“Psychopath” in pop culture has become a kind of catch-all slang term for pure evil.
But while it’s possible your control-freak boss or that girl you knew in college is a psychopath, the term is mostly used in a way that’s completely wrong.
Pop-culture references aren’t helping the situation. Sorry guys, but Norman Bates isn’t a psycho, and Sherlock Holmes might not be, either. Disappointingly, not even Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” may be a true psychopath.
These are the five ways we’re all getting psychopathy wrong in almost every instance.
With the ease that TV psychologists throw around the word 'psychopath,' you might think we have a better handle on what that label actually means.
But the label is ill-defined. The words 'psychopaths,' 'psychopathy,' or the closely related 'sociopathy,' never appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) -- the veritable bible of mental illnesses.
Instead there's an entry for antisocial personality disorder, which is what most people would consider psychopathy. Traits include impulsivity, disregard for other people, a lack of empathy, and a penchant for manipulation.
Scientists are certain there's a biological component to psychopathy -- but your upbringing likely also has a heavy hand. (The difference between a born psychopath and a made one is usually cited as the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath, respectively, but this distinction isn't universal.)
And the mere presence of antisocial traits doesn't necessarily make someone a psychopath, either. It's not as fun as an online quiz, but to actually assess a psychopath requires a trip to the doctor's office and a detailed personal and medical history.
But because 'psychopath' isn't a diagnosis, you still won't find yourself with that label, but diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.
Tons of cases of psychopathy go completely unnoticed -- perhaps even to the psychopath themselves.
Famously, this happened to neuroscientist James Fallon, who accidentally discovered he was a psychopath while examining images of brain scans.
'I go to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological,' he told Smithsonian Magazine. The image turned out to be his own brain, showing low activity in the areas that are linked to empathy and self-control.
Later, a genetic test confirmed he had all the biological makings of a psychopath (he's apparently also related to Lizzie Borden, so there's that). Fallon considers himself a 'pro-social' psychopath, meaning he isn't violent and more or less follows societal rules.
Fallon has said frequently that he believes this is because he experienced a safe and loving childhood.
Actually, psychopaths are quite sane.
Try this test: If the psychopath in a TV show or movie is shown hearing voices or experiencing other delusions, they're not a psychopath.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder, not a mental disorder. Hallucinations and other signs of mental illness usually portrayed as part of psychopathy are actually severe psychosis, or a loss of one's sense of reality.
That's why Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' isn't actually a psychopath -- he thinks he's obeying the wishes of his mother. Not only would a psychopath likely not care much about his mother's directives, he would be firmly in touch with the reality of her death (and probably not care very much about it).
Patrick Bateman might fall into this category too -- psychotic instead of psychopathic -- depending on your interpretation of events in 'American Psycho.'
Delusional serial killers like Charles Manson and Son of Sam? Also not psychopathic.
That's not to say, of course, that there aren't sadistic psychopaths, but psychopaths aren't necessarily sadistic.
Extreme sadism -- taking pleasure in others' pain -- actually gets its own personality disorder, aptly named sadistic personality disorder.
But sadism and psychopathy are characteristics that can be separated from one another, even in seemingly normal people. Some have suggested that the dark personality triad -- narcissism, psychopathy, and Machianvellianism (manipulativeness) -- could use the addition of sadism and become a tetrad.
If a psychopath is motivated by sadism, like the infamous Vampire of Dusseldorf, Peter Kurten, then you'll get a sadistic, murdering psychopath.
But take Anton Chigurh, the character played by Javier Bardem in the movie adaptation of 'No Country for Old Men.' He's a hit man sent to track down a missing satchel of drug money. He kills people (lots and lots of people) to fulfil his purpose, but it's not for pleasure.
If you've ever heard a villain tell the hero, 'I'm about to torture you, but I take no pleasure in it,' you're familiar with this idea. A full-blown psychopath will use any means, including violence, to get to the end -- but that doesn't mean they're a sadist.
A good deal of what goes into making a psychopath is genetic -- but, as we see from Fallon's story, that doesn't mean there's nothing anyone can do.
According to a 2012 New York Times article, more and more psychologists are identifying 'callous-unemotional' children who might be displaying early signs of psychopathy ranging from out-and-out sadism to small manipulations.
The idea you can diagnose a child with a personality disorder is a contentious one, since kids' brains are still developing, and no one wants to risk sticking a kid with a label like 'psychopath' early on.
On the other hand, some researchers hope that spotting these kids early could help them get into treatment. While they may never be 'cured' of the biological aspects of antisocial personality disorder, some therapies might effectively teach kids (and adults) how to navigate empathy, morality, and behaviour in a prosocial way.
Experts believe that about 1% of the population shows psychopathic behaviour.
There are a ton of tests online, but again, you shouldn't use those, or even the widely used Hare Checklist, to diagnose yourself with antisocial personality disorder outside of a clinical setting.
And hey, if you are a psychopath, there may be some benefits to antisocial traits: Assertiveness, for example, is a great asset in the business world. Not caring what others think of you can be dangerous, but sounds pretty good to those who suffer from the opposite problem of crippling self-doubt.
If you're really curious about the dark side of your personality, this is the best quiz we know of that registers your dark personality traits without pretending it's some kind of online psychologist.
Just remember when you're watching a movie or TV show that claims one of its characters is a 'psychopath,' that, just like the psychopaths among us, the truth is probably hiding below the surface.
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