By March 4, 2008 89 Comments Read More →

It’s not that the psychopath’s beliefs are awry (they are); it’s that his desires are too perverse and too uninhibited

I was recently reading a 2003 paper in the journal Nature called Forensic psychology: Violence viewed by psychopathic murderers which is both interesting and frustrating. Interesting because it demonstrates that, even amongst murderers, psychopathic murderers are different. Frustrating because the authors extrapolate their finding in a way that is ultimately misleading being so narrow as to completely miss the point.

I pick this particular study only because it is rather typical of scientific studies in the field: 1. it neglects to consider what the psychopath gets out of behaving the way he does, and 2. it let’s the psychopath off the hook.

The study
13 psychopathic murderers, 17 non-psychopathic murderers, 39 psychopathic other offenders and 52 non-psychopathic other offenders were given the Implicit Association Test (IAT) .

Briefly, uppercase words (for example, ‘UGLY’) are classified as being ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’, and lowercase words (for example, ‘kill’) are classified as ‘violent’ or ‘peaceful’, by pressing corresponding buttons. When the same response key is assigned for both the unpleasant and violent words (this is termed the congruent condition), most people find the task easy. But when pleasant and violent words share the same response key (the incongruent condition), most people find this confusing. The association between ‘pleasant—unpleasant’ and ‘violent—peaceful’ is indexed by means of the IAT effect (reaction time for the incongruent condition minus reaction time for the congruent condition).

The psychopathic murderers showed a much lower IAT effect than the non-psychopathic murderers or the other psychopaths in the study.

The researchers’ conclusion

They conclude that there are two groups of psychopaths, one of which has an increased disposition towards extreme violence. So far so good. They also claim the following:

Our results indicate that the reduced violent-IAT effect seen in psychopathic murderers is likely to be due to their abnormal beliefs about violence, rather than to some other nonspecific effect such as poor impulse control and/or deficits in decision-making. Psychopathic murderers have diminished negative reactions to violence compared with non-psychopathic murderers and other offenders.

The fallacy
The great sociologist C. Wright Mills once said: “Every cobbler thinks leather is the only thing,” by which he meant ‘read what I write critically; I’m a sociologist and so I tend to have a sociological explanation for everything.’ Well, our researchers have done something similar. Because their test has found abnormal cognitive associations regarding violence among psychopathic murderers, they take it that this accounts for the psychopathic murderers’ predisposition to extreme violence. The authors’ speak of psychopaths having “deficient social beliefs” and “negative beliefs”, and it is these “abnormal beliefs about violence” (and not poor impulse control and/or deficits in decesion-making) that make them disposed towards extreme violence.

But this factor just happens to be what the researcher’s have been testing; just because they found it doesn’t mean that it is THE predisposing factor. Presumably if they had been testing, say, cholesterol-levels and found a difference they’d say that’s they key.

But it’s worse that that. Something in they way they phrase the matter concerns me. They say (with my reworkings in bold):

  • “…due to their abnormal beliefs about violence”.
    …due to their pleasure in violence (which is, of course accompanied by abnormal beliefs).
  • “Psychopathic murderers have diminished negative reactions to violence compared with non-psychopathic murderers and other offenders.”
    They have increased positive reactions to violence.

In the British TV show Cracker, the main character, Dr. Fitzgerald is asked why he drinks and smokes so much. “Because I like it!”, he says defiantly. This precisely the point. Maybe Fitz could be shown to have abonormal beliefs about drinking and smoking (he’s a gambler too), but he’s insightful enough to know that it’s not the beliefs that cause the behaviour – he does them because he wants to.

Psychopaths enjoy doing evil; they do it not despite the pain it cause others but because that pain increases their enjoyment.

Leave pleasure out of the picture and we missed an awful lot. Or am I wrong?

Comment on this article

89 Comments on "It’s not that the psychopath’s beliefs are awry (they are); it’s that his desires are too perverse and too uninhibited"

Notify of

Dear Polly,

You make a wonderful and very compelling point for your feelings. ((((hugs)))))


I don’t know if you post here or not anymore, but your post here was absolutely amazing as was the whole thread. I had never stopped to think that what my exPOS was doing to me was to purposely harm me, even though he was. I could not verbalize it. This thread brought up tons of memories to which facial expressions, things said and done take on a whole new meaning with regards to my relationshit. He did it on PURPOSE. WITH INTENT TO HURT. ANd how do I know that? Because he did the same shit OVER AND OVER AND OVER again, just as he did it to his wife too. His reactions/responses to things where I would be appalled he would stand there with smirk on his face, half the time waiting for a reaction out of me. I remember SO many times when he did this. He would have me literally crying my eyes out or begging him to fix the pain he was causing me. He did things DELIBERATELY when I asked him SPECIFICALLY not to do it!!! THAT IS TRULY EVIL SHIT!!!!!

And because I am NOT evil, I can’t THINK like that. Oh, I’ve said some things out of anger and pain that I’ve lived to regret, but if I’m called on something, if nothing else, I’ll beat the shit out of myself for having done it. A spath doesn’t spend FIVE MINUTES, let alone five seconds considering such a thing.

This thread has a tremendous and powerful impact on me.


Bingo! was the first response to this article. It is spot on!
Polly, your post is incredibly insightful, thankyou.

LL, I had missed this one. thanks for bring it up.
Yep, we are NOT evil and we DON’T think that way. We may be capable of being as manipulative as the spath. We may have many spath abilities, but we don’t enjoy another person’s pain. That is the difference. Another difference is that we WANT to grow and become more than we are. That’s HUMILITY, LL. Spaths are the opposite. They don’t want to grow up or change. They are as good as they willl ever be when they were in diapers. MY SPATH TOLD ME SO!!!

Thte desire for change is what makes us different.

Dear LL – yes I do still read and post here though not as much as I used to. Thanks so much for your comment – I’m looking back at the woman who wrote it and am just stunned at the improvement in my feelings and life since being away from him. What a difference a year and a bit can make. I realise I have residual trust issues, but am now feeling more ‘grown up’ in standing up for myself and choosing what I want for my life. I never had that option in the marriage. My choices didn’t matter. How are you doing at the moment?

Skylar – thanks – it’s such a big change in a short time as you know, but there are still issues remaining and I realise I will never be the same as I was. I’m sad about that, but I can’t change it. So life has to move on. And finally after feeling stuck for the longest time, it is moving on in tangible ways.

Hugs to you ladies in your bits of the world 🙂 Hope you’re having a happy week 🙂

Polly, well, I’m struggling, but these articles, some of them just go POW right in the kisser! It wakes up more junk inside that the spath put there. I’m so glad you posted a response to mine and I see how well you’re doing after your experience. You give me LOTS of encouragement, as most here do. Your post just hit me very hard, as well as the entire thread. I wish you MUCH continued healing and success. You’re a VERY thoughtful, insightful woman and good writer!!

Sky, as always perceptive! It’s hard, but also relieving to make these connections. Ironically, in doing so, it also removes spaths power more from my life when I do read these things and have deep connections to what is shared. It empowers me. 🙂

Peace, ladies!


your posts are so uplifting. Even as I read your struggles and reflect on my own, it’s the most wonderful thing to know that there are others out there who WANT to grow.

Spaths don’t WANT to grow. They RESENT having to change and refuse to do so. That’s how I know when someone is or isn’t a spath.

Knowing that there are people out in the world who love and nurture me and vice-versa, has given me new hope. I had lost so much of it when I realized that spaths were everywhere.
G’nite and thank you.

LL I like it when I catch posts to me and can respond – I’m often not reading so can tend to miss them 🙁

I’m glad my experience has been useful to you and thanks for the ups on the writing – I’m a tentative writer who’s been practicing for ten or so years now.

I find as time goes on and life grows and expands, the horrible feelings I had towards him are dissipating. I’m still a bit resentful it all happened, but am slowly finding my way in relating to men who have empathy and are responsive. The difference is breathtaking. It’s so easy to be around someone who is responsive. A breath of fresh air. It confirms to me that I am not the defective one – he is. It confirms to me that there is hope for a continual improvement in life. And it confirms to me that life is worth living and sucking out every nectar from.

That’s what I hope for you in the future – that you’ll meet healthy men when you’re ready and make those realisations about yourself (and others) because although we tell ourselves in the early stages of recovery “You’re ok – it was them who was sick”, it’s not till we actually get out there and socialise and live that we truly truly realise it.

My summer has been one of new experiences – being in new environments and with different people. I have also enjoyed time with good men – it’s confirmed for me that there are some good men out there and I am capable of being part of a healthy dynamic. It’s been a delightful adventure – so contrasted with the memory of the dull grey sameness of everyday with the psychopath. I am free!

That’s not to say life isn’t without it’s trials – it wouldn’t be life without the challenges and the little idiosyncrasies. I’ve found some changes in myself through being in relationship with others – dating was a good experience. But I’m very careful about not wanting to commit. I don’t like people leaving their things at my house and I don’t gaze endlessly into the future anymore. I look at the here and now and ask “Is this good for me? Does this work for me or is there something better?”

And I’m getting better at answering it and going for whatever it is I want.

Skylar – you are so spot on with your comment about them not being interested in any kind of growth – they’re arrogant enough to think they’re perfect just as they are and have no need to ever change, adapt or inconvenience themselves in any way. Being around someone who is open to change is such a lovely thing – you can have areas of stubborn belief that you maintain, but it’s great to experience new things with someone new who’s open and fluid – I’m not very good at explaining the difference between the two dynamics. Even now my memory and cognitive focus are greatly lacking.

What are your thoughts as you look back on it all now compared to say six months ago? Celebrate every little bit of progress – life without them is a miracle!


You have an amazing spirit and you encourage me. It’s also helpful to witness growth of others here, as well as having it shared with me. Obviously, I’m not there yet, but I DO hope to be. It is so very true that the spath didn’t want to grow. He wanted me sucked into his vortex. Alcoholic and miserable. I’m guessing he’s not changed and that he was looking for someone he could share his stagnation with. I knew that wasn’t working for me. He would “fake” that he wanted growth,would accuse me of being an alcoholic (he was ten times worse and I know that was projection), and finally when I got so frightened that I would cross the line into a neverending abyss WITH him, I bailed on the alcohol. He said he’d quit with me…..and when I did, he tried HARDER to get me sucked back into that place. It was misery. He’s still there. I didn’t want to be anymore.

I’ve not reached the point yet where “getting out there” is an option right now. Things are still a bit too raw, but I am encouraged in that there are men out there capable of honest communication, empathy….and are not psychopath.

Polly, thank you for writing your responses to me. I’m so happy for you and your personal growth. I needed to see this last night on the thread that it was on.

Sky, I learn from you and your wisdom.


1 8 9 10

Send this to a friend