People have long been fascinated with the idea of psychopaths, with violent ‘psychopathic’ characters turning up time and again in books, television and film.
People have long been fascinated with the idea of psychopaths, with violent ‘psychopathic’ characters turning up time and again in books, television and film.
However, whilst people with psychopathic characteristics may have an increased risk of violence, this is far from a defining feature. Instead, psychopathy is characterised by an extreme lack of empathy.
Psychopaths may also be manipulative, charming and exploitative, and behave in an impulsive and risky manner. They may lack conscience or guilt, and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.
Psychopathy is one of the most well-known and well-studied personality disorders. But is there an underlying biological reason for psychopathy? And if so, can the disorder be cured?
Research has suggested that the areas of the brain involved in emotion processing, empathising and decision making – for example amygdala, insula and ventromedial prefrontal cortex – show reduced activity in people with psychopathic characteristics when they see other people in distress or try to learn consequences of their actions.
The impaired functioning of these areas of the brain affects the ability of individuals with psychopathy to form associations between stimuli and consequences, such as hurting other people and the fear and distress others display as a consequence, or making a poor choice and receiving a punishment.
Altogether, the reduced activity within these areas of the brain impairs responses to emotional stimuli and decision making. The key question is: do these differences in the brain make someone into a psychopath, or does their behaviour change the brain?
Children that show a lack of empathy, lack of guilt and have shallow emotions, defined as callous-unemotional traits, are at increased risk of developing psychopathy in adulthood.
These children are more likely to display anti-social behaviour, such as bullying and aggression. They are less likely to respond to socially rewarding stimuli such as happy faces, and are also less likely to recognise a fearful expression.
Adolescents with callous-unemotional traits may be more likely to enjoy being cruel than being kind. They are also less likely to form long-term friendships, as they may not experience enjoyment from these relationships.
Twin and adoption studies can be used to investigate whether these behaviours are influenced more by someone’s genes or their environment. Identical twins share all of their DNA, whereas fraternal twins only share half their DNA (like other siblings).
If a characteristic is more likely to be shared by identical twins than fraternal twins, this suggests that genetic influences are important in explaining individual differences on that characteristic. Adoption studies are also useful as the child shares no DNA with their adoptive parents, but their adoptive parents provide all their environment.
This enables researchers to study the causal impact of parental input on behaviour. Twin and adoption studies have suggested that callous-unemotional traits in childhood have a genetic basis, and that anti-social behaviour coupled with callous-unemotional traits is more influenced by genes than anti-social behaviour alone.
However, adoption findings strongly indicate that the genetic vulnerability is not a destiny, but can be counteracted by protective environmental influences.
There are many implications of the research into callous-unemotional traits and psychopathy. As we seek to better understand how these features develop and how people with these features see the world around them, we can better tailor interventions to suit individual needs.
It is clear that intervening early in children with callous-unemotional traits could prevent psychopathy in adulthood, with all the psychological and social consequences.
Psychopathy is characterized by diagnostic features such as superficial charm, high intelligence, poor judgment and failure to learn from experience, pathological egocentricity and incapacity for love, lack of remorse or shame, impulsivity, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, poor self-control, promiscuous sexual behavior, juvenile delinquency, and criminal versatility, among others.
As a consequence of these criteria, the image of the psychopath is that of a cold, heartless, inhuman being. But do all psychopaths show a complete lack of normal emotional capacities and empathy?
Like healthy people, many psychopaths love their parents, spouse, children, and pets in their own way, but they have difficulty in loving and trusting the rest of the world.
Furthermore, psychopaths suffer emotionally as a consequence of separation, divorce, death of a beloved person, or dissatisfaction with their own deviant behavior
Sources of sadness
Psychopaths can suffer emotional pain for a variety of reasons. As with anyone else, psychopaths have a deep wish to be loved and cared for. This desire remains frequently unfulfilled, however, because it is obviously not easy for another person to get close to someone with such repellent personality characteristics.
Psychopaths are at least periodically aware of the effects of their behavior on others and can be genuinely saddened by their inability to control it. The lives of most psychopaths are devoid of a stable social network or warm, close bonds.
The life histories of psychopaths are often characterized by a chaotic family life, lack of parental attention and guidance, parental substance abuse and antisocial behavior, poor relationships, divorce, and adverse socioeconomic circumstances.
These individuals may feel that they are prisoners of their own etiological determination and believe that they had, in comparison with normal people, fewer opportunities or advantages in life.
Despite their outward arrogance, psychopaths feel inferior to others and know they are stigmatized by their own behavior. Some psychopaths are superficially adapted to their environment and are even popular, but they feel they must carefully hide their true nature because it will not be acceptable to others.
This leaves psychopaths with a difficult choice: adapt and participate in an empty, unreal life, or do not adapt and live a lonely life isolated from the social community. They see the love and friendship others share and feel dejected knowing they will never be part of it.
Psychopaths are known for needing excessive stimulation, but most foolhardy adventures only end in disillusionment because of conflicts with others and unrealistic expectations.
Furthermore, many psychopaths are disheartened by their inability to control their sensation-seeking and are repeatedly confronted with their weaknesses.
Although they may attempt to change, low fear response and associated inability to learn from experiences lead to repeated negative, frustrating, and depressing confrontations, including trouble with the justice system.
As psychopaths age, they are not able to continue their energy-consuming lifestyle and become burned-out and depressed while they look back on their restless life full of interpersonal discontentment. Their health deteriorates as the effects of their recklessness accumulate.
• Ultimately, they reach a point of no return, where they feel they have cut through the last thin connection with the normal world
• Hidden suffering, loneliness, and lack of self-esteem are risk factors for violent, criminal behavior in psychopaths
Emotional pain and violence
Social isolation, loneliness, and associated emotional pain in psychopaths may precede violent criminal acts. They believe that the whole world is against them and eventually become convinced that they deserve special privileges or the right to satisfy their desires.
As psychopathic serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen expressed, violent psychopaths ultimately reach a point of no return, where they feel they have cut through the last thin connection with the normal world. Subsequently, their sadness and suffering increase, and their crimes become more and more bizarre.
Dahmer and Nilsen have stated that they killed simply for company. Both men had no friends and their only social contacts were occasional encounters in homosexual bars.
Nilsen watched television and talked for hours with the dead bodies of his victims; Dahmer consumed parts of his victims’ bodies in order to become one with them: he believed that in this way his victims lived further in his body.
For the rest of us, it is unimaginable that these men were so lonely—yet they describe their loneliness and social failures as unbearably painful. Each created his own sadistic universe to avenge his experiences of rejection, abuse, humiliation, neglect, and emotional suffering.
Dahmer and Nilsen claimed that they did not enjoy the killing act itself. Dahmer tried to make zombies of his victims by injecting acid into their brains after he had numbed them with sleeping pills. He wanted complete control over his victims, but when that failed, he killed them.
Nilsen felt much more comfortable with dead bodies than with living people—the dead could not leave him. He wrote poems and spoke tender words to the dead bodies, using them as long as possible for company.
In other violent psychopaths, a relationship has been found between the intensity of sadness and loneliness and the degree of violence, recklessness, and impulsivity.
Violent psychopaths are at high risk for targeting their aggression toward themselves as much as toward others. A considerable number of psychopaths die a violent death a relatively short time after discharge from forensic psychiatric treatment as a result of their own behavior (for instance, as a consequence of risky driving or involvement in dangerous situations). Psychopaths may feel that all life is worthless, including their own.3,6,7
The significance of suffering in the development and diagnosis of psychopathy is underexposed in current diagnosic systems and theories. It is extremely important to recognize hidden suffering, loneliness, and lack of self-esteem as risk factors for deviant, and even violent, criminal behavior in psychopaths.
Studying the statements of violent criminal psychopaths sheds light on their striking and specific vulnerability and emotional pain. More experimental psychopharmacotherapy, neurofeedback, and combined psychotherapy research is needed to prevent and treat psychopathic behavior.
The current picture of the psychopath is incomplete because emotional suffering and loneliness are ignored. When these aspects are considered, our conception of the psychopath goes beyond the heartless and becomes more human
These diary fragments are from a former patient of mine who passed away several years ago.
“I look normal, but I am very different. I am from another world. It is hard for me to understand the emotional world and emotional driven motivations of other people, and they don’t understand me. Someone else said that I vibrate on a different frequency than everyone else.
This does not mean that nobody likes me; many do. But, it is the love human can experience for some predators such as tigers. Some people are unable to handle my impenetrable presence.”
“I am living in a parallel world, which has only a very thin and fallow connection to the outside world. I am watching how life is taking place, and I observe every single thing. It is like I am behind an endless and inescapable glass wall that allows me to see and be seen by others.
It is as if I am superficially acknowledged by others, “the living,” while I am never really take part in their lives. I exist. Sure. But I am not quite with them, although there are very rare exceptions.”
“Even the way I explain my ideas to others is alien. It’s like I am trying to translate my ideas into a language that others will be able to understand. I need to tune in mentally in a very precise way otherwise the real meaning of the message is lost.
The effort I am making to communicate is apparent, like instructing very complicated details of a mission to an astronaut on Jupiter by radio transmission.”
“I am forced to cope with all that social and sentimental madness, nonsense, and crap around me. I feel like someone who has remained deprived from influences and images from the civilized world is dropped in a ‘Disney World.’
The social games that are played by those ordinary people are experienced by me with growing amazement. Since I discovered more details and dynamics that are involved in these games it becomes even more mysterious for me what happens between them.
I discovered that most normal people feign feelings and intentions and I see them laugh along spuriously when others in the group laugh and they remain stuck in several social-emotional rituals.”
“My empathy and emotions were frozen in my youth as a result of all sorts of aversive experiences: tensions between my parent and lack of safety at home, a lack of social contacts and associated social-emotional exercises and feedback.
Episodically, I suffered from social seclusion and loneliness, my incapacity to fit in and the awareness that the distance between me and others, which was unbridgeable became even worse. I realized that I was and would remain a stranger no matter what my attempts would be to socialize.
It was sometimes simply unbearable to keep on feeling these dark emotions that were evoked by this constant stream of negative experiences.
And at some point, perhaps as a consequence of being overcharged, my emotional fuse broke down and it turned to be cold inside. I remember that I was 8 or 9 when I became suddenly aware of the fact that I was forever changed.
It was a sunny day and as I walked to school, a boy from my class crossed the street and made attempted to start a friendly conversation. I was immediately emotional blocked and unable to respond to him and the only thing I wanted was that he went away.
He soon realized that I was unreachable and ran away. He never spoke to me again and he was somehow afraid of me. From that moment on I was emotional frozen.
Growing older, I use compensation techniques in order to fill up the gap that is caused by my lack of emotional, moral capacities, and other socially undesirable traits.
Because I am always aware that in a world that is alien to me it is necessary for me to adapt myself to it at least at a minimum. Only in this way can I avoid major problems all the time and I can hide my real nature.
As a consequence, I must organize my life and the world around me in a very efficient manner. I must be constantly aware what the moral mores are of the majority of the people around in general and in special settings.
This is difficult to explore with my prosthetic moral compass. And there is also the awareness of what is expected from me—what I should feel and the sentiments I should show in various circumstance. This is very energy consuming, indeed.”
Psychopathic personalities are some of the most memorable characters portrayed in popular media today.
These characters, like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Frank Abagnale Jr. from Catch Me If You Can and Alex from A Clockwork Orange, are typically depicted as charming, intriguing, dishonest, guiltless, and in some cases, downright terrifying.
But scientific research suggests that psychopathy is a personality disorder that is widely misunderstood.
“Psychopathy tends to be used as a label for people we do not like, cannot understand, or construe as evil,” notes Jennifer Skeem, Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine.
Skeem, Devon Polaschek of Victoria University of Wellington, Christopher Patrick of Florida State University, and Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University are the authors of a new monograph focused on understanding the psychopathic personality that will appear in the December issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
In the course of their research, the authors reviewed many scientific findings that seemed to contradict one another. “Psychopathy has long been assumed to be a single personality disorder. However, there is increasing evidence that it is a confluence of several different personality traits,” Skeem says.
The authors of the monograph argue that rather than being “one thing” as often assumed, psychopathy appears to be a complex, multifaceted condition marked by blends of personality traits reflecting differing levels of disinhibition, boldness, and meanness.
And scientific findings also suggest that a sizable subgroup of juvenile and adult offenders labeled as psychopathic are actually more emotionally disturbed than emotionally detached, showing signs of anxiety and dysphoria.
According to Skeem, these important distinctions have long escaped the attention of psychologists and policy-makers. As a result, she and her co-authors set about to try to dispel some of the myths and assumptions that people often make about psychopathy.
Although many people might assume that psychopaths are ‘born,’ not ‘made,’ the authors stress that psychopathy is not just a matter of genes – it appears to have multiple constitutional causes that can be shaped by environmental factors.
Many psychologists also assume that psychopathy is inalterable – once a psychopath, always a psychopath. However, there is currently scant scientific evidence to support this claim.
Recent empirical work suggests that youth and adults with high scores on measures of psychopathy can show reduced violent and other criminal behavior after intensive treatment.
Along with challenging the assumption that psychopathy is a monolithic entity, perhaps the other most important myth that the authors hope to dispel is that psychopathy is synonymous with violence. Skeem points out that psychopathic individuals often have no history of violent behaviour or criminal convictions.
“Psychopathy cannot be equated with extreme violence or serial killing. In fact, “psychopaths” do not appear different in kind from other people, or inalterably dangerous,” she observes.
Nor is it clear that psychopathy predicts violence much better than a past history of violent and other criminal behavior – or general antisocial traits.
Effectively dispelling these myths is important, the authors argue, because accurate policy recommendations hinge on which personality traits – and which groups of people – associated with psychopathy one is examining.
“Decisions about juvenile and adult offenders that are based on faulty assumptions about violence risk, etiology, and treatment amenability have adverse consequences, both for individual offenders and the public,” Skeem says.
In clarifying the personality traits that characterize psychopathy, scientists can contribute to prevention and treatment strategies that improve public health and safety. “In short, research on psychopathy has evolved to a level that it can greatly improve on the current, ‘one size fits all’ policy approach,” concludes Skeem
Medline Plus defines antisocial personality disorder—often referred to as sociopathy or psychopathy in popular culture—as “a mental condition in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others.”
It may be challenging to immediately identify this disorder in someone; however, as these individuals are capable of masking their hurtful behaviors with wit and charm in social situations and personal relationships. With that in mind, the following are the 10 most common indicators of the condition to be aware of.
In addition to being witty and charming individuals, those with antisocial personality disorder may shower others in Flattery
. This is done intentionally to manipulate others’ emotions for personal gain or pleasure, another symptom of the condition.
As a result of these behaviors, people with antisocial personality disorder may struggle to maintain long time relationship—both platonic and romantic—as people slowly become aware of or are hurt by the person’s exploitation.
People with antisocial personality disorder struggle to conform to, and sometimes entirely disregard, social norms and societal laws. As such, they will often engage in activities that are grounds for arrest. This includes things such as stealing and fighting.
Frequent fighting is also an indication of the person’s issues with , anger and agressivness which can be easily triggered. In these situations, they will not care about the safety of themselves or others involved and will have no reservations about violating another’s physical rights.
Should a person with antisocial personality disorder hurt someone, whether emotionally or physically, they will show no sign of remorse for their behavior. In some cases, they may even try to ratioanalize what they did.
People with antisocial personality disorder also fail to learn from these experiences and the consequences that result, even if they lead to legal trouble, which is why these individuals engage in such activities repeatedly throughout their lives.
People with antisocial personality disorder are often very deceitful.Psychcentralsays this is indicated by “repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.”
In such scenarios is when they tend to turn on their charm and wit, in order to mask their manipulative behavior from the people they are trying to exploit. They may also display arrogance, thinking that they will never be caught or exposed.
As a result of their irresponsible behaviour—such as persistent lying and manipulation and disrespect for others—people with antisocial personality disorder often struggle to fulfill work obligations. This may mean they change jobs frequently and lack stability in their finances.
Rather than taking responsibility for their actions and problems they create, those with the condition will often try to pass the blane onto others.
As mentioned earlier, people with antisocial personality disorder have no regard for their own safety, which is why they often engage in unnecessary risk-taking or dangerous behaviors, such as using and abusing alcohol and drugs.
Psychology today says that such issues can further exacerbate symptoms of the disorder, adding that “when substance abuse and antisocial personality disorder coexist, treatment is more complicated for both.”
We’ve all encountered someone who is arrogant. But in people with antisocial personality disorder, the behavior can display itself in many different ways. We previously mentioned how, when deceiving or lying to others, these individuals think they won’t be caught or exposed.
They can also exhibit their arrogance through behaviors, such as being cocky, self-assured, and extremely opinionated. Psych Central adds that they may “feel that ordinary work is beneath them or a lack of realistic concern about their current problems or their future.”
Earlier, we discussed how individuals with antisocial personality disorder often manipulate others for their own personal gain. The reason they are able to do this with such ease is because they lack empathy, which is the ability to figuratively step into another person’s shoes and understand their feelings.
The feelings of others do not factor into the decisions or actions of a person with antisocial personality disorder. As a result, they often end up causing others a great deal of hurt. But because they cannot understand why a person would be hurt by their actions, they don’t feel bad (remorse) for what they’ve done and will therefore likely repeat the behavior again in the future.
Individuals with antisocial personality disorder do not have the same ability to control their impulses that most others do. When the average person thinks about doing something that would result in immediate satisfaction, like, say, stealing a car, they are able to restrain the urge.
But when people with antisocial personality disorder have the same thought, they are much less likely to hold back because they like the thrill of immediate satisfaction and also because their arrogance makes them think that societal laws against doing illegal things (e.g., stealing cars) simply don’t apply to them.
Along with acting impulsively, people with antisocial personality disorder fail to plan ahead. This doesn’t mean they’re unable to develop a schedule or set goals (although it’s possible they may not), but rather, they do not consider the potential consequences of their actions in advance.
These negative consequences are usually what deter the average person from engaging in hurtful or illegal behaviors, but not thinking about them is what allows people with the disorder to act impulsively. And even if these consequences come to pass, they don’t learn from their actions and will likely engage in them again, often repeatedly throughout their life.