The Misconceptions of Psychopathy
Updated: Mar 10
Near enough everyone has heard the term psychopath before, but hardly anyone really knows what it is.
Now, if we go by what the media say and what the films say, a psychopath is a deranged and dangerous person. Regularly depicted as a callous criminal or ruthless businessman. And that anyone who encounters them is in danger of becoming their next victim.
Then we have the addition of social medias such as TikTok where people who are uneducated on the subject attempt to educate the general public on what one is. Without having any experience whatsoever in dealing with or studying actual psychopaths.
This is creating even more misconceptions about psychopathy and in turn making it much more difficult for those who have Psychopathy to live a normal life.
But is this really the truth?
By the logic of the media and film industry someone like myself should have already become a victim of a psychopath. Unlike the regular person I have frequent interactions with people who have this label, yes, some of them are dangerous criminals, they are criminal psychopaths. But, some of them are not, they are successful psychopaths who live a regular life, who try their best to manage their disorder and understand it. Who make a conscious effort to try not to succumb to impulses that could lead to them becoming dangerous or becoming a problem for others.
So what does it really mean to be a psychopath?
To be a psychopath you first have to be diagnosed with AsPD. What's AsPD? Well it's known more commonly as Antisocial Personality Disorder and that is the diagnosis a person will get if they fall into the category of Psychopath. However, it's not as simple as it sounds, every person with AsPD does not have psychopathy, only some of them.
Psychopathy was the first personality disorder to be recognized in psychiatry - Million, T et al (1998) and is one of the oldest classifications of a personality disorder.
Psychopathy itself is not a diagnosis, it is a sub set of AsPD which indicates the severity and type of AsPD the person has. I explain this in much more depth in my article, Understanding Psychopathy.
There are two sub-sections of AsPD that indicate if a person has psychopathy and the type they have. These are Factor 1 & Factor 2, a person can have either one exclusively or can have personality traits with elements of both factors.
Factor 1 - primary Psychopathy - Callous, unemotional, pathological lying, manipulative, fearless - lacks sense of danger or risk, need for dominance/control, lacking in remorse, low neuroticism (emotionally stable). Linked to biological underpinnings.
Factor 2 - secondary Psychopathy - impulsive, high neuroticism (emotionally unstable) sensation seeking, attention seeking, involving them-self in criminal behaviour - strong relationship with ASPD. Linked to environmental underpinnings.
As you can see from the descriptive elements the two sub – sets are similar yet also very different.
So why do some psychopaths do better in society compared to others and why do some psychopaths appear to be more successful than others?
Studies suggest these differences could be for a number of reasons for example, it is suggested by Wray Herbert editor-in-chief of Psychology Today that the reason some are more successful than others is down to biological differences in things such as the nervous system. He states that “comparing imprisoned and non-imprisoned subjects, these investigations suggest that successful psychopaths have higher autonomic nervous system reactivity—they are not as emotionally cool—and higher executive function. These assets may be protective, allowing successful psychopaths to channel their traits into socially adaptive behavior.” – Herbert (2015)
If this is correct it means that a persons biological reactivity plays a key role in the functioning of behaviour and how easy or not so easy it may be to regulate emotions and emotional reactivity.
As stated above factors 1 & 2 differ, however greater links are found with factor 2 and criminality than with factor 1, due to the emotional reactivity of their traits. Those successful psychopaths that are found in factor 2 tend to have higher executive functionality in comparison to their criminal counterparts.
This is not the same for factor 1, factor 1 display traits of fearlessness, emotional stability, dominance and superficial charm. These are traits that do well in specific areas of society so factor 1 psychopaths seem to have higher rates of success in specific social or business settings. Examples of these roles would include, the military, high pressured company roles such as CEO, Emergency service or medical roles such as fire fighter or surgeon.
The stigmatisation of psychopathy by the media and general public have meant that even now, as we are beginning to understand the complexities of this disorder in all of its elements, those with it still face being labelled monsters and killers due to this accepted ignorance.
That leads me on to another common misconception, Sociopathy. Sociopathy is an old descriptive category that is no longer in use, it's not recognised as a form of psychopathy nor is it something you can be diagnosed with. The description of Sociopathy when it was in use shares many similar characteristics with AsPD and factor 2 psychopathy. Due to this there has been much confusion with many people believing factor 2 is or used to be sociopathy. This is not the case, “The confusion likely arose when the terms were conflated by mental health professionals in the mid-20th century.”- Psychology Today. Most sociopathic traits at that time fit into the definition of AsPD, and some more specifically into factor 2 psychopathy.
The behaviours were seen as another extremity of AsPD rather than them being a stand alone sub category, so sociopathy was scrapped. Since the change occurred sociopathy has been used in reference to AsPD and factor 2 psychopathy even though it is not factor 2 psychopathy specifically but more so a type of AsPD.
This is why you’ll see people claiming to have a diagnosis of sociopathy and also claiming to be a psychopath under the label of sociopathy. This is not clinically done and has not been for over 50 years now. There is no sub diagnosis of sociopath under the AsPD diagnostic and there never was. AsPD was independent and not linked to sociopathy.
Sociopathy isn’t a classified described disorder, and hasn't been since 1968. A person with the previous described traits of sociopathy is AsPD. Due to that already being a recognised diagnosis with fitting sub-sections there is no need for the sociopathy description so it was removed. “The dyssocial sociopathic distinction was eliminated in the second edition of the DSM in 1968, and many of the features of psychopathy remained.” – Arrigo & Shipley (2001). Sociopathy was officially removed from diagnostic aids such as the DSM a long time ago, yet the reference to it in regard to psychopathy continues due to this confusion.
Misconception - All Psychopaths are callous impulsive criminals.
Again this is another belief that has been found to be untrue. In fact studies are finding that those who are self aware of their Antisocial disorder and psychopathic traits, will make much more of a conscious effort to try and regulate their behaviour to avoid any negative outcome. Outcomes such as criminality or callous behaviours. This can be described as the application of "successful" psychopathy. This is seen even in those who do have a history of criminality. The awareness and ability to be more conscious of undesirable behaviours and reactions in turn seems to reduce the rate of reoffending. Making the person "successful" in the regard they have adapted towards managing their disorder and traits.
This has been identified very recently in a study carried out which examined the 7-year longitudinal research on Pathways of 1,354 adjudicated adolescents. It found that those "psychopathic individuals who develop greater self-regulatory control over their antisocial impulses become relatively more "successful" than their less regulated counterparts. Moreover, our results speak of the importance of the five-factor model for understanding psychopathy and the crucial role of conscientiousness in the form that psychopathic individuals take" - Lasko & Chester (2021)
Misconception - Psychopaths hurt and harm animals for fun.
On the whole this is untrue, many people diagnosed with psychopathy actually enjoy caring for animals, learning about them and sharing their love for them. Examples of this can be seen on social media, in groups created by people with AsPD for people with AsPD. The content of the group posts are based around educational information on animals, beautiful videos of nature, videos and images of people adoring their animals.
Many people with AsPD will keep pets for therapeutic reasons, animals will not judge them, animals will love them no matter what they are diagnosed with. Animals are calming and great companions to have, especially for people who otherwise may be socially awkward. Keeping animals gives them the ability to interact and connect with another living being in a positive way.
It has been found that interacting with animals can help with the development and understanding of empathy, something a person with psychopathy has little capacity for. A study done on the effects of Animal Assisted Therapy in prisons showed that “Dog-based AAI could be a useful tool to improve many different variables including mental health, emotional control, empathy, or academic skills in male and female inmates” Villafaina-Domínguez et al (2020) and highlighted the need for more study into the benefits of this area of treatment.
Misconception – Psychopaths cannot love or do not have the ability to love.
Psychopaths are often described as unemotional, cold, callous, manipulative. They are said to be unable to love or show compassion. This is something that was generally agreed upon by those who have studied such people in the past. But this is starting to change as more is studied on the way psychopaths process emotion and their ability to emotionally reason.
In my experience I have found this idea that psychopaths have no ability to love to be somewhat untrue. Yes they can be all of those callous and manipulative things with ease along with seemingly having no empathy either. However it must be accounted for that a person with Psychopathy when being interviewed/questioned/or interrogated will never be honest, they will never divulge who or what they care about because it exposes a weakness. Something that could later be used against them via manipulation. Something they are very aware of because they do the same thing to others.
When you take a closer look at them, on the level of a person who poses no threat to them I.e not a Dr, police officer, therapist. It becomes clear quite quickly that these supposed emotional qualities they lack are indeed present but somewhat warped in their application (compared with the accepted norms or emotional quality). A Psychopath can love and does love very hard. The way they express love is not the same as a person deemed normal. Which may be why it is not identified as such when being analysed by a person deemed neurotypical or normal.
When Psychopaths have shown emotion or a form of compassion it is often dismissed as superficial due to the years of professionals telling and teaching that they only do this for personal gain. Or it may seem fraudulent because those they say they care for they will often abuse. But this is where the difference comes in.
A Psychopath who abuses a person they have no emotional connection to will never give a second thought to their victim. That person is irrelevant the way they feel doesn't matter and never will. But when that person is someone they care about they do give it a second thought and at times may even try to correct their behaviour in their own way. This is their way of showing they care as they are unable to display emotion in traditional ways.
The only times this would occur is if the Psychopath fears loosing the person. Just as we know they view others as a kind of property this translates to a form of emotion (something a normal person cannot comprehend as it is so far removed from their perception of emotion) If the fear of loss is great enough they can make allowance for these people (they do not do this for anyone else ever).
They will attempt to adapt their behaviour to keep that other person happy and to reduce their concern of that person leaving. (even if they only manage it temporarily). This is an effort for them, one they wouldn't make for another person because any other person is not worthy of that.
In my book on Richard Kuklinski I touched upon this using him as an example. When he talks about his victims he is being a typical textbook Psychopath, but when he is asked specifically about his family this changes. You see him fight emotion, you see his mouth purse together as he tries to prevent his emotion from showing, he holds back tears. If this can be observed in a highly dangerous psychopath the idea that a successful psychopath cannot do the same isn’t a logical one.
You can also see Richard Kuklinskis love for his family when you look at his past. Anytime he upsets his wife or children in a rage his wife Barbara would say he would go above and beyond what was necessary to correct what he had done. His family were extremely important to him. Although he saw them as property unlike others they are none disposable.
And this is the difference its not that they don't feel emotion or guilt its more that they show it differently to someone who is normal. They love in a way that is hard to identify by traditional standards. Therefore it's gets overlooked and dismissed. These are my thoughts on the matter based on my experience and research on Psychopathy. They do go against what is currently accepted but it is sometimes necessary to challenge accepted belief especially when it's so flawed.
So what do psychopaths, their friends and families have to say about the misconceptions of their disorder?
Quotes from actual successful psychopaths on how these misconceptions affect them. And quotes from people who have friends or partners with psychopathy. These people will remain anonymous and have been given alternative names. Such as Ms A, Mr A, Ms B, Mr B etc
These people are regular members of society, who work and contribute as anyone else does. Due to the ruthlessness of the Internet I shall not be revealing the names of those who have kindly taken their time to contribute to this article.
"If I tell someone my diagnosis there's always a negative response especially for work and jobs. It makes it hard to tell people because they treat me differently or avoid me. Or say things like, your not gonna go American Psycho on me are you. You spend your whole life having to pretend to be normal, that sends me crazier than my disorder does." - Ms A
"People equate my diagnosis with being the worst of the worst and generally highly unpleasant to be around. Even if I was completely fine with someone beforehand, learning about my condition more often than not erases any rapport we had previously. People say my lack of empathy is a problem when they can be just as cold when they want to be." - Ms B
"They wanted to paint a monster, but monster is not becoming a monster, just it's own version of human" - Ms C
"With ASPD it feels a bit like a trap frankly.
You're considered bad for being outside of a society which most likely ostracised you or gave you nothing in the first place.
Who to boot also doesn't believe in morals (naughty you) so your spiky profile is always coming back to kick you in the ass for not playing ball even if you're attempting to.
In fact when you play ball is usually when you suffer.
If you tell the truth you're messed up and they'll speak to someone behind your back.
If you lie to apease or soften then you're manipulative. You're a psycho destined to destroy everything in sight and burn every bridge and your identity is tied to scum." - Mr F
What is it like to be friends with a psychopath?
“Being friends with a psychopath is refreshing, it actually makes for a really uncomplicated friendship. My friend is very open about her diagnosis and it hasn't affected our friendship in any way. She has on numerous occasions been supportive and caring. Its no different from any other friendship, the conversations are a little spicier that's all.” – Ms D
What is it like to be in a relationship with a factor 1 psychopath? A breakdown from a male giving their perspective on their 5 year relationship with a female factor 1 psychopath.
“My experience with a psychopath was nothing like the characters they show in the movies. They make psychopaths seem so morbid and unemotional, however this woman has emotion she just displayed it in her own way. She was the most intelligent woman I have met, extremely logical in her way of thinking, observant, nothing goes unnoticed. Even when we would watch movies she would notice every little detail.
She was not easy to open up, very closed off and detached but over time bit by bit she began to let me in, once she felt like she could trust me which took years (no exaggeration). Even though I say she began to trust me the element of not fully trusting was still there, it was clear she was always on guard to some extent.
I never saw her cry, apart from times she couldn’t get her own way and was angry and frustrated. Which was funny, but the tears never lasted long, it was like a burst of emotion 10 seconds at most then it was all gone and she would be normal again. I could see that being upset was foreign to her, she wouldn’t know what to do as these aren’t emotions that she would experience, I would see the confusion on her face.
She also struggled to understand if she cared for me or not, her logical mind was much more prominent than lovey dovey feelings and emotions. She was very caring and once she had accepted me into her pack she would always be willing to help me if I ever needed it and this was all genuine. I get the sense she liked to see me happy and satisfied in different ways, very protective too.
She had a big ego yes but it was rather controlled she was aware of her behaviour. Debates with her where difficult she would not be willing to have you win.
Sex an intimacy was intense, always, it was like a thrill to her I could always feel how primal she was deep down it oozed out of her like an untamed beast.
Despite what people say about psychopaths she was extremely loyal she wasn’t a very social person in general, rarely mixing with other people. Her respect for herself was very high, if she said she wasn’t going to do something she would stick to it. Her mind was so creative, her speech very smooth never heard her stutter.
Charm, manipulation, being cunning these where all things she was good at, but because she was aware of being a psychopath and her behaviour I feel she only exercised these things when she needed to and only with certain people. If she didn’t value you as a friend or family then you could be on the receiving end of these skills.
This woman displayed a lot of femininity but in a strong way, she still had aggression an wasn’t afraid to show it if needed but to me she was always much softer. She was misunderstood by people, by those observing her I think too many people didn’t take the time to hear and understand her, leading her to maybe become even more closed off from people, having to explain herself again an again an again. Leading her to think what’s the point.
I took time to understand her as much as I could and what I got to see was a kind hearted person, she may treat you different if she doesn’t like you but that I think is fair.
She wasn’t allowed to completely be herself by society, suppressing certain urges, never acting on certain impulses that are natural and true to who she is. Suppressing all of that daily must be extremely difficult but this is something people overlook with psychopaths. She is still to this day one of the most smartest, beautiful and caring women that I have met.” – Mr E
Hopefully this article has helped to dispel some of the stigma associated with Psychopathy and prompted you to maybe look into the topic further.
Did you enjoy this article?
Then you will also like The Pocket Guide to Psychopathy!
A short book that breaks down what psychopathy is, and isn't. It covers the various implications of the disorder, its clinical history and its application in modern day.
The book looks in depth at how a person may end up with the disorder and diagnosis. With chapters discussing the types of psychopathy and its implications on those that have the traits.
The misconceptions of the disorder are explained and the different ways that psychopathy can present itself in a persons behaviour are elaborated on in detail. There is a section that interviews those with the disorder, their families, and friends to give the reader an insight on what it is like for those with psychopathy, and for those who live and socialise with them.
If you are interested in learning more about what successful psychopathy is I have included some more links below.
There is a reference section with the citations for the studies mentioned in this article below as well.
Other terms for successful psychopathy
High functioning Psychopathy
On the trail of the successful psychopath Sarah Francis Smith, Ashley Watts and Scott Lilienfeld (23 July 2014) Retrieved from - The British Psychological Society -
In Search of the Successful Psychopath, What is a successful psychopath? Danielle Rousseau. (December 13th, 2021) Boston University. Retrieved from:
Emma-Clementine O. Welsh, Mark F. Lenzenweger. (2021) Psychopathy, charisma, and success: A moderation modeling approach to successful psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, Vol 95, 2021, 104146.Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2021.104146.
Virginia Commonwealth University. (2020, May 12). Not all psychopaths are violent; a new study may explain why some are 'successful' instead. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200512190000.htm
University of Bath. (2021, October 4). Differences in brain structure between siblings make some more susceptible to developing severe antisocial behavior. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/10/211004203436.htm
Successful psychopathy in crime
Successful psychopaths can and do commit crime and break rules, some infrequently, some rarely and others regularly. When talking about "successful" psychopathy in this sense, in the criminal application, it would be applied to the succes at evading detection. This is a topic which cannot be explained briefly. However, I have included a link to an article which covers the topic in depth below.
What Makes a "Successful" Psychopath?A psychopath's high impulsivity may facilitate success in crime. Scott A. McGreal MSc. (March 21, 2019). Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/unique-everybody-else/201903/what-makes-successful-psychopath
Psychopathy and emotion
Baskin-Summers, A. (2017, July 18). Psychopaths have feelings: Can they learn how to use them? Retrieved from: https://modlab.yale.edu/news/psychopaths-have-feelings-can-they-learn-h…
Marcoux, L-A, Michon, P-E., et al. (2014). Feeling but not caring: Empathic alteration in narcissistic men with high psychopathic traits. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. 224:3, 341-48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2014.10.002
Ramsland. K, (2021). The Emotional Lives of Psychopaths, What do they really feel? Psychology Today. 23 April 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/shadow-boxing/202104/the-emotional-lives-psychopaths
Arrigo BA, Shipley S. The confusion over psychopathy (I): Historical considerations. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol. 2001;45(3):325‒344.
Herbert, Wray. (2015). Psychopath, Successful psychopath. APS, Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/were-only-human/psychopath-successful-psychopath.html
Lasko, E. N., & Chester, D. S. (2021). What makes a "successful" psychopath? Longitudinal trajectories of offenders' antisocial behavior and impulse control as a function of psychopathy. Personality disorders, 12(3), 207–215. https://doi.org/10.1037/per0000421
Millon T, Simonsen E, Birket‒Smith M. Historical conceptions of psychopathy in the United States and Europe. In: Millon T, editor. Psychopathy: Antisocial, criminal, and violent behavior (3‒31). Guilford Press, New York, USA. 1998.
Villafaina-Domínguez B, Collado-Mateo D, Merellano-Navarro E, Villafaina S. Effects of Dog-Based Animal-Assisted Interventions in Prison Population: A Systematic Review. Animals. 2020; 10(11):2129. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10112129