Researchers minimize the psychopathy problem

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:

Antisocial behavior

  • Need for stimulation and proneness to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavioral control
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Early behavior problems
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Parole of probation violations

Emotional/interpersonal traits

  • 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

Other factors

  • 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.

Psychopathy continuum

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?

Low-ball estimates

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

Link supplied by a Lovefraud reader.

Comment on this article

143 Comments on "Researchers minimize the psychopathy problem"

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great video regarding psychopathy, Robert Hare is featured.
they say that it is genetic, but I also know, from personal experience, psychopaths are aware of the new knowledge about psychopaths and they want to be clumped with the asperger’s people. They are intelligent. They are hypocrites. This video shows this. They know that their days are numbered and they want peoples’ sympathy. (oh, we are born this way, it’s not our fault)
The psychologists talk about how difficult it is to change. Well, yes, I haven’t given up coffee and lazyness, but my spath was able to give up smoking after 24 years, just because I told him that his cigarett butts made him really easy to track. It’s all about the story we believe. He believes he is untrackable, smarter than anyone, it inspired him to quit cigarattes. It’s supposed to be harder to quit than heroin. Why doesn’t it inspire him to stop raping and pillaging?
The psychologists keep making mistakes. The brain can change when we DECIDE TO CHANGE IT. Psychopaths DECIDE that they want to be evil. the brain changes to accomadate that. PERIOD.
I was a very narcisstic teenager. Suffering and humility made me decide to change. It was a rational decision. They can choose that, but their EGOS take control. They decide not to.


Thanks for posting that great video. I agree…they do know they are different and they do know they are disturbed. The ex-S in my life allways said “I will never be normal”….I questioned him again and again what he meant by that but he couldn’t answer. I believe he tried at times, he faked every emotion of empathy to the point of leaving me a message after a break up saying “if you ever land in the hospital, you can count on me being there for me”…..this after confronting him with the fact that he was never there for me when I needed him…..this is fake empathy. and this is as far as they can go. fake!

Dear Hope4joy,

You can have him removed because you have FILED FOR DIVORCE. Do you think the judge is going to allow him to stay at the same house with you forever? LOL You don’t need “grounds” to get the court to make him leave—ONE OF YOU HAS TO LEAVE—SO EITHER HIM OR YOU, take your pick! If he won’t leave, then you either leave yourself or get a court order to make him leave until the property is settled and the divorce is final. You may end up having to sell the house, but that is in the property settlement. TALK to your ATTORNEY and tell him you want hubby OUT OF THE HOUSE, how do you get that? He ought to know what to tell you if he is a divorce attorney.

I’m glad your daughter is in therapy…and listening to her gut.

Aeylah, I’m waiting for the book! LOL

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