Psychopaths are everywhere. No really, they’re all over the place — on TV, in our favorite movies, in the office, or next to you on the subway.
As many as 5 percent of people may possess psychopathic tendencies, but before you freak out over the possibility of Hannibal Lecter-like predators lurking around every corner, take a second to learn what it actually means to be psychopathic.
Psychopathy is perhaps the most dramatized and talked about mental condition in the entertainment industry and media, and its definition has been twisted and manipulated along the way. So the facts may surprise you.
Psychopathy Is Not A Psychiatric Diagnosis
Though the term psychopath is often thrown around in criminal justice settings and hypothesizing media, psychopathy is not a recognized psychiatric or psychological disorder. Psychopathy as a term has been inconsistently used in the medical community for years, but is now recognized as either a subcategory or extension of antisocial personality disorder. Critics have argued both for and against the idea that antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy are synonymous, but there has yet to be a concrete decision on the issue.
The hallmarks of what’s typically seen as a psychopath include a lack of empathy and feeling for others, selfishness, lack of guilt, and a superficial charm that manifests exclusively to manipulate others.
Psychopathy Is Dimensional In Nature
Psychopathy, contrary to popular belief, does not occur in a binary way. It’s tempting to see psychopathy as black and white, but research has suggested that the condition occurs on a spectrum, not unlike autism. Therefore it’s possible to have minor psychopathic tendencies, or even more moderate or severe characteristics.
Some psychopaths may possess certain characteristics of the condition, but not all, and even among severe psychopaths, some manifestations of the “disorder” may be missing. Since psychopathy isn’t a recognizable disorder, there is no brain imaging or biological test that can inarguably identify a person as a psychopath.
The most commonly used device for identifying psychopaths is the psychopathy checklist-revised (PCL-R), a 20-item inventory of personality traits and recorded behaviors. Developed by Robert D. Hare in the 1970s, the checklist is administered in a semi-structured interview format, and operates on a point system based on whether a behavior (pathological lying, for example) can be reasonably matched to the subject. The subject is assigned a score between 0 and 40, with 40 being the maximum psychopathy and 0 the minimum.
The cutoff for being labeled as a psychopath is 30 in the United States and 25 in the UK.
Psychopaths and Sociopaths Aren’t The Same
Some media outlets or older educational materials may refer to psychopathy and sociopathy interchangeably, but the most recent research says this isn’t accurate. Though both conditions are associated with a poor sense of “right and wrong” and a lack of empathy, there are a few key differences between them.
According to Dr. L. Michael Tompkins, a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center, the difference lies in having a conscience. A psychopath simply doesn’t have one, he told WebMD. They will steal from you without feeling a twinge of guilt — though they may pretend to if they’re caught, so they aren’t “found out.” A sociopath, on the other hand, will understand that taking your money is wrong and may feel remorse, but it won’t be enough to stop their deviant behavior. A psychopath has less regard for others than a sociopath.
Another difference between the two lies in the psychopath’s incredible ability to blend in. They can come off as charming, intelligent, and may even mimic emotions they really don’t feel. “They’re skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain,” Tompkins said. Sociopaths are more likely to come off as “hot-headed,” and may act more impulsively, demonstrating to others their lack of normal empathy.
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