Leaving Neverland, Pedophilia, and Traits of the Psychopath

The controversy surrounding MJ asks a deeper question about personality.

Posted Mar 05, 2019

The new Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland recently premiered on television on the HBO network. Much of the controversy surrounding Michael Jackson's personal life has historically focused on the question of whether Jackson was a pedophile. The documentary ultimately asks deeper questions about the psychological makeup of an adult who engages in abusive and illegal sexual behavior with children. Because I have never conducted a mental health assessment with the late entertainer, I don't have sufficient information to determine any psychiatric diagnosis from which he may have suffered. It is valuable, however, to take some considerations from the documentary and apply them to the broader question about whether a link exists between predatory pedophilic behavior and psychopathic personality.

In exploring this issue, it is crucial to understand that not all pedophiles are created equally. In other words, not all pedophiles act out on their sexual urges with children. Though some pedophiles do feel active sexual attraction toward children, they do not and will not act on that interest for various reasons (e.g., legal issues, personal feelings of guilt). On the other hand, other pedophiles act on their urges. Among this subset of pedophiles, some of them feel guilty or remorseful for their behavior, knowing it's wrong and hurtful; others justify their behavior and, in turn, do not feel bad or remorseful.

As a psychologist who writes extensively about psychopathy and psychopathic traits, I must once again reiterate crucial information about the psychopathic personality type. While the term "sociopath" and "sociopathic" are often used interchangeably with the terms "psychopath" and "psychopathic" by everyday individuals and clinicians alike, "sociopath" and "sociopathic" are not clinical terms. (I, too, had to learn that lesson after many hours of training on psychopathy.) The correct terms to use are "psychopath" or "psychopathic." Clinicians addressing the presence of psychopathy should report the degree to which psychopathic traits are present as opposed to labeling someone a full-blown psychopath.

Psychopathy, according to best practices, is diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional using the Psychopathy Checklist - Revised (Hare, 1991). The test includes 20 items which the clinician assesses.

Researchers have found that most of the items on the PCL-R correlate with particular categories or facets of impairment (Perez, Herrero, Velasco, & Rodriguez-Diaz, 2015). The items that correlate with the interpersonal facet of psychopathy include: glibness/superficial charm; grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; and cunning/manipulative. Several items are correlated with the affective facet of psychopathy: lack of remorse or guilt; emotionally shallow; callous/lack of empathy; and failure to accept responsibility for their actions. The items that correlate with the psychopathic lifestyle facet include: needed stimulation/proneness to boredom; parasitic lifestyle; lack of realistic, long-term goals; impulsivity; and irresponsibility. The items that correlate with the antisocial facet of psychopathy include: poor behavioral control; early behavioral problem; juvenile delinquency; revocation of conditional release; and criminal versatility. Finally, two additional items were not correlated significantly with any of the foregoing psychopathic facets: promiscuous sexual behavior and many short-term marital relationships.

When considering the possible overlap between pedophilic behavior and psychopathic behavior, some crucial similarities can be seen. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fifth Edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), pedophiles often feel some level of distress as a result of their sexual urges and attraction to children. However, not all pedophiles feel upset about the effects of their behavior or wish they could change their sexual attraction. Where significant overlap may exist between pedophilia and psychopathy is with practicing pedophiles who engage in highly calculated grooming of children for sexual interactions.

Another significant overlap between practicing pedophiles and psychopathic individuals may exist when considering empathy and remorse, and concern for the feelings and overall psychological effects of the abusive sexual behavior among the child victims. It is important to note that many pedophiles rationalize, justify, minimize, and normalize their sexual exploitative and illegal behavior. Because such pedophiles justify their behavior, they do not feel remorse. (Again, they actually feel justified in engaging in such behavior.) Similarly, someone with significant psychopathic traits justifies their own illegal and often exploitative behavior so they, too, do not feel remorse for their actions.

Ultimately, pedophiles who do not feel distress as a result of their sexual urges and abusive behavior with children share a personality facet with psychopathic individuals. Are these two disorders truly separate, distinct disorders, or is it possible that it makes more sense clinically to create a subtype of the pedophile diagnosis with a psychopathic personality specifier or subtype? Considering the clinical overlap between these two disorders can help the public and clinicians, too, to reflect more on the root of each particular disorder. Once we, as a community, are better able to identify and understand what the root of a particular disorder is, we can respond to those disorders in individuals in a more insightful, realistic, and safety-preserving way.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.

Pérez, B.; Herrero, J.; Velasco, J. & Rodriguez-Díaz, F.J. (2015). A contrastive analysis of the factorial structure of the PCL-R: Which model fits best the data? The European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, 7, 1, (23), (2015).