The likelihood is that we all know at least one psychopath, as it’s estimated that between 1-4% of the population fall somewhere on the psychopathic scale. These people are often overly confident, manipulative, and lack empathy and remorse. Some are even violent, but not all. Many are able to quite easily live within society - indeed, for some professions, psychopathy seems to be almost a benefit. But psychologists are increasingly viewing psychopathy as less of a way of being, and more as a mental illness.
We often associate psychopaths with criminals and murders, the likes of Anders Breivik or Ted Bundy, but many people display some of the criteria that would put them on the scale. Most of them lead completely normal lives, and never kill or hurt anyone. Traits such as a tendency toward boredom, pathological lying, superficial charm, and impulsivity are just a few of the 20 signs in the PCL-R test, a psychological assessment used to determine a person’s potential psychopathy. As with any scale, there is no definitive line, with blurred boundaries of what’s considered normal and what is psychopathic.
This is something known all too well by neuroscientist James Fallon. He was looking at brain scans of murderers and criminals, comparing activity in the areas responsible for empathy with that of others who were considered "normal." This region will usually light up on PET scans in those people who feel empathy, but remain inactive in psychopaths. At the same time, he was also looking into Alzheimer’s, instead using scans of his own family and friends.
When looking through the images for the Alzheimer’s study, he noticed something was off. He found that one of the scans looked like it was from the criminal psychopaths study, as the region of the brain responsible for empathy had no activity. Presuming it had got into the wrong pile, he thought he had better check and broke the anonymization code to see whose brain it was a picture of. It turned out to be his. When he spoke to his colleagues, they agreed that he did display certain behavioral signs of psychopathy.
According to Xanthe Mallett, a forensic anthropologist and criminologist at the University of New England, there are certain signs she looks for during interview to judge if someone might be a psychopath. Often, she will look to see if their verbal and physical cues match up, as while psychopaths are often very good actors, they usually eventually slip. Another is the invasion of personal space, with one study apparently showing that “individuals with high levels of ‘cold-heartedness’ preferred shorter interpersonal distances.”
So if an extreme psychopath can be recognized and labeled, can they be treated? The answer is probably not. Firstly, they’re very unlikely to seek help, with the condition only normally being diagnosed when someone is arrested. Secondly, they simply lack empathy, and nothing can currently change that.
Main image: Paul Gardner/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0