From Scientific American, author of the book "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology," Scott Lilienfeld, discusses some myths and misconceptions about psychopaths. Some of the highlights:
- Few disorders are as misunderstood as is psychopathic personality.
- Research also suggests that a sizable number of psychopaths may be walking among us in everyday life. Some investigators have even speculated that “successful psychopaths”—those who attain prominent positions in society—may be overrepresented in certain occupations, such as politics, business and entertainment. Yet the scientific evidence for this intriguing conjecture is preliminary.
- Psychopathy seems to be present in both Western and non-Western cultures, including those that have had minimal exposure to media portrayals of the condition.
- All psychopaths are violent. Research by psychologists such as Randall T. Salekin, now at the University of Alabama, indicates that psychopathy is a risk factor for future physical and sexual violence. Moreover, at least some serial killers—for example, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Dennis Rader, the infamous “BTK” (Bind, Torture, Kill) murderer—have manifested numerous psychopathic traits, including superficial charm and a profound absence of guilt and empathy. Nevertheless, most psychopaths are not violent, and most violent people are not psychopaths. . . . Regrettably, the current (fourth, revised) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), published in 2000, only reinforces the confusion between psychopathy and violence. It describes a condition termed antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which is characterized by a longstanding history of criminal and often physically aggressive behavior, referring to it as synonymous with psychopathy. Yet research demonstrates that measures of psychopathy and ASPD overlap only moderately.
- All psychopaths are psychotic. In contrast to people with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, who often lose contact with reality, psychopaths are almost always rational.
- Psychopathy is untreatable. . . . Although psychopaths are often unmotivated to seek treatment, research by psychologist Jennifer Skeem of the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues suggests that psychopaths may benefit as much as nonpsychopaths from psychological treatment. Even if the core personality traits of psychopaths are exceedingly difficult to change, their criminal behaviors may prove more amenable to treatment.