Almost every American has been inundated through the media’s fascination with violent crime. It is impossible to escape tragic stories on the news of a heinous murders or TV shows revolving around disturbing crime scenes and criminals or horror movies that keep us awake at night fearing the wrath of a psychotic serial killer. Our culture has become obsessed with the minds of the most dangerous people among us, and the crimes that they have the potential to commit. Criminals have become household names in our society, with Jeffery Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy’s infamy allowing celebrity levels of name recognition. Many of these villains are given labels to explain their behavior, and hearing a criminal diagnosed as a psychopath is hardly uncommon. However, very few Americans fully understand what entails a psychopathic personality, or overarching personality theories and how they relate to criminal behavior. Today, with greatly increased research on the topic, and better understanding of personality theories in general, we can now better determine not only what characteristics make up a psychopathic personality, but also understand how to treat and understand those suffering from psychopathy, and potentially how to prevent psychopaths from engaging in criminal behavior.
When talking about psychopathy, it is important to first understand what the term refers to. “The psychopathic criminal has been defined as an “asocial, self centered, aggressive person with a dangerously maladjusted personality who craves excitement, feels little guilt, and is unable to form meaningful emotional attachments to others” (McCord & McCord, 1964). These particular traits have become the foundation for the support of acknowledging psychopathy as a theory of criminal behavior.
One of the most identifiable commonalities between psychopaths is their manipulative behavior. They are often charming, but use their skills of manipulation solely for their own purposes, becoming what some experts call “social predators”. These predators have no noticeable conscious, and feel no remorse for any pain or damage done to other people (Simon, 2010). “They ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets” (Hare, 1999). Psychopath’s superficial charm is almost always utilized in a way that allows them to live a parasitic lifestyle.
This manipulative trait is often paired with above average intelligence, which makes the predatory aspects of psychopaths all the more dangerous. Their higher brain function makes them more successful with their untruthfulness and lack of sincerity (Copley, 2008).
A lack of moral judgement is also considered one of the most notable traits of psychopaths. Psychopaths generally are highly apathetic to moral codes or norms, and lack insight into how actions may affect another person. Psychopath’s inability to learn from experience also inhibits them from developing any sense of high moral evolution, and allows them to remain supremely egocentric (Akers & Sellers, 2009).
Described by some as “moral imbeciles”, psychopaths do not adhere to concepts of love of loyalty to other people. While some psychopaths claim to love, more often than not they attribute this feeling to their victims, showing a complex complication in their understanding and display of “love” and other empathetic emotions (Copley, 2008). They psychopaths who do get married or have children are typically described as absent, subpar partners and parents, with many of these individuals abandoning their families when they feel its suits their needs. This is typical of psychopathy, where “proto-emotions” are common and refer to psychopaths solely reacting to their own personal needs instead of empathizing with other humans (Hare, 1999).
As it is obvious that psychopaths are clearly the extreme of self centered individuals, this tends to be displayed in their personality through grandiose or egocentric behavior. Psychopaths are typically arrogant individuals, having an ego so inflated that it generally makes modesty impossible for them (Copley, 2008). They are known to be braggarts, highlighting whatever successes they have had, and dealing poorly with any rejection or failures. Psychopaths generally do not tolerate disagreement well, as their arrogance prevents them from understanding why anyone would not take their side on an issue (Levy, 1942).
One of the last common traits of psychopaths is their craving for excitement above and beyond what is normal for a person. Psychopaths often describe themselves as dealing with “intense feelings of boredom” that they crave to satiate (Copley, 2008).
When looking to diagnose a psychopath, one of the most commonly used tools is the Hare Psychopathy checklist (Levy, 1942). This checklist, officially called the Psychopath Checklist, Revised (PC-R), was developed by Dr. Robert D. Hare and results in the individual being tested given a score to help determine their level of psychopathy. The tests is best administered in a face to face interview, with the interviewer being a properly licensed individual as the results of the test can have a major impact on the test subject’s future (Hare, 1999).
The test consists of 20 items and is scored on a scale of 0-2. O means the question does not apply at all, 1 means there is a partial match to the information, and 2 means that there is a good match to the test subject. These questions address different aspects of the offender’s life including the areas of interpersonal skills, lifestyle, affective behavior, and antisocial behavior. These different facets of the test allow the administrator to get a fairly in depth idea of the subjects life, and helps diagnose psychopathy with a high degree of accuracy (Hare, 1999).
Other personality trait measurements can also be used to help fully understand a patient’s personality and gain a more effective approach to dealing with them. For example, tests like the California Psychological Inventory (CPI) test measure different aspects of a person’s personality than the PC-R. It analyzes a person’s personality in terms of traits like dominance, tolerance, and sociability (Frick & Salekin, 2005).
Another popular test is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (Ray, 1988). This tests is more specifically designed to isolate “abnormal” personality traits like “depression, hysteria, paranoia, psychopathology, introversion/extroversion, and compulsiveness (Akers & Sellers, 2009). Once these traits are measured, then they can be cross examined with research that has looked at how these individual traits can be related to deviant behavior (Ray, 1988). This allows researchers to identify the likelihood that a criminals actions are derived from a personality disorder or not, which can have an impact on their verdict of guilt or innocence as well as potential sentencing (Clark, 1985).
While these tests are incredibly helpful in identifying the mental state of a patient, there is no official diagnosis procedure of psychopathy to date. Because of this lack of official diagnosis, the term “psychopathy” does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Since psychopathy is so closely related to the “official” mental disorder of Antisocial Personality Disorder, it is often associated as the same thing, even though minor differences are present. The most notable difference is that Antisocial Personality Disorder’s diagnosis is based solely on a person’s actions and behavior, while psychopathy includes personality factors in its assessment, which is why it falls under then personality theory of criminal behavior (Hare, 1999).
Because of this difference, many experts believe that the psychopathy tests and checklists are much more helpful in preventing criminal and delinquent behavior in younger persons as you do not have to wait for the unwanted behavior to occur before you can make a diagnosis. This has opened up a world of prevention options and experiments that could hold a key to lowering the crime rate of psychopathic people (Ray, 2001).
In order to help advance this idea of prevention, studies have looked into the factors which may contribute to the development, or exacerbate the existence of psychopathy.
Much like any mental disorder, there are conflicting viewpoints on the factors behind a psychopathic person. A person’s environment, their genetics, as well as other biological factors have all been attributed to causing, or making worse, a person’s mental psychopathy.
Studies have shown several environmental factors as contributing to psychopathy. For instance, having an absent, particularly if the parent is absent for being incarcerated, can be a major factor in the development of a psychopathic person. This lack of supervision in important developing year, especially coupled with a warped view of delinquency due to a convicted parent, is a ripe environment not only for a child to develop the narcissism necessary to become psychopathic, but fosters a mentality of moral ambiguity that can lead to the amoral characteristics of a psychopath (Raine, 2011).
Other environmental factors that can be linked to psychopathy include low income, particularly among minorities, as well as being one of many children. Both of these could relate to causing a lack of strong presence of parents in a child’s life, which is one of the leading factors in a host of different mental disorders (Raine, 2011).
On the opposite side of the environmental factor supporters are those who see a hereditary link in people with psychopathy. Several common traits found in psychopaths can be linked to heredity, such as “callous-unemotional traits”.
One specific gene that is theorized to be linked to psychopathy is the Monoamine oxidase-A gene, more commonly known as the “warrior gene” due to its links to aggression. In addition to aggression, this gene also has been linked to antisocial behavior that is commonly found in psychopaths (Lee, 2011).
Aside from genes, irregular hormone balances are also thought to play a role in the creation of psychopaths. In particular a notable number of people with psychopathy have reported higher than usual amounts of testosterone in their body, which deals with aggression and fear reductions, as well as lower than typical amounts of the hormone cortisol, which related to sensitivity to punishment and fear. This hormonal imbalance certainly falls in line with the symptoms of psychopathy, and makes for a strong case advocating for a biological link to the disorder (Hare, 1999).
Despite the efforts to get out in front of the disorder, it is impossible to catch all potential psychopaths before they harm society. There are untold number of people in the public with undiagnosed psychopathy, which can add greatly to crime rates. It is difficult to accurately asses how much more inclined a psychopath is to become a criminal, but there is certainly some correlation between the disorder and delinquent activity. However, it is important to note that despite this correlation, most crimes are not committed by psychopaths (Levy, 1942).
For those stricken with psychopathy, the traditional belief is that the condition is not treatable. Because much of the disorder lies within the person’s personality, there are no drugs or medication to help make up for the affected’s natural lack of empathy, or force them to understand remorse or guilt for any actions they have done (Lee, 2011).
Typical counseling that may be beneficial for other mental disorders can often be counterproductive for psychopaths, as the amount of time talking with a counselor can actually allow them to improve their manipulation skills and make them potentially more dangerous. “What has emerged, however, is that the core elements of psychopathy make it one of the most difficult disorders to treat. This has not been helped by the fact that there is still considerable debate surrounding the aetiology of the syndrome and that it is defined by incompatible legal and clinical systems.” (Lee, 2011) Nevertheless, through carefully monitored sessions, studies have shown that certain targeted counseling sessions, while not necessarily able to help with the overall psychopathy, may be able to reduce the likelihood of violence in a psychopath (Frick & Salekin, 2005).
Overall, the condition of psychopathy is largely a mystery to the public, who have learned very little other than to fear those who posses the label. Meanwhile, while the scientific and mental health communities are doing their best to make headway in dealing with the disorder, there is still much more to be learned than is known. The difficulty in diagnosing the disease, as well as the near impossibility to treat it has made the task daunting, but due to the severity of the disorder, there are many still working hard to bring understanding and help to those affected persons in our society dealing with it on a daily basis.
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