How to become a psychopath

Some time ago, I discussed the question of whether Sherlock Holmes could be classed as a psychopath based on his behavior in the stories. In pursuing this question a little more, I came across an article in the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders that elaborated on how psychopathy manifests itself.

People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get with they want. The symptoms of psychopathy include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others.

Robert Hare was one of the leaders in studying this and developed a 20-point psychopathy checklist and you are a given a score of 0, 1, or 2 for each so that your score can range from 0 to 40. The article says that “A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5. Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.”

The twenty items are:

glib and superficial charm
grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
need for stimulation
pathological lying
cunning and manipulativeness
lack of remorse or guilt
shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
callousness and lack of empathy
parasitic lifestyle
poor behavioral controls
sexual promiscuity
early behavior problems
lack of realistic long-term goals
failure to accept responsibility for own actions
many short-term marital relationships
juvenile delinquency
revocation of conditional release
criminal versatility

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the scoring must be done by highly trained professionals so kids, don’t try this at home. Still, it gives an interesting breakdown of the elements that constitute psychopathy.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an interesting article by Cambridge University research psychologist Kevin Dutton about trying out something called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) that can lower the electrical activity in that part of the brain that generates feelings, and thus transform one into a psychopath.

Dutton interviewed Hare who said that he thought that as a society there has been an increase in psychopathy. Dutton says Hare’ pessimistic view is supported by other studies that show “college students’ self-reported empathy levels… have been in steady decline over the past three decades” while “during this same period, students’ self-reported narcissism levels have shot through the roof.” He quotes researcher Sara Konrath who says that “Many people see the current group of college students, sometimes called ‘Generation Me’ as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident, and individualistic in recent history.”

I tend to take these kinds of sweeping generalizations with a pinch of salt, especially when one cannot point to clear reasons as to what caused such major changes.

Psychopathy correlates with lack of empathy but sometimes this detachment can be a good thing, when the situation calls for you to disregard the feelings of others in order to get the job done. his can come in very useful for people who are frequently in situations which require a high-level of calm detachment despite the criticality or danger involved or who face a crisis. As Dutton says,

In fact, in any kind of crisis, the most effective individuals are often those who stay calm—who are able to respond to the exigencies of the moment while at the same time maintaining the requisite degree of detachment.

Now, one of the things that we know about psychopaths is that the light switches of their brains aren’t wired up in quite the same way as the rest of ours are—and that one area particularly affected is the amygdala, a peanut-size structure located right at the center of the circuit board. The amygdala is the brain’s emotion-control tower. It polices our emotional airspace and is responsible for the way we feel about things. But in psychopaths, a section of this airspace, the part that corresponds to fear, is empty.

In the light-switch analogy, TMS may be thought of as a dimmer switch. As we process information, our brains generate small electrical signals. These signals not only pass through our nerves to work our muscles but also meander deep within our brains as ephemeral electrical data shoals, creating our thoughts, memories, and feelings. TMS can alter the strength of those signals. By passing an electromagnetic current through precisely targeted areas of the cortex, we can turn the signals either up or down.

Turn down the signals to the amygdala, of course, and you’re well on the way to giving someone a psychopath makeover.

Dutton describes a highly decorated British Special Forces soldier Andy McNab who agreed to have his brain activity compared with his. When they were both were suddenly confronted with a gruesome situation on a screen, McNab’s brain activity in this region suddenly shut down below its normal baseline, as if he had no feelings, to a level that the experimenters had never seen before. Meanwhile Dutton’s shot through the roof, like a normal person.

Dutton was then treated with TMS, which he says was a creepy feeling since it seemed like he was giving control of his brain to someone else and was acting involuntarily in response to stimuli provided by the experimenter. In some ways, it felt like the effects of drinking alcohol

The effects aren’t entirely dissimilar. An easy, airy confidence. A transcendental loosening of inhibition. The inchoate stirrings of a subjective moral swagger: the encroaching, and somehow strangely spiritual, realization that hell, who gives a s—, anyway?

There is, however, one notable exception. One glaring, unmistakable difference between this and the effects of alcohol. That’s the lack of attendant sluggishness. The enhancement of attentional acuity and sharpness. An insuperable feeling of heightened, polished awareness. Sure, my conscience certainly feels like it’s on ice, and my anxieties drowned with a half-dozen shots of transcranial magnetic Jack Daniel’s. But, at the same time, my whole way of being feels as if it’s been sumptuously spring-cleaned with light. My soul, or whatever you want to call it, immersed in a spiritual dishwasher.

So this, I think to myself, is how it feels to be a psychopath. To cruise through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear—all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard—no longer trouble you.

After he had received the treatment, he was tested again and this time his response was even more psychopathic than McNab’s.

I am not sure what lessons to draw from this but it was an interesting and somewhat creepy look at how we can tickle our brains to change our personality.


  1. steve84 says

    The difference between sociopaths and psychopaths is mainly that the latter live on the fringes of society while sociopaths can be seemingly well integrated and normal. It’s just that most of their emotions and social interactions are faked.

  2. Jesse Cruickshank says

    Most of the reading I’ve done doesn’t make the distinction (between sociopaths and psychopaths), or actively asserts there is no distiction, or makes distinctions that are inconsistant with those made in other articles. Then again, I’m not a professional, but I have read that the distinction is apparently not as universal as might be expected.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    It’s interesting how analysis of the current generation of college students (the “Millenials” as they’re often called) supports or contradicts the Strauss-Howe “Generations” hypothesis that they advanced back in 1992. They made some predictions at the time about how the next few decades would develop, some of which certainly seem to have come true (political polarization in the midst of a culture war; major crisis precipitated by terrorism or financial collapse) and others that may not have (Millenials becoming more civicly-minded).

  4. AsqJames says

    From the description given I’d hesitate to draw any lessons at all.

    Each test group has a sample size of 1.

    Andy McNab is a former SAS trooper with years of service in Northern Ireland (starting in the 70s when sh1t was bad) as well as the first Gulf War. He was captured in Iraq and suffered torture. He will have seen “gruesome” scenes and acts and at times was probably the cause of them. He certainly suffered them. About 15 years of his life was spent training for, experiencing, and taking part in activities which would make most of us curl up in a ball and cry.

    Now maybe he went into that life because his pre-military psychological make-up was already leaning in that direction, but his military experiences make him a totally pointless subject in this experiment.

    Kevin Dutton clearly had pre-existing expectations of how the TMS treatment would affect him, and we know that expectation can be a huge influence on sensation and how we experience events.

    I’m not saying he’s talking nonsense, but what is described in the article seems to be a complete waste of time.

  5. mcrumiller says

    Interesting article, but incredibly unscientific. Both sample sizes were 1, and both were strongly motivated to produce the exact results that they reported.

    The neuroscience provided by the journalist is wishy-washy at best, and I’m not sure if it betrays the ignorance of the reporter or the scientists. While the neuroanatomical underpinnings of psychopathy are an active area or research, current results are all rather insignificant. The emphasis on the amygdala in this study seems unfounded to me; most studies point to connectivity between, e.g., prefrontal and temporal areas.

  6. JSchol says

    AsqJames: This wasn’t a scientific study and it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s just a demonstration for a reporter, and for that, it works fine.

  7. mnb0 says

    “don’t try this at home”
    Of course you can find similar tests on internet. I suppose giving this link indicates that I might be a sociopath or psychopath to some extent:

    After typing this I took the test – no, I am not.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    An easy, airy confidence. A transcendental loosening of inhibition. The inchoate stirrings of a subjective moral swagger: the encroaching, and somehow strangely spiritual, realization that hell, who gives a s—, anyway?

    This reminds me greatly of testimonies on the effects of heroin.

    It would be interesting to run a few junkies through this lab…

  9. DonDueed says

    I’m a bit of a Sherlockian, so for fun I applied the psychopathy test to his character as described in the canon.

    I came up with a result of around 5 or 6, though there are a few questions for which we simply have no data (e.g. youthful delinquency).

    The only item I scored as a 2 was “need for stimulation” — that was a recurring theme in the stories and was given as the explanation for Holmes’ cocaine use.

    In any case, even if I was somewhat generous in scoring items like “grandiose sense of self” as just 1, Holmes wouldn’t come anywhere close to the psychopath level.

  10. says

    I spent the last couple years learning and writing about ponerology, which is the scientific field all of this stuff – basically questions about the origins of harm – really falls under. It’s not very well known yet but I hope it becomes more so.

    I have linked to my page on the topic.

    Whatever our current understanding of pathological disorders of conscience and their influence, I think most of us can agree it is one of the most important topics we can study and that we should be bringing our best scientific methods and tools to doing so. That’s what ponerology is about.

    I also put together a page on psychopathy which you can reach from the links in that page. It has a whole section describing the delineations some make between psychopathy, sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder, which seems to be a topic of interest in the comments here.

  11. steve84 says

    Yeah, there is some disagreement on the exact definition. Meaning there is none. The symptoms overlap and what people think are the differences often depends whether they approach the issue from a psychiatric/psychological or a sociological background.

  12. richardrobinson says

    I was going to say the same thing. I think any distinction between the two is purely cultural. The only difference is a sociopath hasn’t been convicted of a violent crime yet.

  13. says

    Among those who see a distinction, the general jist I’ve gotten is that psychopathy is viewed as having a more biological basis with actual brain structure/function differences at the root, whereas sociopathy is seen more as involving someone who is biologically normal acting in harmful and dysfunctional ways in response to the incentive system in a social group.

    Of course, not everyone agrees on these differences. And there is some overlap since the brain and the social environment mutually influence each other. But this seems to be the consensus I’ve gathered from those who do make a delineation between them.

  14. says

    And to clarify the “violent crime” issue:

    Many psychopaths are never convicted of a violent crime. Same for sociopaths for those who view them as different.

    This is where you have to get into Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). ASPD is defined primarly by behavior so in order to be diagnosed you have to have been caught committing antisocial acts. Psychopathy and sociopathy are not based on specific criminal behavior quite in that way.

    So regardless if you distinguish between psychopathy and sociopathy, you definitely have to distinguish between either of them and ASPD. And the new DSM is coming out soon so we’ll see if any of this changes then.

  15. says

    I’ve always been fascinated by the problem of psychological diagnosis. I understand that you can diagnose something by its effects, but I’m always disturbed by the way psychology makes diagnoses in the absence of a causal model that’s tied to something really objectively measurable. I suppose this work is trying to get at that sort of thing and eventually I expect that neuroscience will establish causal models. What I predict will happen is that we’ll discover things that psychology currently diagnoses as a single disorder is actually multiple disorders – some of which are not “disorders” at all, but are behaviors.

    Can we truly call a behavior that an organism adopts because of experience a “disorder”? That’s just an example of the kind of problem that I think psychology has played very fast and loose with. As a consequence, we get these rather strange situations where there are ‘disorders’ that we don’t really know the causes of, which are treated using drugs based entirely on the patient’s self-reported states. I think we can safely say it’s plausible that there are forms of “depression” that are definitely a result of neurotransmitter imbalances but psychology doesn’t have a solid idea of what causes those imbalances or whether those imbalances are the “disorder” or if there is a deeper, underlying cause. And, worse, I think we can probably also be pretty sure that there are plenty of people running around right now who have been diagnosed as havin a “disorder” but their problem is really behavioral or experiential. Is it possible that some people who have been diagnosed as “AD/HD” really suffer from “overenthusiasm” which is not a disorder? And how can psychology tell, since it’s self-reported.

    I am not (far from it!) trying to make the kind of attack against psychology that you’ll hear from $cientologists or other nut-cases. There are clearly things that go wrong, apparently with people’s brains, that cause them to experience depression or various types of behaviors – I think the radicals who try to completely dismiss psychology are making a great big mistake. But I worry that psychology is verging on pseudoscience in a lot of places, and – at the very least – is on risky intellectual ground. It has done a good job of shifting from the nonsensical “science by vigorous assertion” of Freud but in a sense its still doing the same kind of thing: Freud and Fliess thought that people’s behaviors could be adjusted by rhinoplasty (and, indeed, they were so adjusted…) that’s not a whole lot different than pouring drugs which are poorly understood into a brain that is poorly understood in order to adjust a “disorder” that is barely understood at all.

    I bet we’ll find that there are some elements of what make up “sociopathy” or “psychopathy” that are, in fact, organic and are a “disorder” rather than a matter of degree or behavior or experience. And we’ll find that other elements are purely behavioral. Perhaps someday, we’ll get a diagnosis such as that someone is “sociopathic amygdala disordered” plus “asshole behavioral syndrome”

    I know that these lists of attributes are all we’ve got for now, but it seems to me to be only a bit more empirical than zodiac and palm-reading, and I’m very very unsettled when I hear statistics being thrown around about how percentages of a population have a “disorder” that nobody can point to a cause/effect relationship that allows an empirical diagnosis. It’ll be nice when neuroscience completes its obliteration of psychology and we have a better understanding of what really are disorders and what are behaviors.

  16. im says

    I wonder if this can be used to help people replace misplaced emotional morals with utilitarian ethics.

  17. Aim says

    I actually don’t care about the following question but why it’s bad to be a psychopath ??
    Some people are just born in this way , they got nothin’ to do with it , it’s even harder knowing that you’re different comparing to other people , YOU HAVE TO FAKE EVERYTHING when you don’t need to … trying to put a smile or act like you’re sad when you actually don’t feel anything , and even worse , when you don’t know what to fake , what other should be feeling atm and how to do it …

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