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Psychopaths walk among us and may or may not be a threat. Psychopathic personality disorder is a psychological condition that affects around three percent of the U.S. population according to The American Psychiatric Association. Most of these men suffer from symptoms closely related to schizophrenia, but in addition have a lack of remorse for wrongdoing and a blatant disregard for the rights of others. Notorious psychopaths include Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, whose crimes against humanity sparked from their lack of empathy, a common trait in psychopathic personality disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) doesn’t recognize psychopathy as a mental disorder, but rather a personality disorder. It is defined as “a persistent pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that is significantly different from what is considered normal within the person's own culture.” As the manual has no official criteria for diagnosing psychopathic personality, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist is commonly used instead to diagnose this disorder.
Scientists have yet to find a substantial link between biology and psychopathy, meaning that humans are not born with the traits, but rather develop them over time and in the right conditions. Psychopathic personality disorder is said to manifest as a result of environmental factors, such as home and family life. Children who suffer sexual or physical abuse tend to show latent signs of psychopathy into adulthood including impulsive behavior, paranoia, aggression and lack of remorse for wrongdoing.
Diagnosing psychopathic personality is not an easy task for doctors or psychologists. As symptoms tend to mimic other mental disorders, other personality disorders and schizophrenia must first be ruled out. An evaluation alone is not typically fruitful in diagnosing the disorder, as true psychopaths have the ability to mask their inner thoughts by putting up a charming and even gregarious front. That is why psychopaths such as a Manson and Bundy were able to influence others and act out their crimes without rousing much suspicion at first.
Misdiagnoses of the disorder may occur when medical professionals fail to consider other significant factors in the patient’s history. For example, if the patient has not learned to empathize with others, the psychopath label is inappropriate. Lack of knowledge is not the same as inability.
Treating this disorder is not easy either, as there is no way to reverse negative personality traits completely; it is a state of mind, not an illness that needs to be cured. Therapy is sometimes successful in treating children who show symptoms of the disorder, including cruelty to animals, bedwetting and starting fires. Adults with psychopathy may benefit from medication and mood stabilizers to help control angry outbursts.
Not every psychopath commits murder or is a threat, but the disorder is still a mystery because of the lack of hard medical evidence as to its causes and effective treatments.
This post is brought to you by Argosy University. Drawing upon our more than 30-year history of granting degrees in professional psychology, Argosy University has developed a curriculum that focuses on interpersonal skills and practical experience alongside academic learning. Because getting a degree is one thing. Succeeding, quite another.
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