Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo: Movie still via jack-nicholson.info
The time the word “psycho” became very popular was when Hollywood used it as a title for a movie that was a hit all over the world. The 1960 American thriller film was directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, with Anthony Perkins playing the title role.
“Psychopathy is among the most difficult disorders to spot,” “Psychology Today” points out. “The psychopath can appear normal, even charming. Underneath, he lacks conscience and empathy, making him manipulative, volatile and often (but by no means always) criminal.”
A spectrum disorder, psychopathy can be diagnosed only using a diagnostic tool that rates a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies. Called Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), it was developed in the1970’s by Dr. Robert Hare, a Canadian professor and researcher renowned in criminal psychology. He is the author of “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us” and the co-author of “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.”
There are two parts of Hare PCL-R: first, a semi-structured interview and then a review of the subject’s file records and history. Qualified examiners go through a 20-item symptom rating scale to compare a subject’s degree of psychopathy with that of a prototypical psychopath. Each of the twenty items is given a score of 0, 1, or 2 based on how well it applies to the subject being tested.
The first ten items in the PCL-R are as follows: (1) glib and superficial charm, (2) grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self, (3) need for stimulation, (4) pathological lying, (5) cunning and manipulativeness, (6) lack of remorse or guilt, (7) shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness), (8) callousness and lack of empathy, (9) parasitic lifestyle and (10) poor behavioral controls.
The last remaining ten items are: (11) sexual promiscuity, (12) early behavior problems, (13) lack of realistic long-term goals, (14) impulsivity, (15) irresponsibility, (16) failure to accept responsibility for own actions, (17) many short-term marital relationships, (18) juvenile delinquency, (19) revocation of conditional release and (20) criminal versatility.
The CBC Radio Canada gives this explanation on the PCL R: “A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5. Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.”
Roughly one person in a hundred is clinically a psychopath, claims Joe Brewer in an article carried by www.cognitivepolicyworks.com. With more than 7 billion people on the planet today, this means there are as many as 70,000,000 psychopaths in our midst.
“These individuals are either born with an emotional deficiency that keeps them from feeling bad about hurting others or they are traumatized early in life in a manner that causes them to become this way,” Brewer pointed out.
A psychopath, by the way, is not a sociopath, although the two terms are used interchangeably. Interestingly, both words are non-existent in mental health’s official handbook, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Doctors don’t officially diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths.
Most doctors use a different term instead: “antisocial personality disorder.” However, the World Health Organization delineates from the said term and calls it “dissocial personality disorder.”
“Most experts believe psychopaths and sociopaths share a similar set of traits,” wrote Kara Mayer Robinson for WebMD. “People like this have a poor inner sense of right and wrong. They also can’t seem to understand or share another person’s feelings.”
But there are some differences, too. “A key difference between a psychopath and sociopath is whether he has a conscience, the little voice that lets us know when we’re doing something wrong,” says Dr. L. Michael Tompkins, a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center.
While a sociopath typically has a conscience, a psychopath doesn’t have any. “If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not ‘found out,’” Dr. Tompkins points out.
According to Robinson, it’s not easy to spot a psychopath. “They can be intelligent, charming and good at mimicking emotions,” she wrote. “They may pretend to be interested in you, but in reality, they probably don’t care.”
Dr. Tompkins adds: “(Psychopaths) are skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gains.”
Psychopaths are described as “cold-hearted” and “calculating.” Robinson explains it this way: “They carefully plot their moves, and use aggression in a planned-out way to get what they want. If they’re after more money or status in the office, for example, they’ll make a plant to take out any barriers that stand in the way, even if it’s another person’s job or reputation.”
More often than not, psychopaths show a lack of emotion, especially social emotions, such as shame, guilt, and embarrassment. They are described as “emotionally shallow” and showing a lack of guilt.
Some recent studies have discovered that a psychopath’s brain is not like other people’s. Robinson notes: “It may have physical differences that make it hard for the person to identify with someone else’s distress. The differences can even change basic body functions.
“For example, when most people see blood or violence in a movie, their hearts beat faster, their breathing quickens, and their palms get sweaty. A psychopath has the opposite reaction. He gets calmer.”
Dr. Aaron Kipnis, author of “The Midas Complex,” says that because of this behavior, psychopaths are fearless, and that’s why they engage in risky maneuvers. “They don’t fear the consequences of their actions,” he pinpoints.
That’s what “fearless dominance,” a component of psychopathy, is all about.
“In my opinion, it’s not psychopathy that’s the problem when looking at the personality of our leaders,” Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne wrote in an article published in Psychology Today. “Narcissism is a far more dangerous trait than fearless dominance for people in positions of power. Once they enter the narcissistic bubble, politicians, celebrities, and sports figures (to name a few) lose their sense of perspective about how their decisions affect millions of ordinary people.
“Pampered, closeted from the outside world, and surrounded by people saying ‘yes to their ever whim, even the most grounded people can eventually become immune to the impact of their actions on others,” Dr. Whitbourne contends.
In movies and television series, psychopaths are portrayed as villains who kill or torture innocent people. But in reality, some people who are psychopaths can be violent, but most are not. “Instead, they use manipulation and reckless behavior to get what they want,” Robinson notes.
Research and studies about psychopathy continue. Are there treatments available? Can they be normal? Can something be done about it?
“Traditionally psychopaths have only been ‘treated’ when they have been caught in criminal misdemeanor, and that ‘treatment’ has often been no more than punishment,” says Mark Tyrrell, a therapist, trainer, and author. “Psychopathy is seen as a ‘personality disorder’ and therefore pretty much untreatable. Psychopaths may be very happy with being the way they are and there is some evidence that their brains, in some respects, work quite differently from other people’s.”