If I asked you to picture a psychopath, what kind of character might spring to your mind?
Thanks to Hollywood, we may imagine them to be “American Psycho”’s (1992) blood-soaked Christian Bale revving a chainsaw, or “Psycho”’s (1960) eerie Anthony Perkins brandishing a butcher’s knife while we’re just trying to take a shower.
But the reality is actually far more unsettling.
Recent studies have suggested that as many as 1 in 22 people could be psychopaths, meaning we are likely to walk past plenty of these individuals as we go about our day.
However, it needs to be noted that not everyone who is a psychopath will go on to commit unspeakable crimes or be a danger to society.
In fact, some psychopaths go on to enjoy extremely successful careers and will climb the ranks to excel in leadership positions, such as CEOs.
But what exactly is a psychopath? How does it differ from other personality disorders?
Is this Hollywood portrayal in any way accurate, or have our perceptions been heavily skewed?
And most importantly – could you be a psychopath?
Speaking to Melbourne psychologist Carly Dober, it is evident that there is much confusion about what it really means.
“The term is used to define particular traits or behaviors that a person will demonstrate,” Ms. Dober, who is also director at the Australian Association of Psychologists Incorporated, told news.com.au.
“In our field, the diagnosis of ‘psychopath’ was actually replaced with ‘anti-social personality disorder’ (ASPD), which focuses mainly on the behavioral aspects of psychopathy.
“These include aggression, impulsivity, violation of other’s rights, callousness, remorsefulness and narcissism. In some legal settings, the term may still be used.”
Not like Hollywood
While we may have an idea of what a psychopath looks like, the real life reality is vastly different to what plays out in Hollywood films, such as American Psycho.
“I think we need to keep in mind that films that romanticise or glamorise crimes have a lot of creative freedom, and are meant to entertain and not educate,” Ms. Dober said.
“Most people who have a high degree of psychopathic traits did not choose to be this way.
“We know that personality forms during childhood. Their experience has likely been shaped by inherited genes, as well as life situations and experiences.
“So while psychopathic traits do lead to people being more vulnerable to committing crimes, not all will do this.
“Unfortunately, certain films can further contribute to the stigmatisation of mental health disorders.”
Ms. Dober also added that while some people with psychopathic tendencies can get into leadership positions, they are not always liked by their peers.
However, she added that according to a 2019 study, there could be an “optimal” amount of these psychopathic traits to ensure a leader is successful.
“When leaders did have psychopathic tendencies, their employees really, really disliked them,” she said.
“The fact that people hate working for mean and impulsive bosses shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
“However, it was also found that there may be an optimal level of psychopathic tendencies for leadership effectiveness.
“Too much is obviously a bad thing, because recklessness and nastiness are likely to produce fear rather than motivation, productivity, and business success.
“But too little is apparently also a drawback. The boldness associated with psychopathic tendencies may manifest in a leader who is able to make difficult decisions or act in times of uncertainty, when other people are more constrained by fear.”
In many horror movies, it is often suggested that the start of the antagonist’s behavioural issues begin in childhood, and will manifest in odd ways.
They may hurt or kill animals, light fires, have uncontrollable aggression, or engage in odd and anti-social behavior.
This has been true for some infamous serial killers, such as Jeffrey Dahmer, who would collect dead animals to dissect, or ‘Son of Sam’ David Berkowitz who was reportedly infatuated with fire and was responsible for many incidents involving arson.
Ms. Dober confirms that there are behaviors that psychologists will look out for in children, as they can be telltale signs that someone may grow up to be a psychopath.
Starts in childhood
“It is very important to be on the lookout for certain behaviors when a young person is developing,” she explained.
“These might hint to internal problems. Early intervention is always best.
“Some of these behaviors include refusal to obey, cruelty to animals, lack of empathy, spiteful and aggressive behavior, lying, low self-esteem, learning difficulties and suicidal tendencies.
“It is important to note that the above behavior can exist and not indicate a possibility of psychopathic tendencies in the child’s adult life.
“There also needs to be significant assessment and support for the child’s family, as issues like domestic violence, poverty, emotional neglect, child abuse of any form, and exposure to law-breaking behaviors are all risk factors that leave a child vulnerable to developing ASPD in their older years.
“We cannot and would not diagnose children with ASPD.”
While these traits can be seen in children, what about in adults?
The signifiers for psychopathy in adulthood usually differ greatly from how they manifest in children.
Ms. Dober stated that there were five common signs of ASPD that someone can look out for, either in themselves or in others.
FIVE COMMON TRAITS OF A PSYCHOPATH
1. They often lie, deceive and manipulate to get what they want, usually for profit of self-amusement
2. They will engage in impulsive behavior
3. They are often irritable and aggressive, may frequently assault others or gets into fights
4. Show a blatant disregard for safety, both of themselves and of others
5. Display a total lack of remorse for their actions.
The psychologist points out that these traits can arise in most people to a normal degree at some point in their lives, in different contexts.
In addition to these behavioral traits, there are also some possible physical signs that could indicate someone is a psychopath.
They are less likely to yawn contagiously
A study conducted by Baylor University in Texas back in 2015 suggested that how a person reacts when they see somebody else yawn could speak volumes.
It is common for most people to yawn if someone around them yawns and shows signs of fatigue.
The students involved in the study were shown video clips of people using different facial expressions, including yawning.
The ones who scored highly for being cold-hearted were less likely to yawn.
“One of the biggest lines of evidence is that contagious yawning is very much related to empathy,” Brian Rundle, a PhD student involved with the study, told The Times.
“While this is a really interesting finding, it doesn’t mean that if you’re not affected by a contagious yawn, there’s something wrong with you.
They may have limited head movements
According to a team of experts from the University of New Mexico, a person’s head movements can also be indicative of deeper issues.
Scientists developed a specific algorithm that analyses head movements and tested it on 507 prison inmates during recorded conversations, varying in length from one to two hours.
The study claims that inmates with “severe and life-course-persistent anti-social behavior” had more rigid and focused orienting of their head during the session.
They move their hands a lot
While many of us may talk with our hands, the above study also suggested that psychopaths may move their hands rapidly, usually in an up-and-down fashion.
These individuals may use these type of movements to manipulate people around them, such as emphasizing certain words or downplaying parts of their sentences.
Psychopaths also may tend to fidget more, doing things like scratching their heads or tugging on jewelry, in order to distract a person’s attention from inconsistencies in the conversation.
Their sleep patterns are unusual
Australian researchers from the University of Western Sydney claimed that a preference to go to bed late or stay up until the early hours is directly linked to anti-social behavior.
Dr. Peter Johnson, from the UWS School of Social Sciences and Psychology, assessed over 250 people’s tendency to prefer the morning or evening, in order to discover whether this was linked to the “Dark Triad” of personality traits.
The “Dark Triad” traits include narcissistic and selfish actions, cunning or deceitful Machiavellian behavior and psychopathic tendencies.
The results, published in Personality and Individual Differences, found students who were awake in the twilight hours displayed greater anti-social tendencies than those who went to bed earlier.
“Those who scored highly on the ‘Dark Triad’ traits are, like many other predators such as lions and scorpions, creatures of the night,” he says.
“For people pursuing a fast life strategy like that embodied by the ‘Dark Triad’ traits, it’s better to occupy and exploit a lowlight environment where others are sleeping and have diminished cognitive functioning.”
How to get help
It is important not to self-diagnose or diagnose others with personality disorders. If you, or a loved one, are struggling with mental health, please seek help from a professional.
“If you are being impacted or concerned with someone’s behavior, whether it be a loved one or a colleague- do reach out to friends, trusted family members, your GP, and a psychologist or licensed mental health professional,” Ms. Dober said.
“People might not need to meet clinical diagnosis threshold before they can seriously harm their own mental health and wellbeing.
“You can learn effective boundaries, self-care tips, skills and strategies to manage whatever is going on for you, and also get some practical and emotional support.”