(Behind the Mask. Image by Xtream_i via flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)
Mention the word psychopath and I think it's fair to say that most people think of serial killers both real and fictional. As with criminal profiling, this is a topic area within forensic psychology where it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction. Before we attempt to do this, however; first and foremost, I just want to quickly address the broader issue of personality disorder.
The first important thing to note is that psychopathy is a personality disorder, the diagnosis of which is usually based on in depth interviews with both the individual being assessed and their family. However, the concept of personality disorder is extremely controversial, so much so, there are those that argue that personality disorder is nothing more than a term used by the medical profession to describe people they don't like.
What's the problem?
With most mental health problems, psychological testing can be employed to provide clear criteria as a basis for a diagnosis, there are, however, no such tests for personality disorder per se, so any diagnosis is by definition unreliable and lacking in validity.
The situation in the UK is particularly confusing because although the 1983 Mental Health Act differentiates between 'psychopathic disorder' and 'mental illness, it classifies both under the broader term of 'mental disorder.' At best, personality disorder sits uncomfortably within the traditional medical model of psychiatric classification, and more often than not resides outside it. The most obvious consequence of this is that no medical treatment for underlying personality disturbance exists.
This effectively means that personality disordered offenders cannot be accommodated within an appropriate health or penal/correctional setting.
The debate surrounding personality disorder is complex and multi dimensional.
Anybody interested in understanding this very important topic in greater depth is strongly recommended to read Major Theories of Personality Disorder, Second Edition by Mark F. Lenzenweger & John F. Clarkin.
Now in a fully revised and expanded second edition, this landmark work brings together in one volume the most important current perspectives on personality pathology. Chapters from leading experts have been extensively rewritten to reflect a decade's worth of significant theoretical, empirical, and clinical developments, and two entirely new chapters have been added.
Coverage encompasses psychodynamic, interpersonal, attachment, ecological, psychometric, and neurobiological models, all presented in a consistent format to facilitate ready reference and comparison. The volume also explores similarities and differences among the various theories, identifies potential avenues of integration, and discusses key implications for research and clinical care. See following link for full details.
A primary aim of discussing personality disorder was to make it clear that a psychopath is not mentally ill in the traditional sense of the word.
A common mistake is to assume that the terms psychopathy and psychotic are interrelated; they are not. A psychotic individual is essentially out of touch with reality, she or he is likely to be delusional and experience hallucinations, and is, therefore, behaviorally speaking, completely unaware of what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Psychopathic behavior on the other hand is rational, it represents an informed choice, a premeditated strategy to act in way that serves as an effective means to an end. As Robert Hare states:
'Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret'.
Because of the possible confusion with the term psychotic, some writers prefer to employ the term sociopath, although like profiling, the preferred label more likely reflects the theoretical preference of the author.
For instance, Hare is explicit in his use of the term psychopath because he feels that it encapsulates his belief that the condition is a result of psychological, biological and genetic factors.
The following news article was published in The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), on Wednesday 21st January 1885. It provides the first printed account of the term psychopath as we understand it today.
CLICK HERE for a fascinating perspective on psychopaths from 1935.
As mentioned earlier that there isn't a rigorously tested and valid measure of personality disorder, however, a psychological test for psychopathy does exist, developed by Hare, it has become the standard instrument of choice for researchers and clinicians in the field.
The checklist examines key characteristics on a number of levels, for instance on an emotional/interpersonal level, the psychopath will reveal himself as glib & superficial, egocentric & grandiose, lacking in remorse, guilt and empathy, will be deceitful and manipulative and have shallow emotions
What Hare's research tells us more than anything is that the popular notion of the obviously insane serial killing psychopath has disguised the fact that most psychopaths actually operate within (or at least on the fringes) of the law, exist in large numbers and pervade every facet of society.
The Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy (SSSP) is a non-profit, professional organization which was developed to promote the conduct and communication of scientific research in the field of psychopathy and to encourage education and training in those fields of science that contribute to research in psychopathy.
CLICK HERE to read the following articles on psychopathy published in the July 2012 edition of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
CLICK HERE to read a very interesting article by psychologist and neuroscientist Chris Chambers.
Most people are both repelled and intrigued by the images of cold-blooded, conscienceless murderers that increasingly populate our movies, television programs, and newspaper headlines. With their flagrant criminal violation of society's rules, serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy are among the most dramatic examples of the psychopath. Individuals with this personality disorder are fully aware of the consequences of their actions and know the difference between right and wrong, yet they are terrifyingly self-centered, remorseless, and unable to care about the feelings of others. Perhaps most frightening, they often seem completely normal to unsuspecting targets, and they do not always ply their trade by killing.
Presenting a compelling portrait of these dangerous men and women based on 25 years of distinguished scientific research, Dr. Robert D. Hare vividly describes a world of con artists, hustlers, rapists, and other predators who charm, lie, and manipulate their way through life. Are psychopaths mad, or simply bad? How can they be recognized? And how can we protect ourselves? This book provides solid information and surprising insights for anyone seeking to understand this devastating condition.
See following link for full details.