Uncovering the truth behind psychopathy
By Aidan Mouellic, Contributor
What sort of image comes to mind when you think of a psychopath? Chances are you conjure up images of serial killers with catchy nicknames or fictional characters like Dexter or Hannibal Lecter. We correlate psychopaths with coldness and gruesome violence. But with one per cent of the general population meeting the criteria to be classified as a psychopath, it comes as no surprise that not every crowd contains a bunch of calculating serial killers.
Psychopathy is one the most misunderstood psychological disorders—and is also of the most unique. Unlike other disorders of the mind, such as depression or schizophrenia, psychopathy does not cause considerable suffering to the afflicted individual—for the most part, they are happy with what they are. Most psychopaths who walk amongst us are not locked behind bars, but are walking in our midst, living without a conscience and with grand aspirations of wealth and dominance.
What is psychopathy?
Since I’ve told you that actual psychopaths are far from those generally depicted in pop culture, you may be wondering what a psychopath is. Some psychopaths are exactly how you might imagine them to be: cold-hearted, violent monsters—but the majority of psychopaths are not.
As with most mental disorders, to determine if someone can be classified as a psychopath, a test is given. The most common test is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), a tool developed by Vancouver-based psychologist Robert D. Hare. The checklist contains 20 personality traits that are linked with psychopathy and the results determine whether or not someone is a psychopath. The results of the PCL-R are not black or white. Someone can be mildly or majorly psychopathic, but they can also be not psychopathic at all. To be classified as a psychopath, you must score high in all areas of the checklist.
Some of the most critical areas on the checklist determine what a person’s personality is like. This is done by finding out how impulsive someone is, whether or not they have a grandiose sense of self-worth, if they have superficial charm, short-lived emotions, lack of remorse or empathy, are manipulative, and have a tendency to lie. The other part of the checklist forms a sort of personal history, seeing if the subject is prone to boredom, has a lack of realistic long-term goals, promiscuous sexual behaviour, poor behavioural control, as well as juvenile delinquency problems.
When you put all the pieces of the checklist together and someone can relate closely to each point, they are likely a psychopath. As for the notion that a psychopath is someone who is handy with a chainsaw and creatively kills people in the most absurd ways possible, they are the minority.
New Westminster and Coquitlam both have a rich history in dealing with psychopathy. While it’s not something worth adding to a town’s welcome sign, it’s worth being proud of.
In 1924, the Acute Psychopathic Unit opened up at the Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam. Later renamed to Centre Lawn, the unit housed many patients deemed to be psychopaths, though the facility was mostly used to assess new patients and then distribute them to more appropriate facilities onsite. Currently, Centre Lawn no longer houses patients but is used as a set for many popular films and television shows. So perhaps psychopaths are back at work inside Centre Lawn, seeing as how Hollywood is full of people with grandiose beliefs of self-worth and faulty moral character.
On the other hand, New Westminster has been the home to some of the most groundbreaking research ever done on the minds of psychopaths. In the 1960s, the psychologist Robert Hare was working at the Sapperton-based British Columbia maximum security penitentiary and doing early research on the subject of psychopathy. The now decommissioned penitentiary has mostly been demolished, but some of the buildings still remain (one prominent remnant of the prison is the Dublin Castle Irish Sports Bar).
In the prison, Hare would gather inmates who he deemed to be psychopaths and some deemed non-psychopaths. He proceeded to give each group a series of heavy-duty electric shocks (this was before the notion of scientific ethics) while measuring the inmates’ stress response with heart rate and sweat rate monitors. What Hare discovered was major: he found that the non-psychopaths experienced fear and anxiety during the countdown to the shocks whereas the psychopaths experienced calmness before each shock. The psychopaths also had a sort of pain amnesia and forgot what the shocks were like and didn’t fear a repeat of the procedures. It was this observation that led to the discovery that a psychopath’s brain structures varies from a non-psychopath’s. Hare proceeded to conduct other experiments with the inmates that cemented his earlier findings, such as showing inmates grotesque images and then blasting an unexpected sound. The non-psychopaths jumped with surprise whereas the psychopaths did nothing. The part of the brain that Hare found to be different, the amygdala, is almost completely inactive in psychopaths. The amygdala is where anxiety is born, and is also known as the fight-or-flight centre of the brain.
When Hare sent the results of his work done in New Westminster to be published, the editor refused because the people who work for the magazine believed his results couldn’t be from real people.
Where are the psychopaths?
You may be wondering that if psychopaths make up one per cent of the population and appear rather normal, then where might they be and how can we spot them? The answer to this is surprisingly easy. An extensive survey in the United Kingdom had participants undertake a psychopath test and then list their profession. The profession with the most psychopaths is the corporate CEO, followed by lawyer. Many of the traits of a psychopath are, in moderation, beneficial to those careers. The least psychopathic professions: care aides and nurses.
A psychopath is someone who tends to be divorced from their emotions and avoid any close human connection. These characteristics, along with having a lack of remorse, can help an individual make the difficult decisions needed to excel in business. That is likely why the overall percentage of psychopaths in society is a single per cent, while it is 10 per cent for CEOs.
On paper, a lot of the traits of psychopaths don’t seem so bad. Their lack of fear, impulsivity, sexual promiscuity, and grandiosity can sometimes be enviable traits, but when you put all of their traits together, the effects are rather inhuman. If all you want in life is to succeed, no matter what the cost, then being a psychopath is a good thing—but let me add that this mentality didn’t work out so well for people like Maddoff or the folks over at Enron.
Psychopathy is a fascinating, though often misunderstood, psychological phenomenon. Unlike other brain disorders, there is no viable treatment for psychopathy. People have tried to cure psychopaths and have come close, but the treatments involved massive doses of acid—understandably, we can’t exactly be constantly handing out acid to psychopaths, now can we? The majority of psychopaths who roam the streets are also unaware of their unique condition, though spotting these individuals can be done with a bit of practice. If you think you might be a psychopath or if you would like to administer a form of the psychopath test to a friend, you can do so by visiting www.personality-testing.info/tests/LSRP.php.
Snakes in Suits: When psychopaths go to work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare
The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry by Jon Ronson
The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton
*Illustration by Ed Appleby.