Written by Jamie G.
in specialized psychological counseling for Mental Health VB.
In an increasingly sensitive world—one in which people are worried that using the word “crazy” might be offensive,
we are strangely comfortable with using the term “psychopath” as a synonym for “worst person on Earth.”
Most people believe that all psychopaths are dangerous people who should be separated from society.
No sooner that we hear the word “psychopath” comes images of your classic psychopathic killers
like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, along with a whole kind of discreditable raft of politicians can come
creeping across our minds.
But, in all actuality, being a psychopath doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a criminal.
Not by default, anyway. It doesn’t mean that you’re a serial killer, either.
Despite these faulty characterizations, on a very real level, nonviolent psychopaths do exist
and possibly on a much larger scale than we once believed. Research suggests
many psychopathy sufferers live successfully among the rest of us, using their personality traits to get
what they want in life. It has even been claimed that some of the world's most powerful and successful people, including American presidents, exhibit traits of the behavioral disorder.
Despite the popular perception, most psychopaths aren't coldblooded or psychotic killers, however,
not surprisingly, psychopathic individuals are more likely than other people to commit crimes
because they lack a capacity for any kind of guilt.
They almost always understand when their actions are morally wrong – it just doesn’t bother them but;
contrary to popular belief, only a minority are violent.
Despite increasing interest in psychopathy research, surprisingly little is known about the
etiology of non-incarcerated, “successful” psychopaths.
We believe that psychopathy is a predisposed mental disorder that is usually a result of a structural abnormality of the brain.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI)
research indicates that psychopaths are, simply, physically incapable of experiencing basic
human emotions and feelings of guilt, remorse, or empathy. Psychopaths have uncontrollable decreased activity in portions of the frontal lobe of the brain associated with morality and empathy.
When individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and connected to other important regions involved in effective emotional processing and decision-making.
While some people believe psychopaths are born, not made,
researchers stress that the condition is shaped by the complex interaction of both environmental and genetic factors.
There is no real definitive recipe for psychopathic personality disorder. The environmental factors are as
ill-defined as the genetic factors, although antisocial behavior mixed with a history of punitive discipline,
abuse and neglect seems to apply in many cases.
Most psychopaths are male, although the reasons for this sex difference are unknown.
Nevertheless, most psychopaths are not violent, and the majority of violent people are not psychopaths.
When psychologists talk about psychopaths, what we’re referring to are people who have
a distinct set of personality characteristics, which include things like
ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, charm, persuasiveness, and a lack of emotional conscience and/or empathy.
Now, imagine that you tick the box for all of those characteristics,
but you also happen to be violent and stupid…
It’s not going to be long before you crack a bottle over someone’s head in a bar and get locked up for a long time in prison.
But if you tick the box for all of those characteristics, and you happen to be intelligent and not naturally violent,
then it’s a different story altogether.
Then you’re more likely to make a killing in your chosen profession rather than anywhere else.
The difference between the "successful psychopath" and psychopathic killers is
that they can switch off all the negative qualities of psychopathy at will -- aggression, carelessness, cold-heartedness -- while maintaining the positive qualities, such as charisma and fearlessness.
Although psychopathy is a risk factor for physical aggression, it is by no means synonymous with it.
In contrast to individuals with psychotic disorders, most psychopaths are in touch
with reality and seemingly rational.
Psychopathic individuals are found at elevated rates in prisons and jails, but also in community settings.
Because researchers tend to seek out psychopaths where they can locate them in plentiful numbers, research on the condition has mostly taken place in prisons and jails, however; psychopathy is found
in about one percent of the general population.
That’s why, until fairly recently, the lion’s share of theory and research on psychopathy focused on decidedly
unsuccessful individuals – such as convicted criminals.
There are numbers of people on the psychopathic continuum that aren’t in jail or prison.
In fact, some individuals may be able to use psychopathic traits, like boldness, to achieve professional success.
The only reason that psychopathy is immediately as deemed violent and dangerous is very simple;
The non-violent or “successful” psychopath is rarely studied or even acknowledged because they can
mimic emotions well enough to fit into a functional society with few problems.
All psychopaths are criminals if you look for them ONLY behind bars.
As with other mental conditions, a person is rarely 100% psychopathic or 100% "normal."
Psychopathy lies on a continuum meaning that psychopathic traits and behaviors manifest
differently in different people.
Just like the rest of us, psychopaths have been conditioned to mimic what they’ve been exposed to
but at a different level than everyone else. They are amazing actors because they must be in order to
fit into our society. Their childhood norms almost always reflect their individual personalities because it’s the only way they’ve ever been shown how to express emotions that they can’t actually feel them for themselves.
So, for example, if a psychopath is exposed to severe and prolonged violence as a child, he will most like turn out to be an incredibly violent person. Likewise, however, when psychopaths are raised in relatively normal, happy, and functional families , that will also likely be the life they create for themselves later on.
As it turns out, high-IQ psychopaths can hide their psychopathy quite well.
When a student researcher tried to elicit an emotional reaction from the participants in her study, neurological tests (fMRI), showed no activity or response from any of them. But the more intelligent diagnosed psychopaths were able to fake empathy, outwardly, on an impressive level.
They knew how they were expected to react and didn’t disappoint.
Psychopaths are partially defined as people without empathy,
so they shouldn’t be able to understand what people are thinking. But as it turns out,
the exact opposite is true.
According to some studies, psychopaths are actually better at reading people than the rest of us.
They could read vulnerability even with small changes on a person’s face (micro-expressions). Emotions like fear and anxiety come through loud and clear to the psychopath. This was especially true of female psychopaths who were reading men.
They are often remarkably successful because of their ability to manipulate individuals with
their cunning charisma paired with the ability to reproduce strongly veiled emotional reactions
that have been displayed for them throughout their lives and proved the most benefit to them.
So how are these psychopathic traits
particularly useful in modern society?
Psychopaths are assertive. Psychopaths don’t procrastinate. Psychopaths tend to focus on the positive. Psychopaths don’t take things personally; they don’t beat themselves up if things go wrong,
even if they’re to blame. And they’re very cool under pressure. Those kinds of characteristics aren’t just important in many professions, but also highly useful in everyday life.
After interviewing special forces troops, such as Navy Seals,
we’ve found a very good example of people who are pretty high on those psychopathic traits that are
actually in the perfect occupation.
In social situations, many people get mildly tied into those fits of anxiety and fear that we’ve all grown to understand. We’re afraid that people will judge us negatively, so we often allow those emotions to inhibit our behavior. As a result, other people do judge us negatively. On the other hand, psychopaths don’t care what you think about them,
so they can burst into a conversation without hesitation. That works out great for them.
They’re so open and eager that people automatically assume that psychopaths are saying more interesting things—even if that’s not the case.
Their ability to read faces is paramount.
Since psychopaths can figure out what you’re thinking through little ticks in your body,
they’re better able to change what they’re saying into what you want to hear.
In fact, psychopaths are so much better at speaking than the rest of us that
they don’t even have verbal ticks. Although most people will accidentally stammer out a few meaningless “ums” and “uhs” to fill the gaps in a conversation, psychopaths don’t feel that need. Instead,
they choose every word carefully and deliberately. This makes such a big difference that psychopaths
have been known to fake “ums” to sound more like normal people and make the rest of us feel more comfortable.
When the neuro-typical brain is presented with difficult situations, the body releases
corticotropin-releasing hormones, which are part of the process that makes you feel stressed.
Your heart rate will increase, body temperature rises, you may have trouble thinking, and you may struggle with the task at hand.
Unless you’re a psychopath.
Psychopathy isn’t just in the mind. There are actual differences in a psychopath’s body.
For example, their bodies also do not release stress hormones properly. So stress is not a factor in their lives.
If a stressful situation comes up, psychopaths adapt to it willingly. They’re assertive, they don’t procrastinate, and they usually focus on the good in a situation instead of the bad.
When a situation gets crazy, psychopaths make better decisions instead of worse ones.
Psychopaths are better at keeping us alive, too.
A study of psychopaths’ professions showed that surgeons are one of the most widely chosen professions by nonviolent psychopaths, ranking #5, more so than almost any other job.
Surgeons weren’t surprised by this finding. According to one surgeon,
his textbook in med school had a section dedicated to dealing with the weird personalities of his colleagues. Another surgeon confirmed that there were more psychopaths working in his hospital than outside of it.
On paper, empathy is important for a doctor but for surgeons, in reality, it might hurt their performance.
The explanation for all these psychopathic surgeons is that they’re willing to do what needs to be done.
If a family begs you to save their child and you feel their pain, you’re going to get nervous. But if it doesn’t really affect you, you’ll be able to cut up that eight-year-old like it’s no big deal.
A surgeon who takes on operations that are especially risky once said to me,
“The most important thing when you’re conducting a dangerous operation, a risky operation,
is you’ve got to be very cool under pressure, you’ve got to be focused.
You can’t have too much empathy for the person that you’re operating on, because you wouldn’t
be able to conduct that operation.
Surgeons do very nasty things to people when they’re on the operating table.
If things do go wrong, the most important facet in a surgeon’s arsenal is decisiveness.
You cannot freeze on them because that's how people die.”
While emotional, empathetic people may struggle to make what are often chalked up to tough decisions because of the ramifications that those decisions can have on other people, psychopaths do not have this problem.
Knowing right from wrong and being able to mimic the “right” decision but having no emotion tied to either of those ideas, or any other ideation for that matter, psychopaths have been groomed by their life experiences to carefully choose their reactions to stressful situations in a way that isn’t clouded by emotion.
Psychopathy research reminds us that media depictions of mental illness often contain just as much fiction as fact. Moreover, widespread misunderstandings of such ailments can produce unfortunate consequences. The truth is that this disorder isn’t quite as rare as we originally imagined and can even have a functional place in society.