The misunderstood minds of psychopaths

by Catherine Woulfe / 05 July, 2013
Their combination of characteristics doesn’t always include only bad things.
For the secrets of highly effective sociopaths, read this week's Listener cover story: Fear and loathing Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

Psychopathy/sociopathy and criminality have some crossover but the area is much misunderstood, says Devon Polaschek, an associate professor in the Victoria University School of Psychology who has worked with the Corrections Department.

“There is a robust belief that criminals lie all the time and are therefore completely unreliable about what they’ll report. That isn’t actually borne out by the scientific evidence particularly well, but that’s what people believe.

“Therefore, Hare [psycho­pathy] checklists are brilliant, because they don’t rely on self-reporting; in fact, you don’t even need to talk to the offender to score them.”

Image/Thinkstock


The downside is that the oldest checklist was developed exclusively for use with criminals, so can’t be used to look at psycho­pathy in any other setting. “You can’t get a high score unless you are involved in criminal acts, so it mixes the two things together: psycho­pathy and criminality. So that limits the availability of a really well-validated instrument for a wider population,” says Polaschek.

Also, the checklists capture people who lack some of the core characteristics of psychopathy and over-pathologise people who have an extensive history of impulsive criminal behaviour that isn’t just distinctive to psychopaths. “The research on non-offender psychopathy could not be said to be an extensive scientific one at the moment, because it just hasn’t been done. The central personality characteristics, while always antisocial – they always have a negative impact on other people – do not necessarily predispose people to criminal behaviour.”

The idea of a lack of guilt or remorse is real. “But again, that’s typical of high-risk criminals, too,” Polaschek says. “In the community, in terms of so-called successful psychopaths, we would assume their core personality characteristics would still be there, the ones like lack of guilt, narcissism and irresponsibility. But we would also assume they have better impulse control because they are not getting themselves in trouble with criminal law.

“Perhaps they are brighter. They are capable of skirting around the law and knowing where the holes are and exploiting them. But they are different from the criminal ones; they get caught all the time. Psychopathy is associated with spending more time in prison than other offenders, yet also managing to do more crimes when you’re out.

“If you view psychopathy as I do, as a bigger construct that includes some aspects that could be adaptive and even useful, then certainly there will be CEOs and MPs and lawyers. Also, someone recently did a paper on US presidents – Clinton came up quite high. That’s important, because Clinton was an incredibly competent man, and it does show you that the combination of characteristics doesn’t always include only bad things.

“There are some positive characteristics – stress immunity is one of them – that the broader view of psychopathy would say are not a bad thing in themselves; it’s the fact that they are combined with other things. It isn’t necessarily about harming other people but it enables you to put yourself into novel and challenging situations in a way that other people can’t. Clearly that can go well or it can go badly, but it’s not necessarily a bad characteristic because it depends how the person develops.”

Criminal-minded psychopaths can change but it gets harder with age because many come from backgrounds where criminality is normal. “There is some tentative evidence to suggest that aspects of psychopathy change of their own accord with ageing. But a small number of studies show that psychopaths can respond to the same kind of rehabilitation we do with other high-risk offenders.

“With most criminal psychopaths – and I want to keep making that distinction because we would believe there are a lot of non-criminal psychopaths as well – a lot of what they do is really ordinary offending; it’s just that they do a lot of it. Psychopaths do lie quite a lot but they are not very good at it. They are really not super-criminals. They are not particularly dangerously capable or exceptionally bright. They do stuff that isn’t even in their own best interest by acting in the moment.”

For the secrets of highly effective sociopaths, read this week's Listener cover story: Fear and loathing Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

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