What Is a Psychopath?

What does the word 'psycho' really mean?

The term "psychopath" is thrown around a lot in modern society. We use it to describe someone who has no control over their actions and behaves in a very unhinged manner. The word itself conjures up images of mad axe murderers and vicious killers, and whilst some of those people may be psychopaths, it is not a typical representation of psychopathy. They are portrayed as dangerous, violent criminals who stick out like a sore thumb; but, in reality, they are more likely to seem totally normal and, in fact, quite nice to be around. In reality, you may well know a psychopath.

In fact, psychopaths are often highly-integrated and successful people in society. According to a study by The Independent, psychopaths are often found in the following jobs:

  • CEO
  • Lawyer
  • TV and radio
  • Sales
  • Surgeon
  • Journalist
  • Police officer
  • Clergy person
  • Chef
  • Civil servant

Psychopathy or Psychosis?: The First Mistake

But what is a psychopath? There are two common mistakes many people make when thinking about psychopathy. The first mistake is to confuse psychopathy with psychosis; if someone is suffering from psychosis then, according to the National Health Service, they are suffering from a mental health condition which causes them to interpret things differently than what is considered to be the norm. The two main symptoms of psychosis are hallucinations and delusions.

The Second Mistake

The second mistake is to consider psychopathy a mental health condition. The American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-–5) states that psychopathy is an antisocial personality disorder and this differs from a mental health condition, as those with psychopathy have been found to be unresponsive to treatment such as medication or cognitive behavioural therapy. Those with antisocial personality disorders are so resistant to treatment that the NHS will not license any medication for these disorders.

How to Spot a Psychopath

Of course, an official diagnosis can only be made by a professional, but there is a definitive list designed to identify a psychopath. The 20-item checklist was the brainchild of eminent criminal psychologist Dr. Robert Hare and, for each item, the patient in question must be given a score of 0, 1, or 2 depending on how well the statement applies to them. The recognized bar for psychopathy is 30 or more.

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (PCL-R):

  • Glib and superficial charm
  • Grandiose (extremely high) estimation of self
  • Need for stimulation
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning and manipulative
  • Superficial emotional responses
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Parasitic lifestyle (manipulating others for personal gain)
  • Callousness and lack of empathy
  • Poor behavioral controls
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Early behavior problems
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irresponsibility
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release (parole violations)
  • Criminal versatility

Famous Psychopaths

There have been countless psychopaths throughout history, but here are some of the most memorable

Josef Mengele: Dubbed "The Angel of Death," Mengele was responsible for some of the most shocking and disturbing medical experiments in history.

Adolf Hitler: Psychopath personified, Hitler fit the bill in almost every way.

The Zodiac Killer: One of the most notorious unsolved crimes in history, the Zodiac killer case remains unsolved. He murdered a number of women and taunted the police with his mysterious messages.

Not All Psychopaths Are Murderers

It must be stressed that these are not typical representations of psychopathic behaviour; they are extreme cases and many psychopaths will live normal lives without ever harming anyone. It is the dangerous and violent ones that give a bad name to the rest of them; they are the ones that make the headlines, so they are the ones that people always remember and associate with psychopathy. 

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What Is a Psychopath?