A psychology professor asks: ‘Can you recognize a psychopath?’

Robert Durst, the real estate mogul and accused killer recently featured in an HBO documentary, seems to match the common public perception of a psychopath.

But Pascal Wallisch, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, points out that the public perception of psychopaths is not entirely accurate.

In an article for Slate.com, Wallisch does a good job of describing the current scientific understanding of this personality disorder.

Can you recognize a psychopath? on Slate.com.

I do, however, disagree with one of his statements. He says that psychopaths can’t help their behavior.

This is not true. Psychopaths are quite capable of controlling their behavior when they want to.

I would agree that they’re not capable of controlling their antisocial desires or impulses, but they can choose whether or not to act on them. As many of us know, they are usually able to act in socially appropriate ways when it suits their agenda, for example, as they’re reeling in a new target.

Still, Wallisch’s article makes a lot of good points. Take a look at the links as well.



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9 Comments on "A psychology professor asks: ‘Can you recognize a psychopath?’"

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“They are usually able to act in socially appropriate ways when it suits their agenda, for example, as they’re reeling in a new target.”

When the sociopath’s actions started to lose their control, potentially leaving evidence of what really happened, that is when I knew it was time to go while I still had my life. The author of the article thinks there is a dilemma regarding how to deal with psychopaths because “they can’t help it” but how putting away a psychopath any different than putting down a rabid dog? Both are incurable dangers to society.

To admit that sociopaths are able to control their impulses.
But then to say, “they can’t help it.”

So… not hold the most damaging beings of society accountable for their consequences of their behavior?


I thought this was a good article, but like Donna I did find it contradictory that in one sentence he says they can’t help themselves, but in another he seems to say they do have control over their behavior when it suits them. However, I like that it gets more information out there about psychopaths/sociopaths, even if I didn’t agree with some of the information in the article based on my own experience. Also, I started reading the comments, which was just frustrating. I think spaths must love to troll articles about psychopathy and use other commenters for their supply.

I agree with NoMoreWool also, I was a uncomfortable with the whole notion that there should be some kind of dilemma regarding punishing psychopaths. As there is more information brought up about pyschopathy I think it would be very dangerous to let an assumption that they can not control their behavior keep them from being punished. I can just imagine this line of reasoning allowing a pyschopath to use an insanity defense to get off a heinous crime.

The way I read this is that while they can situationally control their pyschopathy/sociopathy. It cannot be controlled in the bigger picture of their lives. Ours can behave herself in church, then suddenly find a place to focus her sociopathy and begin the drama. (Maybe that is a poor example… but this is something we have been struggling with for years to explain.)

“We must find ways to take the condition seriously without excusing psychopathic behavior.” Because of the seriousness of their accumulated behavior, their behavior cannot be excused. It may be that their brain is wired differently. They still know right from wrong and can situationally control themselves the same way batterers know that they can get away with beating their family but not their employer or minister. We may not have an ability to treat their “condition”. We do have the ability to shine a light on them – all of them and not just the most extreme examples. We can increase societal awareness of the danger they pose to all.

I think as more and more people come to awareness of sociopathic behavior they will find that 1 million is a vast understatement. I am one person who has been involved with two sociopaths – one I married and divorced and one in my now husband’s family. Either I am really good at finding them or their prevalence in society is underestimated.

Hey Bets….You stated “Either I am really good at finding them (referring to sociopaths) or their prevalence in society is underestimated.” You are spot on! The conservative estimate is 1 out of 25 people are sociopaths. I disagree”..make it more like 1 out of 10! I am currently retired but my last two jobs I worked under sociopathic/bully bosses. Had I known then what I know now perhaps I would not have taken the positions. It’s hard to say when you’re 57 and in need of work. I do know of 2 sociopaths (neighbors) in my condo complex so 1 out of 25 doesn’t cut it! They are everywhere!

Unfortunately, I agree with everyone who states that “they’re” far more prevalent than believed!

I’m with you, unfortunately. In our ignorance they (spaths)are continually rewarded by a society built on the mercenary and what material things they thereby acquire….i.e. nice houses, cars, the latest cell phones, t.v.’s, clothes and “toys” of every imaginable kind. That constitutes ‘success’ as opposed to character, integrity, responsibility of bygone eras.

Since punishment doesn’t work to effect change in a spath, protecting others from being harmed should be the focus of incarceration or whatever consequence is imposed on a spath’s choice of behavior.

I see the motivation underlying the spath’s behavior choices as the principle difference between a spath and a normal person. They are motivated by what they want at any given time based on momentary whim rather than long term planning. However they are capable of fairly complex long term schemes to get what they want. They are not motivated by desire to cooperate and enhance the well being of others. They do not ‘bond’ with others. They are not motivated by conscience and a sense of right and wrong. They do not desire to have the pride and satisfaction that comes from doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, from helping others, and in the case of male psychopaths they don’t desire to have the self satisfaction of being a man who uses his strength in service of others, nor to be a provider and protector of women and children. They are motivated to exploit others and to lie pathologically to get what they want.
There may be a genetic propensity to think and act as a spath, (as there is a genetic propensity for alcoholism) but there is a conscious choice on some level to take the life path that spaths take. They know right from wrong enough to fake it; seems like it would be easier to actually do right consistently instead of just faking it to deceive and exploit others.

First off I would like to take total exception that learning is best achieved by punishment. All learning is best achieved by rewarding proper behavior. Our penal system often creates worse offenders than the ones who went in. The main identifying characteristic of these creatures is a lack of empathy and an inability to love. That is what drives them all as they try to fit into a world where they do not fit. The ones who end up in jail are usually less intelligent, less educated and less capable of pretending to fit in, perhaps less able to control their behavior. The ones who are intelligent and educated learn how to appear to fit in. They learn to manipulate instead of get along, they learn to use instead of cooperate, they learn to charm instead of care and then they learn to abuse to get what they want. The abuse comes easily as they have no conscience to stop them and they actually learn to enjoy the abuse because it makes them feel better than the target. They have been referred to as Snakes in Suits in the book by the same name, “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare and their only purpose here on earth is to cause harm to others in order to feel better about themselves. The only thing that differs is the degree of harm they are able to inflict. They have brain abnormalities, are born this way and cannot be cured. The only option for society is to rid itself of these unholy predators on humanity.


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