Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Richard Ramizer aka “The Night Stalker”, Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Rada aka “The BTK Killer”, and Aileen Wuornos; if you are an avid crime documentary fan, you may know what they all have in common. These people are famous for being psychopathic serial killers.
Psychopaths, however, are not just found in crime and investigation documentaries or in fictional movies and TV series.
Many ordinary people are diagnosed with psychopathy, and not all of them end up as serial killers or criminals.
Society has an obsession with psychopaths and their thrilling yet gruesome acts of violence, and this has consequently programmed our minds to equate psychopathy and evil.
We might think that we know a lot about psychopaths from books, podcasts, or crime shows, but, in reality, society really does not know much about psychopathy and all its facets.
What is the history behind the official recognition of psychopathy?
Psychopathy is a neuropsychiatric disorder, a disorder that involves neurology and psychiatry, distinguished by poor emotional responses, lack of empathy, and deficient behavioural controls which commonly result in persistent antisocial deviance and criminal behaviours, according to a journal.
Psychopathy is technically called Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) in the world of psychiatry.
It is not an official clinical diagnosis and is not part of the DSM-5, the universal manual for assessing and diagnosing mental disorders; however, the American Psychological Association (APA) formally recognizes psychopathy as a “specifier” of clinical ASPD.
This development of the APA to recognise officially recognise psychopathy as a specifier took almost 50 years of research and debate.1
But even without Psychopathy under DSM-5, a prominent researcher, Dr. Hare, in psychology– with his associates, has developed the Psychopathy Check List Revised (PCL-R) and its derivatives.
The PCL-R, which is based on 40 years of intensive empirical research, is an established powerful instrument to clinically assess the degree of psychopathy an individual possesses.2
What is Antisocial Personality Disorder?
Since Psychopathy is recognized as a “specifier” of Antisocial Personality Disorder, we must first look at ASPD and then the PCL-R.
According to the DSM-5, ASPD is a pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.
For a person to be diagnosed with ASPD, a mental health professional should see a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others since the age of 15, as indicated by three or more of the following diagnostic criteria:
- Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Deceitfulness is 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 the 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 having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from others.
For an ASPD diagnosis to be given, the individual should be at least 18 years old and have a history of conduct disorder before 15 years old.
It is important to note that not all people diagnosed with ASPD are considered psychopaths. In fact, research has shown that only one-third of people with ASPD meet the criteria for psychopathy.
How can an individual be officially diagnosed as a psychopath?
The world of psychology commonly uses Dr. Hare’s PCL-R tool to assess if a person has psychopathy and what is its degree.
The tool attempts to measure a distinct cluster of personality traits and socially deviant behaviors– interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and antisocial. An individual with features from the four factors estimated is considered a psychopath.
Traits under the four factors are:3
- Interpersonal traits – include selfishness, superficial charm, shallow emotional lives, lack of empathy, an exaggerated sense of self, and manipulativeness/pathological lying.
- Affective traits – Lack or inadequate remorse, guilt, or empathy for others, emotionally shallow, and failure to accept responsibility for own actions.
- Lifestyle behavior – Risk-seeking behavior due to the need for stimulation or susceptibility to boredom; parasitic lifestyle; lack of realistic, long-term goals, impulsivity, and general irresponsibility.
- Antisocial behaviors – Poor behavioral control, early behavioral problems (even before the age of 15), Juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility
A clinical diagnosis of psychopathy under this instrument is based on a lifetime pattern of psychopathy. The test also signifies that psychopathy is a continuum ranging from those who possess and score highly on all the traits to those who have all the traits but score lower on each. T
The maximum overall score for the test is 40, and an individual needs a score of 30 to be diagnosed as a psychopath.
You may access the test HERE.
What is not psychopathy?
There are so many misconceptions about psychopathy, such as all psychopaths are murders or all people with mental illness are psychopaths.
People are probably too obsessed with crime shows to come up with these false pieces of information!
Now that we know what psychopathy is and ASPD are, we must also ask a pertinent question: what is NOT considered psychopathy?
Here are the five biggest misconceptions about psychopathy that everyone should be educated about:4
- All people with severe mental illness can be classified as psychopaths. Again, psychopathy is technically just a specifier of ASPD.
As a matter of fact, Psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, author of “On the Trail of the Successful Psychopath”, stated that classic psychopaths have a low likelihood of developing other mental illnesses, such as severe depression or anxiety disorders, because they don’t have enough capacity to experience emotional distress.
- Psychopaths are always violent. Many psychopaths actually refrain from antisocial or criminal acts, according to a news article.
While they are prone to enacting antisocial behaviors, a recently published study suggests that some may actually be better at inhibiting these impulses than others.5
- All serial killers are psychopaths, and all psychopaths are serial killers. As stated above, psychopathy is a continuum. Some are better at controlling their inhibitions, while others have a more severe case.
It is true that there are serial killers who are considered psychopaths; but regardless of this, there are many more psychopaths who are not serial killers.
- Psychopathy is the same as psychosis. Psychosis can be a severe mental health illness where a person has an impaired relationship with reality caused by hallucinations or delusions. Psychopathy, on the other hand, is quite the opposite of it; they are almost always rational.
- Psychopathy is a full-proof basis for an insanity defense. Lilienfeld expressed that the primary basis for an insanity defense is for a person to have a variant of not knowing the difference between right and wrong.
But since psychopaths are highly rational, they almost always fail this test since they know their difference most of the time.
Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy: What is the difference?
An article on webmd.com stated that “sociopath” is the term arbitrarily used for people who have a weak conscience.
While psychopathy is somehow considered a subtype of ASPD, sociopathy, conversely, is the informal term for ASPD.
There are many overlapping traits between sociopathy and psychopathy, but one of their clear distinctions is that psychopaths don’t have any conscience while sociopaths have a very weak one.
To paint a picture: when psychopaths do unlawful things, they won’t feel remorse or guilt over it, but when sociopaths do the same thing, they will feel remorse or guilt, but it will rarely stop them from doing it.
Both also lack empathy, the ability to be in other people’s shoes and understand how they feel.
In addition to this, what sets psychopaths aside is that they have less regard for others than sociopaths.
Given psychopaths’ interpersonal traits such as exaggerated sense of self and superficial charm, they can often present themselves as charming, life of the party, and intelligent.
Sociopaths are the complete opposite of this, as they prefer to not play along since they are not interested in anyone aside from themself.
Aside from the difference in interpersonal personalities, experts report that sociopaths are much more hot-headed and can act adversely without thinking of other people.
At the same time, psychopaths are more cold-hearted, calculating, and manipulative in their antics.
How do people become psychopaths: Nature vs. Nurture?
Nature versus nurture is a massive debate in almost all disciplines, but more so in the realm of psychology. Are psychopaths born with it, or are they nurtured and socialized to be one?
Multiple pieces of research have concluded that psychopathy is a result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. So this time, it’s no longer a question of nature vs. nurture but is actually a case of nature and nurture.
Psychopathy has been to run in families, but there is no such thing as a “psychopathy gene”.
Even if a specific set of parents do not have psychopathy, they may carry one or more genetic variants to increase their child’s chances of developing psychopathy.
It is crucial to note– that the same genetic changes associated with psychopathy can also be seen in people who do not have psychopathy.
While nobody is born with psychopathy and other mental illnesses, some children are just born with a higher risk of developing it due to inherited genetic factors.
Environment factors, as well, can either reduce or increase a person’s risk of developing psychopathy, especially for those who are vulnerable to due genetic factors.
It is the same with genetic factors in that not all children exposed to a specific environmental risk factor for psychopathy will develop it.
Environmental factors that may increase the risks of developing psychopathy are:
- Perinatal factors, such as smoking while carrying a baby, high-stress levels during pregnancy, or birth complications
- Growing up with hostile and non-responsive parents in early childhood
Rember that these are just risks and not causes. It’s not a full-proof indicator of whether a child will develop psychopathy or not.
Furthermore, it is unfortunate that some children are born with a higher risk for developing psychopathy; however, this does not mean that all hopes are lost because early parental intervention can significantly reduce their chances of developing it.
How can you effectively deal with psychopaths?
You can be surrounded by psychopaths without evening knowing it; they can be your siblings, parents, cousins, boss, friends, or even your next table officemate.
Now that you know the signs of spotting a psychopath, it’s also vital to equip yourself with how to effectively deal and communicate with them!
While not all psychopaths are violent, some can still inflict emotional stress and damage on you. This may consequently lead to emotional instability or, worse, mental illness.
So if you have the privilege to do so, try to have no- or low contact with that person to protect yourself.
But if you really are placed in a situation where you have to interact with them, here are five strategies on how to protect yourself:
- Always stay calm and do not show any emotions, especially negative ones. Showing them that they can negatively affect you will motivate and empower them to manipulate you.
- Never stutter and show that you are intimidated by them. These intimidating tactics can be subtle such as using aggressive language or talking over you to shut your up.
Always remember your rights and assert them. If the situation becomes more unpleasant, you can also report them to authorities.
- Psychopaths have a pattern of lying, making up stories, and blaming others. Do not be fooled by taking their side or showing sympathy to them.
- Take the reign and turn the conversion back on them. So when they start blaming other people, making up lies, or doing something to manipulate you, stand your ground and question, stop, and call them out.
- Communicate with them online rather than face to face whenever possible. A study in 206 found that psychopaths are great at negotiating when they’re communicating face-to-face.
However, once you feel like you are already in danger and you are dealing with a person with severe psychopathy, do not hesitate to seek protection and help from your loved ones and your local authorities.
As wise old people say, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Is there treatment for psychopathy?
People have deemed psychopaths as lost causes for a very long time– they cannot be cured.
However, recent studies and developments in the field have shown that there are ways to treat psychopathy, especially when interventions are given early.
According to PsychopathyIs, an organization that aims to dispel myths about psychopathy, the most successful treatment for psychopathy is multimodal.
A multimodal approach includes psychotherapy, behavioral skills training, and recognition of the importance of a social network. Some may also need the assistance of medications.
Treatment options that are suggested are:
- Individual-focused therapies
- Family-focused therapies
- Residential treatment
There must be family and social support as the person goes through these therapies.
In line with this, it is also important, albeit challenging, to find a mental health professional who has the knowledge, skill, and experience in handling psychopathy cases for children and adults.
Interesting psychopathy facts 101:
- Psychopaths are 20-25 times more likely than non-psychopaths to be in prison and are four to eight times more likely to violently relapse in comparison to non-psychopaths.6
- Psychopathy is twice as common as schizophrenia, anorexia, and bipolar disorder. Furthermore, it is equally common as bulimia, panic disorder, and autism.7
- The prevalence of psychopathy in the general adult population is 4.5%.8
- The prevalence of psychopathy is also significantly higher vs. among males (7.9%) than females (2.9%).9
- Women with psychopathy have significantly higher behavioral tendencies (e.d impulsivity, flirting, etc.), while men scored higher on violent criminal offenses and criminal versatility.10