What is… Psychopathy

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?

SourceWikipedia: Psychopathy

You can find the rest of the What Is series here.

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8 thoughts on “What is… Psychopathy

  1. BeckiesMentalMess.wordpress.com says:

    When I resided in the temporary housing almost two full years ago, I was given a roommate that was a psychopath. He scared the bejesus out of me. I stayed in my bedroom ost of the times with the door locked, and a chair under the doorknob while he was there. Thank goodness it was only for three months of having to live like that.

  2. Meg says:

    Ooh, psychopaths are scary!! My sister has some traits, but I’ve never been certain what her deal is. She’s attacked me maybe five times over the past ten years? There were literally times when I’ve lived here (with her living downstairs) in fear of her, which is why my dad had to ultimately kick her out. She’s intimidating, violent, bullying, hostile, scary, and manipulative.

    After she threw me into a wall in 2012, in plain sight of my dad, he yelled at her, of course, and told her never to do that again. (I was already living in fear of her before she threw me.) But afterward, she’d see me in the kitchen when my dad wasn’t looking and make faces at me like, “I own you.” And I’d have to go out the back door, walk around the house, and come in the front door to reach my dad.

    I’m not 100% certain she’s a psychopath, but there’s definitely something wrong with her. I totally agree with your assessment that this sort of behavior is a personality issue rather than a mental illness such as psychosis. ‘Cause I know that whatever’s wrong with my sister is a personality flaw and not a mental illness. That’s all I know. Just thank God she no longer lives with us. (After she got her sorry self kicked out, I turned her bedroom into my dad’s new hobby room, and I adopted a cat, to whom she’s allergic.)

    I haven’t interacted with her for a whole year now, and I’ve never been happier. I have family members who are all like, “Oh, maybe you and she can work it out,” and I’m like, “I’d rather not.” There’s nothing to “work out” at this point. I’m just glad to avoid her.

    Regarding the causes, my sister had a nicer childhood than my brother and I did. Being the baby, our parents were more lenient and “chill” with her. But when she turned three (or thereabouts), her inner demon came out, and she started using her fingernails as claws. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Our parents were divorcing, and she’d deliberately guilt my dad into buying her toys during his every-other-weekend. From all appearances, she became a violent opportunist from the first chance, which was sad, because we all doted on and adored her.

  3. DV says:

    Yep. The bloke who was bullying me in the re-enactment group ticked pretty much every box for narcissism and psychopathy. He was a master of lying, gaslighting and manipulation, and was also violent but in ways that were covert or very difficult to take action on. And he was completely unremorseful for the ways he’d hurt people.

    The really scary thing about psychopaths is how successfully they can beat you down psychologically, not only directly but also by recruiting other people into aiding or turning a blind eye to their abuse. They seem to be able to make everyone else around them believe (or at least overlook) even blatantly obvious lies and inconsistencies, repeatedly excuse their behaviour and accept their “truth” that the fault always lies with other people or external circumstances, never with them. It leads to feeling as if there is no winning and no escape from them for as long as you stay within that particular group of people so you stop even trying. It is very, very difficult to trust anyone or any group again after experiencing this.

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