Do Psychopaths Really Exist?
Updated: Oct 12
Hello Fellow Readers!
I hope this post finds you well! A theme that appears in a number of my past blogs is whether or not certain historical figures (who appear in my novels) were psychopaths; namely Vlad the Impaler and the Empress Irene of Byzantium. If you didn’t see these blog posts they can be found on this site at https://www.lynnehillclark.com/post/an-often-forgotten-time
This is a very interesting topic and one that I studied in depth during my doctorate program where I majored in Criminology and Justice Studies.
A lady in one of my writers groups awhile back said, “I’m not convinced that psychopaths exist.”
To which I said, “Let’s take a look at the research.”
Thank the Goddess that psychopathy is rare. Most likely less than 1% of the population fits the criteria for this personality disorder. This makes sense because we could not survive as a species if a higher percentage of us lacked a conscience.
Terms and Definitions
A sociopath is the same thing. It’s the lay term for psychopath. The DSM-V (the psychologist’s bible, except it’s based on extensive research) calls it Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). Note that ‘antisocial’ means ‘anti-society’ (not introverted). Many, if not most, people with this diagnosis are extraverts. Antisocial refers to anti-rules. They tend to be law-breakers. Psychopathy is the most severe form of APD.
Are You a Psychopath? Let’s Find Out...
According to the DSM in order to be diagnosed with APD one must demonstrate a pattern of violating the rights of others. If this is true for you or someone you know, then you must also meet at least 3 or more of the following…
1. Repeatedly breaking the law (Yes or No?)
2. Deceitfulness (Yes or No?)
3. Impulsiveness (Yes or No?)
4. Aggressiveness (to the point of repeatedly getting into physical fights) (Yes or No?)
5. Recklessness (Yes or No?)
6. Irresponsibility (Yes or No?)
7. THE BIGGY! A lack of remorse (this trait naturally leads to narcissism) (Yes or No?)
Did you answer yes to any of these? Do you or someone you know have APD?
In order to be considered a psychopath one needs to demonstrate most of these traits most of the time.
Dr. Robert Hare is the father of psychopathic research. I know people who personally know him and they said he is a very kind and gentle soul. He wanted to study psychopaths because it was the most foreign and mysterious part of human nature — something he couldn’t even fathom.
The Discovery of the Existence of Psychopathy
His research was brilliant! He hooked prisoners up to a biofeedback machine and showed them slides. Some of the pictures were of a table or flowers, while others were gruesome. E.g. human bodies piled in a mass grave. What he consistently found was that about a quarter of prisoners showed no biofeedback changes when seeing a picture of a flower or a picture of a mangled human body. That means that about 75% of the prisoners had increased heartrates and perspiration when they saw the gruesome photos but the psychopaths did not.
Does Hannibal Lecter from the Silence of the Lambs come to mind?
Or perhaps Vlad the Impaler, from my novel Of Princes and Dragons?
Next, Hare extensively interviewed the prisoners. From this he came up with a list of personality traits similar to the list above. These traits described the personalities of the men who had no physiological reactions to the horrific photos.
Was this Study Replicated?
Indeed it was! Possibly hundreds of times by different researchers and the results were the same. Consistently, between 24% to 28% of prison populations met the criteria for psychopathy (Hodgins & Muller, 2007; Bartol & Bartol, 2011).
Can Females be Psychopaths?
Yes but they are even more rare. Studies of female prisons found that 17% of women consistently meet the criteria for psychopathy (Meyers, 2015). This is significantly less than what is found in male prisons.
Born or Raised a Psychopath?
Ah! The endless Nature Vs. Nurture debate. The short answer is that both play a role. There may be a genetic component to psychopathy and the way they are raised determines how the symptoms present themselves.
The best theory we have is that nature (our genes) and nurture (our environment) work together to form something bigger or different than either one alone. Let me explain…
fMRI scans of psychopaths show that they tend to have a small and under active amygdala compared to the average human (Bartol & Bartol, 2011; Lopresti, 2016). This may mean they were born this way OR it may mean that their amygdala shrank (or didn’t develop properly) due to their environment; say an abusive childhood.
Most neuropsychologists take these findings to indicate that there is a genetic component to psychopathy.
Wait. Let’s back up.
What’s an Amygdala?
It’s a tiny area of the central brain that controls a number of our emotions. This research on psychopaths also indicates that it may be responsible for empathy as well. Further evidence of the Amygdala being the empathy epicenter is research with extremely altruistic people, such as a person who donates a kidney to a stranger. They tend to have larger and more active than average amygdalae (Lopresti, 2016).
This teensy pink dot controls our emotions?
That explains why people are such messes. :-)
So … Were They Born This Way or Not?
It’s complicated. Bartol and Bartol (2011) also discuss twin and adoption studies that lend some evidence to there being a genetic component to psychopathy. The best theory is that they are born with a predisposition to becoming a serial killer or committing other serious crimes but not all of them will go to this extreme.
Do All Psychopaths Become Serial Killers?
No but this is one option.
Examples Are Best…
Let’s take two men, both fit the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy. Both were born with small and underactive amygdalae. One becomes a serial killer and one becomes a successful CEO.
In this case the serial killer is Charles Manson. He suffered extreme abuse as a child. Just to give you an idea of how bad some of the abuse was, his mother sold him to truck drivers for sex at the age of seven. This was to support her drug habit. That alone is enough to make someone want to kill people.
But not every child who suffers extreme abuse becomes a serial killer. Only psychopaths (with smaller amygdalae) do.
Take out the abusive childhood and we might get the next big CEO — the ruthless businessman who rises to the top because he doesn’t have that pesky conscience getting in the way. It is estimated that 4% of CEOs are psychopaths. I would say this number is higher. These are the men and sometimes women who were born (most likely) with a predisposition for psychopathy (small amygdala) but who were raised in a “normal” family.
The family need not be perfect (what family is?). Yet they had a roof over their heads and food on the table and at least one parent who cared for them.
If that child is also intelligent then … LOOK OUT! These are the psychopaths we need to be wary of. They are charming and know how to manipulate people. They don’t have empathy for others but they sure as hell know how to take advantage of those who do, i.e. you and me.
Psychopaths can seem loving and caring but this only lasts for as long as it suits their needs. They don’t murder people because they care about them.
They don’t become serial killers because they don’t want to go to jail. The world is a giant playground for them. There are endless women to seduce or if you’re a female psychopath then it may be marrying wealthy men in order to take their money. There’s boatloads of wealth to be made, not to mention, running for president … (I’m just saying). Why risk messing all that up? Brutally murdering people just doesn’t make it to the top of the list or it doesn’t suit their selfish needs. They have different priorities, like power, money and sex — possibly in that order.
This is why many psychologists distinguish between criminal psychopaths and non-criminal psychopaths. Although it is likely that the psychopathic CEO commits a number of white-collar crimes. These can be harder to prove and they’re more likely to get away with them.
Serial killer or CEO are not the only options for people born with a predisposition to psychopathy. They may become a conman or conwoman (it’s interesting that spellcheck doesn’t recognize conwoman as a word). Again their level of intelligence effects what they are capable of. Some may fly under the radar and go largely unnoticed.
If only 1% of the population are psychopaths then why do prisons have so many psychopathic occupants? Your thoughts?
Was my character, Teller, A.K.A. Vlad Dracula, a psychopath? Was the historical Dracula a Psychopath? Why or why not?
As always I look forward to hearing from you!
Happy reading and I hope you never encounter a real psychopath. If you think you have, I would love to hear about it!
Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2011). Criminal behavior: A psychological approach, (9th ed.). New York. Prentice Hall.
Bonn, S., A. (2016). Psychopathy: A clinical diagnosis: The most dangerous antisocial personality disorder. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201610/psychopathy-clinical-diagnosis
Hodgins, S., & Muller, R. (2007). Violence, crime and mentally disordered offenders. New York. John Wiley & Sons.
Lopresti, C. (2016). Psychopaths, altruists and the amygdala. Sovereign Health Group. Retrieved from https://www.sovhealth.com/cognition/psychopaths-altruists-amygdala/#:~:text=The%20amygdala%20appears%20to%20be%20at%20least%20partially,right%20amygdala%20demonstrated%20higher%20empathy%20%E2%80%94%20not%20lower.
Meyers, S. (2015). The field guide to the female psychopath and why we rarely see her coming. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/insight-is-2020/201508/the-field-guide-the-female-psychopath