T Nation



Francis Begbie from Trainspotting and Joe Pesci's character from Good Fellas and Casino come to mind but most psychopaths are corporate executives/people in positions of power apparently.


Another cinema psychopath you may have missed...Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in 'Kiss of Death':

Who can forget Bruno Anthony?


it depends on how you define 'psychopath'.

different researchers define psychopath differently.

narrower definitions result in less prevalence. psychopaths are serial killers and the like.

broader definitions result in higher prevalence. thus we get this idea of the high functioning psychopath that is a successful member of society.

even broader definitions result in a fairly large number of first year psychology students counting as psychopaths. now there is a handy way to obtain a sample to do research on!

how much those findings generalize back to telling us stuffs about the people who meet that narrower definition is...

A) stupid. most probably.

B) helpful. thanks very much for the funding grant :slight_smile:


Actually there is a single agreed measure for psychopathology across the globe. It's the Robert Hare Psychopathology checklist. It's used in every prison for the criminally insane and every psychiatric hospital across the globe. The higher the score(out of 40) the more likely you are considered to be a psychopath. Prior to developing this test Robert Hare used pain tolerance and fear to measure psychopathology but these methods are no longer allowed.


What about the DSM definition of psychopath?

Is the idea that the higher the score (out of 40) the more likely you are considered to meet DSM definition of psychopathy?

I wonder if the pain tolerance / fear measures correlate well with the checklist measures...

I'm just a bit skeptical about the notion of 'psychopath'. That there is one thing going on that these and only these people have in common. That our different measures (e.g., pain tolerance / fear measures, Robert Hare checklist, DSM criteria, commonsense intuitions about psychopathy) are independent handles we have of identifying the same phenomenon / bunch of people.

But that's cool.

With the fear thing... Why can't they use that? Psychopaths have lower SCR responses to emotional stimuli than non psychopathic controls. Well... Whether that is an interesting finding about psychopaths or whether it is part of the definitional criteria of psychopathy might be a little controversial... Same for pain threshold... I mean... How do we test analgesics?


The DSM uses Hare's test for assessment.

I agree with you about defining a psychopath. Did you read the article? The author and psychiatrists he talks to agree too. They say we all have some of these traits.

As for pain threshold: Hare hooked up people considered psychopaths and people who weren't to an electric shock machine. He monitored their blood pressure, pulse, breathing etc and then told them that they were about to receive a painful electric shock. The psychos just sat there with no measurable change. The others experienced all the symptoms associated with fear: rise in blood pressure and pulse from adrenaline, sweating etc. The shock itself also produced little reaction from the psychos.


How do you figure that?


See the word 'apparently'? I didn't figure it. It's what psychologists/psychiatrists are saying. Robert Hare now says he wishes he'd conducted his tests in the real world instead of just in prisons and mental institutions. There have been loads of books published in recent years about corporate pyschopaths. Here's an interesting article for starters:



Psychiatrists often become very fond of their pet diagnosis and start thinking that around 80% of people have it or have lesser forms of it...

(E.g., thinking of the controversy over dissociative identity disorder in particular).

Psychopaths have become interesting to philosophers because they are supposed to help us settle whether morality is Kantian or Humean. Kant thought that morality was what REASON requires, whereas Hume thought that morality as more to do with what EMOTION requires. So we have cognitivist (Kantian) and non-cognitivist (Humean) theories of morality. (Also cognitivist and non-cognitivist theories of emotion, to complicate the issue).

Here is the thought: If psychopaths are defective in morality (and they are by definition) but not defective in reasoning (empirical claim) then Kant was wrong!

So now psychopaths are interesting because philosophers want to know if they have cognitive problems...

If you restrict the class of psychopaths to those in jail... The serial killers and the like... Then hollywood dramatizations aside psychopaths seem to have cognitive problems. Problems engaging socially (e.g., cooperating in betting situations where it is in their own advantage to cooperate). Problems with long term planning. Seems to vindicate Kant...

If we broaden the class of psychopaths to those who are considered to be highly functioning members of society (e.g., business people)... Then we no longer seem to find problems with long term planning or cooperation when it benefits the alleged psychopath. Seems Kant was wrong...

Will the real psychopaths please stand up?

Sometimes I find this mildly interesting :slightly_smiling:


Good post. The field of ethics has always been riddled with logical paradoxes. Here's my take on psychopaths' cognitive problems:

Whilst they are extremely crafty and sly, like autistic people they seem unable to tell what other people are thinking. Classic example:

Hitler played the democracies for fools but after Dunkirk he actually thought he could make a deal with the British. He failed to read the nation's temper and their new resolve.

Stalin had peasant cunning to an unusual degree but when Britain warned him of the Nazis' invasion plans he dismissed it as a 'capitalist trick'. He failed to understand the mindset of his soon to be allies.

There are other common traits shared between autistic people and psychopaths. They may be related disorders. Experts now think bi-polar and schizophrenia may be related too. Not trying to draw a conclusion from a single instance but Martin Bryant was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome. A disorder closely related to austism.



philosophers are often interested in autism because they think it might have something to show us about Theory of Mind (the ability we have to attribute mental states to others).

The false belief task:

(puppet show)
sally and ann are in a room. sally puts some candy under a box. sally leaves the room. ann moves the candy from under the box to in the drawer. sally comes back into the room. the test subjects are asked 'where will sally look for the candy?'

most people from around the age of three correctly attribute a false belief to sally - she will look for the candy under a box. people with downs syndrome (intellectual handicap) pass the false belief task similarly to normal controls. people with autism do not. they think sally will look for the candy where the candy actually is rather than where she believes it to be. they don't seem capable of attributing beliefs (which may or may not be true) to other people.

suggesting... that theory of mind is a distinct (perhaps modular) capacity from general intelligence.

psychopaths... pass the test, i think. i think they do... austistics... aren't standardly thought to be immoral, i think. there are some tests of moral intuitions (can't remember them sorry) that they have used with psychopaths and the psychopaths fail. i'm not sure whether those with autism fail... sorry my memory is shot...

one needs to be careful of a slippery slope into... well... everything.

it is controversial, though, whether there are categorical differences between different kinds of mental disorders (as the DSM would seem to suggest) or whether it is more of a matter of degree such that it isn't terribly useful to think of them as being distinct kinds.

Bi-polar and schizophrenia... I think the story goes that crazy was crazy... Then Blueler (I think though I could be wrong it might have been someone else) observed patient records over time and made a discovery: Some seemed episodically crazy (bi-polar) whereas others got progressively crazier (schizophrenia). That was meant to be the basis for the distinction. Then the finding that some people responded to Lithium thus got to be bi-polar (though now we have broadened the definition of bi-polar such that people who are non-responsive to lithium get to count as well). Oh. And those who couldn't stand up unassisted from kneeling or something like that. They responded to anti-biotics. They have syphilis. Not a mental disorder at all.


Gotta love it...

Or something...


but of course the false belief task focuses on ability to attribute belief

what might be more relevant is the ability to attribute emotion

e.g., 'john's dog died. how does john feel?'

a) happy
and so on...

or... to identify emotion from facial expression... but apparently normal controls don't do so flash at that one, either :-/

And then there is surely a difference between attributing simple beliefs like those in the false belief task (that 3 year olds are capable of doing) and the more sophisticated motivations etc that Hitler etc were perhaps incapable of doing...


The one I really like is how depressives tend to have a more realistic assessment of their value (comparing self rating to the ratings of friends) than non-depressives (who tend to overvalue themselves).

depression = realism?



Wait, I thought it was that higher IQ that correlated into more accurate assessment. Granted, that's been my thinking about why higher IQ tends to throw a wrench in normal social function, be it anxiety or depression, at least where normal emotional development is concerned.

This is a very interesting subject. Most morality is based on empathy. We base humanity on empathy. We value other beings based on their level of consciousness and a variety of other factors which allow us to empathize them. We evolved empathy to be able to function as a society. I just read that 1 out of 100 people can be considered psychopathic. Whether that figure is accurate or not I think is irrelevant when you consider the prevalence of sub-pathological empathy deficiency.

I don't really know what we're talking about though. What's the point of this thread?


Observations on schizophrenia and bi-polar:

Schizophrenics suffer from auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations, persecution complexes and delusions.

Manic depressives suffer from episodes of impulsive behaviour often characterised by excessive joy(highs), sorrow(lows) or just mania.

Observations on Psychopaths(in particular what they call 'sexual psychopaths') and Autistics:

Psychopaths lack empathy and often take pleasure in destructive/violent/sadistic behaviour. They are cunning in the short term but lack judgement, self-restraint and a retrospective nature to get away with their crimes in the longterm.

Autistic people lack empathy but don't usually take pleasure in sadistic behaviour. They live in their own world unable to communicate with/understand others and feel the need to engage in repetitive behavioural patterns to assauge feelings of confusion and fear which are often associated with emotional/mental/physical communication.


Or realism = depression?

Or maybe a third variable...


The statement is made by a leftist who hates rich people.


To make tough decisions that could potentially kill people or put them on the street a certain lack of There's a great essay called Twilight of the Psychopaths" I believes.

It deals with leaders or countries and outlines there possible psychopathic nature....

Making decisions that could kill thousands or put millions out of work all while keeping a straight face...


As a depressive that's really fucking depressing...

Yet I must lol.



(sorry. i can rant about this stuff for hours)



I just self-took the test, it's the PCL-R if any of you are interested. I scored a 19, 30+ is defines you as a psychopath in the US, 25+ for UK and Canada. The only thing keeping my score low is the fact that I have long term goals and am working towards them.

Supposedly "normal" people get between a 0 and 2. So by this definition I'm not a psychopath.

On the other hand "Psychopathy is a term which, until the 1980s, formally referred to a personality disorder characterized by an abnormal lack of empathy masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal" on THIS definition, I'm um....quite psychopathic.

edit: What I think is comical, is that if someone who knew me in real life tested me on the PCL-R, I'd probably score between a 0-2, so what does that tell you according to the older definition?