Thursday, February 27, 2020

The origins of criminality as a feature of sociopathy (part 3)

Because it largely captures people who commit crimes, either sociopathic or non, the PCL-R is both over-inclusive of non-sociopathic criminals and under-inclusive of non-criminal sociopaths. (Id, citing Lilienfeld, 1994.) At best, research based on the PCL-R can be characterized as “a literature on unsuccessful psychopathy.” Id. However not all sociopaths are unsuccessful. Rather the “great majority of psychopaths” have (Id, quoting Hercz, 2001, ¶ 11.) via their “ individual differences in talents and opportunities” channeled their psychopathic tendencies not into criminality, but into heroism, worldly success, etc. Id, citing Cleckley, 1976; Harkness & Lilienfeld, 1997; Lilienfeld, 1998; Lykken, 1995. Hare himself has conceded, most sociopaths are not criminals.

Although Hare never filed suit, he successfully delayed publication of Skeem and Cooke’s article by three years. He was also roundly criticized as improperly interfering with the peer review process. In an article titled “Fear Review,” Scientific American writes : “’It was [a] shock,’ Skeem says of Hare's legal threat. ‘this is not about Professor Hare, and it's only incidentally about the Psychopathy Checklist,’ she says. ‘The focus was really on how we could move the field forward.’”

Hare conceded in his response to Skeem and Cooke that the PCL-R does not embody the concept of psychopathy, nor is criminality a necessary component, but there are only twenty factors and three of them specifically deal with criminality: “criminal versatility”, “juvenile delinquency” and “revocation of conditional release” (revoked parole). Another is “many short-term marital relationships”. Only half of the factors track Cleckley sociopathy.

How did non-Cleckley traits enter the PCL-R?

[B]ecause participants in the PCL development sample were criminals rather than nonincarcerated patients or nonpatients, it seems likely that the initial candidate pool included many more deviance-related items, such that [Cleckley’s] positive adjustment indicators dropped out in the selection process. The result is that the PCL-R, compared with Cleckley’s original diagnostic criteria, contains items that are uniformly indicative of deviancy and psychological maladjustment.

Patrick, et al. (2009).

Studying exclusively criminals and then assuming sociopathy must be related to criminality seems like an obvious sampling error. If I exclusively studied my church congregation for sociopathy, could I properly infer a connection between sociopathy and organized religion? Even Hare admits “the majority of psychopaths aren't criminal,” so how could he be satisfied basing his test exclusively on criminals?

Despite round criticism from the psychological community, the PCL-R’s psychopath has left a lasting academic and public impression. Notwithstanding mounting research to the contrary, the dominant popular view of sociopathy is Hare’s criminal recidivist remorseless killer. This is the psychopathy of Hollywood murder movies. I too am scared of such a person, although I haven’t yet encountered one.

Modern researchers remain divided between Cleckley’s carefree bon vivant and Hare, Rollins, McCord and McCord’s criminal deviant.  While Cleckley’s view of sociopaths amounted to emotional colorblindness, Hare et al. depict a “bad egg” rife with moral rottenness – a severely emotionally damaged individual characterized by a loveless and guiltless existence of unrestrained malice for fellow man. Id. Where Cleckley saw “boldness,” they see “meanness.” Where Cleckley saw a lack of connection to the sociopath’s own feelings and the feelings of others, they see a vicious disregard for the feelings of others. Id. Cleckley sought to understand underlying thought patterns, they sought to label external behavior. Cleckley saw a potential patient, they see a social predator. Cleckley saw a problem for which he was seeking a cure.[i] They see a problem that needs to be identified and isolated to protect society, or as Hare has said:

Measurement and categorization are, of course, fundamental to any scientific endeavor, but the implications of being able to identify psychopaths are as much practical as academic. To put it simply, if we can't spot them, we are doomed to be their victims, both as individuals and as a society.

Hare’s remorseless criminal psychopath is associated with “Factor 2 psychopathy”. While Factor 1 traits track Cleckley’s sociopath, Factor 2 adds new traits largely associated with deviance. Not surprisingly, there is little correlation between Factor 2 and Factor 1 traits. In fact, some flatly contradict each other:

  •         High aggression, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. Harpur et al., (1989); Hare, (1991).
  •         Aggression provoked by reactionary anger. Patrick & Zempolich, (1998); Porter & Woodworth, (2006).
  •         High levels of alcohol and drug dependence. Hare, (2003); Smith & Newman, (1990).
  •         Deviant behavior.  Hall et al. (2004)
  •         High disinhibition and boredom, anger, alienation, distress at negative everyday events. Id.
  •         Low conscientiousness and low interest in achievement. Id.
  •         Low personal socioeconomic status. Id.
  •         Historic and future crimes against people, including violent crimes. Skeem, Mulvey, and Grisso (2003)
  •         High aggressiveness. Id.
  •         Low agreeableness and lower connection to or interaction with other people. Id.
  •         High FFM neuroticism (worrying or negative feelings about everyday incidents), low FFM agreeableness, and low conscientiousness.

o   Interestingly, these are exactly opposite of the Factor 1 results for these categories.

Patrick, et al. (2009).

How can the same group be characterized by both high emotional reactiveness and low emotional reactiveness? Are they angry anxious drug addicts or are they happy-go lucky charmers? Are they impulsive sadist below-the-poverty-line loners or socially dominant Machiavellian CEOs? Are we looking at violent offenders who have a hard time regulating their overpowering emotions or feckless opportunists who have a hard time feeling their own or others’ emotions? Are they primarily emotionally or intellectually driven? Reactive or proactive?

As researchers have posited, the same group can’t really be both, unless we’re talking about two or more separate but related things. Perhaps, as some have suggested, one thing is more nature and the other nurture. Some say one is a sociopath and the other is a psychopath. Or one is a primary sociopath and the other a secondary sociopath. Some say they have the same underlying cause, but only manifest differently. For example, that sociopathy manifests itself naturally in boldness, and meanness is only what happens when you combine sociopath plus risk factors, e.g. childhood neglect or abuse, low socioeconomic status, low education, single parent household, etc. When Cleckley’s emotional blindness is given prosocial outlets, they argue, it can lead to “social efficacy, imperturbability, and tolerance of danger” and if not, “impulsivity, rebelliousness, alienation, and aggression.” Id. This would explain the shared traits (fearlessness and boldness) you see between criminal and non-criminal sociopaths as well as the differences in behavior between the two.[ii]

[i] Cleckley’s position was that he knew of no treatment, but he blamed it in part on the collective evasion of the issue by the psychological community and society at large rather than any definitive evidence of there being no treatment:

Although I spared no effort to make it plain that I did not have an effective therapy to offer, the earlier editions of this book led to contact with psychopaths of every type and from almost every section of the United States and Canada. Interest in the problem was almost never manifested by the patients themselves. The interest was desperate, however, among families, parents, wives, husbands, brothers, who had struggled long and helplessly with a major disaster for which they found not only no cure and no social, medical, or legal facility for handling, but also no full or frank recognition that a reality so obvious existed.

….the psychopath presents an important and challenging enigma for which no adequate solution has yet been found. Although still in the unspectacular and perforce modest position of one who can offer neither a cure nor a well-established explanation, I am encouraged by ever increasing evidence that few medical or social problems have ever so richly deserved and urgently demanded a hearing.

Cleckley, “Mask of Sanity”.
[ii] See, e.g.:

“The boldness component of psychopathy, which is tapped weakly and incompletely by the items of the PCL-R, is important to distinguish in turn from the meanness component, which is well represented in the PCL-R. One reason is that the distinction between boldness and meanness is crucial to reconciling Cleckley’s conception of psychopathy with that advanced by more criminologically oriented theorists (e.g., McCord & McCord, 1964; Robins, 1966). Another is that boldness, although phenotypically distinct from meanness, appears to share a key etiologic substrate (i.e., diminished fear capacity). This raises the important developmental question, discussed in the last major section below, of what intersecting etiologic factors give rise to meanness as opposed to boldness in temperamentally fearless individuals.

Yet another reason is that the construct of boldness is likely to be of unique importance in understanding so-called “successful psychopaths”: individuals exhibiting high levels of charm, persuasiveness, imperturbability, and venturesomeness who achieve success in society as military, political, or corporate-industrial leaders (cf. Lykken, 1995).”

Patrick, et al. (2009).


  1. There is no murderous impulse in (everyday) psychopathy. Socios are the opposite of a vandal that likes to smash things for kicks. Socios don´t "get high" on violence. Socios like to do things with as little "mess" (fights, heated arguments, screaming) as possible.

    1. I don't think that I agree with that generalization. I certainly try to eliminate the causes of conflict in my relationships, but I have also learned the importance of properly navigating disagreements. I can manage conflict to further a purpose or strengthen my relationships rather than allow it to infringe upon them. After all, the avoidance of conflict is a cause of conflict in itself.

    2. Socios understand that by creating conflicts "walls" are erected. They avoid that. They can eat humiliation just to stop that wall from being raised. They see average Joe as a crude monkey when he bellows out his anger and disappointment for not getting this or that right now..

    3. I agree, but I think that furthers my point that the engagement with conflict is more strategic and on a selective basis. Sometimes the average Joe needs to be addressed, especially when his power can be swiftly disabled.

  2. Loving this series. I hope that you discuss this more in another book.

  3. Has anyone read the new book My Mother the Psychopath by Olivia Rayne?

  4. Thanks for the added context regarding Robert Hare. His efforts at 'demonizing' psychopathy and spreading misinformation has certainly proved successful. It may have delayed decades worth of studies on the condition and confused a whole generation of therapists into blacklisting a group of unfortunate individuals born as psychopaths from their office. the stigma is real.

  5. Many are confused by nasty, extroverted behaviour and seem to think that playful, expressive & sadistic people are socios. Socios don´t care about other people. They see little meaning with degrading others for no reason (why should they, they don´t care about them?). The worst type of narcissism IS NOT psychopathy.

  6. Thanks for the added context regarding Robert Hare. His efforts at 'demonizing' psychopathy and spreading misinformation has certainly proved successful.


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