Here’s something you might not know.
According to the American Psychological Association, one in every hundred people is a psychopath.
Now that you know it, you might wish you didn’t. You might have just done the math and realized there may be 440 psychopaths at large in Evergreen. You might find this alarming because the movie “Psycho” taught you and everybody else that psychopaths are all mother-stuffing shower-stabbers. But you might be relieved to know that, while psychopaths are a statistically dangerous bunch, very few practice taxidermy.
Psychopathy is the semi-identical twin of sociopathy, and together they’re classified as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Psychopaths and sociopaths have much in common. They’re both risk junkies with a pervasive disregard for law, disdain for social norms, and an abiding indifference to the feelings and misfortunes of others. Both typically achieve their ends by deceit, manipulation and treachery. People with ASPD exist at the top of their food chain, ruthless in service to themselves. What’s good for them is good, and that really is all there is to it.
But there are important differences between sociopaths and psychopaths. Occupying their own 1 percent of the population, sociopaths are impulsive hot-heads tending to emotional outbursts and irresponsibility. They’re masters at the blame game, and most quickly accumulate a string of failed relationships, a drawer full of pink slips and a small-time rap sheet. Dare to cut a sociopath off in traffic and there could be trouble.
While sociopaths are capable of forming limited emotional connections, that won’t stop them from throwing their nearest and dearest to the wolves if it serves a selfish purpose. A sociopath can steal a good friend blind and feel sorry for them in the same stroke. Fortunately, you can usually see a sociopath coming. They’re better than you, more deserving than you, and they want you to know it.
Cool and cold-blooded, psychopaths are a lot harder to peg. They’re generally intelligent, organized, often successful. They’re a good neighbor, a good employee, a good citizen. About two-thirds of them are men. Psychopaths are perfect conformists, at least when eyes are on them. But the psychopath’s civility is a meticulously maintained veneer, protective coloration, cunning mimicry that allows them to move freely among the fold without raising alarm.
If anything, psychopaths have less use for the rest of humanity than do sociopaths. They’re incapable of forming human attachments, or of tapping into a whole range of humanity’s better angels. They’re strangers to compassion, empathy, trust, shame, duty. No pity, no regret… sorry, not sorry.
Psychopaths are calculating, deliberate, remorselessly practical. Cut a psychopath off in traffic and they won’t take it personally, because they don’t take anything personally, because they don’t acknowledge any personhood besides their own. Psychopaths aren’t driven to kill, they simply have no internal barriers to killing, and no regard for external ones. And should a psychopath find it convenient to stab you in the back, they won’t bother twisting the knife. To commit a crime of passion, you have to care, and psychopaths just don’t.
But they do commit a lot of crimes dispassionately. According to the National Institutes of Health, at any given moment, maybe 90 percent of adult male psychopaths are in prison, in jail, on parole, or on probation. Up to a third of convicted murderers in the U.S. meet the clinical criteria for psychopathy. And while psychopaths are more apt to con you than kill you, their murderous reputation has been fortified by the sometimes exceptionally callous or monstrous nature of their crimes. Serial killing, for example, is largely the domain of psychopaths.
You’d think that life without the burden of conscience would be pretty swell, but you couldn’t prove it by a psychopath. We’re a social species, after all, and just because psychopaths don’t warm up to the rest of us doesn’t mean they don’t recognize their own strangeness, sense an icy hole in their chest where intimacy should be, crave a personal connection they’re not able to make. Psychopaths are a generally unhappy lot, prone to substance abuse, depression and dangerous habits. Isolated within themselves, they’re lone wolves forever watching from the darkness just beyond the campfire light.
Ancient literature positively teems with examples of psychopathic behavior, and today that problematic percentage is dispersed equally across the globe, confined by no geographic, ethnic or economic boundaries. Given its self-destructive aspects, one might wonder why psychopathy didn’t naturally select itself out of the gene pool a long time ago. That it’s still going strong suggests that ASPD may serve an evolutionary purpose.
There has been much discussion in psychiatric circles lately regarding “good” psychopaths, and there are many who believe they possess characteristics worthy of emulation. Traits common to psychopaths include fearlessness, coolness under pressure, a keen ability to focus, an easy and winning charm, and the unblinking willingness to do whatever it takes to whomever it takes to achieve their goals. “Good” psychopaths are often leaders, persuasive, pragmatic, ambitious. A lot of corporate CEOs display all the signs and symptoms. Less surprising, 12 percent of politicians check all the boxes, and most of them check most of them.
While we’re on the topic, the five professions most favored by psychopaths are, in ascending order of popularity, surgeon, salesperson, media personality, lawyer and business executive. Where you won’t find a lot of ASPD cases are in the artist’s studio, the classroom, the local nonprofit, or anywhere in the hospital outside of the OR. Psychopaths don’t do nurture.
As to psychopathy’s causes, science’s best guess presumes a 50 percent genetic component, a 10 percent environmental component, and a 40 percent component to be named later. And because you’re wondering—no, there is no cure. The best psychiatry can do for the adult psychopath is apply open-ended psychotherapy, behavioral skills training, and perpetual education on the importance of an orderly society, which approach has yet to produce quantifiable results. On the other hand, for children displaying early symptoms of ASPD, an intensive program of group therapy and decompression treatment appears to hold some small promise.
There’s at least one psychopath in your neighborhood, and maybe several. If you work in a large office you cc psychopaths all the time. And whenever you vote, however you vote, there’s a good chance you’re voting for
But, then, maybe you already know that.