What Is a Psychopath?

Updated on May 15, 2020
Angel Harper profile image

Angel is currently a first year student at university studying Psychology.

According to fictional tales about serial killers and cannibals, psychopaths are innately evil creatures who commit grotesque offences against the innocent public. However, this overly dramatised depiction is not necessarily true. In many instances, psychopathic traits can be extremely valuable tools for achieving individual or organisational goals.

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Upon hearing the word 'psychopath' one often associates the term with individuals carved into the serial killer walk of fame, such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. According to Skeem et al (2011) psychopaths are largely condemned within society as either bloodthirsty killers or manipulative and corrupt corporate leaders yet despite this stigma, some traits such as fearlessness could be potentially beneficial.

Psychopathy could actually be a means for individuals or groups to achieve their own subjective goals but, as argued by Kevin Dutton and Andy McNab (2014), there are a large number of factors which can impact to what degree this is true.

Dutton in 'The Wisdom of Psychopaths' (2012) argues that one should not condemn a psychopath immediately, especially when a lack of empathy can be a useful skill for lawyers, surgeons and CEOs. However, many argue that psychopaths are to blame for the chaos within our society, with psychopathic crime being the most violent and damaging but perhaps a ruthless lack of remorse can be a powerful weapon for both destruction and heroism.

I've written multiple articles on the topic of psychopathy; this one focuses on the definition of psychopathy, psychopathic traits and the potential biological causes.

The Definition of Psychopathy

During the early 19th century, Pinel (as cited in Ronson 2011) first referred to psychopathy as "main sans delire" meaning a madness without delusions. This referred to a type of madness that lacked mania or depression (psychopaths very rarely suffer from delusions or commit suicide).

Since Pinel, research has adapted the definition; according to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (Colman 2015) psychopathy is “a mental disorder roughly equivalent to antisocial personality disorder but with emphasis on affective and interpersonal traits such as superficial charm, pathological lying, egocentricity, lack of remorse and callousness”.

Despite the psychological communities' awareness of such a personality disorder, the American diagnostic tool for mental illness, the DSM V, does not actually include psychopathy. Instead, 'Antisocial Personality Disorder' or APD acts as an umbrella term which encompasses both psychopathy and sociopathy.

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Psychopathic Traits

Robert Hare created one if the most popular diagnostic tools for measuring levels of psychopathy within an individual called the PCL-R (Hare and Babiak 2007). The checklist consists of twenty traits (see figure 1) that are scored between 0 and 2. The threshold for diagnosis a total of 30 in America and 25 in the UK. According to Hare, the average person would score around 5.

  • Superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self worth
  • Need for stimulation/ proneness to boredom
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning and manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect
  • Lack of empathy
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavioural controls
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Early behaviour problems
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsive
  • Irresponsibility
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Criminal versatility

Figure 1. Hare's Psychopathy checklist, PCL-R (as cited in Hare & Babiak, 2007).

The PCL-R has been a useful tool to develop our understanding of psychopathy and is widely accepted as an effective criteria for diagnosis. The PCL-R was later developed into the PCL:SV (see figure 2) based on case histories and interviews. This version seperates traits into four main factors:

  1. the interpersonal factor asses how an individual presents themselves to other people,
  2. the affective factor covers their emotions,
  3. the lifestyle factor looks at their lives within society, and
  4. the antisocial factor evaluates their antisocial tendencies.

Cook et al (1999) conclude that this adaptation is an "effective short form of the PCL-R" which allows screening to take pace in less time. Hart et al (1999) found that it can take up to 40% less time than the PCL-R.

Interpersonal
Affective
Lifestyle
Antisocial
Superficial
Lacks remorse
Impulsive
Poor behavioural controls
Grandiose
Lacks empathy
Lacks goals
Adolescent antisocial behaviour
Deceitful
Doesn't accept responsibility
Irresponsible
Adult antisocial behaviour
Figure 2. The PCL:SV ( as cited in Hare & Babiak 2007)

However, the PCL-R/ PCL:SV are yet to be perfected. One issue is that the PCL-R was developed mostly based on Hare's research with male offenders. Perhaps the checklist is simply a list of criminal traits and therefore neglects non-criminal psychopathic traits.

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At first glance, many of these traits might not seem like a description of a functioning or decent member of society. However, it is important to remember that such characteristics come in varying degrees and a psychopath's upbringing, environment and other personality traits can have a significant impact on what kind of person they become.

Bibliography

  • Babiak, P. , Hare, R. (2007). Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work. Published New York, Regan Books.
  • Cooke, J., Michie, S., Hare, R. (1999) Evaluating the Screening Version of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist- Revised (PCL:SV): An item response theory analysis. Published online, available at http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1999-10259-001
  • Dutton, K.. (2012). The wisdom of psychopaths: lessons in life from Saints, spies and serial killers. Published London, William Heinemann.
  • Dutton, K. , McNab, A. (2014) The Good Psychopaths Guide to Success. Published online, available at https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The to_Success.html?id=FEmG AwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp read button&redir esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=f
  • Ronson, J. (2011) The psychopath test: A journey through the madness industry. Published London: Picador.
  • Skeem, J., Polaschek, D., Patrick, C. 1 Lilienfeld, P. (2011) Psychopathic Personality: Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy. Published online, available at https://iournals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1529100611426706?journalCode=psia&

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Angel Harper

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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      7 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Your article lives up to its stated objectives. Thanks for the details on these people.

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