Here’s the headline for the cover story in the September/October issue of Scientific American Mind magazine:
Inside the mind of a psychopath
Neuroscientists are discovering that some of the most cold-blooded killers aren’t bad. They suffer from a brain abnormality that sets them adrift in an emotionless world.
The authors of the article are Kent A. Kiehl and Joshua W. Buckholtz. Dr. Kiehl is the researcher who examines the brains of psychopaths in prison using fMRI technology. Lovefraud wrote about him before in Psychopaths, crime and choice.
This latest article, Inside the mind of a psychopath, is an excellent overview of the personality disorder. It summarizes the characteristics of psychopaths, with chilling anecdotes to describe their behavior. It briefly explains the biology of the disorder—describing areas of the brain that are abnormal. It explains research that has shed light on different aspects of how psychopaths differ from the rest of us.
The article is well-written, thorough and understandable. In it, Kiehl and Buckholtz write specifically about the individuals who meet the definition of a psychopath used by researchers in the field: someone scoring at least 30 out of 40 on the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R).
I can understand this limitation from a research perspective, but for society as a whole, it’s a problem.
Psychopathy Checklist Revised
The PCL-R was developed by Dr. Robert Hare, and the article includes a summary of how it works. The evaluation covers 20 behaviors and traits. A clinician assigns a score of 0, 1 or 2 for each item, based on how well the description matches the subject.
The scores are based on both an interview with the subject, and a review of the information in his or her file. This is critical, of course, because psychopaths can be extremely charming in an interview, and conveniently forget to talk about their malignant histories.
The PCL-R evaluates the following behaviors and traits:
- Need for stimulation and proneness to boredom
- Parasitic lifestyle
- Poor behavioral control
- Sexual promiscuity
- Lack of realistic long-term goals
- Early behavior problems
- Juvenile delinquency
- Parole of probation violations
- Glibness and superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Conning and manipulativeness
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Shallow affect
- Callousness and lack of empathy
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- Committing a wide variety of crimes
- Having many short-term marital relationships
The maximum score on the PCL-R is 40, which means that the person was rated as 2—“a reasonably good match”—on every item. To be considered a true psychopath, an individual must have a score of 30.
Prevalence of psychopaths
The criteria used by researchers to diagnose psychopaths is stringent, so the total number of people who have this disorder comes out as far lower what we usually talk about here on Lovefraud.
Here’s what the article says about the prevalence of psychopaths in society:
• People with the disorder make up 0.5 to 1 percent of the general population.
• When you discount children, women (for reasons that remain a puzzle, few women are afflicted), and those who are already locked up, that translates to approximately 250,000 psychopaths living freely in the U.S.
• Some researchers have estimated that as many as 500,000 psychopaths inhabit the U.S. prison system.
• Between 15 and 35 percent of U.S. prisoners are psychopaths.
• Psychopaths offend earlier, more frequently and more violently than others, and they are four to eight times more likely to commit new crimes on release.
• Kiehl recently estimated that the expense of prosecuting and incarcerating psychopaths, combined with the costs of the havoc they wreak in others’ lives, totals $250 billion to $400 billion a year.
What does the article say about people who may not qualify as card-carrying psychopaths, scoring less than 30 out of 40 on the PCL-R? Not much. A box accompanying the article, called Do you know a psychopath?, contains the only reference:
The thing is, everyone falls somewhere on the psychopathy continuum. The average person scores about a 4, but there are plenty who rank in the teens and 20s—not high enough to receive an official diagnosis, yet possessing significant (and often noticeable) psychopathic tendencies—the bullying boss, the drifter, the irresponsible guy who is always milking the generosity of friends and lovers.
Now, I don’t know who wrote the paragraph above—the authors of the main article, Kiehl and Buckholtz, or some editor at Scientific American Mind magazine. But the overall effect is that scope and danger of the psychopathy problem is significantly underplayed. The question is, why?
What is to be gained by low-balling the prevalence of this personality disorder in society?
I don’t know how many of us were involved with someone who would score 30 or more on the PCL-R. But I am willing to say that most of us have experienced something significantly more damaging than, “the bullying boss, the drifter, the irresponsible guy who is always milking the generosity of friends and lovers.”
Maybe we were with people who would have scored between 10 and 29. Dr. Liane Leedom recently reported that another psychopathy researcher, Dr. Reid Meloy, says people who score between 10 and 19 have a “mild psychopathic disturbance” and people who score between 20 and 29 have a “moderate psychopathic disturbance.” Why does Kiehl ignore them?
And how about all the women who exhibit these traits? Why did Kiehl and Buckholtz give them a blanket exemption? And children? Dr. Robert Hare acknowledges that psychopathic traits can be seen in children. He’s even developed a version of the PCL-R that can be used to evaluate children as young as age 12.
The bottom line is that many psychopathy researchers work with prisoners. It’s easy to understand why—prisoners are literally a captive audience. Plus, I imagine that funding is available.
But this focus on the worst of the worst, those locked up for truly heinous crimes, vastly underestimates the danger of people with psychopathic traits, even if they don’t cross the 30-point threshold. And this is really bad for society.
Read Inside the mind of a psychopath on TheMindInstitute.org.
Link supplied by a Lovefraud reader.