By Sally Davies
Psychopath. The word conjures up the image of a cold-blooded killer, or perhaps a fiendishly clever but heartless egoist. There’s Ted Bundy, who in the 1970s abducted women, killed them, and had sex with their decomposing bodies. Or Hannibal Lecter from the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991), who cunningly escaped his various confinements and ended up eating the people he despised. In the popular imagination, psychopaths are the incarnation of evil. However, for an increasing number of researchers, such people are ill, not evil – victims of their own deranged minds. So just what are psychopaths, and what is wrong with them?
According to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – first devised in the 1970s by the Canadian criminal psychologist Robert Hare and since revised and widely used for diagnosis – psychopaths are selfish, glib and irresponsible. They have poor impulse control, are antisocial from a young age, and lack the ability to feel empathy, guilt and remorse. Psychopaths steal, lie and cheat, and have no respect for other people, social norms or the law. In some cases, they torture defenceless animals, assault other children or attempt to kill their siblings or parents. If caught, they fail to take responsibility for their actions, but tend to blame others, their upbringing or ‘the system’. According to some recent calculations, more than 90 per cent of male psychopaths in the United States are in prison, on parole or otherwise involved with the criminal justice system. Considering that psychopaths are thought to make up only around 1 per cent of the general population, that number is staggering. Because of this close link to criminality, psychopathy used to be known as ‘moral insanity’.
This picture of psychopathy has dominated the thinking of both laypeople and researchers. It’s at once sensational and reassuring. Psychopaths are sick, deranged, lacking in moral conscience. In other words, they’re nothing like you or me. But this is false. There’s no major ability that psychopaths lack altogether, and their deficits are often small and circumscribed. They certainly aren’t incapable of telling right from wrong, making good decisions or experiencing empathy for other people. Instead, they suffer from a host of more mundane problems – such as being overly goal-fixated, fearless and selfish. What’s more, perhaps ‘our’ reactions are closer to ‘theirs’ than we realise. Like psychopaths, we can dial our empathy up and down; and for all the praise we heap on empathy, a closer look at this emotion suggests that it’s nearer to a kind of self-preservation instinct than any ‘warm and fuzzy’ fellow-feeling.
Rather than freakish outliers then, psychopaths reveal important truths about human morality. But are we ready to accept what they might teach us?
Picture: © Nevit Dilmen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D