Every now and then, a riddle appears online that purports to tell you if you’re a psychopath or not. There are several that are often cited, but here are two somewhat notorious examples picked out by Business Insider.
The first is a tale of murder and funerals.
“While at her own mother's funeral, a woman meets a guy she doesn't know. She thinks this guy is amazing — her dream man — and is pretty sure he could be the love of her life. However, she never asked for his name or number and afterwards could not find anyone who knows who he was. A few days later the girl kills her own sister – but why?”
There are many ways to answer this question, but if you suggest that it’s because the girl thought the man would turn up at her sister’s subsequent funeral, you’re apparently a bit of a psychopath.
The second, which actually comes from an official questionnaire used in several studies, involves a battle between individual rescue and the greater good – an assessment of utilitarianism. It goes as follows:
“A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people and you are standing on a footbridge next to a large stranger; your body is too light to stop the train, but if you push the stranger onto the tracks, killing him, you will save the five people. Would you push the man?”
If you push the man, it arguably makes you more of a psychopath. Even if you’re saving more people, you’re still committing a murder to do so.
Here’s the problem: psychopathy, a personality disorder that falls on something of a spectrum, cannot be defined by answering just one single question, or even one survey.
That first riddle about the funeral has been thoroughly debunked several times before, and it’s not entirely clear where it came from.
The second riddle has been used in studies and it has some merit, but no academic worth their salt would claim that one single question can reveal the psychopaths in your midst. This is why many such questions are used by researchers to just get an idea of how psychopathic someone may or may not be, but even then, this doesn’t properly identify a psychopath.
Business Insider points this out themselves, but there’s even more to this than first meets the eye.
Ask yourself: what do you think a psychopath is? A murdering, violent, unthinking monster, right? Actually, no. The somewhat creative way the term “psychopath” is often used throughout much of the media hints that this is indeed the definition, but it’s not at all.
Psychopathy is often ambiguously defined, and its details are hotly debated among experts.
Craig S. Neumann, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Texas, recently explained that although psychopathy is definitely real, it's not as simple as a yes/no option for people. It's almost certainly about a variety of traits, not just one defining characteristic.
"Despite the media’s portrayal and the general publics’ conception of the psychopath as seemingly inhuman and fundamentally unlike most people, the empirical evidence from large-scale studies suggests that psychopathic traits are dimensional in nature and thus are continuously distributed from low to high, as opposed to being a categorical condition where one either has the disorder or does not," he wrote in a blog post.
In general, if someone has psychopathic tendencies, then they likely exhibit a few or most of these characteristics to varying degrees of severity: a lack of empathy, an ability to become emotionally detached, a lack of remorse, extremely bold social behaviors, a lack of fear, and unconscientiousness.
Even these are sometimes debated, however – and it’s worth pointing out that psychopathy isn’t yet a truly diagnosable, unique personality disorder, partly because a consensus on what it specifically is hasn't been reached.
Psychopaths are also more likely than others to exhibit narcissism and Machiavellianism (i.e. be manipulative), but not always. They aren’t necessarily crazy, deranged or violent, and they can either struggle or excel intellectually. CEOs, journalists, astronauts, negotiators, and surgeons often exhibit psychopathic tendencies – but again, not always.
It’s not even certain how many people in society might be psychopathic to some degree. The proliferation of varyingly rigid psychological tests that let you self-diagnose your psychopathy arguably doesn’t help things out in this regard.
The point is that this is an issue that people want to be more black and white, more clear-cut, and simpler to understand, but it’s not. Experts in their respective fields are still trying to understand it themselves, which is why they’re conducting as much research on it as possible.