08 December 2011

New Insights Into Psychopathy

Psychological research suggests that psychopathy is a personality disorder that is widely misunderstood. Pyscopaths are typically depicted as charming, intriguing, dishonest, guiltless, and in some cases, downright terrifying.

Jennifer Skeem, Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, Devon Polaschek of Victoria University of Wellington, Christopher Patrick of Florida State University, and Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University are the authors of a new monograph focused on understanding the psychopathic personality that will appear in the December issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Psychopathy tends to be used as a label for people we do not like, cannot understand, or construe as evil,” Skeem notes. “Psychopathy has long been assumed to be a single personality disorder. However, there is increasing evidence that it is a confluence of several different personality traits,”

They note that many scientific findings seemed to contradict one another.

Video: What is a psycopath: a classic explanation

Skeem, Patrick and Lilienfeld argue that psycopathy is a complex, multifaceted condition marked by blends of personality traits reflecting differing levels of disinhibition, boldness, and meanness rather than being "one thing" as often assumed. And scientific findings also suggest that a sizable subgroup of juvenile and adult offenders labeled as psychopathic are actually more emotionally disturbed than emotionally detached, showing signs of anxiety and dysphoria.

According to Skeem, these important distinctions have long escaped the attention of psychologists and policy-makers. They have set about to try and dispel some of the public myths and assumptions about psychopathy:

  • Psychopaths are born, and not made: The authors stress that psychopathy is not just a matter of genes, it may have multiple constitutional causes that can be shaped by environmental factors. 
  • Once a psychopath, always a psychopath: However, there is currently scant scientific evidence to support this claim. Recent empirical work suggests that youth and adults with high scores on measures of psychopathy can show reduced violent and other criminal behavior after intensive treatment.

Along with challenging the assumption that psychopathy is a monolithic entity, perhaps the other most important myth that the authors hope to dispel is that psychopathy is synonymous with violence. Skeem points out that psychopathic individuals often have no history of violent behaviour or criminal convictions. “Psychopathy cannot be equated with extreme violence or serial killing. In fact, “psychopaths” do not appear different in kind from other people, or inalterably dangerous,” she observes. Nor is it clear that psychopathy predicts violence much better than a past history of violent and other criminal behavior – or general antisocial traits.

Effectively dispelling these myths is important, the authors argue, because accurate policy recommendations hinge on which personality traits – and which groups of people – associated with psychopathy one is examining. “Decisions about juvenile and adult offenders that are based on faulty assumptions about violence risk, etiology, and treatment amenability have adverse consequences, both for individual offenders and the public,” Skeem says.

In clarifying the personality traits that characterize psychopathy, scientists can contribute to prevention and treatment strategies that improve public health and safety. “In short, research on psychopathy has evolved to a level that it can greatly improve on the current, ‘one size fits all’ policy approach,” concludes Skeem.

Related Links

One Day On Earth: Help Document the Worlds Story
The Tech of Storytelling
Digital Contact Lens for Heads Up Display and Augmented Reality
How Our Brains Keep Us Focused
Noisy Toys May Cause Hearing Damage
New Insights Into Psychopathy
Power of the Mind: Therapy for Parkinson's Disease
Kung Fu Pandas Set to Attack World of Warcraft
Noisy Toys May Cause Hearing Damage
Dream Sleep Relieves Stress from Emotional Pain