In June of 1978, Jeffrey Dahmer, a fresh high school graduate, picked up Steven Hicks, a hitchhiker, and took him home. At the Dahmer house, the two drank beer and eventually had sex. When Hicks decided it was time that he left, Dahmer used a barbell and killed Hicks with a blow to the head before proceeding to dismember the corpse and bury the pieces in the woods behind his house. Nine years later, in September of 1987, Steve Toumi became Dahmer's second victim after they met in a gay bar. After killing Toumi in a hotel room, Dahmer stuffed the body into a large suitcase and brought it to his grandmother's house, where he had sex with it, masturbated on it, and then dismembered it before throwing the remains in the trash.
For thirteen years, Dahmer continued with his killing spree, and had a total of seventeen victims, all male. With each victim, he would take photos of the murder process, and then keep their skulls or genitals; some were simply drugged and strangled to death, but some were injected with hydrocholric acid in Dahmer's attempts to control his victims before killing them. Once Dahmer was caught and put on trial, he came out with a sentence of fifteen consecutive life sentences—a grand total of 957 years in prison (Jeffrey). Jeffrey Dahmer would later be classified as a psychopath.
The word "psychopath" conjures up the image of a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer, Jack the Ripper, or the fictitious Hannibal Lecter. Most people also associate the word "sociopath" with "psychopath," and, while psychologists will use these terms interchangeably, criminologists define them differently. A sociopath is impulsive, irresponsible, disorganized, and often violent, while a psychopath has organized antisocial behavior and is more predatory (Shouten/Silver 29). However, not every psychopath is a killer, and not every person is a psychopath; only about one percent of the entire population is classified as psychopathic (Shouten/Silver 29). With that in mind, the question arises: what makes a psychopath? It is not a personality trait; it is every bit a mental illness as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Psychopathy is also considered to be a category all on its own, making it that much more difficult to define.
Like studies of any other mental illness, psychopathology is a new science. What sets it apart, however, is the fact that it seems to be the most misunderstood. A nineteenth-century French psychiatrist, Phillipe Pinel, was the first to bring up the idea of a mental illness that didn't involve the usual mania, depression, or psychosis, and affected those that appeared normal on the surface, but lacked impulse controls and were likely to have violent outbursts.
The actual term "psychopathy" was first used in 1891 when the German doctor J.L.A. Koch published his book, Die Psychopatischen Minderwertigkieter. Finally, in 1959, the Mental Health Act for England and Wales defined psychopathy as "a persistent disorder or disability of the mind…which results in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct on the part of the patient" (Ronson 65-66). It is only recently that there have been ways to determine how to diagnose the symptoms of a psychopath.
In 1941, psychoanalyst Hervey Cleckley published The Mask of Sanity, where he proposed there were sixteen defining traits of a psychopath. Psychologist Robert Hare took Cleckley's proposed traits, and then modified them to create a checklist, referred to as the PLC-R or Hare Checklist, that consists of twenty items, and assesses both the emotional and behavioral state of psychopaths. The PLC-R has become the most common tool used to determine if someone is to be diagnosed with psychopathy, and lists the following traits:
Superficial charm – The ability to enchant anyone, despite the fact that there is no sincerity in the act.
High levels of self-serving ambition – Everything a psychopath does is most often for his or her own self-interest.
Need for stimulation/easily bored
Tendency to lie
Cunning/manipulative – This ties in with 1 and 2, because the psychopath is always working out ways to make something go his or her way.
Lack of remorse and/or guilt – Despite the things most psychopaths do (i.e. murder), psychopaths will hardly ever bat an eye, because their moral compass is drastically skewed.
Shallow affect – While they can mimic emotions, they don't really know what is like to feel anything other than self-superiority.
Callous/lack of empathy – This ties in with 6 and 7, because psychopaths hardly ever feel sorry for their actions.
Poor behavioral controls
Promiscuous sexual behavior – Most psychopaths have the tendency to sleep around, especially due to the fact that they are easily bored.
Early behavior problems – Demonstrated in the list of traits that are indicators of juvenile psychopaths beginning on page six.
Lack of realistic long-term goals
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Many short-term marital relationships – Older psychopaths rarely stay married long.
Tendency to break any terms of parole
Ability to partake in several criminal activities
However, because of these defining characteristics, psychopaths can be diagnosed with other mental disorders with similar symptoms. For example, between men and women that can be diagnosed psychopathic, men are more likely to be classified as psychopaths while women are more likely to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. It is also possible for normal people that only exhibit a few of these traits or borderline psychopaths to be deemed full psychopaths by psychiatrists. Statistics about psychopaths are also skewed due to the fact that most tests are done in prison, where they are overrepresented.
While the Hare Checklist provides a basis for defining all the traits of true psychopaths, it still fails to explain what a psychopath is, and how they differ from normal people. When Dr. Hare was beginning to research psychopaths, he used prisoners as test subjects and hooked them up to EEG (electroencephalography), blood-pressure, and sweat machines, proceeding to measure anxiety levels as he counted down from ten and gave them a painful electric shock. Normal prisoners would tense and sweat as they waited for the shock, but psychopaths had no reaction to the countdown or the shock itself. Later, when Hare repeated the experiment, the psychopaths seemed to forget the pain of the previous shock session (Ronson 94).
An experiment conducted by Dr. Kent Kiehl had volunteers look at images of a mixture of items, from neutral (rocks or doorknobs) to disturbing (rape and homicides). While the volunteers were shown the pictures, they were hooked up to fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) so that the different parts of their brain could "light up" when they were active. For normal people, the images of homicides caused the amygdala, the emotional nerve center of the brain, to light up. For psychopaths, on the other hand, the amygdala remained dark. Instead, their language centers activated as they tried to find the words to analyze the portrayed emotions (Cullen 245).
Both of these experiments proved that the brain waves of psychopaths do not resemble anything that is normal of a human being. While they do feel emotions, they are more likely to feel only what can help them further their own self-interest, such as rage or frustration, they are unable to feel anything that can be considered "deep", such as love or remorse. They tend to have large egos, and will seek out any sort of thrill to make up for the emotions they lack and to cure their boredom; since psychopaths become so bored easily, even psychopathic serial killers will stop their killing sprees on their own. Psychopaths are also brilliant imitators of emotions, because they see others' feelings as tools to use for manipulations.
When the journals and "Basement Tapes" of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two boys that caused the Columbine massacre, were found, it was soon determine that Eric was a "textbook case" of psychopathy (Cullen 247). In one of the Basement Tapes, Eric fooled most journalists that viewed the footage into believing that he had felt guilty for the killings. He declared that, "I wish I was a fucking sociopath so I didn't have to feel remorse. But I do." He went on to will some of his things to his friends if they lived through the massacre, countering his supposed "remorse" for his actions (Cullen 328). In one of Eric's journals, he wrote "how dare you think that I and you are part of the same species when we are sooooooooo different. you arent human. you are a robot…and if you pissed me off in the past, you will die if I see you," all key indicators of the egotistical mind of the psychopath (Cullen 243).
True psychopaths seem to be the most dangerous, but there are other types of psychopaths, as well. Almost psychopaths exhibit all the traits of a true psychopath, except they are less likely to repeat their psychopathic behaviors, and also feel more remorse than a true psychopath (Shouten/Silver). Adapted psychopaths are those that manage to lead a normal life, and tend to be found high up in the corporate ladder because of their willingness to do whatever it takes to get a job done or a promotion (Shouten/Silver 40). Juvenile psychopaths, since younger, and more likely to grow out of their psychopathy once their brain develops more, are identified by a different list than the Hare Checklist (Cullen 242).
Indifference to the pain of others
Defiance of authority figures
Unresponsiveness to threatened punishments/scolding
Cutting classes/breaking curfew
Cruelty to animals
Early experimentation with sex
Despite all the research that has been done, psychologists have had to accept that, as of now, there is no cure for psychopathy. In fact, it is been shown that treatment and therapy will make the situation worse, because a psychopath will use their sessions to build on their manipulative knowledge. However, it has been shown that some psychopaths will suddenly improve around their middle-aged years, with no apparent explanation. However, Dr. Hare and Dr. Kiehl believe this phenomenon may be the result of adaptive psychopaths realizing that they can better play on their self-interests if they can learn how to better interact with other people. Because of this belief, they predict that it may be possible to find a cure for psychopathy, after all (Cullen 245-246).
1) Cullen, David. Columbine. New York: Twelve, 2009. Print.
2) "Jeffrey Dahmer Biography – Facts, Birthday, Life Story." Famous Biographies & TV Shows. Web. 1 Oct. 2012. people/jeffrey-dahmer-9264755.
3) Ramsland, Katherine M. Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2005. Print.
4) Ronson, Jon. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011. Print.
5) Schouten, Ronald, & Silver, James. Almost a Psychopath: Do I (Or Does Someone I Know Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy?. Center City: Hazelden, 2012. Print.