As we will discuss, many of the controversies surrounding psychopathy stem from fundamental disagreements about its basic definition, or operationalization. The scope of phenomena encompassed by the term psychopathy has varied dramatically over time, from virtually all forms of mental disorder (psychopathy as “diseased mind”) to a distinctive disorder characterized by lack of anxiety; guiltlessness; charm; superficial social adeptness; dishonesty; and reckless, uninhibited behavior (Blackburn, 1998). Even contemporary conceptualizations of psychopathy contain puzzling contradictions. Psychopaths are often described as hostile, aggressive, and at times revenge driven (N. S. Gray, MacCulloch, Smith, Morris, & Snowden, 2003), yet they are also characterized as experiencing only superficial emotions (Karpman, 1961; McCord & McCord, 1964). They are impulsive and reckless, yet apparently capable of elaborate scheming and masterful manipulation (Hare, 1993). They can rise to high levels of achievement or status in society, attaining success in business and public life, yet present as criminals whose behavior is so poorly thought out and lacking in regard even for self-interest that they occupy bottom rungs of the social ladder
Given these contrasting depictions, it is scant wonder that some experts have concluded that the concept of psychopathy, as commonly understood, is disturbingly problematic: a “mythical entity” and “a moral judgment masquerading as a clinical diagnosis” (Blackburn, 1988, p. 511), “almost synonymous with ‘bad’” (Gunn, 1998, p. 34), “used by the media [to convey] an impression of danger, and implacable evil” (Lykken, 2006, p. 11). In the words of William and Joan McCord (McCord & McCord, 1964), two influential figures in the historic literature on psychopathy, “the proliferation of definitions, the tendency to expand the concept to include all deviant behavior, the discrepancies in judgment between different observers——these pitfalls in the history of the concept—— are enough to make a systematic diagnostician weep” (p. 56).
She then (optimistically) asserts that all is not lost, that sociopathy is a thing and we can figure out what that thing is through careful parsing of the literature and empirical evidence. First she dispels some myths:
- Psychopathy is synonymous with violence: "However, psychopathy can and does occur in the absence of official criminal convictions, and many psychopathic individuals have no histories of violence."
- Psychopathy is synonymous with psychosis: "In contrast with psychotic patients, psychopathic individuals are generally rational, free of delusions, and well oriented to their surroundings"
- Psychopathy is synonymous with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD): "The difference arises largely because measures of psychopathy include personality traits inferable from behavior, whereas measures of ASPD more exclusively emphasize antisocial, criminal, and (to a lesser extent) violent behavior."
- Psychopathic individuals are born, not made: "Contemporary understanding of the pervasive interplay of genetic and environmental influences in determining behavioral outcomes of various kinds argues against the likelihood that any psychiatric condition, including psychopathy, is entirely 'born' or 'made.'"
- Psychopathy is inalterable: "some recent empirical work has emerged to suggest that personality traits in general, and psychopathic traits more specifically, undergo change across major developmental transitions"
The article is quite long. I will probably keep going back to it over the next month or so and perhaps sharing things that I learn here.