The term “psychopath” is a term that mental health professionals use to categorize a particular group of symptoms that accompany a personality disorder. Thanks to movies and television, however, most people have a distorted idea of what someone who may be considered a psychopath is actually like. While forms of entertainment will suggest that psychopaths are all evil murderers, that is not always the case! While meeting criteria for antisocial behavior and psychopathy increases the chances of violent behavior, it does not mean that every person who has this diagnosis commits violent murders or crimes. Those who are labeled psychopathic lack empathy, guilt, or shame and do not care about the ethical or legal ramifications of their actions. Thus, they are more likely to engage in illegal, dangerous, or even violent behavior. Statistics show that psychopaths make up 1 percent of the population, and close to 25 percent of the prison population. It’s important to note that this 1 percent are the number of people who have been actually diagnosed as meeting the criteria for a personality disorder with psychopathic features; many people who may meet criteria are likely not diagnosed, as they avoid interactions with medical and mental health professionals and are able to evade a diagnosis.
When we think about psychopaths, we usually think about them being men. This is with good reason! Studies show that a large portion of people who meet the criteria of psychopaths happen to be men. This is largely because the studies of people with this diagnosis involve researching the population of people in prison. As a result, more men are classified as psychopaths, while there may be many women who are able to elude prison but would meet the criteria of psychopath. One particular study indicated that they believe the rate of female psychopaths in prison is about 17%, which is much less than the prison population of men. But studies continue to show that women who meet criteria for psychopathic tendencies generally display much different behaviors than the men that also meet this criterion.
Research is showing that while men tend to exhibit the traditional symptoms of psychopathy (aggressive, violent behavior), women are generally involved in less physical forms of social deviance but can still cause pain and struggles for others with similar severity. Just as men who meet criteria for a psychopathic diagnosis can be seen as charming before harming their victims, women can capitalize on their femininity and put themselves in situations where they seem nurturing and loving before engaging in harming their victims. People are less likely to distrust women and believe that they are ill-intentioned, thus women can often use this to their advantage and take their victims by surprise. Still, women can (and do) meet the criteria of psychopath, they just display it in more nuanced ways.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), or the manual that mental health professionals use to diagnose their patients, does not have a specific diagnosis of psychopathy. Instead, it describes these kinds of behaviors into a personality disorder category called “Antisocial/Psychopathic” and discusses all the behaviors that could be seen under this overarching diagnosis. Here are some of the symptoms that are mentioned in this section:
- Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
- Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement,
- Impulsive behavior
- Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequently assaults others, or engages in fighting
- Blatantly disregards safety of self and others,
- A pattern of irresponsibility and
- Lack of remorse for actions
- Person must be 18 years or older
- Person must have had conduct disorder symptoms present before age 15
- These behaviors do not occur in the context of another mental health disorder
Do you know anyone who behaves in this way and meets this criterion? People who engage in these kinds of behavior can manipulate and cause pain and anguish to those around them. While not every person who meets criteria for psychopathic behavior is inherently violent, it is important to take precautions to keep yourself safe if you suspect that a person you know may be experiencing these symptoms. If you are concerned about your safety or the safety or health of someone around you, a mental health or medical professional can often help you understand the symptoms of psychopathy and help you to come up with a safety plan.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events