Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Psychopathy revisited.

Awhile back, Jjdebenedictis asked:
Psychopaths feel little empathy and are usually cruel and often thrill-seekers, but how many of those traits could I believably omit from my character? Can I, for example, have a psychopathic character who--although capable of it--doesn't make any habit of hurting others? And not out of fear of being punished, either, but because s/he really just doesn't feel like it? I'd like to portray my character as oddly clueless, rather than evil--more like someone who has a learning disability with regard to emotions than someone who does harm without remorse (although she's certainly capable of that.) In your opinion, is this characterization believable?
I love this question (which is, of course, actually multiple questions) because it gets at all the confusion surrounding psychopathy. And ... I don't have all the answers. I'm not a total expert in that area, but also, there's a bit of debate among the experts with regard to the definition and diagnosis of psychopathy.

Ted Bundy was a classic
psychopath. Charmer, liar,
sadistic killer.
So I'll just give you some information from Robert Hare, who has literally written the book on this subject. He describes psychopaths (which he distinguishes from individuals with the DSM-IV diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder--more on that in another post) as "intraspecies predators", individuals who lack conscience and empathy, who use everything in their arsenals--sex, violence, intimidation, charm--to get the things they want. Psychopaths don't care much about other people, but they also don't take great care of themselves. There's research to show they don't learn lessons about avoiding pain and tend to continue to engage in behaviors that might be harmful to them when most people would pull back.

Although a large proportion of incarcerated individuals meet diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder, a much smaller percentage also meet criteria for psychopathy (as measured, for example, by Hare's Psychopathy Checklist). The question JJ has, though, is about someone who is not incarcerated. Someone who is not hurting other people, but who, I assume, has other characteristics of psychopathy. Would that person still be considered a psychopath? The first thing I suggest is going to check out the twenty items on that checklist (people are considered psychopathic if they receive a certain score, as rated by an experienced, trained clinician), just to see what kind of symptoms, behaviors, and tendencies are related to this condition.

I also suggest anyone interested in "socially acceptable" psychopathy check out this article in Forbes about this phenomenon in some CEOs. In that piece, it is suggested that the same lack of conscience and empathy can make for pretty good business sense, at least in the short term.

Now, JJ also questioned whether some other disorder might account for a disregard--but not malevolence--for human beings and emotional involvement. Absolutely. There are a few, actually, that you could consider (depending on the details of the character's presentation).

Autistic disorder (or Asperger's disorder) or nonverbal learning disability--individuals with these disorders often have some difficulty reading others' emotion cues, including facial expressions and nonverbal behaviors. Some of these folks shy away from social interaction because it's exhausting, aversive, or uninteresting, and some desire interaction but have trouble achieving social connection.

Schizoid personality disorder--individuals with this disorder show a long-term pattern of social isolation and  indifference to others. They appear aloof, detached, and have no desire to share intimacy or engage in close relationships, even with family members.

Now--I am by no means saying that all individuals diagnosed with these disorders show a total disregard for their fellow humans. I'm saying that a tendency of that type might come along with those particular diagnostic profiles.

OK! Questions? Ever tried to write a psychopathic character? If so, how did you go about it? What tendencies/behaviors did you use to show that condition?

Also--check out Deb's response to her own Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question: How would you personify your muse?


  1. I have a character that I say is psycho, but I know that he isn't, because he doesn't enjoy hurting people. In fact, he's keenly aware of the damage he does to himself.

    Still, he does have some of those tendencies... Hmm...


  2. so interesting.

    Just out of curiosity, is there a name for people who are too empathetic? Who care too much?

  3. I have to keep in mind that the point, the true definition of psychopathy, is behavior. Sometimes I think I'm crazy, but just thinking you want to drink beer for breakfast, sleep all day, and write all night, doesn't make you crazy. You have to actually do it to be crazy.

  4. i find the lack of care for themselves bit very interesting. do you think that comes from a lack of ability to even feel empathy for self? and is there a sliding scale for this trait? (as is usual for most tendencies imo)
    do you think that it's possible that they feel so completely empty and void of emotion, that it takes extreme measures to feel anything. like the (for lack of a better word) thrill of a murder. the high intense emotion of being able to control or witness extreme suffering... do you think it's possible that instead of actually enjoying such things, that what they do feel is a negative emotion, but the sensation of actually feeling SOMETHING is such a high that they associate the act positively. so- it isn't the act of hurting things that appeals to them, but the desire to experience emotion that they crave so much that they leap to extreme behaviour to get their next hit?

    or am i WAY off base??? we both know that that happens quite a lot! :P

  5. So what would be the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? I love to watch Criminal Minds, which explains socio-paths as those without any empathy. They're hurting people but they feel nothing They in essence don't feel any pain. But psychos do? I understand it as socio-paths never feeling any guilt, either?

  6. This reminds me of that movie/book, American Psycho. I only saw bits of the movie, but he fit the bill of both the corporate dude and the killer with many of those characteristics. I haven't read the book. It looks too scary for me.
    Great question, and great answer!

  7. This is going to be kind of a random comment, but it's something I've been thinking about lately. This post, along with other things I've read about psychopaths, made me think about debates over the presence or absence of altruism in evolution. Basically, altruism can help the group. If everyone is an altruist, then everyone benefits. But if there are a few non-altruists among the population, those non-altruists can do extremely well, usually at the expense of the altruists.

    In populations where altruistic behavior has been studied (for example, in bird species where they watch each others' nests), there is a balance that must be maintained. A small number of non-altruists will do very well, but if there are too many non-altruists, social structures fall apart.

    I guess what I'm wondering is if there is a range of behavior, with both genetic and environmental underpinnings, that has altruism on one end and non-altruism on the other. Perhaps we might describe total non-altruism as psychopathy - an individual who lacks a conscience and is only interested in getting what they want. No altruistic tendencies to consider others' feelings.

    Like most traits with a range of expression, pure examples of either altruism or psychopathy are probably maladaptive. People who are total altruists probably won't do too well in life. They'll get walked over by everyone else. Likewise, people who are pure non-altruists - psychopaths - are dangerous predators. People in the middle of the range will probably be well suited to success in society. And people who are towards the psychopath end of the range may do very well, since they are not as burdened with care towards others.

    I'm not a psychologist OR an evolutionary theorist, so it's entirely possible that I've gone far off the mark here.

  8. Spot on! And every disorder falls on a continuum. Add in all the other factors, like environment and it shows everyone's make-up is so different. Which makes for interesting fiction. GREAT post, Sarah!

  9. Every time I read one of your posts, it makes me think of a family member.
    When people meet my family (and generally, immediately afterward say, "Wow, Kristen."), I say I have a family full of characters!
    No wonder I'm a writer. ;)

  10. I have nothing to say today, except hello. :) Looks like you have everything covered in this department.

  11. So fascinating, as always. (I bet you wish I'd think of something else to say in my comments. LOL) In my general writing I've not attempted a psychopath. This is very interesting, and I'd like to learn more so if I do head that direction I'll get it right.

    What do you think of the Dexter character? My daughter loves that book series and has told me about it. Have you read any of those and, if so, do you find it a possible or highly unlikely scenario?

  12. No, but I'm thinking it might be fun. Did I say that out loud? :D Great post. Fascinating disorder, and very scary in real life.

  13. An ever-evocative question for writers, Sarah. Thanks so much for the list and the discussion. One percent of CEOs are psychopaths??? Wow. I've read that people with narcissistic personality disorder often do very well in business and become CEOs, which makes more sense to me. They're apparently really low on the empathy scale (none to tiny amount here or there), but not so much on the no conscience or remorse capability. I guess I never realized that the harm a psychopath does to others can be psychological rather than physical. Fascinating!

  14. Ooh, this is very interesting. Getting into the real psychology of people and characters is fascinating.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  15. I have a character in one of my manuscripts who I thought had sociopathic tendencies when I was writing about her. She did whatever was necessary to achieve her goals, without any regard for who she harmed, and without any remorse. She cared for her children, in a cold, cerebral way, and would also commit these despicable acts on their behalf -- but to achieve goals she had chosen for them.

  16. I love these posts. I love the ones where you dissect disorders that frequently get cited incorrectly. I've never tried to write a phsychopathic character, but perhaps now you've started a new for agents on Twitter to say they're not sure where the new wave of "psychopath queries" is coming from LOL!

  17. From reading your post, it sounds like there are various degrees of psychopathy (is that a word??). From a Ted Bundy to someone who may be diagnosed as a psychopath but, for some reason, chooses not to harm anyone?

  18. I found this intriguing because I'm wondering if people with N.P.D.(Narcissistic Personality Disorder) and related personality disorders are considered to be sociopaths. I know a person with this and he doesn't have empathy. I used to think he didn't intend to harm others--that they were merely fallout--but he does because using people somehow fulfills a need for him... which is what differentiates a sociopath from someone who cluelessly harms others (like some kinds of autistics), right? Anyway, great post. Am looking forward to reading your posts on personality disorders!

  19. Isn't it funny how writers get to be everything? We are psychologists, detectives, crime scene investigators, inventors, and historians. Sometimes we give life, sometimes we deal death. We're everything! And all in the name of fiction. :)

  20. That was a fascinating post. I have not yet attempted to write a psychopathic character, but understanding some of that pathology can help us understand any of our characters in new ways, which will only help us to write them more clearly.

  21. I agree, it's a good question. It's also one I've been thinking about myself (especially in relation to myself, since I have this diagnosis).

    I have to say that as far as I understand the definition for psychopathy - and I too adhere to Robert Hare's school, it simply seem to fit reality best (if not perfectly, which would be an unreasonable demand) - there will always be some form of harm, abuse, hurting, creating problems for, stressing, scaring, etc., others. I've never met a psychopath who didn't do this at least in some manner on a regular basis.

    It's part of the basis of this diagnosis. There must be some antisocial aspects present in the individual, or you can't reach a score of 30 or more.

    Maybe it's more a question about what you mean by harming others. Certainly most psychopaths don't even harm people physically (or at least not severely).

    In fact, many of my past acquaintances would argue that the worst and most extensive damage I did to them was psychological. And that is even though I've had my issues with physical violence as well, which I describe on my website.

    I would invite you to pay my website a visit. It's a mixture of autobiographical and informative articles about life and how it is experienced by a psychopath, written and explained by a psychopath.

    I'll not be likely to be a model for your character, but there may be some other aspects of my condition that could be useful for you.



    it's a wonderful and creative idea you represent with this website, I like your style. Well done indeed!

    Best of luck ahead!... '^L^,

  22. Ooh, thanks so much for the very informative answer to my question! I am sorry I wasn't here to participate in the discussion; I was having a lovely Italian vacation instead. :) All the same, thanks for getting to it!