Have you ever wondered if your boss was a psychopath? It’s not an uncommon thought for people to have. Maybe they rule with an iron fist, maybe they have no sympathy or maybe they just seem a little distant. What about your current significant other or ex? Maybe you’ve seen them hit walls, scream and shout and commit deplorable acts in the heat of an argument. Or how about that one weird guy at work? You all know who I’m talking about. He’s quiet, a loner and while he’s not malicious, he’s just weird. But does that make them a psychopath?
It stands to reason you headed to the great infinity of knowledge known as the internet to do a little at-home research to see if you work for Patrick Bateman, or perhaps had taken Dexter out on a third date. Maybe you saw an episode of Criminal Minds, Dexter or CSI: Miami where one of our slicked back, walk-and-talk-with-me super agents gave a rundown of the psychopathic perpetrator and the description stuck and you wanted to find out more. The only problem with that is that mental health and psychology as a whole (like any science) have a knack for evolving and changing their definitions as time moves on. It’s easy to see how pop culture’s psychopath, clinically diagnosed psychopaths, and the popular public perception of psychopaths tend to branch away from one another over time. Today we’re going to look at 15 myths about psychopaths and debunk them.
15 Psychopaths Don't Understand Feelings
This is an easy one to have gotten wrong. It’s really easy to see psychopaths as these cold, distant monstrosities that wander the earth, constantly confused to the mysterious nature of us “neuro-typical” people. The same emotional confusion is often associated with super geniuses in shows and movies. You might see them struggling to understand why a little girl is crying over spilled ice cream, or why someone might feel angry over a social faux pas.
This is demonstrably false. One of the defining staples of psychopathy is their manipulative nature. This is in a direct contradiction to not being able to understand emotions, since it makes sense a psychopath would have to at least understand the underlying emotional motives of people in order to manipulate them. This can come across a few ways but most often with guilt. For instance, you might see them compare a past mistake of yours with a current mistake of theirs, even if they’re vastly different in nature: “Okay, I didn’t call to say I’d be late to dinner, but you’re always late leaving the house.” Psychopaths might not have the same emotions that we do, but they are able to identify them and fake them very well.
14 The Difference Between Psychopaths And Sociopaths
If you’ve headed into the fray of mental health history, you’ve probably come across the confusion of psychopathy and sociopathy. At one point, early on in the research these terms were essentially interchangeable, like bipolar and manic depressive. As time moved on these definitions distanced themselves and it seems like there’s a different answer for every person with a medical degree who speaks about it.
Aaron Kipnis, PhD, describes the difference being that a conscience, the voice inside your head saying if things are right or wrong, is absent in a psychopath and merely weak in a sociopath. Kelly McAleer, PhD, PsyD, paints a picture of a refined and calculated psychopath to the conversely impulsive and agitated sociopath: “The psychopath is callous, yet charming… Conversely, the sociopath is less organized in his or her demeanor; he or she might be nervous, easily agitated, and quick to display anger.”
13 The Difference Between Psychopaths And Psychotics
As it turns out, simply because someone is acting “antisocial” doesn’t mean they’re a psychopath. To be clear, the term antisocial basically describes traits and behaviours that wouldn’t be deemed acceptable by the majority of modern society. To be blunt, psychotic and psychopathic are mutually exclusive behaviours. Psychotic refers to someone dealing with a psychosis, which means thoughts or emotions are so impaired that they lose contact with external reality.
This can come across in schizophrenic episodes or hallucinations, trauma, PTSD, there has even been cases of permanent drug-induced psychosis, usually in people with unchecked underlying mental health problems in the first place. The famous greyhound bus murderer that took place in 2008 in Manitoba would be an instance of a psychotic episode, and not a psychopathic one.
12 All Psychopaths Are Killers
Take a look at your friend list on Facebook. How many friends do you have? This isn’t a competition of popularity but rather a game of statistics. Since an estimated 1% of the population is psychopathic, and up to 4% of the general public is sociopathic, that means 1-4 out of every 100 people is either a psychopath or a sociopath. Statistically you have a psychopath on your friends list – probably several.
Thanks to shows like Dexter, there’s a common misconception that killing and psychopathy go hand-in-hand. Again, this is demonstrably false by the virtue of how much sense it doesn’t make. Think about it. If 1 out of every 100 people on your Facebook or Twitter were going out and killing people, public transit would be much less crowded. Since the current population of male Americans over 18 is around 101,000,000 that would mean 1,000,000 are killing psychopaths. John Douglas of Mindhunter fame claims there are 15-25 active serial killers in the United States currently.
11 All Psychopaths Are Men
So we did a little bit of rough and quick math for some figures to play around with, but you probably noticed that the male demographic is what was focused on, and not the general over 18 demographic. That is not to say that there are absolutely no female psychopaths. While men do make up a significant portion of the psychopathic population, this could be due to the fact that female psychopaths were not better characterized and understood.
While a female psychopath has all the same traits as a male psychopath, such as a lack of empathy or calculated manipulation, it often surfaces in wildly different ways. As well, it is becoming more commonly understood that due to societal expectations and standards, female psychopaths are often overlooked for antisocial or violent crimes.
10 Most Psychopaths Are In Prison
A lot of what we know about psychopaths comes from the studies conducted by countless researchers over the decades. If you’re looking for a controlled population of antisocial people and societal outcasts, where do you look? Well, a prison of course. What better place to find your twisted criminal minds and deviant tendencies? You would expect that because psychopaths and sociopaths have an underlying trait of being juvenile delinquents and risk takers, it would stand to reason that they would end up in prison. However, that is not the case.
A study conducted in Canadian prisons in 1996 indicated that while 70-100% of the prison population had Antisocial-Personality-Disorder or APD, a sort of cousin to psychopathy and sociopathy, only 15-25% of those were psychopathic. Meyers quotes a study: “All individuals who have been diagnosed with psychopathy will also have APD but not all individuals suffering from APD will be diagnosed with psychopathy.”
9 The Science Behind Psychopaths Is Concrete
The science behind is definitely not. Nothing in science really is if you think about it. Carbon dating has changed the dates of important historical events by decades, even centuries. Astronomy is face to face with the ignorance we have of our own universe. The rules of large objects in physics are directly contradicted by the rules of small objects in quantum physics. And so it is with psychology. Over time, you inevitably get different theories, answers, and beliefs.
The popular Netflix show Mindhunter showcases Holden Ford, a sort of fictionalized version of John Douglas, FBI special agent and unit chief of the serial crimes unit who was instrumental in expanding knowledge of psychopathic violence and serial killers. But it was all experimental. They were treading new ground and so inevitably the beliefs changed with time. A lot of the previously conceived notions that have been changed over time are the reason these misconceptions and myths exist in the first place.
8 Psychopaths Are Lazy
This is a really interesting concept because on one hand, you can tend to get this image of a psychopath lording over the insignificant plebeians of his or her life, only needing to manipulate or pull the strings of their human puppets to get anything they want. On the other, you have the image of your classic ruthless CEO who works tirelessly, constantly inside their own head, working even when they’re not at work.
How does one come to reconcile these? Well as we mentioned earlier, sociopaths are often portrayed as impulsive and destructive, often not able to hold down a stable job. It could be the confusion in terms, or even the ever evolving nature of the terms which causes this misconception. Jim Fallon has an excellent TED talk where he, a PhD holding neurologist, accidentally found out he was a psychopath.
7 The Line Between "Normal" People And Psychopaths Is Black And White
Again, this science is not exactly black and white. In life, things rarely are. People inherently are a sort of labyrinth of behaviours which all act on a spectrum. People aren’t an amalgamation of switches either turned on or off. For instance, you wouldn’t say that Jim’s greed switch was on while Tom’s was off. You would say that they’re a little greedy, or very greedy – a little nice, or not nice at all.
The same applies to the behaviours and traits associated with psychopathy. There are different degrees of psychopathy. Jim Fallon, the previously mentioned psychopathic neurologist, might paint a brief image of a mad scientist. Instead he has dubbed himself "psychopath-lite." Watching the man speak in interviews and conferences, instead of coming across as a psychopathic John Stamos character, he resembles the uncle who always tells great stories at family dinners. And maybe that’s disturbing in its own right; he is a psychopath, after all.
6 Psychopaths Can’t Fall In Love
This makes a lot of sense for people to assume. After all, if you came from the belief that psychopaths don’t understand emotion or that they don’t have a grasp on empathy, it’s easy for the image of a loveless, emotionally stunted gorilla of a man to appear. Here we see how the misconceptions commonly held about psychopaths can compound themselves into further misconceptions.
While it’s true that psychopaths don’t carry the same emotional tool box as the rest of the “neuro-typical” population, that doesn’t mean they can’t develop meaningful relationships. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, claims they will often start with a shared worldview not unlike Bonnie and Cylde and goes on to say says this: “Even these somewhat ill-fated couples, however, can develop a more positive outcome if the healthier of the two partners can influence the other. Over time, they might form an intimate bond that allows both of them to become more trusting, sharing, and able to see things from the partner’s point of view.”
5 Psychopathy Is Synonymous With Insanity
Again, this is likely due to the confusion in terms in the mental health field. If you’re a 90s kid, you probably remember seeing one of your favourite characters from a sitcom or cartoon exclaim, “He’s such a psychopath” when referring to a character who just did something malicious. It’s an easy mistake to make. Even news outlets misused the term when describing the perpetrator in the Virginia Tech shooting. This is a perversion of the term. We take these linguistic quirks with us everywhere, for instance the term “dumb” used to be a medically significant term which had to be abandoned over time as it became an insult and was too insensitive or unprofessional to classify patients with.
Insanity is defined as extreme foolishness, or state of serious mental illness. In legal terms, sanity is defined as knowing the nature of the crime as well as acknowledging whether it was right or wrong to commit said crime. In Canadian law, it merely means to be unfit to stand trial, where after examination and rehabilitation suspects can stand trial once they are fit. Psychopaths are, by these definitions, not insane.
4 Psychopaths Are Always Sadistic
This has a certain cogency, doesn’t it? If an individual is callous, manipulative, doesn’t handle or use empathy in a typical way and has an inability to feel remorse, it seems to stand to reason that they would be able to commit a sadistic act, incapable of grasping the suffering they inflict or worse, actively willing themselves not to.
This doesn’t appear to be the case however. Scientific American’s Scott O. Lilienfeld, PhD and Hal Arkowitz, PhD write in The Scientific American that most psychopaths aren’t violent and most violent people aren’t psychopaths. They also called out media outlets for misusing the term psychopath in relation to the Virginia Tech Shooting. Mixing up legitimate medical terms because they’re sensational and click-bait might be one of the medical community’s biggest hurdles to overcome as the word loses its meaning and significance over time. For other examples of this, see the word "literally"
3 You Can Self-Diagnose
First of all, can you ever truly self-diagnose? Second of all, the mental health field has all sorts of issues with misdiagnosing or even over diagnosing certain ailments due to the nebulous nature of mental health syndromes. For instance, put your hands up if you’re constantly late to things, can’t focus on work, occasionally neglect hygiene or social obligations. If you said yes to these you could be schizophrenic, have ADHD, or you could be clinically depressed. This is because the symptoms are shared between those disorders. Everybody is different and has a different chemistry so it is sometimes be hard for trained doctors to properly diagnose.
It seems like every day you can find a new article about Depression or ADHD being dramatically over or under-diagnosed by today's doctors. The truth is that they might not know themselves, but that means that neither does the 25 multiple choice questions you just answered. As fun as these quizzes and their answers can be, they are almost never of any practical use.
2 Psychopathy Is Untreatable
“That’s just the way they are.” Seems like one hell of a poor excuse for the scientific community to come up with, isn’t it? Could you imagine if other fields of science answered questions that way? Why do the seasons change? Just the way it is. Why does it rain? Just does. How did the stars form? I don’t know man, they just did. What’s with all the questions?
Unfortunately you can find plenty of sources that claim this is reason for psychopathy to exist. While some researchers claim childhood trauma or culture might promote psychopathy or sociopathy, the truth is that researchers have no solid answer as to what causes psychopathy. But they can treat it. Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) took in boys from other institutions deemed “uncontrollable with dozens of formerly filed charges” and saw a 34% reduction in psychopaths recommitting crimes after treatment. Other facilities on the other hand had 0-1% reduction. This was largely due to the difference in approach. Where other facilities use strict rules and punishment systems, MJTC used neuroscience and small human rewards, like a pat on the shoulder. Moreover, MJTC youth were 50% less likely to commit violent crimes.
1 Psychopaths Are Dangerous
So after reading through this list we hope you have a different view on psychopathy. We have found out that they’re not inherently violent or sadistic, they didn’t necessarily come from abuse, they can find meaningful and loving relationships. We’re far from the Jeffry Dahmers in our collective subconscious. They don’t flood the prison system, they aren’t inherently criminals, they can be men or women and, most importantly, they can be rehabilitated.
Are psychopaths different? Of course they are; it’s the very definition of having atypical behaviours which define a psychopath. Are they dangerous? Not as dangerous as Criminal Minds would have you believe. Then again, Criminal Minds would have you believe you can zoom and enhance 20x20 pixel pictures infinitely to reveal the face of the murderer in the reflection of a beer glass, in a dimly lit bar, on a blurry security camera that looks older than the cast. So take their science with a grain of salt.
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