Not all psychopaths are serial killers. Not all serial killers are psychopaths. It is estimated that approx. 1% of the population is a psychopath. In simple terms, a psychopath is a person who has a deficiency in the part of the brain which processes emotions. As a result, psychopaths are unable to ‘feel’ or experience emotions.
Psychopaths, or sociopaths (the two names tend to be used interchangeably but amount to pretty much the same thing), are much-maligned, and misunderstood individuals. Viewers of CSI and similar crime-solving programs may well recognise a psychopath as a deranged killer who must be caught within the next hour or else they will continue their killing spree until the investigation resumes at the same time next week. In the real world, psychopaths may be dangerous individuals, but they’re not all killers, nor are they all criminals.
So what exactly is a psychopath and how would you spot one?
A psychopath looks like any ‘normal’ person. They have usually learned to blend in very well. In fact, the only difference between a psychopath and you and me (that is presuming that you’re not a psychopath who is reading this) is what goes on inside of their heads.
There is a part of the brain (located in the amydala) which deals with emotions and feelings such as empathy, remorse, guilt, regret and compassion.
So all of the feelings you get: like when you cry at the end of a film; or when you feel pity for a starving child you see on television; or the disgust you feel when you see an animal being abused, or when you can truly relate or sympathise with how another person must be feeling (empathy); it is in the amygdala which is responsible for producing all of these emotions. Not everybody feels emotions in the same way or to the same intensity – we’re all different. In some people this part of the brain is not very active, which makes these people seem cold and uncaring. In others, this area is lit up like a Christmas tree, which makes for a person who is highly emotional and empathetic (somebody who cares a lot about others), or in psychological terms, high in Emotional Intelligence. However, for the true psychopath, this area of the brain is redundant, inactive. The true psychopath therefore is unable to feel, understand or comprehend emotions and is unable to feel compassion, empathy, remorse or guilt.
As an example, imagine if a lady’s beloved Pekinese Terrier was knocked over by a car and killed outside of her house. The lady would, more than likely, be sobbing and screaming, possibly uncontrollably. The reaction of a psychopath, if they were present to witness this event, would probably be something along the lines of, coldly, “Why don’t you just get another dog?” Their seemingly unsympathetic approach is not really their fault: they do not understand the whole ‘emotion’ thing.
Psychopaths can cry – they are masters in copying people, but are unable to actually internalise or ‘feel’ these emotions. Being a non-psychopath, you have to feel sorry for them in a way, because most of them really want to experience emotions, like the rest of us, and truly understand how people ‘feel’, it’s just that they are not physically capable of doing so.
It’s not all bad news for the psychopath though – they are usually compensated in other ways by the brain.
You’ve often heard that when people lose one of their senses, such as sight, the brain compensates for this loss. This often results in one of their other senses, such as hearing or smell, being elevated or becoming more sensitive. The same is also true for psychopaths. Since the whole emotional part of the brain is not working the way it should, psychopaths are often enamoured with an extra trait – that of manipulation. Many come across as ‘smooth operators’; they tend to think quickly on their feet; are masters of deception and excellent actors. Some keep their psychopathy well-hidden whilst others don’t even know that they’re psychopaths (they probably just see themselves as ‘cold’ or ‘odd’)! They are often adept at getting their own way through manipulation, which is why you will often find the non-criminal psychopaths at the helm of huge corporations (they don’t see anything wrong in sacking employees or hurting their feelings since they have no empathy, remorse or regret themselves). Similarly, the armed forces would be ideal for a psychopath (Andy McNab, formerly of the SAS, recently ‘came out’ as a psychopath).
Hannibal Lector in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is a classic portrayal of a serial-killing psychopath. He will not let anybody stop him from doing the thing which gives him the most satisfaction (eating people), yet he is manipulative, devious and adept at lulling people into a false sense of security. Think also of Dexter (everybody’s favourite psychopath). He works for the police analysing blood splatter patterns, but gets his satisfaction from killing people (‘bad people, people who deserve it’). You watch Dexter and you feel sorry for him. He wants to be like everybody else; he really wants to know what it’s like to feel the emotions that everybody else is feeling and rid himself of his ‘dark passenger’ (his compulsion to kill), but poor Dexter isn’t like everybody else.
You could have a serial-killing psychopath living on your doorstep and have probably seen one outside of your window on a number of occasions. You may even find one in your garden or even have a psychopath living in your house! Don’t be alarmed, they won’t hurt you if you give them what they want. I’m talking about cats. To study how a true psychopath operates, watch your cat. He (or she) knows how to get you to act the way they want you to act because he, or she, is skilled in the art of manipulation. They know how to control you in such a way that you will submit to their every whim. They’ll wake you up when you’re sleeping; they’ll lay on your chest, purring, pretending to be asleep, when you want to get up; they will make sure that you buy whatever food they want you to buy and if it is not what they want they won’t eat it. They’ll wait patiently – psychopaths are masters at waiting – for they know that, eventually, you will do whatever they want you to do.
Look at the cat in his favourite place, purring. Gentle, noble, majestic, wouldn’t hurt a fly; but watch little Tiddles when he or she has cornered that cute-looking creature: they are ruthless, merciless killers! They’ll draw out a slow, lingering, agonising death; they’ll torture their unfortunate prey – and when you scream for them to stop, they’ll look at you as if you were stupid before running off with their unfortunate victim still dangling from their mouth to savour the pleasure of the kill for a while longer. They may even bring one of their trophies back to your house. Their behaviour might appear abhorrent to you, but your behaviour is equally unfathomable to them.