Are there psychopaths walking among us?

Image: Still from American Psycho (2000, Lions Gate Films)
Image: Still from American Psycho (2000, Lions Gate Films)

Psychopaths are most often seen in the cinema, slaying and scheming, but some argue that those with psychopathic traits are more common than we may like to believe and, although many don’t go as far as committing crimes, their actions can still be immensely destructive to society.

Psycopathy is considered a personality disorder, and although no organisation of psychiatrists or psychologists has sanctioned the use of the term as a formal diagnosis, the word is widely used in criminology.

Psychologist Robert Hare created his ‘Psychopath checklist’ to quantify traits and characteristics which suggest an element of psychopathy in an individual. The traits he describes include a lack of empathy, shallow emotions, impulsivity and irresponsibility. Psychopaths tend to have early behaviour problems and be involved in juvenile crimes. They may have multiple, short-lived marital relationships and be known for being sexually promiscuous. They are pathological liars and have a grandiose sense of self-worth. Despite these traits, many of which society might conservatively consider amoral and unacceptable, psychopaths are extremely charming and are often high achievers. At this point, you may be looking at this list, reflecting, and panicking slightly. But, as Jon Ronson wisely points out in his book ‘The Psychopath Test’, if you are wondering if you are a psychopath, you possess enough self awareness to confidently say: no, you are not.

Hare’s checklist is used in prisons and high security units to decide what level of incarceration prisoners need, what treatment they need, and the likelihood that the individual will reoffend. However, in normal society snake-like, manipulative, high-functioning psychopaths might be harder to spot. Hare has claimed that around 1% of the population will meet his clinical criteria for psychopathy but that in the business world, the figure is higher, around 3-4%.

It is claimed that in senior management roles, these characters can do enormous damage, to the point where psychologist Oliver James called the global financial crisis of 2008 a “mass outbreak of corporate psychopathy which resulted in something that very nearly crashed the whole world economy”. These wolves of Wall Street can increase workplace bullying, increase absenteeism and increase staff turnover. Due to the aforementioned irresistible charm, psychopaths will, nevertheless, be readily hired and climb the ladder quickly.

Before medical students are quick to scorn the greedy, unforgiving corporate world however, it may be worth considering that surgeons rank at number 5 in careers with the highest proportion of psychopaths, with CEOs, lawyers and jobs in the media topping the list.

Structural and functional differences have been found in the brains of psychopaths. Functional MRI scans compared the brains of prisoners with a psychopathy diagnosis to prisoners who had committed similar crimes but without a psychopathy diagnosis. The psychopaths showed a decrease in connections between the venteromedial pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, the region associated with fear and anxiety. This suggested that the areas of the brain tasked with regulating emotion and social behaviour were not communicating as they should. More research showed that psychopathic criminals do not respond to punishment in the same way as other people and may be an explanation as to why those labelled psychopaths are much less likely to respond to rehabilitation programmes than other violent criminals. Other studies have shown decreased activity in the amygdalae of psychopaths, when shown images of moral infringement. That is, psychopaths are emotionally flattened and unresponsive when shown photographs of brutality that would sicken you or I.

Scientists are now trying to build on the definitions developed in the 1960s and use new technologies to understand the structural and physiological differences in the brains of psychopaths. Maybe this can lead to appreciation of risk factors, treatments and better reintegration of those affected back into civilised society. Some suggest learning-based interventions in childhood could be effective, where there is still massive potential to alter brain structure. However, a chapter in Christopher Patrick’s ‘Handbook of Psychopathy’ reminds us that psychopaths have an ‘evolutionary viable life strategy’. They can do very well out of lying, cheating and manipulating, albeit at the expense of others. There isn’t necessarily anything “wrong” with these people, in terms of a tangible defect or impairment that treatments can target.

All this shows us that callousness and a general mean attitude might just be bad behaviour or it could be a component of something much more sinister and challenging.

For further exploration of the topic, including chilling confessions and an interview with Checklist-maker, Dr Bob Hare, watch Channel 4’s ‘Psychopath Night’ available on YouTube.

Bethany Butcher
Features Lead