29 May 2017

What makes a psychopath?

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:35 pm on 29 May 2017

You don't have to be a sadist or a criminal mastermind to have elements of psychopathology in your personality, says psychologist Devon Polaschek. She reveals the three key traits.

Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs Photo: Wikipedia

Psychopathology is challenging to define and doesn't even feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Polascheck says.

In fact, it isn't a disorder that you either have or don't have but characteristics measured on a continuum, like intelligence.

The triarchic model presents three key traits – meanness, boldness and disinhibition.

Polaschek says that by her definition, psychopaths are always disinhibited and at least one of the others.

She defines disinhibition as a lack of self-control or self-regulation – a profound feature of criminality that is often found in unsuccessful lives.

Disinhibited people are prone to alcohol and drug abuse and are at higher risk of suicide, she says, giving the example of British singer Amy Winehouse.

"These are people who really mess up their lives because they tend to live in the present, make decisions without thought, go for instant gratification."

What about meanness?

Mean people lack empathy and don't care about being close to others, but they're not as extreme as sadists. 

One feature of meanness that may not come to mind is thrill-seeking.

Mean people love excitement, says Polaschek.

The third feature – boldness (aka 'fearless dominance') –  has been overlooked as a feature of psychopaths in the past because it also has a positive aspect.

In everyday life, a person with a psychopathic level of boldness might be charismatic and a good leader.

The stress immunity and social agility make it a great characteristic for a president, Polaschek says.

So is it always bad to have a psychopath in your life?

This is where it gets tricky.

"People can do the right thing by other people for the wrong reasons."

Polaschek gives the example of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi German who is credited with rescuing thousands of Jews and hiding them in his factory. Some say he was less a saviour than a man hungry to build an empire.

So could someone conceal being a psychopath?

That would be very difficult, says Polaschek, because even though the popular perception is that psychopaths are highly strategic, they're also often impulsive, hotheaded and moody.

"If you have these disinhibition characteristics you're not going to hide them particularly well during a decent length courtship."

As with any psychological disorder, nature and nurture can't be separated when it comes to the formation of a psychopath, but the right (wrong) environment is essential, Polaschek says.

She describes two possible routes:

An exceptionally bold or fearless child whose parents use the common strategy of putting fear into them could become a little monster.

Reward-based parenting could possibly improve the child's temperant in these cases, she says.

"If you just use punishment you might end up with an adult that's very self-centred, bold, badly behaved and somewhat psychopathic looking."

The other route – children born disinhibited and emotionally reactive who meet an upbringing of adversity – has been documented in the Dunedin Study.

"By the age of three, [these children] are showing intense reactions to stress, they don't persevere with things, they're really difficult to parent ... By the time those kids get to 18, they have developed a view that the world's been unfair to them. They're starting to enjoy hurting other kids and showing signs of psychopathy."

Psychopaths in the workplace have been well-documented in the book Snakes in Suits by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, says Polaschek.

They are easy to spot because while they're exceptionally good at managing up, colleagues on the same level have quite a different experience.

"If you're on the same level as them they treat you very badly, take credit for everything you do well, blame everything else on you and essentially poison your image with the manager above you."

And if you're worried you might be a psychopath yourself, you're almost certainly not, Polaschek says.

"You might have a lot of psychopathic characteristics but it's not all bad."


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