When most of us hear the word psychopath, we think of a serial killer, but it turns out there are many more of them that we think. In fact, you probably know a few.

What is “psychopathy” anyway? Joseph Newman, who has spent his life studying prison inmates in Wisconsin, has devoted his career to answering that question. He says, “My main concern is that the label is applied too liberally and without sufficient understanding of the key elements. As a result, the term is often applied to ordinary criminals and sex offenders whose behavior may reflect primarily social factors or other emotional problems that are more amenable to treatment than psychopathy.”

Psychopaths are human-made monsters who cannot be cured with any methods or medicines we now possess. Psychologists now know that they are created by repeated childhood abuse, usually of a sexual nature.

What do psychopaths do? Broadly speaking, they are people who use manipulation, violence and intimidation to control others and satisfy selfish needs. They can be intelligent and highly charismatic, but display a chronic inability to feel guilt, remorse or anxiety about any of their actions. In other words, they are incapable of putting themselves in another’s person’s shoes. They are unable to follow the dictum of treating others as you wish to be treated.

But Newman has a different definition?he believes that psychopathy is essentially a type of learning disability that makes individuals oblivious to the implications of their actions when focused on tasks that promise instant reward. Their focus on a short-term goal makes them incapable of detecting surrounding cues, such as another person’s discomfort or fear.

In a study he repeated in different prison populations, Newman examined how quickly psychopathic and non-psychopathic individuals respond to a series of mislabeled images, such as a drawing of a pig with the word “dog” superimposed on it. Researchers flashed each image and then timed how long it took for subjects to name what they saw. Would they name the image or the word? Psychopathic subjects barely noticed the wrong labels.

Over and over again, Newman found that non-psychopathic subjects subconsciously stumbled on the misleading labels and took longer to name the images. But psychopathic subjects barely noticed the discrepancy and consistently answered more quickly. Newman thinks this shows how psychopathic people have trouble processing the type of peripheral cues that are entirely obvious to everyone else.

Scientists estimate that 15-25% of men and 7-15% of women in US prisons display psychopathic behaviors. But they ALSO think that up to 1% of the general population can be described as psychopathic. Surprisingly, many who fall into that bracket might lead perfectly conventional lives as doctors, scientists and company CEOs (remember Enron). Newman says, “Psychopathy appears to exist throughout the world and has probably existed throughout history.”

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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