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What Is the Meaning of Psychopathy, and Myths About It?

Terms such as “violent psychopath” (21,700), “psychopathic serial killer” (14,700), “psychopathic murderer” (12,500), or “deranged psychopath” (1,050) are often heard in everyday conversation. The number of Google hits shown in parentheses indicates their frequent use in everyday conversation. But as we will find out below, these terms come from a wrong conclusion about the psychopathic personality, or the so-called psychopathy or sociopathy. There are a few disorders that would be misinterpreted to such an extent. The purpose of the present article is to define the meaning of psychopathy clearly and to deconstruct the widespread myths about it.

Charming but Without Feelings

In 1941, a Georgia physician, Hervey M. Cleckley, first systematically defined psychopathy as a set of specific personality traits and behaviors. On the surface, charming psychopaths often make a positive first impression on the interlocutor and act completely normal on the outside. In reality, however, they are self-centered, insincere, unreliable, and occasionally behave irresponsibly for no apparent reason except for their own amusement. Psychopaths are primarily ignorant of feelings of guilt, empathy, and love. Usually, their love relationships are superficially romantic, without deeper feelings. They offer routine excuses for their careless or outrageous actions and place the blame for them on the people around them. They rarely learn from their own mistakes or from the negative reactions of those around them. They also have problems with restraining and controlling their impulses. The fact that there are relatively many psychopaths in prisons is not surprising. Research shows that as many as 25% of prisoners meet the diagnostic criteria of psychopathy. Also, research predicts that a considerable number of psychopaths can still be encountered in our everyday lives. Some researchers even believe that there are a disproportionate number of “successful psychopaths,” i.e., those who reach important social positions in some fields such as politics, entrepreneurship, and entertainment. There is no clear evidence for such claims so far. Most psychopaths are male, and the reasons for the gender difference are still unknown. Psychopathy is present in societies and cultures in the West as well as elsewhere, including those societies that are not exposed to media portrayals of psychopathy.

A Harvard Study Showed

In 1976, anthropologist Jane M. Murphy of Harvard University, in a study of a fairly isolated community of Inuit who speak the Yupik language, showed that they knew the term “kunlangeta,” which was used to describe “a man who … constantly lies and cheats, steals and exploits women in various ways and whose offenses are constantly dealt with by the elders of the community”. When she asked what the community usually does with the kunlanget, the Inuit replied: “Someone pushes it out of the ice when no one is around.”

One of the best measures of psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), was developed by psychologist Robert D. Hare of the University of British Columbia. The questionnaire requires a standardized interview with the individual and an examination of his file, for example, criminal activities and education. Analyzes of the PCL-R combine at least three intertwining but also dissociable factors: interpersonal dysfunction (such as feelings of grandiosity, arrogance, and pretending), affective disorders (lack of guilt, lack of empathy), and impulsive and criminal behaviors (including sexual promiscuity and places).

Three Myths About the Meaning of PsychopathyThe meaning of psychopathy

Despite a lot of research that has been done in the last few decades, the meaning of psychopathy is still not adequately understood. Let’s look at three misinterpretations:

Are All Psychopaths Violent?

Investigation by psychologists like Randall T. Salekin of the University of Alabama suggests that psychopathy is indeed a risk factor for future physical and sexual violence. Furthermore, some mass murderers—such as Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader, and John Wayne Gacy, the infamous “BTK” (Bind, Torture, Kill) killers—had many psychopathic traits, such as apparent charm and a lack of guilt and empathy. However, many psychopaths are not violent, just as many violent people are not psychopaths. In the days following the horrific shooting at Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007, many journalists and other media reporters described the killer, Seung-Hui Cho, as a “psychopath.” However, Cho only showed some traits of psychopathy. Those who knew him described him as an extremely shy, often absent, and reserved person. Unfortunately, the current 2000 fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only adds to the confusion between psychopathy and violence. The latter describes an antisocial personality disorder, which is characterized by long-term criminal acts and frequent physical aggression, and which is synonymous with psychopathy. However, research suggests that the traits of psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder overlap only partially.

All psychopaths Are Psychotic.

Unlike people who have psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, where the individual often loses touch with reality, psychopaths are almost always rational. They are aware that their actions are sick from a social point of view, or illegal. Yet they remain nonchalant about it. Some notorious mass murderers, such as Charles Manson and David Berkowitz, were referred to by the media as psychopaths. However, they both showed clear symptoms of psychoticism rather than psychopathy. For example, Manson insisted on being the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, while Berkowitz believed he was taking orders from his neighbor’s dog, Sam Carr (hence the nickname “Son of Sam”). True psychopaths, on the other hand, are rarely psychotic.

Psychopathy Is Incurable.

In the popular TV series The Sopranos, the therapist, Dr. Melfi, stopped psychotherapy with Tony Soprano because her fellow psychologist convinced her that he was incurable if he really was a classic psychopath like Dr. Melfieva is convinced. Given the fact that Toni exhibited a range of behaviors that are certainly not psychopathic (such as loyalty to his family and emotional attachment to the group of ducks he kept in his home pool), Melfi’s pessimism was probably unjustified. Although psychopaths are more or less unmotivated to seek treatment, research by psychologist Jennifer Skeem and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, suggests that psychotherapeutic treatments can benefit psychopaths to the same extent as other people. Even if their core personality traits are actually hard to change, they are much more susceptible to change in terms of their criminal behavior.

Psychopathy reminds us that media portrayals of mental disorders often contain as much fiction as fact. Moreover, widespread misunderstanding of such diseases can have various adverse consequences—as Tony Soprano found out shortly before the television screen went dark.

Adapted from Scientific American Mind magazine

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