What is a Psychopath?
Carl B. Gacono, Ph.D. & Aaron J. Kivisto, Ph.D.
Perhaps no area of scientific study so naturally calls upon non-scientists to grapple with its most basic questions as does the field of personality psychology. From the moment we wake up to the time we go to sleep, we are typically inundated with stories of other peoples’ behavior – whether it be loving, destructive, or anywhere in between. We learn what happened, who did what, when they did it, and how others responded. We get the facts. But, whether consciously or not, we all go beyond this information that we can so clearly see and hear. Without an understanding of cause and effect, why others do what they do, our worlds feel like little more than a series of unintegrated and incoherent facts. And so we all grapple with the basic questions faced by personality psychologists; why do people do what they do and, given what this tells us about them, how might they act in the future? In fact, given just how naturally we seem to infer motives for others’ behavior, one might feel sympathy for Dragnet Detective Joe Friday’s uphill – and probably futile – battle to get his interviewees to stick to “just the facts, ma’am.” This seems to violate our need to understand others, even when (especially when?) their behavior is cruel and appears incomprehensible.
Shepherding Cleckley’s (1941) model of psychopathy into contemporary clinical and forensic practice, Robert Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklists (Hare, 1991, 2003; Forth, Kosson, & Hare, 2003; Hart, Cox, & Hare, 1995), which have become the gold standard for evaluating psychopathy (Gacono, 2000, 2015.) Mirroring Cleckley’s emphasis on both trait and behavioral aspects of psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklists contain two stable factors. The first factor, “callous, remorseless use of others” (Factor 1), is characterized by egocentricity, callousness, and remorselessness, and correlates with Narcissistic and Histrionic Personality Disorders, low anxiety, low empathy, and self-report measures of Machiavellianism and narcissism (Hare, 2003). The second factor, “antisocial lifestyle” (Factor 2), represents an irresponsible, impulsive, thrill-seeking, unconventional, and antisocial lifestyle and correlates most strongly with criminal behaviors, lower socioeconomic background, lower IQ, less education, self-report measures of antisocial behavior, and the diagnoses of Conduct Disorder and Antisocial Personality (Hare, 1991, 2003).
Given the pull we all experience to understand not only what someone has done, but why they did it, it is perhaps unsurprising that the antisocial syndromes have received so much empirical attention. After the initial reactions of horror and fascination typically elicited by the acts of psychopathic individuals have passed, the question most people struggle with is why.
Contemporary clinical and forensic science has aided in this understanding, beginning with the work of Pinel in the early 1800s and solidified through Cleckley and Hare’s enormous contributions. However, none of these pioneer’s contributions toward our understanding of psychopathic individuals would have been possible without the stories of the psychopaths that they encountered.
It is easy to lose sight of the centrality of these stories, in large part because they are so rarely detailed. In the pages that follow, Dianne Emerson provides readers with the rare opportunity to enter the personal lives of three male psychopaths through their own words. Through the careful organization of their everyday stories of who, what, when and where, Emerson ultimately provides the building blocks for readers to understand why these individuals do what they do. Without such stories, there is little hope for understanding.