What Science Says About People with Psychopathy

There's a general lack of knowledge about what psychopathy is. We review what science has to say about it.
What Science Says About People with Psychopathy
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 12 May, 2023

Contrary to its historical importance and popular use, psychopathy is not a diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in its current edition (DSM-V). It was in the first two editions, although from the third it was replaced by antisocial personality disorder. Let’s see what science says about people with psychopathy.

For decades there have been discrepancies when defining the features of psychopathy. It has traditionally been associated with criminal settings and people with an underlying mental health disorder. There’s no single definition of what psychopathy is, although today we’ll investigate what scientists know about it.

This is what science says about people with psychopathy

The term psychopathy is used to refer to personality traits that are characterized by superficial emotional responses, lack of empathy, impulsiveness, and an increased likelihood of antisocial behavior. According to some estimates, up to 4.5% of the population manifest psychopathic personality traits.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reminds us that it’s very common to develop psychopathic tendencies, even if it isn’t the condition itself. Up to 30% of the general population manifest reduced empathy, high self-esteem, and high-risk behaviors.

Psychopathic behavior varies greatly from one person to another, both in intensity and in the traits themselves. Let’s take a look at some of the traits:

  • Lack of empathy towards others
  • The tendency to manipulate or deceive (such as through gaslighting)
  • Absence of remorse
  • Narcissistic attitudes
  • Insensitivity and lack of emotions towards events that should awaken their emotions.
  • The tendency to develop antisocial behaviors.
  • Reduced recognition of facial emotions in others.
  • Difficulty making decisions based on reinforcement.
  • Alterations of moral judgment (transgressions that imply harm to another person).

On the other hand, people with traits of psychopathy or outright psychopaths develop a natural charm. They are pleasant to socialize with, talkative, charismatic, funny, and even kind.

This trait is only skin deep, and it doesn’t stick around for long. They may also develop a tendency toward compulsive behaviors, pathological lying, arrogance, a parasitic lifestyle (depending on someone else for a living), promiscuous sexual behavior, and a lack of purpose in life.

We emphasize again that the psychopathic personality traits and the disorder or condition itself are separate entities. Many people can manifest the traits we have mentioned without being psychopathic, and being psychopathic doesn’t imply a tendency to commit sexual crimes or murder (as we often see on television).

According to the researchers, psychopathic traits, particularly those of an emotional nature, are relatively stable from childhood to adulthood. It’s for this reason that the signs are manifested in childhood and are accentuated at the beginning of adolescence.

In this last stage, the person expands their social circle and consolidates their interpersonal relationships, so that the traits will solidify during or after puberty.

What are the causes of psychopathy according to science?

Psychopathy and science are related
It’s very likely that the greatest explanation for psychopathic behaviors is due to genetics.

Science has long debated the causes of psychopathy. So far there’s no consensus among researchers, but it’s believed that its triggers are multifactorial.

Some research published in Personality Neuroscience in 2019 found that genetic and neurobiological differences are the basis of psychopathy, concluding that life experiences only influence expressed psychopathic characteristics and their severity.

In this sense, the genetic predisposition and the environment where the person lives are the triggers for the disorder. Based on this, some experts and researchers endorse the use of the terms primary psychopathy and secondary psychopathy.

In the first case, it’s used to refer to behavior caused by biological deficits, whereas in the second case it’s used for various forms of social disadvantage.

The current notion then dictates that psychopathic individuals inherit a genetic basis that translates into altered brain functioning and physiological reactivity. Along with certain triggers or environmental influences, this genetic basis shapes their behavior in childhood.

Child abuse, child maltreatment, education, childhood traumas, and other episodes of adversity are the environmental components that affect their development.

Psychopathy vs. sociopathy

Psychopathy according to science corresponds to people with antisocial behaviors
Isolation and some antisocial behavior are typical of sociopathic people, but also of some psychopaths.

The terms psychopathy and sociopathy are often used interchangeably. As with psychopathy, sociopathy isn’t included in the DSM-V. Its traits aren’t described in any official diagnostic manual, although, clinically, sociopathy refers to people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

ASPD is a dysfunctional disorder characterized by the prevalence of delinquent, criminal, and socially exploitative behavior. Contempt and violation of the integrity of others are common manifestations of the disorder.

Therefore, sociopathy is the popular term to refer to ASPD, while, for the time being, psychopathy is classified as a personality trait with a negative alteration in empathy and emotions.

Is there any treatment for psychopathy?

There’s no standardized treatment to address psychopathy. Evidence indicates that the main obstacle to coping with psychopathy is that subjects with the traits don’t think they have anything wrong with them.

For this reason, the percentage of them that seek professional help is very low, and even the abandonment rates among those who do seek professional help are very high. Given the degree of neuroplasticity and the social factors that come into play, the treatment is more successful when applied to children or young people in full puberty.

The traits are easy to identify, so, when detecting them, you should ask for the help of a psychology expert to plan out a course of action.

  • Anderson NE, Kiehl KA. Psychopathy: developmental perspectives and their implications for treatment. Restor Neurol Neurosci. 2014;32(1):103-17.
  • Frazier A, Ferreira PA, Gonzales JE. Born this way? A review of neurobiological and environmental evidence for the etiology of psychopathy. Personal Neurosci. 2019 Oct 23;2:e8.
  • Lynam DR, Caspi A, Moffitt TE, Loeber R, Stouthamer-Loeber M. Longitudinal evidence that psychopathy scores in early adolescence predict adult psychopathy. J Abnorm Psychol. 2007 Feb;116(1):155-65.
  • Newman JP, MacCoon DG, Vaughn LJ, Sadeh N. Validating a distinction between primary and secondary psychopathy with measures of Gray’s BIS and BAS constructs. J Abnorm Psychol. 2005 May;114(2):319-23.
  • Vaughn, M. G., Edens, J. F., Howard, M. O., & Smith, S. T. An investigation of primary and secondary psychopathy in a statewide sample of incarcerated youth. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. 2009; 7(3): 172-188.
  • Sanz-García A, Gesteira C, Sanz J, García-Vera MP. Prevalence of Psychopathy in the General Adult Population: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Front Psychol. 2021 Aug 5;12:661044.

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