Psychopaths far more common in human population than people believe
April 20, 2014
(NATIONAL) -- So you say you once worked for a boss so evil, cunning and completely devoid of any human compassion or empathy that you joked to your co-workers, "This guy's a psychopath!"
Brain scans of normal and psychopath brain from the book "The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain," by Neuroscientist James Fallon. Photo courtesy James Fallon
Everyone had a good laugh at that. But the joke may have been on you and your coworkers because it is quite possible your boss was/is a psychopath.
In fact, according to Dr. Kent Kiehl psychopaths are far more common in the human population than we think.
He should know. Kiehl is a famous neuroscientist at the Mind Research Network and the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and he’s spent his entire career getting into the minds of such people -- studying what’s different about the brains of psychopaths.
Those are people whose lack of compassion, empathy and remorse is sometimes the mark of a hardened criminal such as a serial killer, but more often than not the psychopath can be the person sitting next to you in class, working alongside you at the office or even sitting next to you at church.
Most psychopaths, it turns out, are not in prison and are not hardened criminals although because of what their brains make them, they often leave a path of destruction in their wake.
Kiel has a new book out about his experiences looking into the brains of such people. It is called The Psychopath Whisperer, which Amazon calls, "A compelling journey into the science and behavior of psychopaths, written by the leading scientist in the field of criminal psychopathy."
Many of us know psychopaths only from the movies, TV shows or from news accounts describing criminal psychopaths such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacey or the fictional Hannibal Lechter.
But Dr. Kiehl says everyday psychopaths can be identified by anyone using a checklist of symptoms.
That checklist includes:
lack of empathy or guilt
lack of remorse
a grandiose sense of self-worth
failure to accept responsibility for their actions
In a recent interview with WIRED Dr. Kiehl talked about how real life, everyday psychopaths - the kind we might meet at work or play - differ from ones we see on TV or in movies.
" One of the biggest differences is that psychopaths are way more common than people believe. About one in 150 people will meet the stringent clinical criteria for the disorder. That means hundreds of thousands of them are out and about in the population," said Kiehl.
"The majority of them don’t commit violent crimes, but they lead this sort of disorganized, nomadic life, and they tend to eventually end up in some sort of trouble. Hollywood hasn’t done a good job of portraying the average psychopath. For the most part, they’ve taken the extreme view, with the Hannibal Lechters and more sensationalized people like that. It’s actually far more common and banal."
He says he considers psychopaths more than just people with a personality disorder. He considers it a mental health problem because, "It's associated with impairments at home, at work, with family, with friends. It leads to hospitalization or incarceration. It comes with all these other problems you associate with mental illness. The one thing that differentiates psychopaths is they don’t appear distressed by the fact that their life is a disaster. They lack insight into how their behavior affects other people."
So why are they the way they are? Kiehl says their brains are wired differently.
"We’ve found that psychopaths have 5 to 10 percent reduced gray matter density in and around the limbic regions [a network deep in the brain that's important for emotional processing]. We’ve also found — and a group in Germany has published a similar finding — that the tissue that connects the limbic system to the frontal lobes is disrupted. There have also been lots of studies published showing reduced responsivity in those circuits during emotional processing and moral decision making."
Can psychopaths change or be cured? Not yet. But Kiehl says he's encouraged by pioneering work that’s occurring at places like the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Wisconsin, where people are taking high risk youths [who show signs of developing psychopathic traits] and treating them with various intensive programs to try to reduce the odds that they’ll reoffend.
The treatments that seem to be making a big difference emphasize positive reinforcement rather than punishment.
More on the story here .
As a general rule psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior. It may also be defined as a continuous aspect of personality, representing scores on different personality dimensions found throughout the population in varying combinations.
Although no psychiatric or psychological organization has sanctioned a diagnosis titled "psychopathy", assessments of psychopathy characteristics are widely used in criminal justice settings in some nations.
According to those who do research on psychopaths there appears to be at least two different conceptions of psychopathy.
One version of it entails someone with bold, disinhibited behavior, low anxiety and "feckless disregard."
The second version is criminal psychopathy which denotes a "meaner, more aggressively disinhibited conception of psychopathy that explicitly entails persistent and sometimes serious criminal behavior."