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What is Psychopathy?

By Marisa O'Connor
Updated Feb 06, 2024
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Psychopathy is a mental health disorder. The exact definition of the condition is still being developed as of 2011 as researchers learn more about it. The major characteristics of a person with the disorder, also known as a psychopath, are violation of others, such as stealing or violence, and lack of empathy and remorse. Psychopaths often appear healthy, and some are charming. Unfortunately, no treatment is currently available for this disorder.

The closest definition of this disorder is antisocial personality disorder, which is a pervasive pattern of violation and disregard of the rights and preferences of others, usually beginning in early childhood. It is important to note, however, that not every person with antisocial personality disorder suffers from psychopathy.

This disorder is known by many names owing to the difficulty of narrowing down a specific definition. It has also been called antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy, and dyssocial personality disorder. The diagnostic criteria is so unclear that some experts believe the term is clinically useless. Some critics go as far as to say the disorder doesn't exist.

People with psychopathy, also known as psychopaths, appear not to experience empathy or guilt. Whether these people actually experience emotions remains debatable. Those who believe they do not experience empathy or guilt adhere to this theory because people with the disorder lie, manipulate, and cheat without any apparent regard for the feelings or property of others. An alternative theory is that they do experience empathy but use it to further their own gains and take advantage of others.

The cause of the disorder is not yet known. It has been linked to developmental, behavioral, and cognitive deficiencies. Genetics are thought to play some role in its onset, but environmental factors also likely play a key role. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience show signs of neurophysiological explanations for the lack of emotional understanding in psychopaths.

People with psychopathy often appear perfectly healthy at first glance and even charming. This is one of the few examples of mental health conditions that aren't outwardly apparent, such as with anxiety disorders, depression, or schizophrenia. One of the most comprehensive books written on the subject of psychopathy is called The Mask of Sanity by psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley. As the title suggests, he puts forward that people with this disorder wear an appearance of mental health, or sanity, but that it is only a mask.

One major symptom and identifier of psychopathy is crime. Not every criminal suffers from the disorder, but most who have it also have a criminal history. They are likely to demonstrate antisocial behaviors such as violence and theft and tend to be very impulsive. The prevalence of criminal and antisocial behavior is much greater than that of psychopathy.

There are no current effective treatment programs for psychopathy. The main reason is because of a lack of understanding of the disorder. Treatment plans are still being tested as of 2011, but it still remains too difficult to properly identify the disorder. Progress is being made in understanding and treating this condition.

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