Psychopathy: Is It In You?

By Kevin Brandenberg & J.P. Malette

When one considers crime and its relationship to society, psychopathic behavior remains one of the most mysterious and intriguing conditions of the human mind. Psychopathy describes individuals who, put simply, don’t have a conscience and thus commit actions, often times illegal, without any moral consideration.

Gatorade, the popular sports drink, uses its slogan “Is it in you?” to describe the competitive drive in athletes, which is presumably enhanced by drinking their product. Just like the Gatorade slogan suggests about athletes, is pyschopathy a condition simply found in some and not in others? Or are there other factors that go into this serious mental condition? This post will explore the mental condition behind psychopathic behavior, how it differs from the normal human condition, and how it relates to the treatment of crime in society.

Psychopathy: What Is It?

While not always associated with crime, psychopathic behavior often comes up as a reason for and a cause of both small and horrendous crimes. A recent review indicates psychopathy is an accurate indicator of a person’s susceptibility to criminal behavior and violence.

“Although psychopaths make up only 4% of the total population, they represent about 50% of serial rapists, as well as a significant proportion of persistent wife batterers. Overall, psychopaths are twice as likely to reoffend as other criminals, and three times as likely to commit violent acts again after being convicted.” (Copley 2008)

Psychopathic behavior also involves someone who in a sense has no conscience. These individuals do not feel any remorse or take moral considerations into their actions, whether violent or non-violent. Thus the sense of guilt or internal punishment that normal people experience on a daily basis is important to dealing with and understanding psychopathic behavior in society.

Guilty Conscience

Guilt is a feeling that most people will experience as an emotional reaction to committing some action which our conscience or culture has told us is wrong. From pick pocketing a candy bar in a grocery store to murdering another individual, guilt creeps into our conscience after committing such an act. This common human emotion can be termed as internal punishment. In the case of small thefts or major crime, this sense of internal punishment can often be more damaging to an individual than any physical punishment. Internal punishment and its effects can be an important link to understanding the relationship between crime and society.

While the feeling of guilt is normal for most, it may not be the same for everyone. Based on our background, moral upbringing, or political and religious views, some people experience a different or heightened sense of guilt. Take one’s childhood. When you were little you probably didn’t know not to beat up your brother, break things that weren’t yours, or steal things from others or maybe even a small grocery store. Yet whenever you did these actions, someone, usually one of your parents, was there to scold you and tell you not to do it again. As a child grows up, this often is the background for his or her moral conscience. In this way the society or environment one lives in helps shape his or her choices, and hopefully in the long run helps prevent crime.

Likewise with punishment, societal expectations often guilt people into admitting their mistakes or show them how to be remorseful and shameful. Without feeling proper internal punishment or remorse, criminals will often not be accepted back into society. In almost any prison one of the main criteria for prisoners to be released on parole is if they can show they are remorseful for what they did.

One good example is the recent scandal surrounding Tiger Woods. While not criminal, the public discovery of his actions has forced him to be remorseful and apologetic to the public. Whether you believe him or not, societal norms tell us that he will be more easily accepted back into good public opinion if he appears shamed at what he did.

Mind of a Killer?

All of this relates back to the problem of individuals who do not experience any regret for what they did, or take little account of morality when carrying out actions. Normal social practices do not shape their mindsets because of this mental condition of psychopathy. So, why don’t certain people feel this guilt or experience their own internal punishment? And how can society prevent crime from occurring or punish such crimes when dealing with psychopathic behavior?

These questions are not easily answered, but are especially important since a significant part of most societal approaches to deterring crime and dolling out punishment rely on ideas about guilt, confession and public shame. However, not all psychopaths are necessarily violent. Rather, psychopathy appears to be a mental disorder characterized by an unusual lack of moral feeling and usually amoral actions. Studies have shown that psychopathic individuals have a large capacity to act like normal people and fit into society. The same article by Jennifer Copley on personality disorders indicates that “Only 20-25% of those in prison are psychopaths.” This supports the theory that many people who exhibit psychopathic behavior are not hardened criminals, cold-stone killers, or some sort of amoral deviants – despite popular depictions.

Yet the fact that psychopaths can fit in with society contrasts with other mental disorders, which often hinder people from fitting into common society, and makes the psychopathic condition unique. An experiment by Professor Declan Murphy elaborates on one theory about the condition, that psychopaths show different responses in their brains to emotional pictures than normal people. He and his colleagues showed six psychopaths and nine healthy volunteers pictures of faces showing different emotions. When they were showed happy faces, the psychopaths experienced slightly smaller brain activity than the normal people. On the other hand, when showed fearful faces, “the healthy volunteers showed increased activation and the psychopaths decreased activation in these brain regions.” (BBC 2006) This further suggests that psychopaths lack empathy or conscience, and thus can fit in with society yet also use people like objects, manipulate people, commit violent crime, and feel no guilt or remorse.

Ask the Expert

One of the leaders in the field of criminal psychology is Robert Hare, a 71-year old professor at the University of British Columbia. Hare was one of the leaders in suggesting that psychopathy relates to brain activity in a study he published in 1991. In an article from the Canadian Encyclopedia, Hare indicates that the term psychopath is often misused in the media.

The article uses the famous movie Silence of the Lambs as a comparison by saying, “In the film Silence of the Lambs…a prison psychiatrist calls serial killer Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter a ‘pure psychopath.’ In fact, experts like Hare say that Lecter does not really qualify as a psychopath at all. ‘He’s just insane,’ deadpans the professor.”

This might be just one example from the media, but many movies or stories about psychopathic behavior aren’t necessarily completely factual. Often psychopaths are portrayed as psychotic serial killers or delusional criminals, when in fact they are more prone to be average people who simply don’t feel empathy and are screwed up emotionally.

Hare gave an interesting talk in 2002 about psychopathy and who it affects. Yet unlike normally suggesting that this condition was related to typical serious criminals, Hare suggested that major businessmen and CEO’s may be psychopaths. While this seems radical, Hare supports this claim in view of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, and the actual definition of a psychopath.


Another facet of the psychopathic condition that has been studied is its relation to compulsive and obsessive behavior. Studies show that psychopaths often commit crime or manipulate others because they feel they can dominate others or use others for their own personal gain. Often this feeling can be predicated by a sense of compulsion. At times, psychopathic behavior can be part of a game to manipulate others. Psychopaths also seek out crime or violent actions simply to get a thrill, which can be heightened because they do not experience any moral guilt or hesitation toward these actions. In a sense, crime for them can be looked at as continually trying to find new ways to manipulate or deceive others and get away with it.

Obsessive behavior also factors into this idea of compulsion. Although not quite synonymous, obsession can result from compulsive behavior. This also applies to psychopathic behavior. The compulsive nature of psychopaths leads them to obsess over committing certain types of crime. One example of this is found in an article examining the relationship between psychopathy and stalking. This research suggests that psychopathic traits are associated with stalkers and what the article calls “stalking risk factors.” The article says, “people with psychopathic traits tended to show escalation in the frequency, severity and/or diversity of their stalking, [and] they were noticeably unrepentant regarding their actions”

Psychopathic Solution?

In conclusion, psychopathy is a condition that may only affect from 1 or 4% percent of the population depending on the research. The main characteristics of this disorder are lack of empathy or conscience, no feelings of remorse or guilt after committing crime, and a general view of others as objects that can be manipulated or used.

So why has so much research and concern been put into understanding the condition and how to treat it? This is likely due to the assumed connection between serious crime and this disorder, as well as the fear that psychopaths might be living among us even as they excel at fitting in.

A final question remains: can psychopathic behavior be treated? A recent article puts it simply, “According to the psychiatrists, No. Shock treatment doesn’t work; drugs have not proven successful in treatment; and psychotherapy, which involves trust and a relationship with the therapist, is out of the question, because psychopaths are incapable of opening up to others. They don’t want to change.” One thing is certain – more research on the problem and how to deal with it is urgently needed.

In the meantime, both individuals and society are left with that Gatorade question: Is psychopathy in you?

12 thoughts on “Psychopathy: Is It In You?

  1. I can drink alcohol without being an alcoholic. Others gamble without being gambling addicts. One can engage in a behavior of any kind without being incapable of NOT engaging in it. It doesn’t seem surprising to me in that way of viewing it …

    Also, can we please confront the fact that the examples of “psychopathic behavior” are the victimization of women (rape, stalking, wife-beating) and that they are typically carried out by men? Someplace? Can we just acknowledge that? All of these discussions of what marks the behavior and what causes it, and we’re tiptoeing around the most basic thing: it is something that causes men to murder women, to the point where the deviations from this are in single percentages or fractions thereof.

    I just have grown tired of the polite sanitized language that talks about “a general view of others” and “yet also use people like objects.” No, it’s not “others” and “people.” It’s goddamned women. Women. Say it. I just want someone someplace to stop sweeping it under the rug — because as unattractive and risky as it is to Turn This Into Something Political, that’s what the damn problem really is. So we get dainty and vague because we don’t want to solve the problem badly enough to actually name it.

    1. Do be careful. Psychopaths, by their nature, know how to exploit these kind of cultural biases. Not being people they way I reckon things, they do know how to live amongst us and prey upon us leveraging the very kind of assumptions you are making.

      I wish I could tell you about my own experiences coming too close to one of these predators, myself, but I neither have the time to tell the story, nor the patience to defend it against your gender based biases.

      Psychopathy is an equal opportunity condition and until we have a way to properly identify and (preferably) euthanize them, we are stuck with them.

      Don’t make their subterfuge easier with broad assumptions based on measures like how many get caught. for the most part, they don’t get caught, hardly ever. Only the stupid ones get caught. The rest of them go on gleefully screwing people over, taking pleasure in the self important perception that they are superior to us. They even have a cute nickname for us. We are referred to as “empaths,” and they consider us more or less the equivalent of livestock. Livestock they manipulate emotionally and socially.

      If you pay attention, you’ll know when you have been victimized by a psychopath. They will rarely miss an opportunity to let you see that what they have done to you was deliberate and planned, often gloating at you in the presence of the very people they have turned against you.

      I’ve heard it estimated that as many as one percent of people are psychopaths. In all likelihood, you deal with more than one on a regular basis.

  2. @Janis

    of course there are no female psychopaths. we have all forgotten about people like eileen wournos(US, multiple homicides, no remorse) and that is only one name. in your post i feel a lot of frustration and it might be you are a woman being beaten in the past. please keep your replies clean to the subject. psychopathy is NOT something that only can happen to a male person. in fact not all manipulative bastards are psychopaths and neither are all wife beating individuals.

    1. I agree. Another female psychopath was Dianne Downs. And there have been others. A few female psychopaths are mentioned in Dr Hare’s book ‘Without Conscience’.

      Also, women aren’t the only victims of male psychopaths. Other men can also be victims.

  3. @Ad:

    There simply are far far more male psychopaths and criminals than there are female. Who fills the prisons of America? It is men, by an enormous margin. The presence of 1 famous female criminal/psychopath proves the point: there are so few of them, Eileen Wourmos is cited by everyone.

    1. So false, There are less women because the MEN getting abused, lied to, cheated on, hit, threatened and mind warped DON”T report. and if they do they are blamed. I lived with an obvioius psychopath and se quickly moved in with another man after i called the police and quickly did the same to this poor sap. He too called the police and HE too was blamed. how many men will it take before she is found to the common denominator? society views women as harmless and victims thus it goes undetected. One way for men to see if the woman he is with is a psychopath is this question..would she be in jail if she were a man? double standards!!

  4. I believe that no one can limits human behavior, emotions and sociability in statistical boxes.. Furthermore, personality is something really complex to test it with some kind of scientific tools. However, categories such “psychopathic” could in particular situations help the therapist to do his job, I m not sure that they could (or should) help the one who suffers.

    OkK, you talk about someone and you say that he is a psychopath, means that you already have “locate” moments of his lifetime you have classified them as “indicators”, worst, these are his symptoms, you look at his past to find the social events of his problem to be your evidece and you did it.. it fits, “psychopathic”. This is what western psychiatry does.

    In such approaches, the individual is just, absent.

  5. I am a clinical “psychopath” or “anti-social” as they call it now. Your posts are funny, women get taken advantage of the most because they are easy and most men are not. There are women “psychopaths” they just show it in different ways then men.

    I for one have not killed someone yet, but i have been arrested. I did struggle to fit in everyday life, but I have learned to fake it. I feel that the “psychopaths” that are not in jail or the military live their whole life faking feelings. Kind of like trying to stay alive.

    When I was young I fit the classic “psychopath” description, but now that I’m older and have a masters in psychology I think there is more than one type of a “psychopath”. This could be classified as more than one other mental disorder, such as schizophrenia and Narcissistic personality disorder.

    I’m not the devil in a human suit waiting to beat, rape, or even take advantage of women. I’m the guy with a mental disorder that uses his head to make decisions, not his feelings. Besides if you are backing this than you are also backing the theory that you secretly want to have sex with your mom or dad. Think about it.

  6. Reblogged this on Ba'slan shev'la – A Strategic Disappearance and commented:
    I might have to give this some consideration alongside Kevin Dutton & Andy McNab’s work, and maybe the New Yorker article (Suffering Souls) linked in the post, which does a little cross-cultural bit on psychopathy among the Yupik Inuit (apparently the word is kunlangeta, for “a man who repeatedly lies, cheats, steals, and takes sexual advantage of women”). Soon. After thinking about it some more. In the meantime, here’s the original post and I have to wonder what on earth Greg Downey himself (one of the originators of this blog, and also my anthropological hero for studying Capoeira) would make of psychopathy across cultures?

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