Psychopaths Essay


Psychopathy is a problem for society as a whole, seeing that it could easily lead individuals that are suffering from this personality disorder to violent and criminal acts. The bases of psychopathy are known to be biological, sociological, and psychological. Whereas amygdala dysfunction is thought to be responsible for psychopathy, an individual’s frustration with his low socioeconomic status may also lead him to commit acts of crime revealing psychopathic features in the process. Psychologists believe that low IQ may similarly be responsible for psychopathic behavior. Additionally, they have extensively studied personality traits, such as those on the Big Five personality dimensions, to understand psychopathic traits in particular. Apart from the above, this research paper discusses therapeutic interventions with respect to psychopathy.

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In children as well as adults, psychopathy is defined on the basis of three dimensions: (1) an interpersonal style that is arrogant and dishonest, and includes slickness or phony charm, narcissism or delusion of grandeur, deception and manipulation; (2) problems with affective experience revealed through failure to repent, a shallow conscience, lack of empathy, and the failure to shoulder responsibility for one’s mistakes; and (3) a behavioral style that is irresponsible as well as reckless, and includes boredom, thrill-seeking, short-sightedness in goal setting, laziness, and rashness (Salekin et al., 2005). No wonder, psychopathy is rigorously investigated with reference to criminal behavior. Psychologists are also very interested in learning about the roots of psychopathy in children. These studies are based on the premise that it is impossible to try to solve a problem without a thorough understanding of its roots.In the next section of this paper, five articles on psychopathy will be reviewed. One of the articles discusses the biological roots of the problem, whereas the remaining four examine psychopathy with a special reference to children and adolescents.

Psychopathy in Literature

Blair (2001) explains that the roots of psychopathy may very well lie in amygdala dysfunction. The amygdala is related to the emotional response, in particular, the flight or fight response to threats. With impairment in this essential area of the human brain, the individual is unable to make appropriate emotional responses to threats. The emotional dysfunction in the person suffering from psychopathy is enough to serve as evidence that the parts of the brain connected with emotions are impaired in the case of those suffering from psychopathy.

Moreover, the author connects conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder with psychopathy to describe that there are similarities between the problems. Adding to our previous definition of psychopathy, he states that those who are suffering from this particular disorder reveal “emotional shallowness” in addition to antisocial behaviors that are often marked by aggression and the taking of offence (Blair). Unsurprisingly, antisocial behavior is often related to the Intelligence Quotient as well as the socioeconomic status of the person who engages in it. Thus, psychopathy may similarly be connected with the IQ’s and the socioeconomic statuses of those who are suffering from it. In particular, those who are less intelligent and who also suffer from lacks due to their low socioeconomic status may express their emotional frustrations through antisocial behavior, thereby getting very close to the definition of psychopathy (Blair).

Rutter (2005) argues that although antisocial behavior is not exactly the same as psychopathy, the importance of investigating the latter lies in the evidence that those who are classified as “psychopathic offenders” tend to begin their “criminal careers” at an early age. Besides, these individuals are more likely to be classified as “persistent offenders” than those who do not display features of psychopathy (Rutter). Psychopathic offenders or criminals are often said to be violent individuals who resist therapeutic intervention. The author also mentions new instruments that have been developed to measure the traits of psychopathy in children as well as adults. These instruments include the “Antisocial Process Screening Device (Rutter).”

Also according to Rutter, child psychiatrists and child psychologists have shown reluctance in diagnosing psychopathy in children and adolescents, based on the belief that diagnosis might inevitably lead the young individuals to bad outcomes in the days to come. On the other hand, it is thought that adults who are suffering from the personality disorderunderstood as psychopathy may have had the problem traits even in childhood. Hence, it is also believed to be easier to start therapeutic programs in childhood so as to help the young in avoiding bad outcomes in the future (Rutter).

Salekin & Frick (2005) state that young individuals with psychopathic characteristics may be suffering from a particular set of cognitive as well as affective deficits. Knowledge of the “specific causal pathway” of psychopathy in children and adolescents could prove to be consequential in the design of “individualized interventions” for such youths (Salekin & Frick). After all, the most important reason why psychologists would like to understand more about psychopathic traits in youths is that these traits help to predict future sadistic, offensive and/or antisocial behavior. Psychologists are also aware that children with psychopathic traits exhibit the “highest rates of conduct problems, self-reported delinquency, and police contacts (Salekin & Frick).”

Salekin, Rogers, & Machin (2001) conducted a study on youths with psychopathic traits. This research was conducted through a survey that was sent out to more than five hundred clinical psychologists, asking them to describe psychopathic traits in youths, the gender differences between youths with psychopathic traits, and also the kinds of interventions that the psychologists had used with such youths. The results of the study revealed that children with psychopathic features tend to share these features with adults that are also suffering from psychopathy. The mean age of the youngster with psychopathic traits is a little over fourteen years. The average youth with psychopathic features has an 8th grade level education. Furthermore, there are more boys than girls showing psychopathic traits. Although the boys with psychopathic characteristics are more aggressive, and often violent; the girls with psychopathic

features tend to be less aggressive. Such girls reveal their psychopathic traits through antisocial behavior as well as hostility (Salekin, Rogers, & Machin).
The study further revealed the prevailing belief of clinical psychologists that it is quite difficult for them to treat psychopathy. Therapeutic interventions are also believed to work more effectively for youths as compared to adults. This is because the personality of children is often thought to be more fluid than the personality of adults. Hence, clinical psychologists reported that they had seen “moderate-to-marked gains” of psychotherapy in the children and adolescents treated for psychopathy (Salekin, Rogers, & Machin). Girls in general were seen to benefit more from psychotherapy than boys. Clinical psychologists found a marked reduction in violence, delinquency, in addition to verbal aggression, even after one year of psychotherapeutic treatment for children and adolescents suffering from psychopathy. Even so, the psychologists reported that antisocial behaviors are sometimes hidden in the natures of the youths and “outside the purview of psychotherapists (Salekin, Rogers, & Machin).” Hence, this study called for further research to augment psychologists’ understanding of therapeutic treatment for youths with psychopathic features.

Farrington (2005) points out that even though psychotherapeutic treatment for psychopathy should begin early, and should be extensive, there are various problems that make therapeutic intervention difficult. First, psychopathy is rather persistent throughout the lifetime of the individual suffering from it, and so, even though clinical psychologists have observed improvements in youths with psychopathic features following therapeutic intervention, the problem traits of such youths may not entirely go away. Second, psychopathy is also believed to have a biological cause, i.e. amygdala dysfunction, and biological causes cannot be reversed

through psychological interventions. Furthermore, psychopaths are manipulative individuals who are usually able to lie to and deceive psychotherapists so as to become “treatment-resistant (Farrington).”
Farrington also mentions the Big Five personality dimensions that psychologists have often used in an attempt to understand the problem traits of individuals suffering from psychopathy, before they can devise better therapeutic models to help them. The five personality dimensions are: “Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness (Farrington).” Out of these five dimensions, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism are most relevant to studies on psychopathy. The author describes how individuals with psychopathic characteristics are expected to fare on the Big Five personality dimensions: Agreeableness includes forthrightness (while dishonesty lies at the negative end), altruism opposes manipulation, modesty opposes self-centeredness, and a sense of caring opposes recklessness; conscientiousness includes a sense of responsibility (while low reliability lies at the negative end), striving for achievement opposes aimlessness, disciplining of self opposes excitement seeking, and thoughtfulness opposes carelessness; neuroticism includes hastiness and aggressive hostility even though it may include self-consciousness as well (while slickness and low remorse lie at the negative end) and susceptibility (with a sense of fearlessness lies at the negative end) (Farrington).


Indeed, with a better understanding of the personality traits of individuals suffering from psychopathy – a problem with biological, sociological, and psychological roots – psychologists are in a better position to help them. Yet, it is bad news for therapists that psychopathy may have a biological cause that they would not be able to work their way around. Moreover, psychopaths are often able to escape treatment by conning and lying during psychotherapeutic interventions. Nevertheless, even the knowledge that psychopaths are able to do this is essential in devising new treatments for them.

The present literature review has revealed the importance of understanding psychopathy especially in children and adolescents. Psychologists believe that early intervention is crucial in psychopathy, and youths that are suffering from this personality disorder should be extensively treated. This is because personalities are understood to be more fluid in youth. By helping children and adolescents to change their problem traits, psychologists may be able to save them from negative outcomes in the future. All the same, psychologists have reported that the problem traits of children and adolescents with psychopathic features may never go away entirely. Children and adolescents with psychopathic traits could easily turn out to be criminals in future. Hence, it is crucial to understand the problem of psychopathy now before better treatments may be developed for the problem in question.


  • Blair, R. J. R. (2001, Dec). Neurocognitive models of aggression, the antisocial personality disorders, and psychopathy. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
  • Farrington, David P. (2005, Aug). The importance of child and adolescent psychopathy.
  • Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Retrieved Jan 29, 2007
  • Rutter, Michael. (2005, Aug). Commentary: what is the meaning and utility of the psychopathy concept? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.
  • Salekin, R. T., & Frick, P. J. (2005, Aug). Psychopathy in children and adolescents: the need for a developmental perspective. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 

Psychopathy is a disorder which frequently results in anti-social and violent behaviour due to the fact that they cannot feel guilt, remorse or empathy. Psychopaths make up around 1% of the general population but, in correctional facilities worldwide such as prisons and juvenile detention centres, it has been estimated that around 30% are psychopaths. The figure is slightly lower in the UK at an estimated 23% but this is still a significantly larger amount than in the general population. In addition to this, around about 3-5% of all CEO’s and heads of companies are psychopaths.
Donald Lynam once said ‘The question is not ‘Why do people do bad things’? it’s ‘Why don’t more people do bad things”?. The answer for this question lies in psychopathy and their lack of empathy. Many people have inhibitors; things that we worry about like hurting others or being caught. Psychopaths, because they cannot feel the emotions required for this, often exhibit bad behaviour despite what others think and the consequences that happen as a result of it.
There is an extensive debate about whether or not the most important factor in what makes a psychopath is either the person’s genetics or the environmental factors that they have been subjected to. Despite there being a considerably larger amount of evidence for genetic factors for this argument, this does not mean that it is the main factor since it is much more difficult to collect data for environmental influences on psychopathy and the brain compared to genetic factors. It is widely believed in the field of psychology that many psychopaths are primarily a product of genetics, with only a small environmental influence, however . Notwithstanding being a ‘born psychopath’, many can live a relative normal life and ‘overcome’ psychopathy, with the right upbringing in a good environment at a young age due to the capability of neuroplasticity in an adolescent’s brain. The fact that many psychopaths had a history of abuse in their childhood is also most likely the result of genetic influences and an unfortunate environment to be brought up in, the source states.
The source presents a case study of Michael, a 9 year old boy, who exhibits signs of extreme psychopathy such as high scoring on tests that measure lack of guilt and empathy, leading the source to discuss whether or not you can diagnose children as young as Michael, or even younger, as psychopathic(You may note that it will be easier to diagnose someone as psychopathic if psychopathy is proved to be genetic rather than environmental because, while a person’s personality can be easily changed by environmental influences, one’s brain is not so easily changed). On the other hand, it has been said that it is possible to re-wire psychopaths brains under the right environmental and neurological conditions, despite viewing psychopathy as a result of genetics along with environmental influences . Also, in the New York Times article, a review of a group of children with both psychopath disorder/ Callous Unemotional traits (CU) and ADHD was conducted. While both groups showed similarities to the others, the subjects with CU and psychopathic traits were often less impulsive than those with ADHD. Moreover, those with ADHD were much worse than the others at following rules and using them to their advantage, compared to the C.U children; the children with psychopathic traits are not always violent to get what they want, they simply use the most effective method. This is especially present in teen years and young adulthood as they are well-accomplished, manipulative liars, which often helps them plan their reactions well, psychopaths tend to react unreasonably and take offence much more easily than ‘non-psychopaths’. Waschbusch also concludes that these C.U. children tend to lack empathy, shame and guilt. Also in this source, Laurence Steinberg explicitly suggests how dangerous it could possibly be to brand a child or teen as psychopathic due to the fact that it may only be their brains developing and changing. He views this as dangerous because psychopathy is widely viewed as being medically untreatable, often leading to the parent of the child along with the child themselves having a lowered quality of life and potentially being looked down upon by society. Children often exhibit bad behaviour because they are psychopathic/C.U. due to the fact that they do not worry about how their actions will affect other people and their repercussions, only how their actions affect them.
Also, The Special Research Project of the Quantum Future School discusses how psychopaths could quite easily change their behaviour and exhibit, what non-psychopaths would view as, normal behaviour. However, they say that psychopaths do not ‘recognise any flaw in their psyche.’ And therefore psychopaths do not see any reason to change their behaviour. A BBC case study also noted that psychopaths had the capability of changing their behaviour, and also showing empathy. They call this an ’empathy switch’ which psychopaths can turn on or off at any time but it is set to ‘off’ by default. The case study that the BBC conducted included non-psychopaths and psychopaths viewing images of a hand that was neutral along with images of hands in pain. Naturally, the non-psychopathic individuals had a strong reaction to these images but the psychopaths seemed to have minimal reaction at all compared along with their reaction to viewing any image of someone in no pain, in which there was no change in brain activity. However, when the psychopathic individuals were told to imagine how those experiencing the pain felt, the psychopaths experienced an increase in neural activity in the right amygdala and the anterior insula (the parts of the brain that feel empathy.) this seems to prove their hypothesis as psychopaths, ‘under free viewing conditions, don’t empathise; Just because they can [it] doesn’t mean they will. Interestingly, in a similar study, some of these results were present but there was also increased brain activity in the ventral striatum, which is the part of the brain which is responsible for feelings of pleasure. So this shows how psychopaths have the ability empathise with those in pain, however, they also gain feelings of pleasure from viewing the presented stimuli. Also, in 2011, the BBC produced a report on Brian Dugan, a psychopath who murdered and raped a 7 year old girl. The fact that Brian Dugan ‘showed no remorse, guilt or shame for any of his crimes’ is yet another reason which could prove the hypothesis of the ’empathy switch’. Dr. Kent Kiehl, PhD in psychology at the University of British Colombia and neuroscientist at the New Mexico University, comments on how Dugan’s behaviour towards his crimes his ‘clinically fascinating’. Dr. Kiehl also notes that, ‘talking to Dugan about his crimes is like asking him what he had for breakfast’. This shows that Brian Dugan has no guilt about what he has done, does not care about the consequences and cannot understand the harm that he may have done.
Another similar study which tells the psychopathic individuals to try and feel the pain that the subject may be going through finds interesting results in the fact that when they are told to imagine the pain on themselves, they have a high response to the pain in the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. However, when told to imagine the pain on someone else, they had minimal or no reaction in these areas of the brain. Moreover, the psychopaths, when told to imagine the pain on others had an increase in brain activity in the ventral striatum, the part of the brain associated with pleasure. The results of this study and the BBCs study seem conclusive that psychopaths cannot feel empathy towards others in pain, only to themselves. The source also suggests how, the fact that psychopaths do actually have the capability to feel empathy, could aid cognitive-behaviour therapies because ‘Imagining oneself in pain or in distress may trigger a stronger affective reaction than imagining what another person would feel’. On the other hand, a study conducted by ‘Greater good’ presents the view that psychopaths can empathise with pain well as they often use it to use their victim; ‘Greater Good’ says that psychopaths do not have any emotional empathy and can only be empathetic to pain.
Good Therapy conducted a study of 2,604 twins, all 17 years old in order to determine how intrapersonal, genetic and environmental factors impact the development of psychopathy. The study mainly focused on the environmental and intrapersonal factors in the development of psychopathy. They found that, overall, the male subjects showed significantly more psychopathic traits than the females; the males scored highly on antisocial peers, mother-child relationship problems, and school and legal problems. The source also presents the idea that disruption in parent-child relationship often leads to undesirable characteristics such as academic failure, peer rejection, drug use and delinquency.
Evidence for a strong genetic link to psychopathy and Callous-Unemotional traits comes from a study made by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, which looks at two groups of 3,687 seven year old British twins both identical and fraternal. In same-sex identical twins, extreme CU traits were considerably higher than in fraternal twins, evidence for a stronger genetic link. On the other hand, those who did not score highly on extreme CU traits but did on traits linked to ASPD and personality disorders seemed to have a higher environmental influence compared to those with psychopathic and CU traits. The source also notes how Callous-unemotional traits are most reliably assessed between the age of 4 and early teens. This may be because the plasticity of the brain is lowered during these years and behaviour habits do not change as much as they do during the early childhood (before age 3). Also, the fact that there were a large amount of ‘psychopaths’ in the study of twins may have been skewed due to the fact that the difference between psychopathy and ASPD is incredibly hard to distinguish before the subject has reached adulthood.
Another source presents the idea that psychopaths do, in fact, ‘know right from wrong but don’t care’. As psychopaths have difficulty with emotional processing and inhibitory control, they cannot understand why ‘right and wrong’ exist and have difficulty understanding the concept of morals. The source also says that, even if they could understand why they exist, they would not care about them and have complete disregard for the consequences still. The source also supports the previous argument that psychopaths can feel empathy, when told to imagine it on them; when presented with a situation in which they were harmed they said it was less permissible if it happened to them compared to if the same situation happened to someone who they did not know.

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