Research on Psychopathy

Published 27 Feb 2017

Table of content


Psychopathy is a problem for society as a whole, seeing that it could easily lead individuals that are suffering from this personality disorder to violent and criminal acts. The bases of psychopathy are known to be biological, sociological, and psychological. Whereas amygdala dysfunction is thought to be responsible for psychopathy, an individual’s frustration with his low socioeconomic status may also lead him to commit acts of crime revealing psychopathic features in the process. Psychologists believe that low IQ may similarly be responsible for psychopathic behavior. Additionally, they have extensively studied personality traits, such as those on the Big Five personality dimensions, to understand psychopathic traits in particular. Apart from the above, this research paper discusses therapeutic interventions with respect to psychopathy.

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In children as well as adults, psychopathy is defined on the basis of three dimensions: (1) an interpersonal style that is arrogant and dishonest, and includes slickness or phony charm, narcissism or delusion of grandeur, deception and manipulation; (2) problems with affective experience revealed through failure to repent, a shallow conscience, lack of empathy, and the failure to shoulder responsibility for one’s mistakes; and (3) a behavioral style that is irresponsible as well as reckless, and includes boredom, thrill-seeking, short-sightedness in goal setting, laziness, and rashness (Salekin et al., 2005). No wonder, psychopathy is rigorously investigated with reference to criminal behavior. Psychologists are also very interested in learning about the roots of psychopathy in children. These studies are based on the premise that it is impossible to try to solve a problem without a thorough understanding of its roots.In the next section of this paper, five articles on psychopathy will be reviewed. One of the articles discusses the biological roots of the problem, whereas the remaining four examine psychopathy with a special reference to children and adolescents.

Psychopathy in Literature

Blair (2001) explains that the roots of psychopathy may very well lie in amygdala dysfunction. The amygdala is related to the emotional response, in particular, the flight or fight response to threats. With impairment in this essential area of the human brain, the individual is unable to make appropriate emotional responses to threats. The emotional dysfunction in the person suffering from psychopathy is enough to serve as evidence that the parts of the brain connected with emotions are impaired in the case of those suffering from psychopathy.

Moreover, the author connects conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder with psychopathy to describe that there are similarities between the problems. Adding to our previous definition of psychopathy, he states that those who are suffering from this particular disorder reveal “emotional shallowness” in addition to antisocial behaviors that are often marked by aggression and the taking of offence (Blair). Unsurprisingly, antisocial behavior is often related to the Intelligence Quotient as well as the socioeconomic status of the person who engages in it. Thus, psychopathy may similarly be connected with the IQ’s and the socioeconomic statuses of those who are suffering from it. In particular, those who are less intelligent and who also suffer from lacks due to their low socioeconomic status may express their emotional frustrations through antisocial behavior, thereby getting very close to the definition of psychopathy (Blair).

Rutter (2005) argues that although antisocial behavior is not exactly the same as psychopathy, the importance of investigating the latter lies in the evidence that those who are classified as “psychopathic offenders” tend to begin their “criminal careers” at an early age. Besides, these individuals are more likely to be classified as “persistent offenders” than those who do not display features of psychopathy (Rutter). Psychopathic offenders or criminals are often said to be violent individuals who resist therapeutic intervention. The author also mentions new instruments that have been developed to measure the traits of psychopathy in children as well as adults. These instruments include the “Antisocial Process Screening Device (Rutter).”

Also according to Rutter, child psychiatrists and child psychologists have shown reluctance in diagnosing psychopathy in children and adolescents, based on the belief that diagnosis might inevitably lead the young individuals to bad outcomes in the days to come. On the other hand, it is thought that adults who are suffering from the personality disorderunderstood as psychopathy may have had the problem traits even in childhood. Hence, it is also believed to be easier to start therapeutic programs in childhood so as to help the young in avoiding bad outcomes in the future (Rutter).

Salekin & Frick (2005) state that young individuals with psychopathic characteristics may be suffering from a particular set of cognitive as well as affective deficits. Knowledge of the “specific causal pathway” of psychopathy in children and adolescents could prove to be consequential in the design of “individualized interventions” for such youths (Salekin & Frick). After all, the most important reason why psychologists would like to understand more about psychopathic traits in youths is that these traits help to predict future sadistic, offensive and/or antisocial behavior. Psychologists are also aware that children with psychopathic traits exhibit the “highest rates of conduct problems, self-reported delinquency, and police contacts (Salekin & Frick).”

Salekin, Rogers, & Machin (2001) conducted a study on youths with psychopathic traits. This research was conducted through a survey that was sent out to more than five hundred clinical psychologists, asking them to describe psychopathic traits in youths, the gender differences between youths with psychopathic traits, and also the kinds of interventions that the psychologists had used with such youths. The results of the study revealed that children with psychopathic features tend to share these features with adults that are also suffering from psychopathy. The mean age of the youngster with psychopathic traits is a little over fourteen years. The average youth with psychopathic features has an 8th grade level education. Furthermore, there are more boys than girls showing psychopathic traits. Although the boys with psychopathic characteristics are more aggressive, and often violent; the girls with psychopathic

features tend to be less aggressive. Such girls reveal their psychopathic traits through antisocial behavior as well as hostility (Salekin, Rogers, & Machin).
The study further revealed the prevailing belief of clinical psychologists that it is quite difficult for them to treat psychopathy. Therapeutic interventions are also believed to work more effectively for youths as compared to adults. This is because the personality of children is often thought to be more fluid than the personality of adults. Hence, clinical psychologists reported that they had seen “moderate-to-marked gains” of psychotherapy in the children and adolescents treated for psychopathy (Salekin, Rogers, & Machin). Girls in general were seen to benefit more from psychotherapy than boys. Clinical psychologists found a marked reduction in violence, delinquency, in addition to verbal aggression, even after one year of psychotherapeutic treatment for children and adolescents suffering from psychopathy. Even so, the psychologists reported that antisocial behaviors are sometimes hidden in the natures of the youths and “outside the purview of psychotherapists (Salekin, Rogers, & Machin).” Hence, this study called for further research to augment psychologists’ understanding of therapeutic treatment for youths with psychopathic features.

Farrington (2005) points out that even though psychotherapeutic treatment for psychopathy should begin early, and should be extensive, there are various problems that make therapeutic intervention difficult. First, psychopathy is rather persistent throughout the lifetime of the individual suffering from it, and so, even though clinical psychologists have observed improvements in youths with psychopathic features following therapeutic intervention, the problem traits of such youths may not entirely go away. Second, psychopathy is also believed to have a biological cause, i.e. amygdala dysfunction, and biological causes cannot be reversed

through psychological interventions. Furthermore, psychopaths are manipulative individuals who are usually able to lie to and deceive psychotherapists so as to become “treatment-resistant (Farrington).”
Farrington also mentions the Big Five personality dimensions that psychologists have often used in an attempt to understand the problem traits of individuals suffering from psychopathy, before they can devise better therapeutic models to help them. The five personality dimensions are: “Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness (Farrington).” Out of these five dimensions, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism are most relevant to studies on psychopathy. The author describes how individuals with psychopathic characteristics are expected to fare on the Big Five personality dimensions: Agreeableness includes forthrightness (while dishonesty lies at the negative end), altruism opposes manipulation, modesty opposes self-centeredness, and a sense of caring opposes recklessness; conscientiousness includes a sense of responsibility (while low reliability lies at the negative end), striving for achievement opposes aimlessness, disciplining of self opposes excitement seeking, and thoughtfulness opposes carelessness; neuroticism includes hastiness and aggressive hostility even though it may include self-consciousness as well (while slickness and low remorse lie at the negative end) and susceptibility (with a sense of fearlessness lies at the negative end) (Farrington).


Indeed, with a better understanding of the personality traits of individuals suffering from psychopathy – a problem with biological, sociological, and psychological roots – psychologists are in a better position to help them. Yet, it is bad news for therapists that psychopathy may have a biological cause that they would not be able to work their way around. Moreover, psychopaths are often able to escape treatment by conning and lying during psychotherapeutic interventions. Nevertheless, even the knowledge that psychopaths are able to do this is essential in devising new treatments for them.

The present literature review has revealed the importance of understanding psychopathy especially in children and adolescents. Psychologists believe that early intervention is crucial in psychopathy, and youths that are suffering from this personality disorder should be extensively treated. This is because personalities are understood to be more fluid in youth. By helping children and adolescents to change their problem traits, psychologists may be able to save them from negative outcomes in the future. All the same, psychologists have reported that the problem traits of children and adolescents with psychopathic features may never go away entirely. Children and adolescents with psychopathic traits could easily turn out to be criminals in future. Hence, it is crucial to understand the problem of psychopathy now before better treatments may be developed for the problem in question.


  • Blair, R. J. R. (2001, Dec). Neurocognitive models of aggression, the antisocial personality disorders, and psychopathy. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
  • Farrington, David P. (2005, Aug). The importance of child and adolescent psychopathy.
  • Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Retrieved Jan 29, 2007
  • Rutter, Michael. (2005, Aug). Commentary: what is the meaning and utility of the psychopathy concept? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.
  • Salekin, R. T., & Frick, P. J. (2005, Aug). Psychopathy in children and adolescents: the need for a developmental perspective. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.
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