Psychopathy – facts and myths

Psychopathy – facts and myths

By Liz Lockhart

Earlier this year Mental Healthy wrote a news article on psychopathy which posed many questions - ‘Good or Evil? The Psychology and physiology of a psychopath.’  A recent scientific research study now shed even more light onto this condition.

Psychopaths are typically characterised in the media and the cinema as memorable personalities, to put it kindly.  One example of this would be Hannibal Lecter from The silence of the Lambs.

But now scientific research suggests that psychopathy is a much misunderstood disorder.

Dr. Jennifer Skeem, professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California, said ‘Psychopathy tends to be used as a label for people we do not like, cannot understand or construe as evil.’

Skeem and her colleagues ‘ study focuses on understanding the psychopathic personality.  Many experts believe that there is confusion on psychopathy as many previous findings contradict each other.

Skeem’s paper is published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

‘Psychopathy has long been assumed to be a single personality disorder.  However, there is increasing evidence that it is a confluence of several different personality traits,’ Skeem said.

Rather than being ‘one thing’ as often assumed, psychopathy seems to be a complex, multifaceted condition, the authors of this paper argue.  This is marked by blends of personality traits which reflect differing levels of boldness, lack of inhibition and meanness.

One previously discovered fact is that a large subgroup of juvenile and adult offenders have been labelled as psychopathic but are, in reality, more emotionally disturbed than emotionally detached and show signs of anxiety and dysphoria.

These important differences have escaped the attention of psychologists and policy-makers, according to Skeem.  Consequently, she and her colleagues set out to try to dispel some of the myths and assumptions that people often make about psychopathy.

The researchers stress that psychopathy is not just a matter of genes as it appears to have multiple constitutional causes that can be shaped by environmental factors, although many people assume that psychopaths are ‘born’ and not ‘made’.  Another myth is that psychopathy is unalterable, in other words ‘once a psychopath, always a psychopath.’  Researchers are of the opinion that there is minimal scientific evidence to support this claim.  Recent work suggests that psychopaths can show reduced violent and other criminal behaviour after intensive treatment.

The authors of this study seek to dispel the misconception that psychopathy is synonymous with violence.  Skeem says that psychopathic individuals often have no history of violent or criminal behaviour.

‘Psychopathy cannot be equated with extreme violence or serial killing.  In fact, psychopaths do not appear different in kind from other people, or unalterably dangerous,’ Skeem says.

The authors say that it is important to effectively dispel the myths that surround this condition, because accurate policy recommendations depend on which personality traits are associated with psychopathy.

‘Decisions about juvenile and adult offenders that are based on faulty assumptions about violence risk, etiology and treatment amenability have adverse consequences, both for individual offenders and the public,’ Skeem added.

It is believed by the researchers that a more accurate view of the personality traits that characterise psychopathy will aid prevention and treatment strategies and can improve public health and safety.

Skeem concluded ‘In short, research on psychopathy has evolved to a level that it can greatly improve on the current ‘one size fits all’ policy approach.’

Source: Association for Psychological Science


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