Psychopathicuriosity: Changing perspectives and developments in psychopathy

With the recent release of the Netflix hit ‘Mindhunter’, the even more recent death of killer-cult leader, Charles Manson, and the continuing popularity of books like Jon Ronson’s ‘The Psychopath Test’ which was released around half a decade ago(!), our curiosity with the morbid, the twisted and the unknown remains in 2017.

When there is any mention of the word psychopath, I think most people’s minds jump to the image of serial killers, and see the two as one in the same. And who could blame us? The typical psychopathic personalities depicted across our screens, and in our crime novels, are those which are charming, but untrustworthy and guiltless, and in some cases, terrifying… but always intriguing. Case in point: Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. But what about when you cut this dramatized idea of a psychopath off screen or page, and drag it into reality? Anyone could be a psychopath; there is no single demographic which this personality type is limited to.

Yes, it is true that statistically more men are psychopaths, but, yes, you females out there can be too. Psychopaths can emerge from any and every race and culture. The indigenous Nigerian Yorubas tribe refer to their psychopaths as ‘aranakan’, whilst the Inuits use the term ‘kunlangeta’. You can be a psychopath at nearly any age, and from any socio-economic standing. You could be of above-average, average, or even below-average intelligence and a psychopath. You could come from a single-, two-parent, or completely broken home. Psychopaths can have families themselves, with a wife or husband, and children. Your parent, sibling, friend or neighbour could be a psychopath, and you, and even they, may not realise it… It’s not so mysterious when it literally hits home!

DeSalvo 1
Info: Biography and The NY Times 



Psychopathy, or the original German form of the word, psychopastiche, is generally credited to the psychiatrist J.L.A. Koch in 1888. However, the first printed mention of the disorder, as we understand it today, was published in a news article by The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), on Wednesday 21st January 1885. The article narrates the acquittal of Mdmlle Semenova’s implication of child murder after doctor Balinsky’s argument persuading the jury she was suffering from the newly recognised malady, “psychopathy”.

One of the first medical professional to describe the condition (although not under the title of psychopathy) was the French doctor Phillipe Pinel, in 1806. He referred to it as maniaque sans délire, or insanity without delirium. This term of ‘moral insanity’ and the like remained popular and prevalent across the United States and England throughout the 1800 and 1900s.

Since the turn of the 20th century, psychopath has often been used interchangeably with the term ‘sociopath’ for a number of reasons – one of which being the confusion between psychopathy and psychosis. During this period of the early 1900’s, psychiatry also expanded the psychopathic diagnosis to include those who self-harmed, as well as those who hurt others, those who were depressed, overtly shy, anxious or insecure. By the 1930’s psychopathy encompassed basically anyone who was anything but ‘normal’, and lost the integrity, accuracy and core of the condition. A few tried to revert this – bringing diagnosis back to the more accurate psychopath. Those such as the Scottish psychiatrist David Henderson and the American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley were the most influential, but even they failed.

It wasn’t until the 60’s when Robert Hare, as a prison psychologist, tried to identify true psychopaths once again. Unfortunately, the resources available at the time were less than reliable. For instance, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) were questionnaires based on self-reporting by supposed psychopaths. But how can you trust the answers, or self-reporting, of those who are supposed to be known for their manipulative and impressionistic skill? In hindsight, this inventory was, as expected, taken advantage of, on several occasions, being used by one prisoner to improve their own and others likelihood of parole, and by another to purposefully move from institution to institution and for medication. By 1980, Hare had formed a psychological test, based off Cleckley’s earlier work to determine psychopathy. This test has been revised several times since, but is now generally accepted as the accurate checklist.

Downs 1
Info: Pitchford (2001)


Psychopathy is a personality disorder, which has only recently gained status as a clinical diagnosis, in 2013, despite being surprisingly common! Psychopathy is determined using the 40-point Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) by Hare, with all 20 of the traits on the extensive list needing to be evident in an individual for clinical diagnosis, and for a score of at least 30/40 (the full list is shown below and explained in the video).

The main gist of Hare’s characteristics can be broken down into a 2 or 4 factor model.

Either, the 2 Factor Model:

Factor 1: shallowness, superficial charm, manipulativeness, and lack of empathy, and Factor 2: the inability to show remorse and the behaviours associated with the socially deviant lifestyle of impulsiveness and criminality.

Or, the 4 Factor Model:

Factor 1: the interpersonal dimension (e.g. superficial charm, callous and manipulative), Factor 2: the affective dimension (e.g. shallow, a lack of empathy and remorse for others), Factor 3: the lifestyle dimension (e.g. irresponsible, impulsive, and lack of rational fear), Factor 4: the antisocial dimension (e.g. poor behavioural controls; delinquency/ criminality).

  • Hare’s 20-item Psychopathy Checklist Revised:
  1. Superficial charm and glibness
  2. Inflated sense of self-worth
  3. Constant need for stimulation
  4. Lying pathologically
  5. Conning others; being manipulative
  6. Lack of remorse or guilt
  7. Shallow emotions
  8. Callousness; lack of empathy
  9. Using others (a parasitic lifestyle)
  10. Poor control over behaviour
  11. Promiscuous sexual behaviour
  12. Behavioural problems early in life
  13. Lack of realistic, long-term goals
  14. Being impulsive
  15. Being irresponsible
  16. Blaming others and refusing to accept responsibility
  17. Having several marital relationships
  18. Delinquency when young
  19. Revocation of conditional release
  20. Criminal acts in several realms (criminal versatility)


Gacy 3
Info: Crime Museum and The NY Times 


Psychopathy is finally being understood as a multi-faceted condition, with different blends of the condition and personality traits creating the variation in psychopathic tendencies, like lack of remorse, or charisma. This diverse and complex condition also has multiple probable causes, with environmental factors being a notable one. The idea that psychopaths are born, and not made, may not be entirely true. It’s not all down to genetics it seems! (But the neuroscience and brain imaging research is super interesting – I would definitely recommend a read!)

Although some research in the US has seen development concerning the identification and treatment of adult psychopathy, there has been a focus on identifying children who are at elevated risk of developing psychopathy. Numerous studies are coming out with results indicating that identification of callous-unemotional (CU) tendencies and intensive treatment at younger ages (down to the age of 2 years old) could significantly reduce violent and criminal behaviour later on. Basically, prevention could be more effective and realistic than a cure.  Children are highly adaptive, and their personal development is malleable. Researchers believe that if psychopathic tendencies can be identified as early as when a child’s personality starts to emerge, surrounding caregivers like parents and teachers can help them to develop more emotional and positive ways of dealing with, and relating to, other people. Curing psychopathy may not be a possibility, but shaping the kind of psychopath a child could become, into one which avoids crime and manages to function well within society, could be a reality!

The psychopath population as a whole can be misread, misdiagnosed, minimised, or explained away in light of the fewer violent and criminal individuals’ actions. In actuality, many people deemed psychopaths or having psychopathic tendencies can be normal and great members of society, in nearly any occupation, and with families and friends. For now, we need to continue to try and understand the psychopathic mind, and its tells. But, we also need to use the great resources that we already have, in the way they were intended. The PCL-R should be made more aware of globally, and used in a more standardised and useful form across criminal and mental facilities, and not for the political agenda of supporting death penalty claims across the Atlantic, or for detaining non-criminal psychopaths here in the UK, which it seems to have been previously!


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Babiak et al. (2012). Psychopathy. An Important Forensic Concept for the 21st Century. LEB Article. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Available at: (Accessed on 14/12/2017).

Hercz, R. (2001). Psychopaths among us. Available at: (Accessed on 15/12/2017).

Jalava, J., Griffiths, S. and Maraun, M. (2015). The Myth of the Born Criminal: Pschopathy, Neurobiology, and the Creation of the Modern Degenerate. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pitchford, I. (2001). The Origins of Violence: Is Psychopathy an Adaptation? The Human Nature Review, Vol. 1 (28-36). Available at: (Accessed on 13/12/17).

Tillier, W.D. (2012). Review of Psychopathy. Available at: (Accessed on 13/12/17).




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