What exactly is a psychopath? Is a psychopath the same as a sociopath or persons with an antisocial personality disorder? Are psychopaths crazy? Are psychopaths born the way they are? Are psychopaths more common than we once thought? And how do you know if someone is a psychopath? Hopefully, this article will help answer these common questions.
Cleckley coined the term psychopathy in his landmark 1941 book, The Mask of Sanity. And because some of their most unique and troubling attributes: unnecessary, pathological lying, superficial charm, and a chilling capacity for heartlessly victimizing others, etc. seemed so irrational to him and his colleagues, it was natural for them to think of psychopathy as a form of mental derangement or insanity. But psychopaths typically don’t suffer from genuine delusions or abnormalities of normal thought process like persons in the throes of “psychosis” do. As different as they are from most normal folks, they’re definitely not crazy (although many folks confuse the terms “psychotic” and “psychopath”).
Shortly after Cleckley’s work, the term psychopathy fell into disfavor among professionals and many preferred the label “sociopathic” to describe social predators. That’s because the core pathology of these folks began to be seen more as a severe type of social dysfunction as opposed to a derangement of mind. And sociopathy was viewed by most as the most extreme form of antisocial (i.e. “against society”) personality disorder, a personality dysfunction most commonly associated with social parasitism and frequent law-breaking.
I’m among several who’ve always found considerable fault with the various official classification schemes we’ve had for some of our most dysfunctional personalities. And there’s ample data supporting the inadequacy of even our most recent formulations. Not all antisocial personalities are criminals, and not all persons who have committed criminal acts are antisocial personalities. Similarly, only small portion of criminals are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are habitual criminals. What’s more, many psychopaths don’t even lead the socially parasitic lifestyles of most antisocial personalities. That’s why I developed a scheme for classifying the various “aggressive” personality types, a scheme I discuss in depth in my book Character Disturbance. And at the head of the class are the psychopaths: predatory aggressors who often prey on others merely for the pure pleasure of it. And while they may have other troublesome personality characteristics as well, the key feature of these most severely disturbed of all characters is their uniquely malignant narcissism. These folks are simply not like most of us and they know it and are proud of it. They feel pathologically superior to the rest of the human race. Most of us possess the “defects” of scruples, occasional apprehension, and the ability to care. And they see these qualities as necessarily making us inherently weaker and inferior. That’s why they feel entitled to prey on us. They have no more compunction about toying with and victimizing those they view as lower than them as a normal person has stepping on or death-spraying an ant that has invaded the kitchen.
Probably the preeminent researcher in the area of psychopathy, Robert Hare, suggests that psychopaths’ impaired capacity for empathy is the reason they lack the conscience that might otherwise keep them from so callously victimizing others. And there’s been some interesting research findings suggesting biologically-based brain anomalies for the kind of emotional “disconnect” and lack of empathy common in psychopaths. But I and others have long observed that some psychopaths actually do have at least the capacity for empathy but also have a chillingly unique capacity for “compartmentalizing” or mentally walling-off all feeling when they need to for the purpose of victimization.
Many books that gained popularity in recent years have suggested there’s a psychopath lurking around every corner. But genuine psychopathy is a relatively rare condition. And while it’s true that because of their capacity to make favorable impressions some psychopaths go undetected or rise to great heights in corporations or even in public office, (this is the premise of sayings such as “snakes in suits” or “sociopaths next door” – some of which became book titles), only a handful of the despicable characters out there are true psychopaths. That’s why I’ve always suggested how important it is to view character disturbance along a continuum.
Just like we’re now learning about autistic disorders, disturbances of character vary in type and intensity. And long before it became fashionable to view certain personalities as “almost a psychopath,” I proposed that there was one type of personality (the covert-aggressive) who had all of the manipulative characteristics of a psychopath but couldn’t quite rise to the level of character pathology to be classified a genuine conscienceless predator.
Authors like Gavin DeBecker have suggested that most of us have a sort of built-in radar for the predators among us. Psychopaths are supposed to make the hair on the back of our neck stand on end. And according to some, we get victimized only when we don’t pay close enough attention to nature’s built-in warning signals. But I have long noted that although we do in fact inadvertently allow our victimization by all sorts of disturbed characters by not having sufficient confidence in our intuition, some predators have the skill to seduce and charm us without setting off our internal radar. It’s simply not our fault. They’re just that good at the art of impression management.
The writers and producers of the popular TV drama Dexter put a lot of what we know about psychopaths into the main character. But they also couldn’t help reinforcing old notions about the kinds of early emotional trauma thought to be at the root of the condition. This is unfortunate because so many of our most notorious modern day psychopaths came from truly wonderful backgrounds, but knowing our commonly held beliefs sometimes succeeded in getting us to suspend rational judgment when they offered their “abuse excuse.” There’s also a misconception that because some research is pointing to biological abnormalities that psychopathy must be a strictly genetic or inborn condition (and disturbingly, some lawyers defending psychopaths have even offered the “bad brain excuse” as a way of exculpating their clients). But the fact is that we’re just in the infancy stage of learning about the nature and origins of this condition. Biological influences indeed seem to play a role (most evidence coming from brain imaging studies that show differential activity between psychopaths and normals in regions of the brain known to integrate thought with emotion). But exactly how the character of these predators develops and how brain functioning differs in psychopaths are still largely mysteries.
I for one will be more than happy to abandon the classification scheme I use for defining and understanding the most impaired characters among us, including psychopaths, if a truly better one comes along. After all, my perspective is based on clinical experience and rational thought, not on purely empirical data and experiment. But for now, I find it more helpful in understanding how psychopaths fit within the context of character disturbance in general. As I point out in Character Disturbance, the most problematic characters among us are those who think too much of themselves to care about us (the narcissists – who, by the way, do exist and inflict untold damage upon relationships no matter what the upcoming new official diagnostic manual says) and those who pit themselves against the rest of us (the aggressive personalities) and are determined to dominate us. Some are indiscriminate in their antisocial conduct (the unbridled aggressive), some generally restrict their misbehavior but are no less dangerous (the channeled-aggressive), some take special pleasure in hurting us (the sadists) and some, like the sub-psychopathic characters I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing, like to manipulate us (covert-aggressives). But while psychopaths can have all these other traits, too (and, of course, they’re the penultimate manipulators), their cardinal quality is their disdain for most of us and their deeply felt entitlement to prey upon us. I might have said that they love to prey on “their own kind,” but as hard as it is for some to accept, these folks are distinctly different from what most of us believe makes us human.
There’s a lot more to say on this topic than I can possibly say in one article. For more information on psychopathy and closely related subjects, you might want to check out some of my other articles, including: