Post No.: 0140
Psychopathy is on one end of a continuous spectrum of personality traits, which means that these traits are not ‘all or nothing’ and almost all of us exhibit some of these traits but just to varying degrees; with psychopaths exhibiting them to extreme degrees. Different situational factors or contexts can also bring out or dampen some traits or behaviours (e.g. anyone’s level of empathy for another person can be impaired if one is only interacting with them through online usernames rather than face-to-face), but for psychopaths the following traits or behaviours are more persistent. Psychopathy is traditionally considered a personality disorder and sometimes called sociopathy.
The traits of a psychopath to look out for are – a lack of empathy, guilt, conscience or remorse; an increased selfishness, callousness, arrogance and overconfidence; extreme narcissism and egocentricity; superficial charm and charisma (the ‘sweet’ in this post’s title refers to the apparent charm that many psychopaths can exhibit – so they’re not really sweet but they are psychopaths); cunning, persuasiveness and manipulation; grandiosity; impulsiveness; disinhibition; promiscuity; a shortness of fear and a coolness under pressure; a failure to learn from experience; and an attitude of never taking the blame for anything. Their antisocial behaviour means that they struggle to establish meaningful relationships, they have no trouble cheating on their partners, care little for loyalty, and they make great con artists. Because of the spectrum, some psychopaths are more extreme than others but they’ll be classed as psychopaths if they exceed a certain score in the (currently) Psychopathy Checklist-revised (PCL-R) assessment. Meow.
For certain emotions or feelings like guilt, remorse or empathy – they may be able to describe feelings of cognitive empathy (e.g. they may recognise what a distressed face looks like) but they won’t show the physiological effects of true affective empathy (e.g. they won’t feel a change in their own heart rate when seeing a distressed face). They can understand what these fluffy emotions are for, for the purpose of manipulating them in others, but they cannot feel these emotions to truly empathise with others (e.g. they can learn that if they pull a remorseful-looking face then this might get another person to do something for them, like forgive them, but they won’t actually be feeling that remorse inside of them).
Since psychopaths cannot affectively (emotionally) empathise well with other people (or living creatures), they end up treating them like any other object in order to get whatever they want. If chairs had feelings, a ‘normal’ person would likely morally think twice about sitting on one, but to a psychopath who wants to sit down, they’ll just sit down on one without applying any moral lens because to them it’s just an unfeeling object to them that’s there to be used. They might have cognitive empathy and can run simulations in their own minds about what another person might do or how they’ll react, but they lack affective empathy to actually truly feel how others feel.
The ability to affectively empathise with another person feeling fear, in particular, is reduced, so they won’t mirror their victims’ fears, which would otherwise stop them when they’re about to harm, or are in the middle of harming, their victims. The ability to empathise with another person’s pain or fear, and anticipating the feeling of guilt for hurting someone, could be said to be one’s conscience, but psychopaths don’t quite feel those feelings. Their best hope is a calculated rationale to not harm someone e.g. if they did and got caught then they’ll know they’ll go to jail for a very long time – hence the external threat of serious and reliably-enforced punishments can deter them.
Psychopaths tend to be impulsive and don’t care what other people feel, and even if they know what’s right or wrong and know whether what they’ve done may be right or wrong, they don’t care. Even knowing that they are psychopaths with a personality disorder doesn’t even motivate them to want to change. This all makes them some of the most dangerous people in society.
Psychopaths like to be in control, and they like to prey on the perceived weak and therefore particularly vulnerable (e.g. the elderly, poor, young, female). And because of their self-aggrandising and boastfulness traits – at first they may actually confess to their murders or crimes due to the smugness of wishing to express and be recognised for their own greatness and ‘achievement’ for committing a crime, and their ability to assert control over other people – but then they may try to retract their confessions in order to try to manipulate the police and play games with them and get away with it.
Cold-calculating, serial-killing psychopaths exhibit lower activity in the amygdala brain region, and can sometimes exhibit lower activity in the prefrontal cortex brain region, which are involved in emotions and impulse-control respectively, amongst other functions. Note that many non-psychopathic, reactive, heat-of-the-moment murderers conversely exhibit a higher activity in the amygdala brain region, leading to greater emotional responses that can in turn lead to greater reactive aggression; along with exhibiting a lower activity in the prefrontal cortex brain region. And psychotic schizophrenic murderers tend to have damage to their amygdala and prefrontal cortex brain regions too – suggesting that the amygdala and prefrontal cortex areas of the brain are important in the study of violence. The amygdala and prefrontal cortex can, in many (although not all) cases, be metaphorically akin to the ‘devil’ and ‘angel’ on one’s shoulders respectively – the amygdala is key for sensing threats, feeling fear and triggering aggression, whilst the prefrontal cortex can control those impulses of aggression if it’s working properly (one way to suppress prefrontal cortex functionality is to get drunk).
Psychopathy often expresses with other psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia. But please do not conflate ‘psychopathic’ with ‘psychotic’, where the latter involves an impaired relationship with reality, such as experiencing hallucinations and delusions. (The term ‘psycho’ is therefore ambiguous and potentially confusing.) Prescribed drugs may therefore help in certain cases (e.g. anti-psychotic drugs for those with schizophrenia), whilst other drugs can make things worse (e.g. psychoactive drug abuse can cause or exacerbate psychosis).
Therapy can be risky though – trying to teach psychopaths empathy can actually help train them to hide their true thoughts better to therefore help them manipulate others better! It can be like a finishing school to hone their cognitive empathy and perfect their acting so that they can better trick people into doing whatever they want!
Psychopathy is partly genetic but whether these traits express themselves as destructive/murderous or not depends highly on one’s early life and environment. So the first and arguably best line of defence is reducing environmental risk factors and promoting environmental protective factors starting from young (e.g. we need to eliminate childhood abuse, reduce exposure to violence, promote more adaptive coping mechanisms such as writing one’s angry thoughts down instead of shouting, throwing or hitting things, and teach and lead-by-example moral and social values such as promoting sharing and cooperation). According to brain scans, psychopathy might possibly even be preventable via conditioning if trained young enough (i.e. by rewarding and therefore reinforcing appropriate empathic responses)? Children who exhibit cruelty to animals potentially express an early sign of psychopathy, although there are possible alternative explanations (e.g. they were just curious, copying other people or pre-emptively attacking an animal out of a fear of it).
Psychopaths tend to like rules and structure, and can be motivated and managed by appealing to their self-interests, where appropriate. The perfect ‘rationally self-interested’ actor arguably describes an emotionless psychopath. Although emotions are not in themselves irrational and can even guide us towards rational behaviours – emotions are often at the root of many irrational decisions. And psychopaths are less likely to act on certain emotions, feelings and thoughts such as empathy, fear or self-doubt because they feel them less. However, they can feel emotions or feelings such as narcissism, anger, envy or resentment, and feel them intensely too, which may conversely impair their performance. Not caring about others (e.g. teammates), taking huge risks and being overconfident can themselves impair their performance.
Statistically, the most attractive occupations for psychopaths are bankers (they go where the money is because of their greed), lawyers, media and salespeople (manipulation, deception and persuasion), surgeons (feeling no empathy despite cutting living things up – this demonstrates how psychopathy can be advantageous in certain contexts) and CEOs (the hunger for grandiosity and personal power, which corrupts). Hardly everyone in the above occupations are psychopaths but these types of careers appeal to psychopaths the most. The difference between dictators and mere psychopaths is probably opportunity!
Psychopathy possibly evolved as a free-riding strategy? In game theory and genetic evolution, a small percentage of the population can successfully free-ride on the cooperation of the rest of the population (e.g. a small number of the population can avoid paying their taxes yet not take their country down as long as the rest pay their taxes). It’s therefore up to the ‘99%’ to crush this strategy of the ‘1%’ – if only enough non-psychopaths would like to do some serious ‘crushing’(!)
Yet one doesn’t need to be a psychopath in order to cheat, steal, lie or harm another living being – one just needs to be put in the wrong place at the wrong time to do so, virtually regardless of one’s personality. (Check out Post No.: 0087 for some of the risk and protective factors involved in violence.) Although they are quite disproportionately represented – much less than half of all male inmates are psychopaths, which means the rest aren’t. One must also note that mental health sufferers are actually statistically more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. And the perpetrators of abuse were often victims of abuse in their own childhoods too; although most people who were abused when young don’t perpetrate the same abuses when older.
Understand that no one chooses their own genes or upbringing, psychopathy doesn’t guarantee criminality, and psychopaths are rare in the human population – only about 1% of the general population is classed as psychopathic i.e. empathy is the evolved norm for humans, not the exception. The vast majority of people do feel and do care so there’s no need to lose sleep if you’re not a psychopath.
Whatever form of creature I am in, I feel and care too. <3