For many, knowledge of psychopathy stems from media reports or the cinema. Psychopathic personalities are often memorable with their on screen or real-world actions casting a lasting imprint.
Characters like Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho,” Dexter Morgan from “Dexter,” and Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” 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,” said Dr. Jennifer Skeem, professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.
Skeem and collegues have penned a new monograph that focuses on understanding the psychopathic personality. The paper is found in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
Experts say that confusion on psychopathy exists among the scientific community as many findings 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 said.
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.
A notable discovery among the existing literature is 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.
Another myth is the assumption by many psychologists that psychopathy is unalterable — once a psychopath, always a psychopath.
However, researchers say that there is minimal scientific evidence to support this claim. In fact, 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.
Another important misconception that the authors seek to dispel is that psychopathy is synonymous with violence. Skeem points out that psychopathic individuals often have no history of violent behavior 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 unalterably dangerous,” she said.
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 said.
Researchers believe a more accurate view of the personality traits that characterize psychopathy will aid prevention and treatment strategies that can 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,” said Skeem.