Psychopaths in Fact, Fiction, and Your Everyday Life

How psychopaths put us under their spell

Posted Aug 20, 2013

Hero worship is all very well and good, but some of our most enduring fictional characters are touched by more than a little evil.  A disproportionately high number of Academy Award winning roles portray people who seem to meet the criteria for psychopathy, if not antisocial personality disorder.  However, we can go much further back in history to find evidence of the fascination we all have with these dastardly sorts.

One great, and perhaps not so obvious example, comes from Shakespeare’s Othello.  In this play, Othello portrays a military hero who, in a fit of jealous rage, murders his wife Desdemona. However, it’s not Othello who’s the psychopath. Instead, it’s a character named Iago, who feels- in his mind- justifiably angry at having been passed over for a plum position in the army. Iago devises an evil plot in which he uses trickery and deception to lead Othello to believe that the virtuous Desdemona is cheating with the character Cassio. 

The story of Othello is your classic romantic triangle plus one.  It’s a story whose appeal over the centuries never seems to fade, having been made into movies and TV productions at least 24 times according to Wikipedia, as well as an opera, a ballet, and even a graphic novel and a game (otherwise known as Reversi).

As dreadful and inexcusable as Othello’s behavior was (and for which he paid by taking his own life), it’s actually Iago who’s the inherently evil one. Throughout the play, Iago expresses his psychopathic tendencies in words and deeds: “But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor” (i.e. Othello).  He talks about drowning “cats and puppies,” and considers framing Desdemona to be a “sport.”  In the process of turning Othello against the innocent Desdemona, Iago not only plants suspicions, but commits acts of outright lying.  Although he confides in his co-conspirator (who is himself motivated by revenge), he gives to everyone else the impression of being an “honest man,” making his sinister plot that much more effective.  

Over 400 years later, Othello is typically regarded by everyone from high school students writing term papers to many literary experts as providing insight into the universal human themes of love, jealousy, and racism. The psychopathic twist represented by Iago tends to be less clearly emphasized. Certainly, Iago gives enough “rationale” to justify his behavior (i.e. being snubbed by Othello during promotion time).  Less typically do we see Iago as portraying more than garden variety envy.  He seems to have a penchant for doling out trouble to others that goes beyond mere revenge.

Modern psychopaths in film and television are much more obviously motivated by a desire to create havoc and harm but their motives are often complex. Michael C. Hall’s character Dexter channels his obsession with blood through his day job as a forensic expert. Similarly, Bryan Cranston’s character Walter White in Breaking Bad works a second job of cooking meth in addition to teaching high school chemistry.  Much to the despair of their ardent fan base, both of these shows are set to expire in 2013. They are certain to be replaced soon enough. As consumers of fiction, we just can’t seem to get enough of the psychopathic lead character.

The fiction of the psychopath carries over into what many people believe to be fact.  Because fictional characters are so frequently the stuff of entertainment people tend to overestimate their prevalence. Australian researcher Carlo Caponecchia and colleagues (2012) found that people are more likely to apply the label of psychopath to their own coworkers than population statistics would justify. They shrink back from using this term, however, when they are asked to ponder the actual behavior of their coworkers at the office. The term “psychopath” is losing its meaning as its use becomes increasingly popularized and sensationalized in the media.

The great popular psychopathic characters of fiction are more than mere psychopaths.  They exhibit other shades of the “dark triad”: Machiavellianism (exploiting others) and narcissism (extreme self-centeredness).   Although in real life, narcissists are perceived more favorably than people high in the other two dark triad qualities (Rauthmann & Kolar, 2013), the darker the fictional anti-hero, the more we are compelled to watch him or her at work.  The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung proposed that we each carry an image (or archetype) of the hero deep in our unconscious roots. Fictional heroes resonate with this deep-seated longing we have to admire the epitome of honor and goodness.  The anti-hero draws us into a similarly powerful vortex through the shadow archetype which personifies pure evil. 

Even if you don’t buy into the Jungian viewpoint, there are good solid cognitively-based reasons to keep your eye on villains, whether in real life or in fiction. In real life situations, we need to protect ourselves from people who would cause us harm, both in the workplace and in romantic relationships.  Being a bit on guard may be a skill you learn from experience to be a useful protective mechanism, especially if you’ve been burned in the past. 

Watching the psychopath portrayed in fiction can, similarly, teach you coping skills.  After watching Iago do his dirty work, you may think twice about whether to believe a supposed “friend” whose bad advice could get you into trouble.  This explanation, though, doesn’t reveal why we’re so drawn to the Dexter Morgan’s or Walter White’s of the fictional world. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll encounter serial killers or high school teachers turned drug dealer in your daily life.  To understand our desire to learn about their world requires a different approach. 

A 2012 article in the Journal of Communication by Daniel Shafer and Arthur Raney explores the emotional enjoyment we derive from fiction known as Affective Disposition Theory (ADT) .  This theory predicts that we are drawn to fictional characters who we (a) like, (b) want to have succeed, and (c) end their stories on a positive note—in other words, the traditional hero. We want a hero’s behavior to be virtuous and uphold our own moral code.  Moral heroes should be rewarded and evil villains should be punished.  

Shafer and Raney believe that the logic of ADT needs to be tweaked to understand our enjoyment of antiheroes. Instead of triggering our ordinary moral judgments, stories in which we root for antiheroes embed cues that justify the “morally challenged” protagonist.  We disengage from our normal standards of morality and develop what they call a story “schema” (or expectation) that allows us to enjoy the antihero narrative.

Returning to the examples of psychopaths in fiction, we can see how the antihero version of ADT applies. Dexter became obsessed with blood after witnessing his mother’s bloody murder. He only murders people who themselves are killers, based on a "code" he was taught as a child. Walter is basically a good guy who found a way to use his knowledge of chemistry to provide financial security for his family. Their actions are justified within this new moral compass we develop as their backstories unfold. In contrast, Iago had no justification for his behavior because there’s no hard evidence (other than his own narcissistic claim) that he deserved the promotion that Othello didn’t give him.  For a psychopathic antihero to appeal to our sympathies, he or she must, according to ADT, have a reasonably valid reason for becoming a villain.

In everyday life, we may similarly cheer on the antiheroes of our own worlds. Have you ever rooted for coworkers whose shoddy treatment by a supervisor led them to seek revenge, such as spreading nasty rumors around the office? How about a friend who brags that she shoplifts from the grocery store because they overcharge for vegetables? Might you, over time, come to hope silently that she continues to get away with her petty thievery? Remembering the Australian study, it's possible you might call them “psychopaths,” but when you examine these behaviors, you'll give them a pass. Watching these minor antiheroes repeatedly get away with minor acts of supposedly justified revenge taps into the same moral disengagement we use when we watch our fictional antiheroes get away with murder and mayhem.

There may be satisfaction in seeing a villain- or a psychopath- being punished. However, under the right conditions our antiheroes can become heroes after all.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Caponecchia, C., Sun, A. Y. Z., & Wyatt, A. (2012). ‘Psychopaths’ at work? Implications of lay persons’ use of labels and behavioural criteria for psychopathy. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(4), 399-408. doi: 10.1007/s10551-011-1049-9

Rauthmann, J. F., & Kolar, G. P. (2013). The perceived attractiveness and traits of the Dark Triad: Narcissists are perceived as hot, Machiavellians and psychopaths not. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(5), 582-586. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.11.005

Shafer, D. M., & Raney, A. A. (2012). Exploring how we enjoy antihero narratives. Journal of Communication, 62, 1028-1046. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01682.x