Psychopathy is undoubtedly considered by most of society to be one of the least desirable set of traits a person can have. Yet psychopathic qualities, such as lack of empathy, inability to experience remorse, and impulsivity, in addition to a history of committing aggressive and antisocial acts, are as fascinating as they are repulsive. Endless numbers of crimedramas revolve around characters with these tendencies, and some popular shows, such as “Good Behavior,” even glamorize such individuals. Perhaps the public fascination with psychopathy resembles the grip that disasters have on our media consumption habits: As much as you hate to imagine yourself either in the company of a psychopath or in the path of a flood or fire, you can’t stop yourself from watching the coverage. At some level, you may hope to learn how you would cope when you’re confronted with a “bad guy/gal” (usually, it’s a guy) or a life-threatening emergency.
The idea that you could show anything but revulsion for a psychopath may seem impossible even to entertain. However, as pointed out by Guillame Durand and colleagues (2017), “the label ‘psychopath’ widely elicits associations with criminals and murderers with minimal chance of rehabilitation” (p. 72). There’s an assumption in the public mind that these individuals have chosen their personalities, and for this reason, they should be treated with ostracism and contempt. Further, as Durand and his collaborators point out, psychopathic individuals are regarded with fear, and it’s this fear that leads people to want to stay away. But this stigma, the authors maintain, is not warranted: Although you may not want to be best friends with a psychopath, there’s no good evidence that such an individual is more likely than anyone else to be a violent criminal.
If the average person wishes to steer clear of the psychopath, what about the people who have these traits themselves? Now at the University of Ottawa, Durand and his fellow researchers maintain that the general public stigmatizes psychopaths, as does the criminal justice system. However, people who themselves score high on measures of psychopathy should be far less likely, if at all, to stigmatize those who share their personality traits. If they’re high on the positive psychopathic dimension of fearlessness, they should be less afraid of being harmed, but they may also be more accepting in general. Knowing what they struggle with in terms of their own personalities, they should be less harsh in judging those qualities in others.
To test these ideas, Durand and his fellow authors administered a brief self-report psychopathic inventory that focuses on the three components of boldness (fearlessness and social dominance), meanness (aggression and lack of empathy), and disinhibition(impulsivity and lack of self-control). They then correlated scores on this measure with attitudes toward psychopathy in an online sample of 116 adults from around the world ranging from 18 to 74 years of age, most of whom had at least a college degree. The Attitudes and Beliefs about Psychopaths (ABP) scale (Smith et al., 2014) assessed the following 9 areas of possible stigma, with sample items from each:
1. Criminality potential: “Psychopaths are more likely to commit crimes than the average criminal is.”
2. Violence potential: “Most psychopaths are murderers.”
3. Responsibility and punishment: “Psychopaths are responsible for their actions.”
4. Moral judgments: “Psychopath is another word for describing a person who is basically evil.”
5. Noncriminal: “There are many psychopaths who do not commit crimes.” (score reversed)
6. Bad parenting: “Psychopathy is caused by poor or inadequate parenting.”
7. Biological etiology: “Psychopathy is caused by genes or biological inheritance.”
8. Immutability/rehabilitation potential: “Psychopaths can never change; they will always be psychopathic.
9. Quasi-adaptive features: “Being a psychopath can be helpful or advantageous in some jobs (such as stockbroker, attorney, and politician).”
After reading these scales, where do you think you would come out on stigma toward people high in psychopathy? Durand et al. thought there would be one more complex set of factors to take into account and, using a fictional example of a man “diagnosed with psychopathy,” they asked participants to rate how fearful they would be of him, whether they would help him if he were in need, whether they would force him to seek treatment, and whether they’d despise him as a result of his diagnosis. This four-part attribution questionnaire, the authors believed, would reflect not only an individual’s attitudes (as in the ABP scale), but also their outright rejection of people who fit the definition of being high in psychopathy.
The study’s findings supported the prediction that those high in psychopathy would, in fact, be more accepting of others with similar traits. Moreover, the link between psychopathic traits and scores on the attribution measure were highest for those high in boldness. It would appear that, contrary to the definition of psychopaths as lacking empathy, those high in this personality quality actually do experience at least some form of connection to others cut from the same psychological cloth. They may not feel emotionally connected, as the authors note, but they at least judge them to be less violent and less predisposed to criminality than does the typical person with no personal psychopathic tendencies. It’s also possible, though, that people high in psychopathy see aggressive behaviors as being more normal than do average individuals who are low on this quality. Regarding that boldness finding, the authors also suggest that the bold are less fearful, period, and so they won’t fear a person whom others see as dangerous “simply due to their diagnosis” (p. 75).
Despite having read this, you may feel no less inclined to regard the person described as psychopathic as someone to be feared and avoided. However, it is helpful to be aware that stigmatizing attitudes toward individuals with personality disorders do exist, and to be open to questioning in yourself the extent to which you believe in them.