Skip to main content

Behind the Mask: The Myth of the Psychopath

The idea of the psychopath is both comforting and dangerous. The Myth of the Born Criminal helps explain why.
benjamin rush

Benjamin Rush. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2008, shortly after graduating from college, I was living in western Kenya and working with a man named Gregory. Gregory (I’ve changed his name) was my fixer, sort of: He helped make introductions, drove me around, and explained Kenya to me while we worked on a series of loosely organized education projects. Gregory was Kenyan, and when I’d first met him, back in the United States, and he had been warm and ingratiating and seemed excited that I’d soon be moving to Kenya.

Not long after I arrived, though, things with Gregory began to go wrong. He was chronically late and always seemed to be lying about it. He had gotten a flat tire, his truck was in the shop, his phone had run out of credit. Once, we made plans to travel to a school together on a Tuesday morning, but Gregory didn’t show up or call until Thursday. (No one was ever punctual in Kenya, which suited me just fine, but two days late was unusual.) On another school visit, we were driving along a dirt road in his old red pick-up, weaving through a crowd of pedestrians, when Gregory plowed into a man walking down the middle of the road. He didn’t take his foot off the gas or make any effort to swerve. We collected the injured man and drove him to a clinic a mile away, and I think he ended up OK, but the incident was horrifying—it seemed as if Gregory barely registered what had happened.

For a while, despite everything, I liked Gregory. He was funny and kind, and he would go out of his way for me—when I had his attention. He was flattering about the work I was doing, which I appreciated because my work wasn't very good. But after the car accident I became uncomfortable with him, and I noticed that a lot of people rolled their eyes when I mentioned his name. One person warned me not to trust him, especially with money, which did seem to disappear a lot. A few months into my trip, I heard from two people that he had broken his wife's jaw, hospitalizing her for a several days. After that, I did my best to keep out of his way until I flew back home.

Unlike discrete psychological disorders such as schizophrenia or depression, psychopathy is a disorder sustained by rhetoric rather than by science—“psychopath" is just a strong word for a deviant, in the same way that “jerk” describes someone you don’t like but reveals little about that person’s psychology.

Eventually, I Googled “psychopath,” wondering whether Gregory fit the profile. Probably a lot of people have done the same thing and found what I found: Psychopaths are real and relatively common, and some researchers have estimated that as much as one percent of the world’s population are psychopaths. They are unable to feel the full range of normal, human emotions, especially compassion and empathy. They’re often violent, and because they’re ruthless, they may be over-represented at the upper levels of business and government. Psychologists have developed criteria for diagnosing psychopaths; in the last 15 years, neuroscientists have identified brain abnormalities associated with psychopathy, even pinpointing genes that cause the disorder. Since 2008, whenever psychopathy has come up in conversation, I’ve told my story about Gregory. He was charming, unreliable, a liar, and dangerous. By most of these metrics, the man (I assumed) was a psychopath.

Was he? In a new book, The Myth of the Born Criminal, two Canadian psychologists, Stephanie Griffiths and Michael Maraun, and a criminologist, Jarkko Jalava, argue that psychopathy is a flawed and ill-defined concept, largely unsupported by the neuroimaging data its proponents often cite. Unlike discrete psychological disorders such as schizophrenia or depression, the authors argue, psychopathy is a disorder sustained by rhetoric rather than by science—“psychopath" is just a strong word for a deviant, in the same way that “jerk” describes someone you don’t like but reveals little about that person’s psychology. “The term ‘jerk,' does not constitute or imply a real thing,” they write; "it is simply a linguistic convention for displaying moral disapproval.” To the extent that psychopaths explain anything, they serve to highlight society’s fears and neuroses, and allow us to rationalize and remove ourselves from the human tendency toward evil.

The moral logic behind psychopathy has been baked into the concept since the disorder was first formulated by a pioneering psychiatrist named Benjamin Rush in 1786. Rush called the disorder "moral derangement," and he described his diagnosis within the context of Christian ethics. Until the 1940s, this notion of moral derangement existed alongside a parallel clinical premise, degeneration theory, which described people of poor genetic lineage whose behavior and intelligence regressed as they reproduced. When degeneration theory became associated with the Nazis, who adopted it to justify the Holocaust, psychopathy—re-named and stripped of its explicit religious influences—became the social theory of choice for explaining extreme deviant behavior, following the 1941 publication of Hervey M. Cleckley’s book The Mask of Sanity. (Cleckley himself became modestly famous, and makes an appearance in Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer for diagnosing Jeffrey McDonald as a psychopath. Malcolm's portrait of Cleckley is not flattering.)

Media and pop-culture diagnoses of psychopathy are prevalent, and they warp our understanding of evil.

Psychopathy didn’t really emerge in the popular consciousness until the 1990s, however. As crime rates peaked in the U.S. and the FBI began to publicize serial killing, a researcher named Robert Hare published a book about psychopaths and a checklist for diagnosing psychopathy. Drawing on what were then cutting-edge neuroimaging studies of criminals' brains, other psychologists and criminal profilers began to suggest that psychopathy could explain the waves of violence plaguing U.S. cities. “What sealed psychopathy’s popularity in the 1990s," the authors write, was “a combination of public fears and political shifts.” Psychopathy rapidly advanced from an obscure and dubious theory to a legitimate disorder in part because it could help make sense of the horrific violence—serial killers, super-predators—dominating news headlines in the last decade of the 20th century.

But as Jalava, Griffiths, and Maraun write, psychopathy, like degenerate theory before it, always offered “adjustable portfolios”: In the early 1990s, psychopaths were invoked to explain serial killing, but by the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the Internet began to transform society, their diagnosis was used to express anxiety about predation in the digital world. A decade later, during the financial crisis, several psychologists adjusted Hare’s diagnostic criteria to argue that psychopaths at large banks had brought down the global economy. But true psychological disorders don’t work this way—they are supposed to exist independent of culture. “[A]bove all,” the authors argue, psychopathy "functions as an index of generational fears."

Are psychopaths real? The authors allow that there are people in the world who do terrible things without apparent feelings of remorse, though the authors also point to one study suggesting that these people, whatever they should be called, have the ability to feel empathy when they wish. But Jalava, Griffiths, and Maraun are not convinced that psychopaths, most of whom have been studied while imprisoned, are linked by anything more than life experience—not by genetics or by brain anatomy. The causes of most psychological disorders are believed to arise from a complex relationship between genes, environmental circumstances, and brain anatomy, but most psychopathy researchers are what the authors call “genetic determinists”: Such researchers argue that the flow of causality in psychopathy moves from genes to brain structure to behavior, even though that flow is unproven in the scientific literature on psychopathy. The Myth of the Born Criminal argues that, rather than genes, psychopaths' most significant commonality appears to be an abusive childhood, which related research has demonstrated can affect the anatomy of the brain in various and profound ways.

What would it take for psychopathy to rise to the level of medical disorder? It has never been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, although a cousin, anti-social personality disorder (APD), has. But APD has a stricter and more discrete set of diagnostic criteria, which focus on behavior less than on character: Psychopaths are described and diagnosed on the basis of being glib, superficial, manipulative, and able to hide in society, whereas people with anti-social personality by definition have a criminal history, cannot hide in plain sight, and seem to occupy a less important role in cultural discussions about evil.

Perhaps the distinction between a psychopath and a person suffering from APD seems unimportant. The authors argue that it is not. Media and pop-culture diagnoses of psychopathy are prevalent, and they warp our understanding of evil. Denying psychopaths the full range of human emotions denies them full, nuanced biographies, and presupposes the possibility of clinical knowledge about how someone actually feels. It never occurred to me that Gregory’s behavior in Kenya could be the product of anything other than his brain, and thus I never asked or inquired about what might have been going on in his life. I ignored the strong, decades-long relationship he had with our boss, the sort of relationship that psychopaths are supposed to be incapable of sustaining.

Ultimately, Jalava, Griffiths, and Maraun argue, explaining deviance as the consequence of psychopathy is sloppy narrative—it is a failure to tell stories about people that are complete and complex, and succumbs to the central cultural myth of evil, which is that evil is committed by monsters—not by people who might resemble you or me. It is a narrative to watch out for.