Is Someone I Know a Psychopath?

Psychopaths are popular in the realm of American films like American Psycho, No Country for Old Men, and The Silence of the Lambs, to name just a few. According to a paper published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, researchers analyzed 400 of the most iconic psychopathic characters in film, judging how realistic or incredible each portrayal is. One thing can be said for certain: taking a look into the entertainment industry, many people have an interest in the topic of psychopaths. Then comes the question: is there anyone around me who is a psychopath?

It is estimated that 1% of the population is a psychopath. This may mean there is a fair chance that you walked past a psychopath today as you were going about your day. It may also mean that someone close to you can potentially be a one. Unlike in movies, many of which portray psychopaths as cool, intelligent killers, psychopaths within our society are difficult to spot. Psychopathy is a real mental disorder associated with lack of conscience and empathy. People with psychopathy may have amoral and antisocial disorders and may lack the ability to form meaningful relationships. The condition involves a lessened degree of physiological response, like sweat, when exposed to an emotional stimulus. This may contribute to their apparent lack of affect. Psychopathy is a spectrum disorder, which means it’s not an all or nothing condition -- we can all have a little psychopath in us. It is diagnosed with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which looks for traits such as sexual promiscuity and impulsivity.

The treatment of psychopathy has not been explored extensively. This may be due partly to inaccurate representation in media on the reality of psychopaths. There has been little clinical research of funding that go into psychopathy research, compared to other psychiatric disorders. Although psychopaths may be a small percentage of our community, they may have considerable impact within society, especially if they are in positions of political power or if they happen to be close loved ones. So far, treatment for psychopathy remain unfruitful, and conventional psychotherapy also seems ineffective. Although the neurobiological condition may not be treated, behaviors can be changed, so long as the individual with psychopathic symptoms is willing to do so. No drug so far can induce empathy in a person who does not have the capacity to care. We must understand that the brain of a psychopath is unlike that of our own, possibly linked to a stunted paralimbic system at birth.

At this point, it is near impossible to help an adult who is psychopathic. However, the field of child psychopathy seems to provide hope for young individuals with psychopathic symptoms, granted they receive early diagnosis and proper treatment. Researchers created a checklist with which to rate toddlers on behavioral traits that may indicate future psychopathy. These include lack of guilt after misbehaving, ineffectiveness of scolding, deceit, and lies. Studies show that children who score high on this scale tend to have greater behavioral problems as an older child. Currently, there is a treatment called “decompression treatment” that has been used on juveniles who had gotten in trouble with the law and had psychopathic symptoms. Only 10% of those who received this treatment were rearrested, compared to 70% in the no treatment group.

Though there is no 100% cure for psychopathy; however, if detected at birth, an individual’s psychopathic behavior, at the very least, may be reduced. This provides some hope for future treatment in this neurological and psychological disorder. Unlike how the media treats psychopaths, we must understand that they are humans, just like us, though their brains may be wired differently. Of course, society cannot excuse psychopathic behavior, particularly in the context of harming others. This is why it is important for not just advancements in the treatments of psychopathy, but in better public understanding of the condition.


Mary Yoshikawa