4 Core Myths About Psychopathy That Refuse to Die
No, psychopaths are not all male, and yes, they can be treated.
Posted May 10, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Psychopathy describes a set of personality traits, and is not a synonym for violence or criminality.
- Psychopathy is not caused by trauma or abuse and it can emerge in both men and women.
- Psychopathy is not incurable. Many treatments can reduce symptoms, especially in younger children.
by Abigail Marsh, Ph.D., Co-founder of Psychopathy Is
I am a professor of psychology, a psychopathy researcher, a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy, and the co-founder of the non-profit organization Psychopathy Is. So you can imagine how surprised I was to come across a recent article in Wired, the respected outlet for science and technology journalism, that was titled, “The Myth of the Psychopathic Personality Refuses to Die."
I can assure you that psychopathy will never die, because it is not a myth. Far from it. Psychopathy is a very real personality construct that has been the focus of thousands of scientific studies all over the world.
Most people are fascinated by psychopathy; any psychopathy researcher can tell you that if you mention what you study at a party, you will be barraged with questions for hours. Perhaps it is this very fascination that has resulted in various fantastical myths about psychopathy refusing to die. As a result, the truth about psychopathy remains poorly understood by the public, including by the author of the unfortunately-titled Wired article—and now by many of those who have read that piece as well.
I would like to clear up some of the most common myths about psychopathy I encounter in my own work.
Myth #1: Psychopathy is a synonym for violence or criminality. Psychopathy is not a synonym for any behavior. Instead, it is a personality construct, like many others you have heard of, such as extraversion, shyness, or “grit.” Like those constructs, it reflects a combination of several more specific traits. Psychopathy is thought to be a combination of three traits: boldness, or a socially dominant, fearless interpersonal style; meanness, or a callous, uncaring attitude; and disinhibition, or poor restraint and impulse-control. These traits vary in the population, with only a small percent of people having such high levels of these traits that we could say they have a disorder.
Having high levels of psychopathic traits is undoubtedly associated with both violence and criminal behavior. But so are lots of other things, including being male, having a low reading level, and substance abuse. Each of these traits increases the risk that a person will engage in violence or criminal behavior. But at the same time, most people who are male, have a low reading level, or abuse substances are not violent or persistently criminal. The same is true for psychopathy.
Part of the confusion may stem from the fact that one of the most famous tools used to assess psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (or PCL-R) was developed for use specifically in forensic settings like jails and prisons. It is often used to this day in these settings; for example, when making parole decisions. The measure is not perfect. Two different assessors may come up with very different scores for the same person. Serious ethical questions can and should be raised about the use of the PCL-R or any other psychological tool to make major decisions about people’s lives. But there are no infallible assessments of any personality trait or clinical disorder, including psychopathy. The lack of a perfect measure doesn’t mean the construct the scale measures isn’t real.
Myth #2: Psychopathic people are always male. Perhaps because people falsely believe psychopathy to be a synonym for violence or criminality, they often believe that people with psychopathy are always (or almost always) men. Males do indeed make up the vast majority of criminals, particularly violent criminals. For example, worldwide men commit 90% of all homicides. But since psychopathy is a personality construct, it makes sense that it is observed in both men and women. On average, men have somewhat higher psychopathy scores than women, as measured by self-report scales like the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure (TripPM) or Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (or SRP), which were created to assess psychopathy in the general population. Very high scorers are more likely to be male than female. But plenty of high-scoring females exist, and their behavior is similar to that of high-scoring males.
To learn more about the experiences of females with psychopathy, check out the accounts of M.E. Thomas and Patric Gagne. (Note that both refer to themselves as “sociopaths” because for a while this was the preferred term—in part due to various persistent myths about psychopathy!)
Myth #3: People develop psychopathy as a result of trauma or abuse. As both Thomas and Gagne describe, signs of psychopathy typically emerge early in childhood. This is because psychopathy is best understood as a neurodevelopmental disorder. It usually unfolds in ways that are similar to other neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism and schizophrenia. For example, well before the full-blown disorder emerges, signs that a child is developing differently can often be seen. As early as 2 or 3 years old, children who go on to develop psychopathy may seem unusually fearless and insensitive to danger or punishment, they may not seek or welcome affection, and they may not pay as much attention to others’ faces.
That these traits emerge early is not surprising because genetics play a major role in psychopathy. Perhaps half of the risk (or more) of a child developing psychopathy can be accounted for by genetic factors–although there is no “psychopathy gene,” just as there is no “autism gene." That means children who have relatives with psychopathic traits are at higher risk of developing psychopathy themselves. Various environmental risk factors then decrease or increase the odds that a child at risk of psychopathy will ultimately develop the disorder. For example, children who are identified early and receive specific forms of family-based therapy often get better.
Importantly, psychopathy is not caused by abusive parents. This is a persistent myth—just like previous myths that autism is caused by “refrigerator mothers” or schizophrenia by “schizophrenogenic mothers” (yes, really). Experiencing trauma or abuse can absolutely cause psychological problems like anxiety or depression, and it can make the symptoms of any disorder worse. But it does not cause psychopathy. This myth is a particularly painful one for parents of children with psychopathy. They not only suffer the constant fear and distress of raising a child with a very difficult temperament and behavior, but—unlike parents of children with other disorders—are often the targets of blame and shame from friends and family, schools, and even doctors.
Myth #4: Psychopathy is incurable. There is now abundant evidence that psychopathy has at least partly genetic roots, emerges early in development, and is associated with changes in the structure and function of the brain. Unfortunately, some people interpret information about the biology of psychopathy to mean it is incurable. This is absolutely a myth, and perhaps the most important one to dispel.
Science has demonstrated time and again that no disorder is untreatable once we understand its origins and the factors that place developing children at risk for it. Many treatments are particularly effective when they are delivered early in life. Effective treatments and in some cases incredible cures for childhood disorders that were once considered wholly untreatable, from autism spectrum disorders and eating disorders to cystic fibrosis and peanut allergies, have been developed thanks to concerted efforts on the part of the scientific and medical communities.
In recent years, labs around the world have begun to demonstrate that targeted forms of psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals can yield real changes in the symptoms and life trajectories of people with psychopathy. But research on this topic remains well behind where it should be, in part due to persistent myths and stigmas surrounding psychopathy that lead even many mental health professionals to believe psychopathy isn’t real, isn’t serious, or can’t be treated.
At a time when child and adolescent mental health is worsening and violence is surging, we can and must do better.
Facebook image: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock
To learn more, and become part of the solution, visit psychopathyis.org
Raine, A. (2018). Antisocial Personality as a Neurodevelopmental Disorder. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 14, 259-289.
De Brito, S. A. et al. (2021). Psychopathy. Nature Reviews Disease Primers, 7, 49.
Viding, E. (2020). Psychopathy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.