Psychopathy is an extremely difficult disorder to spot, as psychopaths can appear as normal and very charming people. But underneath, they lack conscience, empathy, are manipulative, volatile and often, but not always, end up in the criminal justice system. They are part of what is known as the dark tirade (psychopaths, narcissist and sociopath) and most people are fascinated with them, particularly with the increase in TV shows and films portraying them as the serial killer to be defeated (Not all serial killers are psychopaths). The entertainment industry and media have twisted and manipulated the facts to get the best possible ratings along the way also, but if you think your boss is a psychopath then you could be right as many highly successful people could be psychopaths.
Around 5 percent of the population is thought to possess psychopathic tendencies (remember not every one of them will be a Hannibal Lecter type). Psychopathy is a spectrum disorder and can be diagnosed only by a professional using the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist. (See below. The bar for clinical psychopathy is a score of between 25 to 30 or more on this list). It is thought that brain anatomy, genetics, and a person’s environment may all contribute to the development of psychopathic traits. We often see the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” used interchangeably, but a “sociopath” refers to a person with antisocial tendencies that are ascribed to social or environmental factors (sociopath will have remorse for robbing you blind, psychopaths have no empathy at all), whereas psychopathic traits are more innate. Both disorders are, as near as they can be, represented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a sub-category of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Although surprisingly psychopathy Is not a recognised psychiatric diagnosis (but some argue it is a mental illness) you will hear the term used in criminal justice settings.
It can be tempting to see psychopathy as black and white if you don’t understand the condition, but research has suggested that the condition occurs on a spectrum, so, therefore, people can have minor, moderate or severe characteristics or psychopathic tendencies only alongside other conditions. There are in fact no brain imaging or biological tests that can in arguably identify a person as a psychopath, the only test known is the Hare checklist which operates on a point system between 0 and 2 for each trait with a maximum total of 40. The cut off for being labelled as a psychopath is 30 in the US and 25 in the UK.
The Hare Checklist
- pathological lying
- glib and superficial charm
- grandiose sense of self
- need for stimulation
- cunning and manipulative
- lack of remorse or guilt
- shallow emotional response
- callousness and lack of empathy
- parasitic lifestyle
- poor behavioural controls
- sexual promiscuity
- early behaviour problems
- lack of realistic long-term goals
- failure to accept responsibility
- many short-term marital relationships
- juvenile delinquency
- revocation of conditional release
- criminal versatility
The frontal brain regions have been suggested as relevant in psychopathy and in particularly the amygdala which may play an important role in psychopathic tendencies. Associated with emotional reactions, decision-making, and fear, the amygdala has been identified in several studies as having reduced integrity or function in those scoring highly on the Hare checklist.
The twenty traits on the Hare Psychopathy checklist categorize these traits into four factors: interpersonal, emotional, lifestyle and antisocial.
The most common trait is their pathological lying, used in particular to cover up their behaviour and get their own way. Psychopaths use glibness and superficial charm to get you hooked and then you are more likely to be willing to help them. You’ll find many psychopaths in positions of great power and authority due to their enormous sense of self-worth and it is their manipulative behaviour that probably got them into these positions (they will take credit for the work you have done if you work with them or for them).
A complete lack of remorse or guilt, this could explain why they kill and get away with their other crimes. Added to this is a very common trait is to have a complete failure to accept responsibility for their own acts. They may feel shallow emotions, in that, they might feel sorry that their victim is dead because it no longer holds any pleasure for them. But more likely the psychopath will be callous and again show a distinct lack of empathy towards their victims.
Another common trait is their parasitic nature, they will feed off other people to sustain their lifestyle. They may also act irresponsibly and impulsively due to their need for stimulation. They will also have no long-term or realistic goals in life. If you are in a relationship with a psychopath you will over time probably suffer domestic violence, depression, anxiety, high levels of stress or even develop a chronic illness as a result of the prolonged stress on your body, etc. If you decide to leave please make sure you do so by preparing a safety plan in advance, but leave you need to. Be under no illusion they are incapable of changing their behaviour no matter how much they say they will. If they do go to counselling with you they will manipulate the situation and again they will not change their behaviour, they will probably convince you and the therapist that you are the one with the problem.
Psychopathy is thought to be an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder. In fact, despite the fact many psychopaths hold down impressive jobs they do not have good social skills. They also find it hard to control their behaviour in public which could lead to a variety of problems for those working/living for/with them or if they are criminals having their parole revoked.
As I’ve said Psychopaths aren’t always violent, but their characteristics, lack of empathy, selfishness, and manipulation may lead them to use these traits to commit crimes. They are over-represented within the criminal justice system as having committed a vast array of crimes; they usually have a long criminal record if they head in that direction. Others will be extremely good in the business world as entrepreneurs and CEOs, law, media and sales, their lack of empathy makes them excellent at making very quick, decisive decisions without all the emotional attachment involved. They do not process emotional information and social experiences in the same manner as a non-psychopathic individual. For example, they use people, rather than connect with them and often view interactions or situations as winners versus losers; smart versus dumb; powerful versus weak. If they feel you are of no use to them anymore then you are dismissed from their life and/or business.
More men have been identified as being psychopaths than women. Female and male psychopaths may be very different but they are none the less just as lethal. Women tend not to be recognised as psychopaths by society due to the false information put out there by media – plus added to that the smaller percentage of known female psychopaths available for research makes it harder to identify if there are specific characteristics a female psychopath may have over her male counterparts – that only men could be psychopathic, making it far easier for women to get away with behaviour and crimes than their male counterparts.
As there is no known cause for psychopathy but it is thought that a combination of genetics, environment (poor parenting such as neglect or abuse) and interpersonal factors could contribute to becoming a psychopath. As of yet, there is no treatment available for people with psychopathy, therefore public awareness around this disorder is important. Medications can potentially treat a few of the symptoms for those with psychopathy who have significant emotional dysregulation. However, this seems to be of minimal benefit for the symptoms of callousness, arrogance, antagonism, low empathy, and immorality. When partners expect a change from a significantly psychopathic partner through the process of love or pointing out their hurtful behaviours, the outcome tends to be further violations and manipulation by the psychopath instead. Unfortunately, many individuals with psychopathy tend to be disinterested in treating their condition. Most tend to be arrogant and consider their personality status a reflection of superiority. It is not uncommon that they view those who are ’emotional’as weak in comparison to them. Without treatment there are no tools available to protect society from the impact of their behaviour, this represents a problem because it leaves victims having to clean up the financial, physical and mental costs of having interactions with a psychopath. So awareness and education will limit or prevent intimate involvement with an individual with psychopathy in the first place.