Psychopathy is a condition that both reviles and fascinates many people, but because of the deeply embedded stigma surrounding it, the disorder remains poorly understood – especially when it affects women.
Victoria was aware of her boyfriend’s wife, but after a few years she became suspicious that he had other lovers. She claims there was no proof, but his body language gave him away. His stories were contradictory. When he lied, his expression changed.
“I happen to have a fantastic memory for conversations,” she says. “He wasn’t a very good liar. I’m not sure why his wife didn’t catch him.”
Victoria’s mind flipped through a mental flipboard of punishment options until she settled on one. It would take some time, and she would have to pretend she didn’t know anything. While still seeing him over the course of several months, Victoria sent her boyfriend’s wife naked photos.
He approached her, distressed, and inquired as to who could possibly be doing such a thing. His wife was heartbroken. He admitted to Victoria that he had been sleeping with other women. He had no reason to suspect her, and she consoled him.
When Victoria became bored and was ready to end the relationship, she sent his wife a final gallery of photos, the last of which was a photo of herself with the woman’s husband. Victoria left their lives forever with that shocking revelation.
When Victoria used to tell this story, people were taken aback by her flippancy. “‘Why would you do this to his wife?’ people asked. What did his wife do to you to earn this treatment? ‘How did she cause you pain?’ “she claims. “And I’d think to myself, ‘Well, life is unfair.'”
“That’s an example of an extreme psychopathic trait I used to have. Callousness.”
The fifth and most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include psychopathy as an official mental health diagnosis. Instead, it is classified as antisocial personality disorder, despite the fact that the term “psychopathy” is widely used in global clinical settings. It is thought to be a neuropsychiatric disorder in which a person exhibits unusually low levels of empathy or remorse, which often leads to antisocial and sometimes criminal behaviour. In the early 1900s, doctors in Europe and the United States used the term, which became popular by 1941. following the publication of American psychiatrist Hervey M Cleckley’s book The Mask of Sanity.
“The definition of psychopathy has been debated by the world’s leading academics,” says Abigail Marsh, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “Depending on whether you talk to a forensic psychologist or a criminologist, you’ll get very different explanations of psychopathy.”
According to Marsh, criminal psychologists typically classify people as having psychopathy only when they exhibit violent and extreme behaviour. However, for her, the condition manifests as a spectrum with other, less dramatic behaviour that varies from person to person.
Psychologists and psychiatrists generally agree that one to two people in every 100 meet the criteria for psychopathy, but Marsh claims that up to 30% of people in the general population exhibit some degree of psychopathic traits. Psychopathy can make it difficult for people to maintain close friendships and put themselves in dangerous situations, but it also has an impact on those around them.
“Being around a callous or manipulative person is often devastating for those close to them, and exhausting for people suffering from extreme psychopathy,” Marsh says.
She claims that the majority of research on people with psychopathy has been done on criminal offenders. Some of these studies indicate that psychopaths – or people who exhibit psychopathic traits – account for a disproportionate number of people in prison, though this is debatable. In general, the research suggests that psychopathy is more common in male offenders (perhaps 15-25% of prisoners) than in female offenders (where it is found in 10-12%).
But it is a field that is still understudied in the general population, while even less research is conducted on women.
Women often exhibited traits like debilitating impulsiveness (such as a lack of planning), thrill-seeking in interpersonal relationships, and verbal aggression
While some studies suggest that men are more prone to psychopathy than women, Marsh believes this may be due to how the tests were designed in the first place.
“Bob Hare developed and tested the first psychopathy scales on a prison population of men in British Columbia,” she says.
In the 1970s, Canadian psychologist Robert Hare created the Psychopathy Checklist (now known as PCL-R), and a revised version is widely regarded as the global gold standard for testing for psychopathic traits. It is now the most widely used and validated psychopathy diagnostic tool. The PCL-R assesses an individual’s emotional detachment, such as their willingness to manipulate someone to achieve a desired outcome regardless of the consequences. as well as their antisocial behaviour, such as aggressive or impulsive choices that may be violent or involve abrupt abandonment of responsibilities.
“Adaptations of that scale are used today in non-institutionalized samples, including women and children in several countries, but it’s unclear whether you would have come up with the same items to begin with if you were looking at non-criminal women,” Marsh says.
In a 2005 study, researchers compared core characteristics of men and women with psychopathy. They claimed that women frequently displayed characteristics such as crippling impulsiveness (such as a lack of planning), thrill-seeking in interpersonal relationships, and verbal aggression. According to the researchers, physical aggression and violence are common manifestations of psychopathy in men. However, they stated at the time that not enough research had been conducted into why this could be the case. After seventeen years, Little has changed.
Ana Sanz Garcia, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Madrid, and her colleagues conducted a more recent 2021 analysis of published research studies involving over 11,000 adults who were evaluated for psychopathy. She agrees that more research on women and non-criminal people with psychopathy is needed. According to her, studies to date show that women with psychopathy have a lower proclivity for violence and crime than men, but more examples of interpersonal manipulation.
“It would be interesting to investigate the factors that explain why women with high levels of psychopathy have a lower likelihood of committing antisocial and criminal acts than men,” Sanz Garcia says. “If these factors are identified, a programme could be designed to prevent both women and men with high levels of psychopathy from engaging in antisocial and criminal behaviour.”
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