They are the serial killers in movies, and the unstable violent people we fear encountering on the street. Psychopathy, commonly referred to as sociopathy is a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, dis-inhibited, and egotistical traits. Psychopathy is one of the traits encompassing dark triad personality, the others being narcissism and machiavellianism.
The terms psychopath and sociopath are commonly used in the media and by the general public but they are not formally recognized as a specific disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is the diagnostic manual for psychiatrists and psychologists.
Anti-Social Personality Disorder and the DSM-IV Criteria
Instead of an individual diagnosis psychopathy is recognized as part of a wider condition called anti-social personality disorder. The DSM-IV criteria for antisocial personality disorder is listed below:
A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following: having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
- Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
- Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing.
B. The individual is at least age 18 years.
C. There is evidence of Conduct Disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of Schizophrenia or a Manic Episode
Psychopathy is a far more widely used term for the general public than for psychiatric professionals. Psychiatrists tend to prefer the label anti-social personality disorder. This term is easier to use because it is broader, and has less stigma attached to it.
Origins of The Term Psychopathy
Psychopathy has been recognized for centuries. It has been convenient for normal people to separate themselves from the amoral, impulsive, and violent people.
Psychopathy was often referred to as “moral insanity” and “madness without delirium”. In 1888, the German psychiatrist Julius Koch created the term psychopath. The term became commonly used in psychiatric literature in the early 1900s.
In the 1930s the term sociopath began to be used interchangeably with psychopath. The two terms have been used as catch-all blanket statements for amoral, violent, impulsive people. The terms have always been commonly used for criminals, even in the 1980s over 70 percent of prisoners in the United States were diagnosed as sociopaths.
The Neuroscience of Psychopathy
Criminality is not the overarching theme of psychopathy. One does not need to have committed a violent act to be a psychopath. The theorist Robert Hare illustrates the psychopath to Nicole Kidman when she is preparing for a role as a psychopath:
“I said, ‘Here’s a scene that you can use,’ ” Hare says. ” ‘You’re walking down a street and there’s an accident. A car has hit a child in the crosswalk. A crowd of people gather round. You walk up, the child’s lying on the ground and there’s blood running all over the place. You get a little blood on your shoes and you look down and say, “Oh shit.” You look over at the child, kind of interested, but you’re not repelled or horrified. You’re just interested. Then you look at the mother, and you’re really fascinated by the mother, who’s emoting, crying out, doing all these different things. After a few minutes you turn away and go back to your house. You go into the bathroom and practice mimicking the facial expressions of the mother.’ ” He then pauses and says, “That’s the psychopath: somebody who doesn’t understand what’s going on emotionally, but understands that something important has happened.” Source
Robert Hare believes the difference between a psychopath and a “normal person” is a fundamental difference in brain chemistry. Psychopaths’ brains are fundamentally different from ours. He showed this in various studies, including the one below.
Robert Hare’s Study
In a Hare study, groups of letters were flashed to volunteers. Some of them were nonsense, some formed real words. The subject’s job was to press a button whenever he recognized a real word, while Hare recorded response time and brain activity. Non-psychopaths respond faster and display more brain activity when processing emotionally loaded words such as “rape” or “cancer” than when they see neutral words such as “tree.” With psychopaths, Hare found no difference. To them, “rape” and “tree” have the same emotional impact — none. Source
A psychopath is clinically incapable of emotionally empathizing with another human-being. Since psychopaths lack the ability to deeply empathize with others they never feel guilty for any actions that hurt anyone else. The guilty conscience that most people feel is completely absent in the psychopath.
The psychopath understands other people but does so impersonally and superficially. He understands sadness, happiness, anger, and disgust when he sees these emotions on the face of another person. He just doesn’t care about that individual person as a unique person with their own feelings, opinions, and history. They are not as much an individual as a means to an end. This does not mean the psychopath goes out of their way to hurt and abuse others. The psychopath is not necessarily a sadist – although they are likely often co-morbid.
The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R)
The most reputable test for psychopathy was devised by Robert Hare.The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is a diagnostic tool used to rate a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies. It is accepted by many in the field as the best method for determining the presence and extent of psychopathy in a person. The twenty traits assessed by the PCL-R score are:
- Glib and superficial charm
- Grandiose (and exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
- Need for stimulation
- Pathological lying
- Cunning and manipulativeness
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
- Callousness and lack of empathy
- Parasitic lifestyle
- Poor behavioral controls
- Sexual promiscuity
- Early behavioral problems
- Lack of realistic long-term goals
- Failure to accept responsibility for ones own actions
- Many short-term marital relationships
- Juvenile delinquency
- Revocation of conditional release
- Criminal versatility
Criminality, Stupidity, or Psychopathy?
Manipulative, impulsive, lack of remorse– these are traits commonly associated with the psychopath. Parasitic lifestyle, lack of realistic long-term goals, juvenile delinquency seem easier to associate with a common criminal than someone who simply lacks the ability to feel emotional empathy for another person. They also may be the product of growing up in a poor and violent environment, or because the person is very unintelligent.
If someone is a high intelligence psychopath they are far less likely to go to prison than a low intelligence psychopath. A psychopath from an upper-middle class family is also less likely to go to prison than a psychopath that grows up in poverty.
Psychopathy Example – Paul Bernardo
The defining feature of the psychopath is the lack of empathy. The part of their brain that feels compassion and emotional empathy for others is permanently shut off. However some psychopaths appear very charming and are disarmingly manipulative. This charm and manipulation seems impossible without understanding other peoples emotions. Consider Paul Berrnardo, the Canadian serial rapist and serial killer. His police interview is below.
Paul Bernardo’s Social Manipulation
We hate to acknowledge it but he is very socially astute and incredibly manipulative. He tries to blame the police departments mistake for the situation he is in. He is a rapist and murderer and he is claiming a police department mistake is making him seem like a liar and a bad guy when all he did was make a few mistakes years back. If you have no empathy you cannot manipulate like Paul Bernardo.
Bernardo’s form of empathy is better termed cold empathy. He has the cognitive aspect of empathy but he is missing the emotional aspect normal people possess. This allows the psychopath to engage in predatory behavior but feel absolutely zero remorse for his actions. A great talent for observing and understanding human nature without a care for the individuals makes them extremely hazardous. This is compounded by the psychopaths ability to fake their emotions. Psychopaths, like all people, have emotions. But the psychopath is a strange and foreign being and they need to mimic our emotional responses to blend in among us.