Psychopathy: A Misunderstood Personality Disorder

Psychopathic personalities are some of the most memorable characters portrayed in popular media today. These characters, like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Frank Abagnale Jr. from Catch Me If You Can and Alex from A Clockwork Orange, 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,” notes Jennifer Skeem, Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. Skeem, Devon Polaschek of Victoria University of Wellington, Christopher Patrick of Florida State University, and Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University are the authors of a new monograph focused on understanding the psychopathic personality that will appear in the December issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In the course of their research, the authors reviewed many scientific findings that seemed to 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 says. 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.  And scientific findings also suggest 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. Many psychologists also assume that psychopathy is inalterable – once a psychopath, always a psychopath. However, there is currently scant scientific evidence to support this claim. 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.

Along with challenging the assumption that psychopathy is a monolithic entity, perhaps the other most important myth that the authors hope to dispel is that psychopathy is synonymous with violence. Skeem points out that psychopathic individuals often have no history of violent behaviour 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 inalterably dangerous,” she observes. 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 says.

In clarifying the personality traits that characterize psychopathy, scientists can contribute to prevention and treatment strategies that 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,” concludes Skeem.


Thanks for writing this. I was so sick of people calling us evil and saying that we have no feelings. I’m glad someone actually knows what it really is. Thanks.

I am curious. So, what in heck are you? If you are psychopathic and not mean, not detached emotionally from others, etc., then what are you, what DO you feel, etc.? I wish you could help me there. How, then, do you identify as psychopathic?

the term psychopath is not actually a medical term. Its made up. People who show lack of empathy and such are identified as those with a personality disorder

I’m not leaving my name because of the stigma surrounding personality disorders and psychopathy.
Nowhere in any medical texts does it say that someone with a personality disorder will lack empathy. There are many different types and only a couple have lack of or suppressed empathy as a symptom. BPD doesn’t have lack of empathy as a symptom. Schizotypal doesn’t either. And many others.
The only ones that do are Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder (what sociopathy and psychopathy are called now). And that’s only *one* symptom they *might* have. To be diagnosed with either you need at least 5/9 of the symptoms (lack of empathy only being 1) and for the latter at least 3/7 (again lack of empathy only being one).
So sick of the stigma as someone with BPD.

Hey. Thank you so much for sharing.

I feel this article is way off in the way they are trying to downplay the dangers of an individual that is psychopathic.
A psychopath does not mean they will be serial killers for sure. BUT a serial killer is going to be a psychopath. 99 times out of a hundred give or take.
But in being a psychopath that individual IS GOING to be a health, mental and physical problem for anyone dealing with them.
They are anti social they have NO CONSCIENCE…even if they do not have a desire to kill they will still stop at nothing to get their way. They will harm anyone a mother, father, spouse ,sibling,wife children if that is what it takes to get what they want. They know what is right and wrong but they do not care and they don’t care that they don’t care. IF THEY DID they would not be a psychopath. Do you get the picture ? If they never have anyone in their way of getting what they want, they wont do any harm. That is if they are completely mentally healthy in all other ways. But how many of us are completely healthy and we are not even a psychopath ?
Good Luck finding happy people involved with a psychopath, as the authors seem to be implying you can be.
I just do not want to see innocent people drawn into the web of manipulation in very bad ways by the psychopath. OK, NO, not everyone is Norman Bates but they will still harm you and you may never even know where it came from. They are expert actors and quite cunning. They fool parents and doctors everyone . You I am sure if you have any problems and we all do, most likely have a psychopath in your lives. The article is on target with saying it is a condition that has other conditions mixed in . It is a part of Narcissist condition as well as Aspergers and I am sure there are many more. They are for the most part dangerous weather or not they are killers.

I disagree with the written, it is true that psychopaths, as people with serious personality disorders are called, are not all serial killers but they are dangerous because they lack empathy, that means they do not feel “normal feelings” what makes them unable to be social. In other words, they really are antisocial. People that interact with them are manipulated and harm emotionally, we cannot say that this individuals are not dangerous because they are not going to kill you like in the Hollywood terror movies but they can ruin peoples wellbeing without a second thought or remorse. They are different and it is really hopeful to think they can be treated but they do not want to be treated because, funny enough, they do not suffer from the medical condition but the people that are “victims” suffer. They are psychopaths that are sadist, that means they can ruin you and enjoy every minute of it. Please do not tell that a person without remorse or empathy for other is not dangerous because they really are dangerous.

can’t agree more! They’re rarely willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room and seek medical help! most often, they’re comfortable “not feeling” while the people around them suffer through the agony of their lack of empathy, guilt or remorse.

I agree, they might not want to harm others but they do harm them. I’ve had a lot of experience with 3 psychopaths and about 10 narcs and sociopaths, ALL very harmful people even when ‘goodhearted’..

Did you have any personal experience?

Very much agreement with Annabelle. Good initial inquiry into these aspect. Would like to see more!

More Information and research needed for Personalities that try to assume the lives and personalities of others.This Article was helpful.Not necessarily what the information I was looking for, but helpful non the less.Thank You…..Informatative

Being psychopathic is classed as a disability here in the UK.
So, on that basis, it sickens me to the stomache, when I read regularly, that phsychopaths/sociopaths/severe personalitiy disordered sufferers, are in someway accountable for their “disabilty”..!

In one hand its a disability…and yet a disabled person is ridiculed when you read up on psychopathy…its ridiculous, and discriminatory..!

Oh please some discrimination is necessary these people need to be discovered and placed. They ruin lives and costs 100s of billions of dollars in unnecessary costs while destroying progression. We need to test and place these people in specified jobs so they don’t ruin everybody else and keep then away. Indigenous cultures just killed them as they cannot socially deal with real cohesion. And if they do not feel for others what is the point of their running a mock in society.

Lynn, thank you so much! My sister’s psychopath mother ruined her life (literally, she died last year) and is trying to ruin my 4 nieces’ lives. She’s already sucked one in and is living off her.

Well said !!!
Trying to cope in the general society they cause extrene terror and chaos. They are master liars and minipulators.

It is a horrible merry-go-round for both society and the mentally ill.

Something needs to be done!

Your right. I agree with you and everyone replying as you do. They mean no one any good. There live to ruin others lives. I too have seen this.

Scant scientific evidence that shows psychopathy as inalterable? All your “empirical work” shows is that psychopaths can learn how to behave non-violently after intensive “treatment”. And any given psychopath’s criminal aptitude is relative to whether or not he/she is a criminal. In the end, there isn’t scant evidence to show psychopathy hasn’t been altered. What is abundantly EVIDENT after your “intensive treatment” is that you STILL have a psychopath.

Are you speaking from experience. Have you been through the intense treatment you discuss? Ha ha!

No treatment will change the fact in problem with certain part of brain development. PET scans shows it very well.I hate when ideology is pushed or replacing science. Wishful thinking.

Therefore it is permanent?

Very nice read, well written.

If one shows no empathy, desires no social interaction, feels no remorse whatsoever, and gets to know people on a personal level just so they can be manipulated, how would they be categorised? Asking for a friend ofcourse.

The stigmatizing of certain people as psychopaths, narccicists, sociopaths, etc these days is becoming an acceptable form of discrimination these days just as bad as 100 years ago when we called developmentally disabled people as feeble-minded, idiot, etc who were forcibly steralised against their will under the eugenics laws.

Illness is illness more compassion kindness and humility goes a long way to help the healing and acceptance process

Too many people have given up the meat and the sauce of life. They have given up living, have given up on dealing with others, and have decided that, for most people, fitting in and being a nobody is the way to go.
The manipulation of the bulk of humanity into this train of behavior has become so pervasive that a minority who show a predisposition to aggressiveness, ie, with a show-me attitude, who think life should be fine or otherwise do not fit, are forced into mal-adaptive behaviors such as those described by Prof Hare.
If you forced anyone off society, they’d adapt sociopathic traits if weak, or psychopathic traits if they are strong enough mentally and emotionally.

I don’t want to burst a bubble here, but you have to play the game called life, and cease being a victim. Modern life has become such a bore that it ought to be spiced up.
If enough people were not moping, you’d be more interesting and not be getting dumped. You are responsible for your own life, no matter what happens.
I am not saying such ppl do not exist, this is more of a social phenomenon than a real thing, and it is caused by ostracizing of individuals from society in one way or another, while enforcing awful conformity of behavior.
You have a choice, get better and adapt. You have already created sociopaths and psychopaths and every kind of mental phenomena through your society. Own up to it. No sociopath or psychopath should feel sorry for you.
If you don’t take responsibility in your society, don’t cry when it bites you in the ads.
We are all people. Live life and understand others, and almost everyone will be happy.

Somehow your not understanding this. Nobody wants anyone to feel sorry for them. What we want is for psychopaths, and the other types of harmful to society problems, to not be a problem.
Nip this enormous problem in the bud and relieve society from this problem completely. We don’t want sorry’s we want RESULTS , IDENTIFICATION AND RESOLUTION.

You lost me at “modern life has become such a bore”.
What a generalization. No it hasn’t.

Some of us that have extreme cases of Sensory Processing Sensitivity have to, to some degree isolate ourselves socially as just having long conversations with loud people can trigger a sensory overload and if not left alone to recover become agitated and will eventually become aggressive through no fault of our own. It is not something we can control nor is it something we want. We do what we have to in order to cope. Also many of the medications that are used to “treat” these conditions have negative epigenetic effects and make matters worse. Yes I am talking from personal experience with the medications.

James C is right. All the people crying about what psychopaths did to them need to put on their big boy / big girl pants. Blaming psychopathy for your relationship not working out, or getting conned does nothing but externalize blame so you won’t have to face why you were latching on to someone who was exploiting you. There’s ample evidence that this is not a personality disorder at all.

In an exploitative relationship, there are at least two actors at play. Telling the exploited part to take the responsibility themselves, takes away the responsibility from the person that is exploiting them. Being responsible not only means to stand up for yourself, but also to recognize where your responsibility ends.

Also, it’s incredibly ironic how James C. tells people to take responsibility for the creation of psychopaths and then goes to paint these psychopaths as nothing more than poor victims of social isolation.

I agree with some people that terms like “Psychopath” and “Narcissist” are used generically to denigrate people that they have had some type of run in with. However, if you ever had the displeasure of working under one of these disturbed people, you will see firsthand the heartless and underhanded tactics that they will use to destroy people. I have yet to see a movie that accurately depicts what scumbags they are. For those who advise for victims to just suck it up and deal with it, you apparently have not had to work under one of these awful people whose primary purpose in life is to establish dominance by taking away subordinates livelihoods and sanity, just for sport. They are cold and relentless, smiling at you as they run a knife in your back.

Betta Frank’s comment is most sensible.
It is less about placing blame and determining victims then about teaching proper treatment of self and others by internalizing accountability. Cluster B personality disorders can fake it all to gain their desired advantage, iow WIN.

I like to focus on the idea of change.

I was a primary psychopath for most of my life, text book, when I developed both ADHD and conduct disorder before I was 10.

I’d like to think by…

Giving up your desires and happiness, to live for a purpose you would die for. And auditing that purpose and your choices related to its benifit.

Transition to enfj myers Briggs personality type if applicable. Only derive any sense of worth from how well you manipulate foot good on behalf of those you love.

Stay busy, work 80+ hours a week, I do programming pick something that will be hard as all hell.

Develop intrinsic motivation, use your psychopathy to push forward no matter how you stumble

100% transparency, manipulation is weak, openly use your persuasion and understand that you cannot trust yourself, hide nothing, accept responsibility openly for all your choices.

Self sacrifice, you must use your psychopathic tendencies to strip yourself off any cognitive dissonance that protects you from the weight of life.

Most off all don’t stay a psychopath, you don’t have to just accept who you are, be who you want to be

Lynn: you obviously do not and are not willing to understand the reasons behind the behaviors of psychopaths. an understanding of behavior is warranted before passing judgement.

Understanding it does it excuse the behaviors. It simply offers an explanation. Then, judgement can be considered.

Ok, I’m obviously a little late to the party here but I think I have very different views, and I’d like to put them out there and see what happens.
First things first, I want to let everyone know that I have never had any interaction with someone who could be diagnosed with any of these personality disorders, not to my knowledge anyway. Next, I am very interested in psychology and I love learning about disorders like these, so any helpful feedback or recommendations are very much welcome.
Now, into the fun stuff. I, personally, both agree and disagree with the fact that psychopathy either is or is not treatable. Honestly, I think it’s both. Someone can learn how to behave, and how to act appropriately however, I don’t think someone who might not be able to feel “normal” emotions can learn that. And I do not think all “psychopaths” and or “sociopaths” are inherently dangerous. Of course, there are always risks, but you can never really know how someone will react or cope with such issues.

Alexandra: Hi, since your comment is the last one and asking for a reply, here I go!
I believe I am a psychopath, or at least have many of the characteristics of one after a lot of frank self-reflection and reading up on psychopathy, which, as you have said, is a personality disorder. I know that I am emotionally detached, and when I add on my inability to read expressions, understand other people’s thought processes (because of a lack of emotional knowledge and therefore empathy), and extraordinarily rational and up-front thinking, I think I fit the bill pretty well. I believe the only reason I have not caused any large, negative incidents is because of my strict upbringing to always follow the rules, and my fundamental ideology to not get in trouble, as it puts me at a disadvantage for no reason (A: punishment B: ill repute C: I could have increased my favorability by assertively doing “good”).
Most notable of my negative behaviors is manipulating my mom through my siblings. Taking advantage of the fact that they are lazy, I assertively ask her if there is anything I can do around the house to get “plus points”, preventing me from getting in trouble while also reserving future benefits, which are augmented because of the contrast between our behaviors.
Seen from an outside perspective, I am a very helpful, caring, model daughter. And I do love my mom very much because she has done so much and tries so hard for me (I categorize love as wanting someone to be happy enough that you act to make them so when they are down. Also, you don’t want to lose them). Granted, from the experiences of losing a friend and three loved ones, I doubt I will feel the typical grief when she dies (out of the four stages, I skip right on over to acceptance and move on), but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to lose her while she is still alive.
About psychopaths and integrating into society, as long as it is beneficial to follow the rules, we will do so, even becoming the perfect human being according to social standards (as I have done with my mom). This may seem disturbing, but isn’t the proverb “Actions speak louder than words”? No one knows for certain what goes through another’s mind (unless espers exist and then make it known), so objectively, psychopaths may be beneficial to society (providing it is in their best interests to be so. That is the role of governments, right? To keep everyone in line? If they do their job, psychopaths will act for the benefit of society and themselves). I know because when making decisions, “true” psychopaths know A: what they are going to do (and how), B: why they are going to do it, C: the consequences of their decision. We accept all responsibility because we know there is no point in denying it, I mean, think about it. Denial only brings harm in the long run.
So I guess my message is, treat everyone like a human being deserving of respect (another ideology of mine). I have learned social skills and, in some measure, what I am supposed to feel from certain situations. If every psychopath/emotionally detached person learns those things and has a loved/trusted one as an anchor and/or moral compass (humans are social animals, even the emotionally detached feel reassured by having someone to trust/rely on), I don’t think we would have a problem from them. At least, the emotionally distraught would cause way more damage. Just treat everyone’s existence equally, review decisions from multiple angles, and keep a positive, proactive outlook while fully acknowledging the world for what it is, from the delightful to the abysmal.

Some of the dangers can be ommission based, due to the lack of feeling “normal” emotions. Failure to act to protect lives in a dangerous situation can be a real issue. Such situations can occur frequently when raising young children, or may occur frequently if the psychopath has a disabled family member, or may occur more rarely if living alone. Most people, at some point in their lives encounter a situation where they have to act fast, call an ambulance, get someone help, or step in in some way to protect others. If you cannot feel the danger, because you are not concerned with the potential loss of a life, this can be a danger.

Psychopathy is extreme and final stage of our survival instinct towards this hostile world.

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