If you’ve tuned in to any one of the many prime-time television shows in the last five years, you’ve likely come across a suspenseful crime drama replete with personality-disordered characters. Many of us find ourselves plotting the crime better than the criminal, solving the case quicker than the “good guys,” or discovering the hidden agenda halfway through the episode. I wager that many of you even empathize with the charismatic antagonist, at times, over the logical hero.
We are all quick to judge, analyze, question, and shame characters on the screen, all while making general comparisons to ourselves or our lives. What happens if there are strong similarities? What if you could plot a murder better than the serial killer? Did you root for the killer to escape from his or her consequential justice? If you said yes to any of these questions, does that make you a psychopath, too?
The simple answer is, “Probably not.” The term “psychopath” is derived from an early 1800s description of people presenting with lack of moral integrity (Hare, 1993). It wasn’t until the 1900s that individuals with such traits were labeled as psychopath, and later sociopath. Since that time, especially within the last decade, both terms have been tossed around casually to describe people with behaviors that significantly invade our sense of human morality.
When we see characters on TV depicted as intelligent, tenacious, and chronic criminals, we are quick to assume their disposition, and insist upon their psychopathy. Many of these characters appear normal on the surface, but have skeletons (both literally and figuratively) hidden away in a deep, dark closet. For anyone to identify with this moral depravity, they must be of similar association, right?
To have thoughts is not the same as acting on them. Many of us have ventured into that dark place of our minds where we considered things we would never carry out or admit to thinking. Whether imagining strangling someone in a fit of rage or hoping someone gets what is coming to them because they cut you off in traffic, your distinction from the fictional psychopath is empathy and moral regard for others. At some point, you calm down, and consider how dreadful your thoughts would be if they came true. Maybe you try to understand the other person’s experience. Or perhaps you just forget about it all together.
Dr. Craig Malkin (2015) recently published a blog discussing the implications of overgeneralizing the term “narcissism.” He makes a valid point, suggesting that the casual relay of this term minimizes the impact on those affected by true narcissists, including PTSD and depression.
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The same can be said for the overlabeling and mislabeling of psychopaths. In reality, approximately one percent of the population is considered psychopathic. This statistic is heavily inflated in scriptwriting, especially when you need a different serial killer each episode for 10 to 20 weeks.
Some people seeking therapy, or mandated by courts, have committed acts deemed as careless and morally unjust. More specifically, these clients have often been involved in relationship violence, chronic violation of others’ rights, etc. I’ve worked with a large number of clients presenting with such a rap sheet. None of them would be considered psychopathic, though many of them were told such tales by their caregiver, law enforcement, teachers, partners, or probation officers.
To no surprise, this label significantly affected how they navigated the world. Just as you or I would do, these young men and women found comparisons to TV psychopaths, and created self-fulfilling prophecies to confirm their condemning label. In reality, their behaviors were symptoms of much deeper experiences, perceptions, and brain chemistry, none to the degree of psychopathy.
The effects of labeling can be quite demeaning and long-lasting, especially when they are so overgeneralized that they become casual descriptors. I’m amazed by how many people respond to me identifying myself as a therapist with statements like, “you’re out fixing the killers, huh?” To me, these individuals are not at fault for such left-field assumptions. Instead, their comments only confirm the greater societal perception that psychotherapy continues to carry a rigid and deep stigma. One must be crazy, suicidal, or homicidal to seek therapy.
We are certainly moving in the right direction for correcting these skewed perceptions of psychotherapy; however, much progress remains in normalizing mental health treatment as a wellness process needing the same attention and resources as medical treatment. Let’s continue raising awareness to expand knowledge for and increase accessibility to necessary resources
Hare, R. (1993). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us (pp. 25-26). New York: Pocket Books.
Malkin, C. (2015, April 12). Overusing “narcissist” can be dangerous, not just to others — but to ourselves. Romance Redux. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/romance-redux/201504/the-real-dangers-diagnosing-everyone-narcissist.