“There is no real recipe for psychopathic personality disorder,” she says. “The environmental factors are as ill-defined as the genetic factors, although antisocial behavior mixed with a history of punitive discipline, abuse and neglect seems to apply in many cases.”
Psychopathy is not synonymous with violence, Skeem notes. In fact, she has found that psychopathic people often have no history of violent behavior or criminal convictions.
“An individual doesn’t necessarily need to be physically violent or a common street criminal to have psychopathic traits,” she says. Researchers estimate that about 1 percent of the general population are psychopaths.
Skeem points to Gordon Gekko, the unscrupulous financial executive played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” as someone with all the signs of psychopathy.
She cites Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff and Enron executive Andrew Fastow – ruthless, detached individuals who showed little remorse for robbing victims of their life savings – as real-life examples. Psychopathic traits helped them quickly climb the corporate ladder yet ultimately led to their downfall.
Can such traits ever be used for good? Skeem notes that the bold, risk-taking bomb squad leader in the Academy Award-winning movie “The Hurt Locker” succeeded in a high-pressure environment thanks to psychopathic tendencies. Of course, some psychopaths do resort to violence and crime. But according to Skeem, youth and adults with high scores on measures of psychopathy can exhibit reduced violent and criminal behavior after intensive treatment, such as mental health counseling and drug abuse rehabilitation. “There is scant scientific evidence to support the claim of ‘once a psychopath, always a psychopath,’” she says.
One one size fits all, parting thoughts:
“Research on psychopathy has evolved to a level that it can greatly improve on the current one-size-fits-all policy approach,” Skeem says.