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Is Lisbeth Salander a Psychopath?

Identifying the psychopaths in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In an earlier post, I posed the question "Is Dexter a successful psychopath." Given the upcoming release of the David Fincher film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I wanted to revisit this question but instead ask, "Is Lisbeth Salander a Psychopath?"

In the recently published book The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, my colleague (who is an expert in the empirical study of psychopaths) and I wrote a chapter where we examined the personality profiles of Lisbeth and several other characters from the Millenium series to determine if they would meet the clinical definition of a psychopath.

If you read my earlier Dexter post, you will remember that a psychopath is commonly defined as "a social predator who charms, manipulates and ruthlessly plows their way through life...completely lacking in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret (Hare, 2003, xi)." From a personality perspective, we would say that psychopaths are low in the agreeableness, meaning they are low distrusting, manipulative, arrogant, and callous towards others.

Consider two known psychopaths: Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. Both are examples of men who were callous, arrogant and manipulative. However, even though these two men are both psychopaths, there is clearly a difference in the way that they pursued their bloodlust. Jeffrey Dahmer's desire murderous desires were so strong that they overwhelmed his concern for self-preservation and eventually led to his capture. However, Ted Bundy was more strategic in his behavior, allowing him to successfully evade the police for years. Returning to the personality perspective, we would say that even though both of these men are low in agreeableness, they differ in their level of consciousness. People low in conscientiousness tend to be impulsive and give up on goals easily whereas people high in conscientiousness are controlled, committed, and goal-driven. So Jeffrey Dahmer's behavior suggests he was low in conscientiousness whereas Ted Bundy's behavior suggests he was high in this trait.

Psychologists use this distinction between high and low conscientiousness to distinguish between "successful psychopaths" and "unsuccessful psychopaths." Although most psychopaths who make the news would be considered unsuccessful (because they were caught), the majority of psychopaths in our society are successful. This doesn't mean that there are lots of murderers running amok, but it does mean that there are lots of people who you likely interact on a daily basis who are charming, manipulative, and ruthless in their endeavors. In fact, research suggests that 4% of the population meet the criteria for psychopathy. They may be our boss, our lawyer, or even our spouse. And odds are that on the outside, they look like a model citizen: charismatic, successful and accomplished in their career. In fact, many of these psychopathic traits (e.g., competitive, manipulative, ruthless) might be valuable assets within certain professions, such as law, politics, or business.

In The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, my colleague Dr. Mullins-Sweatt and I use the dimensions of agreeableness and conscientiousness to identify who in the millennium series fits the definition of a successful or unsuccessful psychopath. Not surprisingly, we found a number of Steig Larssons character fit the psychopath criteria. But one character in particular who really rides the line between mentally health and psychopathic is Lisbeth Salander. Below is an exerpt from our chapter that examines whether Lisbeth would be clinically diagnosed as a psychopath or not:

Lisbeth Salander: The Antisocial Anti-Hero
No character in the Millenium trilogy is as fascinating or complex as the female protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. Her behavior, her lifestyle, and even her appearance has led some readers to ask, "Is Salander a psychopath?"

Many of Salander's behaviors suggest low agreeableness. For instance, Salander shows complete disregard for societal rules or norms and engages in behaviors that are both antisocial and illegal. Salander's occupation in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is as a private investigator and one reason why she is so skilled at this position is because she is a genius computer hacker. She also engages in a number of other significant crimes, including tax evasion, identity theft, fraud, and stealing approximately three billion kronor ($75 million dollars) from Wennerström. In addition to her criminal activities, Salander is also quite violent. Throughout her childhood, Salander was in trouble for hitting classmates who teased her and when she was 12 years old, she attempted to kill her father by throwing a firebomb in his car. Salander "never forgot an injustice, and by nature she was anything but forgiving" (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, p. 228). Finally, Salander is distrustful of everyone and is noncompliant, displaying a complete lack of regard for authority such as the police and government.

And just like the successful psychopaths that she goes up against in the series, Salander is clever and conscientious. The trilogy is replete with examples of the patience and planning she uses to exact revenge against the men that have harmed her. For instance, when Bjurman first assaulted her in his office, Salander considered taking the letter opener from his desk and attacking him but instead chooses to do nothing, thinking, "impulsive actions led to trouble, and trouble could have unpleasant consequences. She never did anything without first weighing the consequences" (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, pp. 220-221). Following her rape, Salander spent time planning ways to kill Bjurman. She methodically decided against guns, knives, bombs, and poisons before deciding it might be to her benefit to keep him alive to grant her independence. These are the behaviors of someone with a high degree of discipline and self-control.

With her extreme violence and seeming lack of remorse, it is easy to see why people might consider Salander a successful psychopath. However, ultimately, we do not feel this is an accurate label for her. Although Salander is antagonistic and violent, she doesn't appear to lack a conscience, which is the hallmark trait of a psychopath. While she may not always follow society's rules, she does have her own set of moral principles that abide by a code of right and wrong. Most notably, she only attacks men who have ruthlessly hurt her or other vulnerable women. Of people like Martin and Gottfried Vanger, she says, "If I had to decide, men like that would be exterminated, every last one" (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 508). Salander's moral code leaves no room for compromise. When a man hurts a woman, she believes he deserves to die or be punished so that he can't repeat his crimes (e.g., the tattoo she puts on Bjurman). In this way, she poses an ethical dilemma for the readers. But whatever we think of her moral code, we feel compelled to admire her desire to protect those who are vulnerable to exploitation.

Her role as an avenger also demonstrates another important aspect of her personality: she seems to care for people other than herself. In general, psychopaths lack emotional connections with others and simply see the people around them as pawns. While difficult to see through her hard exterior, deep down it seems that Salander experiences concern for others, especially for women in her country who are exploited and abused.

For these reasons, Lisbeth Salander would not meet the criteria of a psychopath. And in this way, her character reveals the complexity involved with the scientific analysis of psychopaths. Just because someone is a psychopath doesn't mean they are a murderer (e.g., Wennerström) and just because someone is a murderer (or attempts murder) doesn't mean they are a psychopath (e.g., Salander).

Suggested Readings:

Rosenberg, R. S., & O'Neill, S. (2011). The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. Smart Pop.…

Mullins-Sweatt, S. N., Glover, N. G., Derefinko, K. J., Miller, J. D., & Widiger, T. A. (2010). The search for the successful psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 554-558.

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