Mental HealthScience

Psychopaths and You

In the simplest possible terms, a psychopath is someone who is pathologically selfish.

“Finally,” you might think “I have a legimate excuse to spend all my parents’ money on videogames and hard candy (is that what the kids like nowadays?)”.

But, read on.

Psychopathy, not to be confused with ‘psychosis’, or ‘psychoticism’ (because psychologists only have one prefix, and they’re going to STICK WITH IT, DAMMIT), is a personality disorder involving an almost complete deadening of emotion, and emotional regulation. True psychopaths are unable to feel significant empathy or remorse, find it difficult to understand the emotions of other on anything but the most basic level, and often feel only very shallow emotions themselves.

However, before we get too sinister, even though the disorder is associated with violence and aggressive conduct, being a psychopath does not necessarily mean someone is psychotic (ONE), and therefore dangerous.

The most common clinical method of assessing psychopathy is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, or H.P.C. (HUP-CHIK), created by Dr. Robert Hare.

The H.P.C. is a list of twenty traits that can be found in psycopathic individuals. These include callousness, being manipulative, delinquency, irresponsibility, parasitic behaviour, poor emotional control, and pathological lying (or do they?). Subjects are assessed with an interview, and then given a value of 0, 1, or 2 for each value, according to how closely their lifestyle appears to match each one. The test is supported by a good deal of clinical evidence, and is accepted by most psychopathy-studying professionals as the best test currently available.

However, this isn’t to say the H.P.C. is perfect. Due to the fact that many of the personality traits listed also occur in people with narcissistic personality disorder (formerly known as ‘megalomania’) and antisocial personality disorder, it has been criticised as encouraging the misdiagnosis of some individuals as psychopathic.

So why is this all important?

Well, the issue here isn’t necessarily what psychopaths are, but what they do. As I said before, the vast majority of them aren’t violent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a negative effect on the world around them.

In his book Snakes In Suits, Hare discusses the fact that psychopaths tend to be inordinately attracted to money, power, and notoriety. This often leads them to seek work within the corporate world.

You see how, in that environment, a complete lack of understanding and disregard for human beings apart yourself might be a problem? Yeah.

In Snakes in Suits, Hare describes how an affinity for interpersonal manipulation and a desire for power can allow psychopathic individuals to easily climb the ranks of powerful corporations, as well as other institutions with corporate-style structures, such as the world of politics.

The big question here is, how fair is it to blame someone for acting in an utterly callous, selfish, or damaging way, if it’s only the structure of their brain that leads them to do so? If someone suffers from a condition such as Paranoid Schizophrenia, and ends up killing someone (which is very rare, but does occasionally happen) we don’t ignore the fact that their mind was in an altered state.

Should we do the same for Psychopaths?

Let’s see if we can work it out in the comments.


For more information on the issues I talk about here, I thoroughly recommend Jon Ronson’s great book, The Psychopath Test.

Image courtesy of Voxphoto on Flickr.

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Alex Hoyle is a blogger, student, transvestite, and occasional stand-up comedian from Bristol, England. He can be found on Twitter as @alexdhoyle.


  1. June 15, 2012 at 8:50 pm —

    While I understand that a lot of these psychological (LOL prefix) problems are uncontrollable, I don’t think that people should be exempted from the consequences of their actions.

    My mother is bi-polar and has never been consistent with her medication. She goes through the cycle-take meds, feel better, stop taking meds, flip out, take meds again. She’s also a sociopath, and I’m sure that to some degree she can’t help herself from being abusive. However, I don’t think that she should continue to care for her other child without someone making sure that she’s taking medication. She COULD help it, she COULD prevent the nasty breakdowns, but simply refuses.

    If there is a solution, it should be taken. If a person with a psychological disorder harms another person, they should be responsible for their actions just like any healthy individual. Beat your kid, go to jail. Have a diagnosed problem? Take the medication to make yourself normal or suffer consequences, like having your kids put in a better home, or any number of others.

    • June 16, 2012 at 12:05 am —

      While I do think that ultimately everyone has to be held responsible for their actions, I think that mental illness really blurs the line. I’m not saying that mentally ill people who commit crimes or beat their children shouldn’t be punished, though. In my experience, especially with something like drug compliance, how much of it is the person willfully refusing, and how much it is a symptom of their illness is complicated.

      Mental illness is so incredibly hard on friends and family because you get taken along on the ups and downs. In my case, I know that many of the things that my brother does are due to his bi-polar disorder, but I also can’t be around him because he’s physically violent toward me. It’s something that I’m still trying to work out because I miss him so much, but as long as he remains off of his medication, I can’t be around him or maintain a relationship.

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