What Is a Psychopath? Do You Really Want to Know?
After articles claiming that workplace bosses or Wall Street tycoons are often psychopaths, people want to know, what is a psychopath? But the question is, is the term "psychopath" thrown around too much? Are there really psychopaths, like these famous psychopaths, roaming among us? What is a true psychopath?
"I have no desire whatsoever to reform myself. My only desire is to reform people who try to reform me, and I believe the only way to reform people is to kill them. My motto is: Rob 'em all, rape 'em all, and kill 'em all." – Carl Panzram, confessed to killing 22 people and claimed to be "rage personified."
What a Psychopath Isn't
According to the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy, the psychopathic personality (also known as psychopathy) is not equivalent to:
- Serial killing (psychopathic killer)
- Psychosis (the presence of delusions and hallucinations)
- Mental illness (psychopathology) in general
- Antisocial personality disorder
But rather, a psychopath has certain emotional features, interpersonal features and behaviors that come together to define a psychopath.
What a Psychopath Is
Typical emotional features of psychopathy include a lack of guilt, empathy and attachment to others. The interpersonal features of psychopathy include superficial charm and narcissism. Behaviors common in psychopaths are often reckless and include dishonest, manipulative and risk-taking acts. (more on psychopathic traits and characteristics of a psychopath) While many psychopaths are violent, a person doesn't have to be violent to be labelled a psychopath.
While the definition of a psychopath may be chilling, psychopaths can be found in all areas of life with those engaged in the criminal justice system being understood the best (due to increased study).
"We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow." – Ted Bundy, confessed to killing 40 people.
The best current estimates suggest that 1% of all noninstitutionalized (not in a psychiatric facility) males age 18 and over meet the definition of a psychopath. Additionally, 16% of all adult males that are in prison or jail, or are on parole or probation are also thought to be psychopaths. Therefore, approximately 93% of all male psychopaths have had some involvement with the criminal justice system. (There are few estimates for females due to lack of study.)
"I wished I could stop but I could not. I had no other thrill or happiness . . . I don't lose sleep over what I have done or have nightmares about it." – Dennis Nilsen, killed at least 15 people.
Treatment of Psychopaths
Most professionals believe that it's not possible to treat psychopaths. No treatment, including therapy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), psychosurgery or drug therapy has shown to change psychopaths. In fact, in a 1991 study, those incarcerated psychopaths who were treated in group therapy actually were more violent after being released than those who weren't.
However, there is some hope in the field of psychopathic treatment and that is in the treatment of young people with psychopathic traits. A new program called decompression treatment appears to reduce recidivism rates and institutionalized violence if it is applied for lengthy periods of time (up to, and even more than, one year) on youths with psychopathic traits.
Last Updated: 21 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD