Psychopathy is a subcategory or extension of antisocial personality disorder. The hallmark attributes of a psychopath include a lack of empathy for others, selfishness, lack of guilt, and a superficial charm that’s deployed to manipulate others. It should be noted that those attributes, except maybe lack of guilt, also characterize pathological narcissists or the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Psychopaths and sociopaths aren’t the same, although both have a poor sense of “right and wrong” and a lack of empathy. The main differences are:
- Psychopaths don’t have a conscience. Dr. L. Michael Tompkins, a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center, told WebMD that whereas psychopaths will steal from you without feeling a twinge of guilt, though they may pretend to if they’re caught, sociopaths, on the other hand, know that stealing your money is wrong and may feel remorse, but the remorse won’t be enough to stop their deviant behavior.
- Psychopaths are adept at blending in. They can come off as charming, intelligent, and may even mimic emotions they really don’t feel. Tompkins said psychopaths are “skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain,” whereas sociopaths are more likely to come off as “hot-headed” and may act more impulsively.
All of which make psychopaths more deceptive and more dangerous than sociopaths.
Not all psychopaths are violent serial killers. The most important characteristics of a psychopath revolve not around violence, but around lack of empathy, selfishness, and manipulation. While some psychopaths may use these traits to commit crimes, others rely on their manipulative skills and ability to charm for non-violent, but no less exploitative and destructive, pursuits. Many psychopaths actually find great success in the business world thanks to their ruthless nature — a disproportionate number of CEOs are psychopaths. Some other popular career paths for psychopaths include politics, law, media, and sales.
As many as 5% of people may have psychopathic tendencies.
Psychopathy is not easy to diagnose because there is no brain imaging or biological test that can inarguably identify a person as a psychopath. The most commonly used device for identifying psychopaths is the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), a 20-item inventory of personality traits and recorded behaviors developed by Dr. Robert D. Hare in the 1970s.
The checklist is administered in a semi-structured interview format, and operates on a point system based on whether a behavior (e.g., pathological lying) can be reasonably matched to the subject. The subject is assigned a score between 0 and 40, with 40 being maximum psychopathy and 0 the minimum. The cutoff for being labeled as a psychopath is 30 in the United States and 25 in the UK.
There are cross-cultural differences in the rate of psychopathy.
In his chapter, “Psychopathy Across Cultures,” for the edited volume Psychopathy: Theory, Research and Implications for Society (Springer, 1997), psychologist David J. Cooke of Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK, employed Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) in a cross-cultural study of variation in the presentation and prevalence of psychopathy. (H/t Thought Crime Radio)
Alarmingly, Dr. Cooke found that the prevalence of psychopaths, as measured by average PCL-R scores, is greater in North America (i.e., the U.S. and Canada) than 16 European samples (from 10 countries), as shown in Table 1 below (page 16 of Psychopathy):
Note: Mean is arithmetic average, computed by dividing the sum total of PCL-R scores of a group by the number of individuals in the group.
As you can see in Table 1 above, whereas the mean PCL-R score of the 16 European samples was 16.2, the mean 22.8 PCL-R score of North Americans was more than 40% higher, which Dr. Cooke calls “substantially” higher.
Also noteworthy is the fact that there is little difference in the prevalence of psychopaths between the general population and prisoners of North America. The North American population mean PCL-R score of 22.8 is only 0.8 less than the 23.6 average PCL-R score for North American prisoners.
Note: Psychopaths are over-represented in prisons. While not all psychopaths are violent, many violent people are psychopaths. Researchers say there is an abnormally high number of psychopaths in prison. Some studies suggest 50% to 80% of prisoners meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, and 15% of prisoners can be expected to be psychopathic, compared to the 1 to 5% expected in the general population. There isn’t much available research on serial killers and mass murderers, but it would be a reasonable assumption that psychopaths are quite over-represented in those populations as well. That’s because a psychopath’s personality makes it easy to act on violent urges or ideas that empathy, guilt, or fear would stomp out in a normal person.
Below is a self-administered psychopathy test, using 20 traits of Dr. Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). For each attribute, give yourself a score of 0 to 2, where 0 = “not at all descriptive of me”; 1 = “somewhat descriptive”; and 2 = “describes me perfectly”.
- glib and superficial charm
- grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
- need for stimulation
- pathological lying
- cunning and manipulativeness
- lack of remorse or guilt
- shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
- callousness and lack of empathy
- parasitic lifestyle
- poor behavioral controls
- sexual promiscuity
- early behavior problems
- lack of realistic long-term goals
- failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- many short-term marital relationships
- juvenile delinquency
- revocation of conditional release
- criminal versatility
When properly completed by a qualified professional, the PCL-R provides a total score that indicates how closely the test subject matches the “perfect” score that a classic or prototypical psychopath would rate. A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5. Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.
When I first posted this check-list in November 2015, I had included a poll (see below), which showed that, happily and as we would expect, the majority of FOTM readers who took the self-administered test got a low score.
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