psychopaths | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

Psychopaths are individuals with a personality disorder marked by persistent antisocial behavior, lack of empathy and remorse, and manipulative traits.

A psychopath is a person who exhibits a constellation of personality traits, including lack of empathy, impulsivity, deceitfulness, and shallow affect, which predispose them to engage in criminal behavior and cause harm to others, whereas sociopathy refers to a pattern of disregard for the rights of others and violation of social norms, often resulting in criminal behavior but can also be non-violent.

Psychopathy is traditionally defined as a personality disorder characterized by a range of traits and behaviors that include a lack of empathy and remorse, superficial charm, impulsivity, deceitfulness, and a tendency to manipulate and exploit others for personal gain. These traits predispose psychopaths to engage in criminal behavior, including violent offenses such as murder, assault, and rape.

While the term “psychopath” is often used interchangeably with “sociopath” in popular culture, there is a difference between the two. Sociopathy, also known as antisocial personality disorder, is characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others and violation of social norms. Sociopaths may engage in criminal behavior, but they may also be nonviolent and exhibit traits such as impulsivity, deceitfulness, and lack of empathy. In contrast, psychopathy is considered to be a more severe form of antisocial behavior, and psychopaths are often described as more calculating and predatory in their behavior.

The psychological study of psychopathy began with the work of pioneers such as Hervey Cleckley, who identified a set of personality traits that he called the “mask of sanity” exhibited by psychopaths, which enabled them to blend in with society while hiding their true nature. Later, researchers developed diagnostic tools such as the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), which uses a series of interview questions and rating scales to assess the presence of psychopathic traits in individuals.

While the causes of psychopathy are not fully understood, researchers have identified a range of factors that may contribute to its development, including genetic predisposition, childhood abuse and neglect, and neurological abnormalities. Treatment for psychopathy is challenging, as psychopaths are notoriously resistant to change, and traditional therapies such as talk therapy may be ineffective. However, some approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and targeted interventions aimed at specific symptoms, may be helpful in managing some of the associated behaviors and reducing the risk of criminal recidivism.

In the criminal justice system, psychopathy is sometimes considered a mitigating factor in sentencing, as psychopaths may be less responsive to traditional forms of punishment and rehabilitation. However, the use of psychopathy as a legal defense is controversial, as it can be seen as excusing criminal behavior and undermining notions of individual responsibility. Overall, the study of psychopathy continues to be an important area of research in criminology and psychology, as it provides insight into the complex interplay between biology, psychology, and behavior that underlies criminal activity.

Learn More

On This Site

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 03/13/2023


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.