The Genius Psychopath...
Exploring the many myths that will seemingly never die...
Most of what people know about psychopathy is a myth.
That might seem surprising, but most of the mainstream understanding of psychopathy is misinformation. It comes from a thousand sources, and we explored two of them in the past couple of weeks, Robert Hare and the PCL-R, but those are just the tip of the iceberg.
In this post we will start to talk about those myths, and I will do my best to untangle them so they are understandable both to why they are myths, and also why they are so common. Let’s get into the first one, shall we? This one is everywhere, and it is usually the first thing that people associate psychopathy with.
When discussing psychopathy it is synonymous with serial killing. There is even a catchy little saying that people insist on repeating:
“Not all psychopaths are serial killers, but all serial killers are psychopaths.”
This is not remotely accurate, and interestingly enough, most serial killers are neurotypical. The reasoning for this is not because neurotypicals are more prone to serial killing, instead this has to do with numbers. There are just far more neurotypicals than there are… well anything. Thus why they occupy the highest percentage, but that doesn’t mean that serial killing is just in neurotypicals, or psychopaths.
Serial killing does not discriminate. It affects every neuro-type, every mental health variant, every single type of person alive can be a serial killer. It has nothing to do with psychopathy.
There was a person over on Quora that did a review of various serial killers, because he was into that kind of thing, and worked out what if anything was an alteration to their mental functioning. Here is what he found:
I happen to be keeping a list of serial killers with all kinds of information. I have 359 serial killers listed (a few spree killers and murderers among them as well). Of those, I have collected information on the psychology of 173 of them so far.
From those 173:
at least 44 are neurotypical — that’s 25.4%
10 are marked as necrophiles, 16 as pedophiles, one as borderline retarded, 12 as (sexual) sadists or sadomasochists, 6 as cannibals and 13 with other conditions—which means that since I have not marked them as having any distinct disorder, they may very well be neurotypical too. So that’s:
44 + 57 = 101 possibly/probably neurotypical — that’s 58.4%
in any case, I have marked 13 with ASPD — that’s 7.5%
I have marked 2 with sociopathy (one with psychopathic tendencies) — that’s 1.2%
and I have marked 23 with psychopathy — that’s 13.3%
That is an amazingly low number of psychopaths, yet psychopathy is the first thing that is assigned to a serial killer. By definition, serial killers are antisocial, but antisocial does not mean psychopath, as we have discussed in the past.
No one knows the cause of serial killing, though it is theorized to have many roots, including abuse, malfunction in different parts of the brain, head injuries, paraphilia indulgences, emotional trauma, and I am sure many more. These are just the ones I am aware of and familiar with. Something I have tried to understand is the reasoning for serial killing in psychopaths, because I can’t personally see anything all that interesting about it, but I don’t have an answer for you.
Due to my inability to find the logical consistency as to what about serial killing would keep the mind of a psychopath engaged and interested, I have hypothesized that it is an actual malfunction in the brain that can be triggered by various things. Perhaps the reason why we don’t know what causes it in the brain is because it is rather difficult to scan the brain of a serial killer while they are in the middle of murdering someone. Without that, I don’t suppose we will ever know. I have had people say that it is about stimulation, but repeated stimulation of almost any sort loses its luster fairly quickly in the psychopathic mind, so I am not clear as to what about murder would be different.
Myth Number Two
The genius psychopath. This one is a constant annoyance. I am asked at least once a month, and often more frequently than that whether or not psychopaths are smarter than neurotypicals. This one weirdly has both a negative version, all psychopaths are dumb as a box of rocks, and a positive spin, that all psychopaths are masterminds of the world, and all shall kneel before their amazing intellect.
Unfortunately for each side of this debate, they could not be wrong. Psychopaths are not dumb, and psychopaths are not brilliant. Psychopaths aren’t anything on the intelligence scale, because psychopathy has nothing to do with intelligence.
Examining each claim, we will start with the dumb psychopaths. Where are psychopaths studied? That’s right, you all get cookies, go and get them… I will wait.
When was the last time you watched a prison documentary and thought to yourself, “Wow, those are some genius level people in there. It’s both sobering, and fills me with humility to be in the presence of such greatness.”
That has never happened, right? Right. Because people who go to prison do not tend to be in the upper echelon of smarts. Psychopaths are no different. If they are dumb enough to
A. Commit crimes, and
B. Get caught
I think we can cancel their reservation for picking up their Nobel in Physics. They are not the sharpest knife in the block. Why, praytell why… would we make this the basis for drawing a conclusion on the rest of the people in the world with psychopathy? We are the majority after all, and they, the stupid criminals, are the minority. Why are we defining the majority by the minority? We do not do this anywhere else, but we do with psychopathy. Seems reasonable.
Now for the other side of it, and probably the most irritating out of the two. All psychopaths are super geniuses. No. Not even a little. That’s not how it works. As I mentioned, psychopathy has literally nothing to do with how smart you are. It might interfere with the ability to deal effectively with some things like math, or maybe that’s just me, who knows, but if has no impact on a person’s ability to be dumb, see above, or very very smart.
However. That does not mean, nor did it ever mean, that psychopaths are somehow smarter than neurotypicals. It may at times appear that way due to not having to see through the emotional noise, but IQs in the spectrum of psychopathy are just as diverse as you will find in neurotypicals.
Now, why does this myth persist. I think it is for three reasons.
Hannibal Lecter, who is not a psychopath, even the author has said he is not a psychopath, but people love to think of him as one, and Lecter was a genius. So, thank you for that, Thomas Harris. I know it was never your intention, but here we are.
Criminal Minds. Look, it’s a fun show when your intention is to fully check out of reality. Nothing on that show is accurate, and if you listened to them everyone and their dog is a psychopathic bipolar borderline personality schizoid schizophrenic. I mean, if this were scrabble and we were awarding points per letter, I mean… they win, but that doesn’t make them right. They also have a character that has like three PhDs at twenty, and has a photographic memory. We know that’s fake, but serial killer de jour with the laundry list of nonsense, that we believe.
Fake psychopaths. These are some of the worst perpetrators of this myth. They don’t want to just be a psychopath. They want to be a psychopath that scores a forty out of forty on the PCL-R, and they want to have an IQ of 150 or higher. Just no. This is not a thing. For one thing, if they are so damn smart, why do they misspell half of what they write, and not know how to produce better fake medical records than the ones they swear are real. I mean… at least get the names of the psychological tests right. Hare proudly displays the name of his checklist, so… there really isn’t an excuse for it being wrong.
There are a ton of people that will use this trope to live a life that isn’t theirs, and being smarter than everyone else is a great way to separate them from whatever it is they are trying to escape by living that lie. That however, does not change the fact that psychopaths are no smarter, and no dumber than anyone else.
Myth Number Three
Psychopathy and psychosis are related in any way. This one of course comes from the root of both words, psych, but that is where the similarity ends. You might think that the conflation can’t be that common, but it happens a lot. Even when people are corrected often I will see them shrug off the correct information and continue stating that they are in fact, the same thing. This doesn’t stand up to the slightest of scrutiny, and fortunately it is one of the few myths that professionals are equally annoyed with. However, it still circles around and around, refusing to go down the damn drain.
Myth Number Four
That psychopaths and autism can be comorbid. This lovely one comes from a naming issue a good while back. Hans Asperger decided to initially call what would later be known Asperger’s “Autistic Psychopathy”. The hypothesis as to why comes down to the belief that the limitation in autistic people to accurately read facial and social cues was tied to a lack of empathy. We now know that is not the case. However, that has not rinsed away this term, nor the belief that autism and psychopathy can coexist. They can’t, and brain scans demonstrate why this is the case:
Connectomes—mappings of neural connections in the brain—showing differences in connectivity between the neurotypical brain, the high-functioning autistic brain, and the psychopathic brain. (Image credit: Walt Schneider, University of Pittsburgh, and Human Connectome Project
This is pretty irrefutable proof that they are on the opposite ends of the synaptic spectrum, so no, they cannot be comorbid.
Another reason why this one still exists would be because that ASPD/Psychopathy problem that we went over in detail. For those of you that missed it:
Anyone can have ASPD assigned to them as a diagnosis and of course this includes someone with autism. There is nothing preventing this from being the case, so long as they behave in the manner necessary to net this diagnosis. However, having ASPD does not make someone a psychopath. Frequently the two are conflated, and many people will just make the misinformed claim that the DSM changed the diagnosis from psychopathy to ASPD. That isn’t the case. It was changed from sociopath to ASPD in the eighties, sociopathy and psychopathy are different, and last but least, the DSM is an insurance repayment manual, not a diagnostic bible.
Loads of problems there, and because of these problems, people will insist that people with autism can also be psychopaths, despite the evidence to the contrary. This myth also annoys people with autism by the way. I get many comments and messages from people that are fed up with being accused of having no empathy. it is quite frustrating for some. It would be nice if, like the psychosis myth, people would just take a moment to read about them individually prior to insisting that their version of reality is true.
Myth Number Five
You probably think that we are getting to the end, don’t you? Nope, not even close. Do you know how much absolute nonsense exists regarding psychopathy? A lot. Like a whole lot. This one is going to make you laugh, but it has to be included, and will be the last one in this post.
Psychopaths cause cancer.
You read that right, and not just cancer, but a whole host of every disease you can imagine. A comment that I saw regarding this said something like:
The toll of psychopaths is measured in the collective damage and death worldwide of hundreds of millions. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, strokes, autoimmune diseases, mental disorders and much, much more.
I have had people directly tell me that I am going to cause those around me to die of some terrible disease, just by being near them. I don’t even have to do anything. I am so evil, wicked, and toxic, I emanate it from my pores, suffocating everything around me. Not just me though, all psychopaths have this power. All doctors and nurses are psychopaths as well, and they enjoy making their patients sick so they have to keep coming back.
It is obvious that this one is also less frequent, but it is probably one that is more unhinged than most. Where this comes from, I am not exactly certain, but there have been iterations of it for a very long time. There was one woman that had to have some kind of life saving surgery, but didn’t want to do it because all surgeons are psychopaths, and no matter what it wouldn’t help because she would just get worse from being around the psychopaths.
While this one is funny in the sense that it is so disconnected from reality, it also may stand in the way of people getting medical help when they need it. I have seen a number of people try to convince others from going to see a doctor because of their apparent propensity for psychopathy. It is one thing to smile quietly when you read this sort of thing online, but it is quite another thing when that same person is speaking to other people that are similarly minded, and this mentality infects like a disease. One woman insisted that she spontaneously cured her own cancer. Not just one, but three, stage four cancers, without a doctor's help. You and I might not believe her, but someone will, and that is fairly unfortunate.
Those are some of the myths surrounding psychopathy. There are more of course, many more, and another post about them may be upcoming, however first I may address some people that are always touted to be psychopathic, when in reality they are not at all. I bet if I asked you to name someone that everyone thinks is a psychopath (besides Hannibal Lecter) you would pick at least one of them. After I present you the evidence, I imagine that much like me, you will have a tinge of annoyance when you hear someone trot out one of these people and insist that they are the consummate psychopath.
Should be fun.