- There are more men who are psychopaths than women.
- Psychopaths are often thrill-seeking, which can lead to them ending up in prison – and 93% of incarcerated people are male.
- Though research is limited, it’s possible that male and female psychopaths differ in how they act.
- One study suggested female psychopaths flirt to manipulate, while men are more physically aggressive.
- That being said, women commit murders, too.
About 1% of people are psychopaths, and within the general population there are more men who exhibit psychopathy than women. Essentially, psychopathy means being impulsive and thrill-seeking while feeling no empathy for other people. To be diagnosed as one, you have to score highly on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
There isn’t a lot of research on the differences in how psychopathic men and women behave. But as psychopaths are more likely than the rest of the population to be incarcerated for crime, and about 93% of the prison population is male, it’s not far-fetched to suggest male psychopaths may act more violently.
According to one 2012 study published in the International Journal of Women’s Health, female psychopaths are more likely to flirt and use their sexuality to manipulate people. They’re more likely to be verbally aggressive and mean and less likely to violently attack people. Psychopathic men, on the other hand, are more physically aggressive and more likely to commit fraud – perhaps why there are many more men in prisons.
Another study published in the Journal of Personality Disorders in 2017 found that female psychopaths are more likely to be anxious, have emotional problems, and be promiscuous.
Adrian Raine, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and expert on psychopathy, said he hasn’t seen a lot in terms of research about how male and female psychopaths behave. But he told INSIDER the causes for psychopathy in men and women tend to be pretty much the same.
He calls psychopathy a neurodevelopmental disorder, because it’s characterised by behaviour but is partly down to the structure of someone’s brain.
How a psychopath’s brain is different
The amygdala is the area of the brain where people process emotions. In psychopaths, this area is up to 18% smaller. When most people are given a moral dilemma to consider, such as the trolley problem, the amygdala fires up and lights up on brain scans. In psychopaths, this doesn’t happen to the same degree.
“We know that there’s strong genetic contributions to the brain areas, but we also know that the social environment can impact the brain,” Raine said. “People who are abused early in life or who are neglected, for example, they have a reduction in the volume of the amygdala. That’s at least true in children. So it can be genes and it can be the environment. Most likely, it’s a contribution of both.”
Raine didn’t want to make any claims about male and female psychopaths, but he did say female psychopaths are definitely antisocial, like their male counterparts.
“I think if I had to speculate, if there is a general male-female divide, that males are more aggressive physically than females,” he said. “And if you look at women in prisons, a lot of it is drugs and a lot of it is prostitution. And I’m suspecting that in respect to female psychopaths, you’ll see a similar reflection there.”
Female psychopaths probably dabble in all sorts of criminal offenses too, he added, but they’re usually not the ones raping people.
“And they’re much less likely to be committing homicide,” he said. “When it comes to the sex differences in ratio it’s really large – nine males for every female murderer. So I would think you’d get that with male and female psychopathy too.”
Women, of course, do kill sometimes. In an article for The Conversation, Marissa Harrison wrote about her research looking at 64 female serial killers.
The results of the study found that most female serial killers were middle- and upper-class. Almost all of them were white and had a degree or college education. Most of them knew their victims – two-thirds were related to them, a third murdered their significant other, and 44% killed their own children.
Harrison’s team found that female serial killers would primarily murder people because of money rather than sex or rage, which are more likely to be motives for male murderers.
Psychopaths aren’t all obsessed with killing
There is a strong sex difference between most people and psychopaths in general, Raine said, but more research is needed to know the specific details.
It’s a myth that all psychopaths are obsessed with death and homicide. Psychopaths are more likely to be thrill-seekers because of their blunted emotions, but they’re not that much more likely to commit murder than the rest of the population, Raine said.
“Most psychopaths don’t kill,” he said. “Most psychopaths are not violent. However, they are perhaps more likely to be violent, and more likely to commit homicide than other offenders.”
It sounds contradictory, but that’s because the rate of homicide is so low. If 1% of the non-psychopathic population considers murder, then a psychopath may be two or three times as likely to consider murder – 2 to 3% of them. That number is still relatively small.
“I wouldn’t think psychopaths, generally speaking, have an unusual fascination with death, more than the average person,” Raine said. “Male psychopaths, if they are going to kill, they are far more likely to than a female psychopath. But you’ll always find examples of female psychopaths who kill. There’s always exceptions.”
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