Psychopathy is terrible.
Being psychopathic is great, I really like my life, but psychopathy as a term, as an idea, as how it is used in the world, is just terrible. People have no idea what it really means, and this allows people to bend it to fit whatever narrative they want.
That really doesn’t make for a very reliable term. You could search the web right now and find a thousand opinions about what psychopathy actually is, and until the recent few years, all of it was dramatically negative, and when I say “dramatically”, I mean lock up your wives and daughters, the psychopaths are coming, that kind of thing.
How did this come about? What led to psychopathy being so poorly defined and misunderstood that you can’t even have a reasonable conversation about it without someone getting unreasonably angry?
It starts with the nebulous idea of what psychopathy is. Is it behavior, or is it something more definable and concrete. If you read the literature, it’s a war, that’s what it is. On the one side is psychology. They would like nothing more than to claim psychopathy as a term that is understood through actions, not cause. This being the case means that we have many aspects of psychopathy that are at best convoluted, at worst, simply invented.
On the other side is neuroscience and brain imaging. This shows distinct differences in the brain and how it is formed in a psychopathic person. It shows different brain structure, it shows different chemical processing, and it shows different emotional capability.
However, the science is still running behind, and interpretation of brain scans is still dependent on the opinion of a neuroscientist, and humans are, if nothing else, flawed in terms of interpretation and agreement. One scientist might estimate the size of an amygdala as normal, whereas another would say that it’s reduced by X percentage. Until there is the ability to have actual consensus, not estimations based on perception, there isn’t going to be a concrete ability to define psychopathy in the realm of neuroscience. It is the better of the two, but it isn’t perfect.
In some regards, these two areas of research are able to shake hands. Psychology notes a lack of bonding and love with psychopaths, and neuroscience discovers a mutated oxytocin receptor that doesn’t allow oxytocin to bond in psychopaths. It is present in the brain, but it is not used. This discovery is a good thing. Psychology noted a difference between a psychopath versus a neurotypical that is present in all psychopathic people, and neuroscience responded with a result that explains the reasoning for it.
Excellent. Progress, right?
No. You see, that’s just not how it works.
Psychology is where psychopathy as an idea has been defined, and frankly a great mess has been made of that definition. Psychology has relied on one man’s interpretation of what psychopathy is for a long time, and he is very protective of his psychopathy empire. That man is Robert Hare, and he has a very interesting distaste for psychopaths as a whole. He writes about them in a very derisive manner, and it has made him a great deal of money, not to mention the fame.
Robert Hare is the “originator” of the famous PCL system, the most well known version of which is the PCL-R. It is a checklist that is used to screen for psychopathy, and is very easy to find all over the internet. Now, I will be fair to Dr. Hare here, and say that is not something that I imagine he prefers. As much as I dislike the man and his methods, he is fairly clear that there are standards that need to be in place for this screening tool to be used, and those using it need to be specifically trained in it’s administration.
This is not what has happened, and we will get into that, but first let’s be clear about what the PCL-R is supposed to be utilized for. It is a screening tool only. It is used in prisons and forensic hospitals alone. It has no value outside those settings. What’s more, it takes very specialized training to be able to use the checklist in the first place. It is not meant to be a diagnostic tool in terms of the only thing used to diagnose psychopathy. It is part of a much larger process that is conducted by a professional using a variety of tests, interviews, and background research on the patient.
Somewhere along the way the PCL-R was bastardized into a monster that is easily found all over the internet. People use it to self test, to guess whether or not their ex, their mother, their sibling, their friend, their boss, their coworker, is a psychopath. It… cannot be used this way, but that doesn’t change how easy it is to locate and misuse. This is a part of the problem, but not all of the problem.
The next issue is how psychopathy is presented in the media. Watch four episodes of Criminal Minds, where the people being hunted have a wide variety of problems, and three out of the four at least, if not all four, will be termed “psychopathic”. Pay no mind to the fact that they will say that the person has borderline personality disorder, sadism, psychopathy, and NPD, none of which were represented accurately in the episodes at all, and most of which can not coexist. There is no attempt at realism, however, these presentations are taken seriously.
Remember up above where I mentioned people using the PCL-R checklist to diagnose their exes? It isn’t just the PCL-R that has caused this problem, but also people that claim to be experts in psychopathy, narcissism, and sociopathy that apparently have exes that were one of these, or all of these things combined. They create terms like “narcopath” and garner millions of views, sell books, time, and tell people that make the pilgrimage to their site that the ex is the problem, and that they are a perfectly innocent victim. That sells. It sells a lot, and these authors/site owners bank on it.
The term “psychopathy” is associated so strongly with negative stereotypes, that it is very likely just a lost cause trying to bring around back to something that can be approached logically and with academic rigor. I have seen people that claim to have PhDs in psychology say things that have no place in their field, but because it’s about psychopaths, it’s fully acceptable. An example:
Anyone who thinks they just have a different way of “interacting” in this world has no understanding of what a psychopath is. Psychopaths are missing something - something we need to be human. They are capable of complex thought, can be quite intelligent, able to understand self-preservation. They can be charming. In fact when there is no moral restrictions on what you are willing to say or how you are willing to manipulate others it can be easy to be charming. And I would rather be locked in a cage with a grizzly bear than ever turn my back on a psychopath. The rest of us are little more than objects for their amusement. Beyond your impact on their desires, your feelings and even your very life mean absolutely nothing to them. “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
Can you imagine someone with a PhD in psychology saying this about someone with depression, schizophrenia, or any other thing that they are supposedly experts in? Of course not. They would be viewed as having extreme bias, and as someone that has no place interacting with anyone that they held such a negative view of.
Psychopathy is the approved dumping ground for all the horrible criminals, whether or not they are actually psychopathic. How many times have you heard that Ted Bundy, or Jeffrey Dahmer were psychopathic? Probably a lot, but neither of them are. They both of course had antisocial personality disorder, but that is quite different than psychopathy. Both had diagnoses that preclude psychopathy even being possible in either. Bundy was a malignant narcissist, and Dahmer had BPD coupled with psychosis. Both are diagnoses that rely on trauma in childhood, which a psychopath could never experience. However, whenever you hear about them, “psychopath” is nearly always mentioned.
How can a term that has been so polluted be resurrected? I don’t know that it can be. I have seen changes regarding how a lot of people think about it, but there is still so much entrenched misinformation that it is difficult to overcome. No matter how many times the same thing is repeated:
Psychopathy is a genetic difference in how the brain is formed and functions. It does not determine behavior, and most psychopaths are just living normal lives while working to adjust to neurotypical expectations.
Without fail I still get people that insist:
my understanding of a psychopath, is a person who likes to kill. a person withough any emotions at all. who kills with pleasure. most serial killers are psychopaths. torturing and killing. i’ve seen enough tv shows and documentaries to know what a psychopath is. are you telling me thats what you are? i do hope i’m wrong.
So, psychopathy sucks. It is an irredeemable term as far as I can tell, that will attract hatred, anger, resentment, fear, worship, admiration, etc, for all the wrong reasons. If it isn’t someone claiming that all their exes, their parents, friends, coworkers, and mailmen are all psychopaths that have abused them, it’s teenagers that want to believe that they are psychopathic, and tell me, an actual psychopath, how wrong I am about… well… me. They will redefine psychopathy to fit their experience, and then inform people about how psychopathy is supposed to be… according to them:
Your inability to love has to do with the fact that you're a shitty person, not oxytocin or brain chemistry. I'm a psychopath because my brain chemistry works better than most people's.. not because certain parts of my brain don't work lol
I fall in love HARDER than most people. Psychopaths are on a spectrum, you are what I'd say is probably actually a narcissist, because you assume you know everything and that everyone else is just like you. I can further this conclusion by saying you lack all spirit if you lack the ability to love. Psychopaths are very spiritual people, whether they discuss it or not.
Just because you can't feel love doesn't mean you're fucking Steven Seagall bro lol.. Lack of feeling and empathy is a trait sociopaths and narcissists posess. Psychopaths have an entire array of feelings, and they are much better controlling them than neurotypicals.
If you think you're even slightly close to a psychopath, I encourage you to try some psychedelics so you can understand what it's truly like to be insane, at least for a little bit of time ;)
Literally everything in that comment is a teenager living a fantasy, not to mention completely incorrect. One they wouldn’t be living if psychopathy didn’t attract those that are trying to create a personality, or in many cases, they want an excuse to not expect better of themselves. Psychopathy provides that excuse, and they can say, “I’m a psychopath, what do you expect?”
If you compare the two comments, both of which I got very recently, they are the two broken ends of understanding of psychopathy. One that thinks psychopath means evil serial killer, and the other believing that psychopaths can love deeper than other people, and that they have a full range of emotions.
*Head on desk*
That’s… that’s just wrong. Both of them are very very wrong, but of course neither one is going to change their minds about what they believe. Something to consider. So long psychopaths are regarded as monsters hiding in skin, there will never be a cohort to study outside of the prison system. Criminal psychopath represent a very small minority of psychopaths, but they are who are almost entirely studied currently. This won’t change unless the understanding of psychopathy is overhauled, both in the minds of the professionals that are supposed to understand it, but also the general public.
Unless and until that happens, most psychopaths have no idea that they are psychopathic. They just think that they are different, but they aren’t serial killers, they don’t eat people, they aren’t criminals, so, they must not be psychopathic. Before I understood psychopathy, I shrugged off the term as having nothing to do with me. I had to understand it before I could understand that is actually did apply to me. People like me will never be a part of studies, they will never be a part of a sampling of noncriminal brain scans of psychopaths unless they can first see that perhaps this is something that explains that difference.
The majority of a subsection of people (psychopaths) are being defined by the small minority (criminal psychopaths), because the way psychopathy is studied currently feeds back into itself.
It is assumed that psychopaths are by definition criminals.
They therefore study only criminals and use a flawed tool to identify them as psychopaths when many of them probably are not.
That information is published, and it drives future research.
Psychopathy is by default defined in the realm of criminality, despite most psychopaths not being criminals.
Those psychopaths are never identified, therefore never studied, and no new information is put forward regarding psychopathy.
The understanding of psychopathy is stuck with the bastardization of what was outlined in the 1940’s by Hervey Cleckley. Robert Hare co-opted his list regarding psychopathy, changed it adding in more criminal elements, and removing things that can be identified in psychopathy, slapped a copyright on this pilfered list, and built an empire on it that informs the study of psychopathy almost complete. Due to this inaccurate list being considered a “gold standard” for psychopathy research, and is almost always the tool used to select people for studies, it has created an environment in which the researchers are just chasing their own tails.
If you are curious about the PCL-R and the Hare empire, let me know in the comments section. As he is the most commonly referred to “expert” on psychopathy, it is important to understand how he derived his conclusions, and how his own person dislike for psychopaths, as well as personal greed, is largely shaping psychopathy research currently. Whenever researchers define something, that entity should be allowed to change with the times, such as our understanding of autism, but that isn’t the case with psychopathy. It is still treated in a rather medieval way, complete with all the dark and nefarious stereotypes.