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Monday, April 15, 2024

The Myth of the Psychopathic Personality Refuses to Die

Philosophers have grappled with the nature of evil for thousands of years, but these days, immorality can feel like a solved problem. Take the case of Bryan Kohberger, the prime suspect in a quadruple homicide near the University of Idaho whose arrest ignited rampant media speculation about the psyche of a killer, as if properly diagnosing his personality disorder could mitigate the damage already done. His “psychopathic stare” made headlines in UK tabloids, while The New York Times dissected Kohberger’s self-described feelings of remorselessness as an adolescent. Dr. Drew brought on a former FBI agent to discuss Kohberger in the context of the “dark triad”: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. 

Americans understandably want help making sense of the otherwise senseless deaths that populate the front pages of local papers and constitute Netflix’s extensive true-crime back catalog. But attempts to characterize evil remain scientifically dubious, say criminologist Jarkko Jalava and psychologist Stephanie Griffiths, coauthors of The Myth of the Born Criminal. When it comes to crime, psychologists frequently “get really sloppy,” Jalava says, adding, “we’re functioning on this folkloric level.”

The perpetrator of the University of Idaho murders should be condemned, but getting inside the mind of a killer is easier said than done. Prediction and prevention—the supposed end goal of criminal profiling—is even harder. And the proliferation of quasi-scientific terms for jerks, assholes, and even killers has far-reaching consequences. 

The medicalization of evil—that is, the physician-led diagnosis and management of diseases like “moral insanity” and “criminal psychosis”—stretches back to the early 19th century. Where clerics once drew the line between good and evil, psychiatrists began to take people who engaged in impulsive, self-defeating, or otherwise un-Christian acts into their care. 

Early on,  these doctors-cum-criminal-profilers explained bad apples through theories such as atavism. Proponents believed that, over time, bad breeding led to degeneration of the gene pool, and the concentration of poverty, criminality, and other undesirable traits in certain ethnic groups or social classes. While the theory of degeneration was slowly replaced by a strikingly similar notion of “psychopathy” (literally “soul sickness”), many of the concerns remained the same: deviants who showed a lack of remorse or guilt, exhibited sexual promiscuity, and developed a lengthy rap sheet, perhaps from a young age.

New variations on this theme pop up all the time. The “dark triad,” coined in 2002 by Canadian psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams, aims to describe “offensive but non-pathological personalities,” including CEOs, politicians, and bad boyfriends. There are also labels like antisocial personality disorder, a diagnosis given to individuals with severe impulsivity, aggression, and criminal behaviors—in other words, a DSM-approved twist on the old “psychopathic” standard.

At first glance, these attempts at categorization appear to be trending positive. For one thing, researchers are slowly cleaving obvious wrongdoing from the more inadvertent harms of mental illness. Similarly, it’s a relief to be able to use the dark triad to acknowledge just how commonplace selfishness really is. 

But the shadow of degeneracy still looms large. In addition to further medicalizing everyday discourse (“jerks,” Jalava and Griffiths point out, have become “psychopaths,” with all the attendant baggage), these models uphold the dubious belief that every human has an immutable personality—and that those personalities can be easily classified as good or bad. In reality, recent research shows that many people change—and, in some cases, change dramatically—over the course of their lifespan. At the same, many researchers remain critical of the historic characterization of personality disorders, in part because it is stigmatizing and can obfuscate trauma, and even then it doesn’t lead to clear directions for treatment.

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Many popular ideas about evildoers seem to stem from tabloid news, rather than scientific evidence. For example, Jalava and Griffiths have shown that many experiments that make claims of a genetic or neurobiological basis have not been replicated, and those that have been replicated have produced contradictory results. Soon, they will publish a new review detailing similar problems in studies of psychopathy and fMRI brain imaging. Perhaps most importantly, the husband-wife duo have documented how meta-analyses of psychopathy research, ostensibly the gold standard in scientific research, often ignore published results with null findings. 

Even if researchers working on the problem of evil content themselves with the shortcomings of the existing scientific literature on psychopathy, dark triad, and the like, a new issue arises: People don’t just want to describe existing traits. They want to use these scales to predict future behavior. 

In the criminal system, the results of assessments like the Hare Psychopathy Checklist are used to assess an individual’s risk of recidivism, and therefore the possibility or terms of parole. Paulhus, the creator of the Dark Triad Personality Test, wants prospective employers, including police and the US military, to screen prospective candidates with his scale—and not always for the reasons you’d imagine. “It makes a big difference whether you diagnose someone as a Machiavellian or a sadist or a narcissist,” Paulhus says. “There may be occasions where that's what you’re looking for.” At the same time, it’s easy to imagine a world in which individuals are screened for psychopathy and, if their score is high enough, closely monitored for potential crimes.

But Jalava and Griffiths insist that meaningful prediction isn’t possible with existing measures, either. If you remove questions on psychopathy evaluations that ask about previous criminal activity, these scales fail to anticipate what the test-taker does next. It’s an unsexy finding: “Past behavior can predict future behavior” is never going to be an A1 headline. But unlike other, more elaborate theories of pathological personalities, this at least is real. 

The desire for strong language to match heinous acts is only natural. Unfortunately, sadistic bosses, everyday assholes, and even murderers are still human—shaped by and shaping the world. Condemning people as the subhuman (or, paradoxically, superhuman) embodiment of evil isn’t based on “the characteristics of the individual in front of us,” Griffith says, “but our response to them.” Such illusory categories make real understanding almost impossible.

In the context of evil, pursuing understanding is itself controversial. For decades, people have rightly criticized the media for the breathless attention it pays to killers—on the assumption that it feeds the psychopath’s or narcissist’s desire for attention, and may in turn inspire copycats. But there’s a difference between a news consumer’s insatiable desire for serial-killer content, and the responsibility we all have to face the harm in our society—and, perhaps, the capacity for harm in ourselves.

For example, many true-crime aficionados will cite data showing that something like one-third of serial killers (many of whom are presumed to be psychopaths) experienced physical abuse, one-fourth experienced sexual abuse, and half experienced psychological abuse as children. But these statistics don’t explain much at all about these “evil” adults, more than half of whom weren’t abused. Rather, they raise a more interesting question: Why are so many ostensibly non-psychopathic American parents abusive of their children? 

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This reformulation isn’t an excuse or an absolution; adults can, by and large, be considered responsible for their own actions. But it makes clear that “evil” doesn’t exist neatly in an individual in the way inherently judgemental labels like “psychopath” might imply. It’s not simply that psychopaths aren’t born but made, either. It’s that, if psychopaths exist at all, the same forces that shape them are at work on the rest of us, likely with similar, if more subtle consequences. 

Flipping cruelty on its head also opens avenues for new solutions. We know, for example, that poverty is the number one cause of child abuse. One might reasonably conclude that the money devoted to studying dark traits might better be used for a universal basic income. Similarly, the notion that past behavior can, in meaningful ways, suggest future behavior is a helpful starting point. For example, if the only part of a psychopathy test that can predict crime are questions about past criminality, we should be able to ditch the armchair psychoanalysis and focus on documented, real-world behavior. Even then, because people can and do change, these rules cannot be hard and fast, and context and compassion will remain essential.

It’s still possible to divest even further from useless labels, by focusing on the idiosyncrasies of troubled—or, more precisely, troubling—individuals, as well as the specific context in which they emerged. Despite all of their scholarship, Jalava and Griffiths say they don’t have a silver bullet for defeating, let alone replacing, the myth of the born criminal. Rather, they advocate for a descriptive (rather than the standard normative) approach. Understanding how a certain person arrived at a certain point in time can’t undo the hurt they’ve caused, but it might help them to chart a new path—perhaps even one that deviates from their dark “personality.”

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