sometimes contribute to a high level of occupational success? be? I consider this question below, with reference to narcissistic personality disorder, anti-social personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive) personality disorder.

A study conducted by Papageorgiou suggests narcissists tend to do better in exams than their natural ability would predict (and better than non-narcissists who were judged to have the greater natural ability). Papageorgiou inferred that this was because they were highly motivated, determined, possessed ‘mental toughness’ and tenacity, driven by the belief that they were superior to their competitors.

Psychopaths may thrive in certain occupations such as surgery, sales and holding powerful positions such as CEOs. According to  Babiak and O’Toole, success in the workplace is achieved by psychopaths by taking advantage of various personality traits including self-confidence, a grandiose sense of self-worth, the absence of a fear of failure, bravado, a propensity to lie with impunity, a willingness to take risks, the ability to multitask and aggressive ambition.

Furthermore, according to Dr Sara Swart (a neuroscientist and psychiatrist), psychopaths, too, are able to hold onto their nerve under pressure, ‘resilient to chaos’ (which others are likely to find very stressful), fearlessness, charisma, ruthlessness, lack of guilt and an absolute focus on only own perspective.

Those with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, according to Widiger and Gore, 2016, may be particularly successful in their chosen careers due to personality traits such as conscientiousness, perfectionism and workaholism.


Those severely emotionally wounded in childhood may be more likely to strive to compensate themselves for their early life emotional losses by various means and for various reasons. For example, a child largely ignored by his/her parents may grow up to desperately seek fame in order to gain the attention of which s/he was deprived in early life; the child who felt completely powerless because of abusive parents may ardently seek positions of great power in adult life in order to feel the sense of control s/he was unable to experience in youth, and the child made to feel worthless may grow up to crave enormous wealth and high status. Sadly, such strategies tend to fail to bring the solace and contentment so dearly desired as the root psychological issues remain unaddressed.


Russell Eisenman (1995) Creativity and Eminence: On Albert’s Genius and Eminence, Creativity Research Journal, 8:2, 201-204, DOI: 10.1207/s15326934crj0802_8

Malcomb Gladwell David And Goliath, Underdogs, Misfits And The Art Of Battling Giants (published by Little Brown and Co, 2013)

Silverman, S. M. “Parental Loss and Scientists.” Science Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, 1974, pp. 259–264. JSTOR,

T.A. Widiger, W.L. Gore, in Encyclopedia of Mental Health (Second Edition), 2016 is reader-supported. When you buy through links on this site, I may earn an affiliate commission.

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