Five Common Misconceptions About Psychopaths

As we explore the link between entrepreneurship and psychopathy, it’s crucial to examine some common misconceptions about what a psychopath is. This Halloween season, dozens of movies and television shows featuring crazed axe-wielding villains chasing screaming coeds will hit the airwaves. And those gory pictures may match up closely with what we think of as a psychopath. The research on psychopathy that I’ve delved into, however, offers a much more nuanced portrait of this complex disorder, one that debunks some common misconceptions about this most pernicious of personality disorders. But as we look more closely at what may be our own biases for who is and is not behaving in a way that indicates psychopathy, it’s also critical that we understand the ways in which our cultural narrative may steer us away from seeing those disordered individuals who hide in broad daylight, or in the corner office.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with violence.

Many of us most readily equate psychopaths with the famous serial killers whose unimaginable and outrageous acts captivated the public’s imagination: monsters like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. The media continues to use the terms psychopathic and killer almost interchangeably. But psychopathy can and does occur in the absence of any criminal behavior, and many individuals assessed as psychopathic have no history of violence. Psychopaths, more broadly, tend to engage in behaviors that may cause harm in a social or emotional sense (malicious gossiping, lying, manipulating others, or acting without regard for the feelings of others). As distasteful as these actions may be, none of them are violent or illegal.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with psychosis.

Owing perhaps in part to the similarity of the words psychopath and psychotic, another common assumption is that psychopaths are irrational, out of touch with reality, or both—these being characteristics of psychosis. Not helping matters is the news media using the term psychopath when featuring such famous killers as Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, and John Hinckley, who all showed indications of unmistakable psychotic thinking. More recently, the term psychopath was used by at least one political commentator in the context of Jared Lee Loughner, who shot and killed six people and wounded thirteen others, including US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona.

While psychopathic traits can appear in conjunction with psychotic symptoms, they don’t necessarily do so. People with psychopathy alone generally look quite different from those presenting with psychosis only. Psychopathic individuals are generally rational, free of delusions, and well oriented to their surroundings. Psychotics act very differently from this.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

Until the most recent version of the DSM was released, it was strongly implied that being psychopathic and being antisocial were interchangeable. Many may find their differences to be unremarkable, but once again, the crucial difference comes down to violence and criminality. Psychopathy is determined by characteristics of someone’s personality, whereas ASPD depends on the individual in question engaging in antisocial, criminal, and—to some extent—violent behaviors. This is not just scientific hairsplitting. As diagnostic methods have become more precise, seeing a history of criminal and violent behavior as an indicator of psychopathy has dropped precipitously.

Misconception: Psychopaths are born, not made.

Our understanding of the interplay between nature and nurture in shaping someone’s personality is ever evolving, with current thinking being that psychiatric conditions—including psychopathy—are not either born or bred but are a combination of the two. Based on what is now known, it seems very likely that psychopathy has many causal factors in addition to its genic component, and that one’s environment (particularly family setting and dynamics) could have a significant effect.

Misconception: Psychopathy is inalterable.

Despite the fact that this belief lacks convincing scientific basis, it is extraordinarily pervasive. So pervasive, in fact, that researchers have not even bothered to test the notion until recently. Initial empirical work now suggests that personality traits in general, and psychopathic traits specifically, do change as one moves through what are known as “developmental transitions.” Intentional, motivated change—with the help of highly skilled therapists—is showing some promise in limited clinical settings.

The difficulty in coming to terms with psychopathy—and psychopaths—has largely been due to overreliance on criminal behavior to define the disorder. Unquestioned assumptions have fostered the mistaken impression that psychopathic individuals invariably commit crimes. Leading researchers in the field have now made a significant pivot away from this belief. The behavior of psychopaths might be much subtler than we imagined but, in many ways, no less dangerous.