What image jumps to your mind when you hear the phrase psychopath? Is it that famous scene from the movie psycho…you know the one in the shower? Or perhaps it’s an image of the terrifying Hannibal Lecter from the silence of the Lambs.
For most people when they hear the term psychopath they think of someone who lacks any sort of human quality but is that accurate?
So what is it?
The term psychopath is a diagnosis used in psychology to describe a particular set of symptoms. The condition itself is actually called antisocial (or dissocial) personality disorder. Somebody afflicted with it will exhibit a lack of remorse, difficulties with empathy, superficial charm, unwillingness to accept responsibility, lack of behavioural control and impulsivity.
Here’s the thing about psychopaths. Many expect them to appear maniacal and twisted, but for the most part, they just come across like normal people. In some ways perhaps that just makes them more unsettling.
What are they like?
If you spend time with them on a ward you will see pretty common, everyday behaviours. Complaining about food, asking to be able to do fun activities. All very mundane and enough to make you wonder what the big deal is.
A psychopath isn’t the guy rocking back and forth mumbling to himself (or herself) in many ways they are far more sinister. They will appear totally normal. But there are serial rapists on psychiatric wards coming off as perfectly charming, gentle warm people. Conversely, they will happily tell you about their assaults and not feel any remorse. In many ways that is what makes them so chilling.
One such rapist started opening up to his therapist about the things that he had done. His therapist was becoming increasingly perturbed by the things that he was telling her. The sessions were cancelled when it became apparent that he wasn’t using the session in order to try and “heal himself”. He was cleverly mentally abusing the therapist. Just take a second to think about the level of intelligent manipulation that goes into that.
So what causes somebody to become a psychopath?
Although not all people with the condition go down a dark path like this. Some people just don’t have the ability to understand human emotions and feel alienated as a result. Often these people turn to drink or drugs to self-medicate.
However, for the majority of them not having to deal with feelings of guilt and remorse are liberating. They are able to follow through with interests that are entirely self-serving without caring about the influence on anyone else. This makes treating them very difficult. Often they don’t engage with treatments as from their perspective there is nothing wrong.
There is a lot of debate as to what causes somebody to develop these tendencies. It is clear that in the brains of people who suffer from psychopathy that there is a lack of activity in the part of the brain that handles remorse and guilt. There is evidence that suggests people are genetically predisposed to the condition but there are usually environmental factors at play as well.
Is it all bad?
In certain ways, the traits that come with the condition may actually give people a bit of an advantage over the rest of us. Each of us has it in us to be mildly psychopathic and it is that skill that allows us to cut ties with people that we deem to be unhealthy. Or to prioritise and put ourselves first.
In fact, these qualities can really aid people in certain professions. Consider an attorney who has to defend somebody when they know they are guilty. In order to effectively do their job, they have to distance themselves from that knowledge and may have to lie, convincingly to an entire courtroom.