You would think that psychopaths have a fixed set of traits that make them fairly recognizable wherever they happen to reside. Superficial charm, grandiose sense of self, cunning behavior, and a lack of empathy? Bad luck, you might have a psychopath on your hands.
Not so. New research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology has shown country-based differences between psychopaths. Whereas “callousness” and “lack of empathy” seem to be the defining characteristics of your typical American psychopath, Dutch psychopaths are better recognized for their “irresponsibility” and “parasitic lifestyle”. This suggests social conditioning plays a role in shaping the expression of psychopathic traits.
A team of researchers led by Bruno Verschuere, a forensic psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, measured levels of psychopathy in two US offender samples and one Dutch forensic psychiatric sample using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. The list assesses the 20 signs that describe a psychopath, including glib and superficial charm, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, irresponsibility, and a failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions.
The team later used network analysis to calculate psychopath scores and find out the characteristics most common to each group. Aside from being “callous” and “lacking empathy”, the American psychopaths often displayed signs of “shallow emotional experiences”. In contrast, the Dutch psychopaths were “irresponsible” and “parasitic”, yet “shallow emotional experiences” was one of their more peripheral characteristics.
One possible explanation for this disparity is that there are differences in the way professionals rate psychopathic traits among offender and psychiatric populations in the US and the Netherlands. Yet, the researchers think it more likely that there really are personality differences between psychopaths in the two countries and it comes down to a process called cultural conditioning, which, in essence, is the way people in the government, media, and education shape what is culturally and socially acceptable in any given society.
This supports a theory that more and more psychologists and mental health professionals are coming to suspect: Certain mental conditions are culturally determined or, at the very least, influenced. (This would not make them any less real than if they were triggered purely by biological causes.)
Take schizophrenia as an example. While schizophrenia affects people from all known geographies, a 2014 study found it expresses itself differently depending on whether a culture is described as "collectivist" or "individualist" – US patients tended to describe the voices as threatening, whereas those in India said they were more playful.
Future research could help clarify the defining characteristics of psychopathy across other cultures and provide new ways to assess psychopathy on a general level.