Psychopaths not all psychos

June 19, 2012 By Laura Rico
“There is no real recipe for psychopathic personality disorder,” says Jennifer Skeem, UCI professor of psychology & social behavior. “The environmental factors are as ill-defined as the genetic factors, although antisocial behavior mixed with a history of punitive discipline, abuse and neglect seems to apply in many cases.” Credit: Steve Zylius / University Communications

Jennifer Skeem’s research requires that she spend time inside the minds of individuals most of us try to avoid: psychopaths.

Psychopathy is a complicated and widely misunderstood personality disorder, says the UC Irvine professor of psychology & social behavior, marked by boldness, fearlessness, cruelty, aggression and impulsivity.

While some people believe psychopaths are born, not made, Skeem stresses that the condition is shaped by the complex interaction of both environmental and genetic factors.

“There is no real recipe for psychopathic personality disorder,” she says. “The environmental factors are as ill-defined as the genetic factors, although antisocial behavior mixed with a history of punitive discipline, abuse and neglect seems to apply in many cases.”

Some of Skeem’s findings might come as a surprise to a public that equates the condition with serial killers and fictional characters such as Hannibal Lecter.

Psychopathy is not synonymous with violence, Skeem notes. In fact, she has found that psychopathic people often have no history of violent behavior or criminal convictions.

“An individual doesn’t necessarily need to be physically violent or a common street criminal to have psychopathic traits,” she says. Researchers estimate that about 1 percent of the general population are psychopaths.

Skeem points to Gordon Gekko, the unscrupulous financial executive played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” as someone with all the signs of psychopathy.

She cites Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff and Enron executive Andrew Fastow – ruthless, detached individuals who showed little remorse for robbing victims of their life savings – as real-life examples. Psychopathic traits helped them quickly climb the corporate ladder yet ultimately led to their downfall.

Can such traits ever be used for good? Skeem notes that the bold, risk-taking bomb squad leader in the Academy Award-winning movie “The Hurt Locker” succeeded in a high-pressure environment thanks to psychopathic tendencies.

Of course, some psychopaths do resort to violence and crime. But according to Skeem, youth and adults with high scores on measures of psychopathy can exhibit reduced violent and criminal behavior after intensive treatment, such as mental health counseling and drug abuse rehabilitation.

“There is scant scientific evidence to support the claim of ‘once a psychopath, always a psychopath,’” she says.

While not necessarily destructive or physically threatening, psychopaths are usually unpleasant people. Callousness, selfishness and lack of guilt make personal and professional relationships with them unbearable.

So how should you handle a psychopath in the workplace or at your next family reunion?

“You can try to work with the individual to get him or her therapy and treatment,” Skeem says. “But if you don’t have that kind of investment in the person, it’s best to keep a distance.”

She directs the School of Social Ecology’s Risk Reduction Research Lab, where her team focuses on understanding why some people with mental disorders engage in self-harm, violence and criminal behavior – and others do not.

Skeem hopes her work can be used to inform legal decisions – on sentencing and parole, for example – concerning high-risk, high-need individuals. Decisions based on faulty assumptions about risk for violence and amenability to treatment can have adverse consequences for both offenders and the public, she notes.

“Research on psychopathy has evolved to a level that it can greatly improve on the current one-size-fits-all policy approach,” Skeem says.

Explore further: Psychopathy: A misunderstood personality disorder

Related Stories

Psychopathy: A misunderstood personality disorder

December 7, 2011
Psychopathic personalities are some of the most memorable characters portrayed in popular media today. These characters, like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Frank Abagnale Jr. from Catch Me If You Can and Alex from ...

Myths about psychopaths busted

December 19, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- New research challenges the belief that psychopaths are born not made, and suggests psychopaths may even be able to change their spots.

Research project on psychopaths finds there is hope for treatment

October 21, 2011
Lindsay Sewall has spent the last three years studying a feared and misunderstood segment of the population: Psychopaths.

Study links mental health issues to youth violence

September 2, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Serious mental health issues in childhood may predict future youth violence, according to a UT Dallas study sponsored by a grant from the National Institute of Justice.

Recommended for you

Gene associated with schizophrenia risk regulates neurodevelopment

September 25, 2017
A gene associated with the risk of schizophrenia regulates critical components of early brain development, according to a new study led by researchers from Penn State University. The gene is involved in the translation of ...

Child abuse affects brain wiring

September 25, 2017
Researchers from the McGill Group for Suicide Studies, based at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University's Department of Psychiatry, have just published research in the American Journal of Psychiatry ...

For a better 'I,' there needs to be a supportive 'we'

September 25, 2017
If you're one of those lucky individuals with high motivation and who actively pursues personal growth goals, thank your family and friends who support you.

Babies can learn that hard work pays off

September 21, 2017
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different ...

Study links brain inflammation to suicidal thinking in depression

September 21, 2017
Patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) have increased brain levels of a marker of microglial activation, a sign of inflammation, according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry by researchers at the University of ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

A_Paradox
not rated yet Jun 23, 2012
Am I right that the terms psychopathy and narcissism describe the same condition? Either way, the essence of the problem is lack of empathy.

It is well that Professor Skeem is optimistic about the possibility of rehabilitation for some psychopathic offenders. One thing that concerns me though is that psychopathy is absolutely the single most dangerous characteristic that we do NOT want in leaders of social organisations, indeed in leaders of any organisations. Some time ago on Physorg.com there was an article about brain imaging which showed narcissists to have a deficiency of activity in a region of the medial right side frontal cortex.

We all need to hear of the development of a 99% effective scan so as to exclude narcissists from positions of power. Just as railway companies exclude colour blind people from driving railway engines, and from other occupations I believe.

And of course persons so discriminated against should receive just financial compensation. A good investment!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.