What Is Psychopathy?

Psychopathy is among the most difficult disorders to spot. The psychopath can appear normal, even charming. Underneath, he lacks conscience and empathy, making him manipulative, volatile and often (but by no means always) criminal.

Psychopaths are objects of popular fascination and clinical anguish: Adult psychopathy is largely impervious to treatment, though programs are in place to treat callous, unemotional youth in hopes of preventing them from maturing into psychopaths.

The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are often used interchangeably, but in correct parlance a “sociopath” refers to a person with antisocial tendencies that are ascribed to social or environmental factors, whereas psychopathic traits are more innate, though a chaotic or violent upbringing may tip the scales for those already predisposed to behave psychopathically. Both constructs are most closely represented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as Antisocial Personality Disorder. The DSM uses neither "psychopathy" nor "sociopathy," though these terms are widely used in clinical and common parlance. 

Brain anatomy, genetics, and a person’s environment may all contribute to the development of psychopathic traits. For more on causes, symptoms and treatments of antisocial personality disorder, see our Diagnosis Dictionary

The Signs of a Psychopath

Psychopathy is a spectrum disorder and can be diagnosed using the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which features traits such as lack of empathy, sexual promiscuity, pathological lying, parasitic lifestyle, and impulsivity. The bar for clinical psychopathy is a score of 30 or higher; serial killer Ted Bundy scored 39.

The checklist was developed in the 1970s by the Canadian researcher Robert Hare, professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia. While it was originally used to assess individuals in criminal cases or in high-security psychiatric units, the checklist items are now readily found online for anyone to peruse. A true assessment should be conducted by a mental health professional.


Sociopathy, Narcissism, Law and Crime

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