In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.
This week’s term: Psychopathy
We’ve all heard the term psychopath, but in popular culture it’s not always used accurately. So what does it actually mean? Well, psychopathy is not a diagnosis in the DSM. The diagnosis that comes closest is antisocial personality disorder, but many people with antisocial personality disorder are not psychopaths.
Arguably the most prominent psychopathy researcher is Canadian psychologist Dr. Robert Hare. The Hare Psychopathy Checklist is generally considered the authoritative measuring tool to assess for psychopathy. It involves an extensive review of an individual’s history, and evaluation for some of the following elements:
- glibness: they’re very smooth talkers
- an inflated sense of self-worth
- easily bored and looking for new stimulation
- pathological lying
- manipulative behaviour
- no remorse or guilt
- shallow emotions
- lack of empathy
- poor impulse control
The triarchic model of psychopathy revolves around three central features: boldness, disability, and meanness. Typically psychopaths are well aware of the nature of the behaviour that they’re engaging in, which would make it not particularly useful as a defense for a crime, for example.
Psychoanalyst Dr. Otto Kernberg suggested that psychopathy is an extreme version of narcissism. While there is some overlap, there are also a number of other distinctive elements os psychopathy. The combination of psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism is sometimes referred to as the dark tetrad.
It’s not clear what the causes are. There appears to be some genetic influence in the development of psychopathy. Brain injury may play a role. Environmental influences are also a factor. There have been patterns observed of certain deficits in brain structure and function in psychopaths, including in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex.
Some psychopaths engage in criminal behaviour, while others may appear to be outwardly successful in the world, performing well in areas like business. It’s been observed that criminal behaviours tend to drop off after around age 40, although this doesn’t correspond to any changes in psychopathic traits. Psychopaths who do commit crimes have higher recidivism rates than other criminals, particularly if their crimes are violent in nature.
This topic came to mind recently while I was watching Serial Killer with Piers Morgan on Netflix. While it seems like there are some people who think that to commit horrendous acts someone must be out of touch with reality (i.e. psychotic), to me psychopathy seems like a far better explanation in most cases. Still, it’s bizarre to think that such monsters can live among us. As far as I know, I’ve only had contact with one psychopath, and while he wasn’t a killer, he was frequently violent. His skillful attempts at manipulation were frightening to watch.
Do you think you’ve ever encountered a psychopath?