“Psychopaths kill more people in North America every year than the number killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” This fact is quite scary and comes from the book The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience by Kent A. Kiehl, PhD. Are you a psychopath? Is your neighbor a psychopath? Is your mother-in-law a psychopath? I think that we have all at one point in time used the “psychopath” word to describe someone we have encountered. There is a definitive way of assessing this disorder and it is called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This assessment is performed by a trained interviewer and rates a person on categories known to be present among psychopaths: Glibness/Superficial Charm, Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth, Need for Stimulation/Proneness to Boredom, Pathological Lying, Conning/Manipulation, Lack of Remorse or Guilt, Shallow Affect, Callous/Lack of Empathy, Parasitic Lifestyle, Poor Behavioral Controls, Promiscuous Sexual Behavior, Early Behavioral Problems, Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals, Impulsivity, Irresponsibility, Failure to Accept Responsibility for own Actions, Many Short-Term Marital Relationships, Juvenile Delinquency, Revocation of Conditional Release, and Criminal Versatility. Holy Cow! Don’t worry if you identify with some of these categories because you need a fairly high score on the overall assessment to be considered a psychopath. In addition to this identification process, new research is showing that the brains of psychopaths are actually abnormal compared to the general population. More specifically, the paralimbic system, which is responsible for processing emotional stimuli, is atrophied and less active in psychopaths compared to non-psychopaths. Functional MRI scans of the brain can accurately assess the activity of the paralimbic system and if a person scores high on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist it is almost always the case that their paralimbic system is compromised.
Psychopaths are normally very smart individuals but what they lack is emotional intelligence. Since their paralimbic system is less functional they are unable to sufficiently process emotions; this is like reading the lyrics to a song but never hearing the music. They are extremely literal and have great difficulty with abstract thinking. Their limited emotional capabilities are why many psychopaths commit unthinkable crimes and seem to have no remorse or care for subsequent punishment. This is why psychopaths are repeat offenders and usually have a very long list of committed crimes. Punishment in general does not work with psychopaths and going to prison for them is no different than going to a condo in the Florida Keys. What is really scary is that researchers believe the paralimbic system may be atrophied in psychopaths since birth. There are many parents that have children that do not respond to punishment, abuse animals, enjoy arson, and have several other traits on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. So is a child who exhibits psychopathic tendencies destined to be the next John Wayne Gacy? Yes and no. The chances are higher but with the correct atmosphere and positive behavioral reinforcement a callous and unemotional child can become a functioning member of society. In the future, hopefully we can prevent the next Ted Bundy by identifying high risk children and putting them through research-proven treatment. Sadly, we currently are reactive when it comes to mental illness (remember all the public shootings last year) and need to be more proactive in helping individuals who are struggling. In the end, psychopaths make up a small percentage of the population but they are a real threat and more awareness of treating mental illness is needed to prevent heinous crimes from occurring. What is your take on mental illness? How can we improve the treatment process? Do you suspect a psychopath lives next door?