TRUE OPINION: PSYCHOPATHS! The awful, awful truth

TRUE OPINION: It is often said of psychopaths that the most dangerous aspect of their personality is the ability to manipulate people. They can be described as charming, charismatic and can exude a superficial facade of trust and credibility in order to disarm their victims in the journey of getting what they want. It’s a means to an end no matter who gets hurt. All of these traits they are exceptionally skilled at, writes Tim Kent.

The term psychopath is one of the most widely used and misused terms in general society and even in clinical circles. When uttering the term ‘psychopath’ most people fast track to images propagated by Hollywood and the media of serial killers. However, most psychopaths in society are not serial killers, nor are they necessarily criminals for that matter. The majority of serial killers are likely to be psychopaths, though. Psychopaths can be found right across society in just about all walks of life, with some estimates suggesting they could comprise as many as 15% of the total population. Psychopaths make up 15% to 20% of the prison population, at least 70% of violent offenders and the significant majority of serial killers and sex offenders.

Another misconception is that they are psychotic. This is drawn from the common usage of the term applied to murderers, in that they are “psychotic killers”. Most of the worst kind of psychopaths are not psychotic in any way though. Some, however, may include that as part of their defence in court by pleading diminished responsibility on the grounds of insanity. These attempts are rarely successful, largely on the grounds they are not psychotic.

So let’s look a little more closely at the typical traits of a psychopath. They possess a superficial charm. Can be very engaging even convincing. Charismatic even as mentioned, manipulative, in the sense that they use these traits to achieve what they want out of people who are just objects to be used for a greater goal. They have just about zero empathy, sympathy, guilt or remorse, though can give a distinct impression that they do. It is often said, they know the words but not the music.

As to any real emotional response to their destructive actions, it is absent. They just don’t care, simple as that. Narcissism is also a key feature of their make up, as is an inflated sense of worth and self-importance. There is often confusion between the terms sociopath and psychopath being that the destructive outcomes and behaviour are pretty much the same with subtle differences.


Neuroscientist Professor James Fallon has attempted to clarify this common question. A professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, he is also the author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. According to Fallon there are two camps of psychopath.

“The Primary Psychopath”

According to Fallon, this is a person who has inherited the genes that predispose them towards aggression and then, in turn, were exposed to some severe trauma in early childhood development usually prior to puberty that locked the brain chemistry into psychopathy thus preventing any moral code from setting in.

“The Secondary Psychopath”

Secondary psychopaths or sociopaths may also be genetically predisposed and exposed to trauma. For example bullying and abandonment later in childhood, post-puberty at a time they at least have some understanding of a moral code. “Sociopaths have some moral code but just don’t care. They behave similarly but the causes are slightly different,” Fallon says. Some may even argue that sociopaths are even worse by knowing in some way that what they are doing is wrong but do it anyhow.

The above traits of charm, friendliness and engaging personality tend to vanish when applying a cool callous ruthlessness to their actions in order to carry out their plan. At the workplace, they possess a great capacity to pit colleague against colleague, thus dividing the work settings into distinctive camps between those that worship the psychopath and those who are indifferent to them or just don’t like them, sometimes the reasons for which they are not quite able to place a finger on. What they do best is access key people at the workplace even management by ingratiating themselves so that those they marginalise are less likely to be able to voice their concerns once the psychopath has the confidence of those key players, even though it may be short-lived.


The awful truth is the majority of psychopaths reside outside of the prison population and found across a number of professional domains such as in the corporate sector, legal circles, marketing and even political life which probably comes as no surprise. This is not meant to detract or shift focus away from brutal serial and other vicious killers. Figures indicate that at least 15% of the prison population meet the criteria for being psychopathic, with these figures almost exclusive to males. In the US, non-serial killing psychopaths tend to have more lenient sentencing and parole conditions applied.

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Not a lot of research data is available on female psychopaths due in part that males have been the main focus of attention. Psychologists and scientists have argued that there are differences ranging from biological to the possibility that females are more likely to avoid arrest and prosecution. And more likely to escape punishment on the grounds that societal perceptions view women as less capable of committing such heinous crimes. Finally, despite the lack of evidence in regards to female psychopaths what little data available suggests they can be as dangerous as their male counterparts. However, their personality traits may mimic and or be mistaken for other psychiatric disorders or illness.

Extreme examples of criminal psychopaths such as Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader (the BTK Killer), John Wayne Gacy and Jeffery Dahmer to name a few seemed to easily blend into the social landscape, including those close to them. The facade that Ted Bundy had erected made him one of the most deadly of serial killers. His looks, charm and apparent intellect enabled Bundy to not only snare his victims with ease but keep the focal point of suspicion away from him as he did not fit the stereotype of an unhinged serial killer.

The late, great true crime novelist Ann Rule in her book The Stranger Beside Me spoke of working with Bundy on a crisis phone line service. She described Bundy’s politeness, charm, and his easygoing manner. She remarked that at the time “he was not only a pleasure to work with but she considered him a friend”. Bundy’s demeanour gave her no clue as to the monster he was eventually revealed to be.


So should we be concerned over psychopaths? Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare thinks we should. Hare, one of the world’s leading experts in the field of psychopathy, estimates the cost incurred by society each year to be in the vicinity of trillions worldwide. Why the interest? Hare stresses the importance of identifying psychopaths before they inflict damage. He adds “it makes good sense both from a perspective of self-protection and of course primary prevention to offset the massive costs to society”, because despite being the minority psychopaths can cause great damage.

Robert Hare’s interest in psychopathy was triggered many years ago when in his time as a prison clinical psychologist he was involved in offender rehabilitation programs. A prisoner Hare had followed through with until they earned the right to work in the prison auto shop had been involved in repairs on Hare’s motor vehicle which was not uncommon for staff to do so as it was staffed by low-risk offenders, however, this prisoner wanted to work on Hares car. After picking up his vehicle Hare was driving down a windy road when he attempted to apply his brakes and nothing happened he managed to steer the car into some rough whereby he called a roadside mechanic who discovered that his brake lines had been cut. Hare had been convinced that this prisoner had criminally and morally turned the corner; and the realisation that he actually hadn’t startled him greatly.

Hare also adds that generally psychopaths and sociopaths are not very good at what they do in the professional domain, but still make their way into senior management positions even as CEO’s eventually their incompetence is discovered or they leave the workplace not before doing extensive damage. Still, some are considered successful if you measure success on wealth creation, cold ruthlessness, destructive behaviour and emotional vacuity towards anyone they hurt along the way.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton (Image: Wiki Commons)

It’s not to say that psychopaths are all stupid but they possess an unwavering inflated sense of self-importance. It’s common for the criminal psychopath to believe they are smarter than everyone including investigators.


Currently, there is no known cure for psychopathy at all. Various strategies have been tried with limited or no success leaving approaches to dealing with psychopaths solely focused on early detection and harm minimisation. That appears easier said than done. Robert Hare has developed a revised. psychopathy checklist a questionnaire if you will that has been years in developing and is recognised and used worldwide by researchers, forensic clinicians and the justice system as the definitive tool by which to detect for psychopathy. Initially released in 1980 and eventually to the public in 1991 it contains a 20 item inventory of personality traits and observed behaviours administered in a semi-formal interview format that utilises a point system.

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The checklist of 20 items includes: glibness / superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, need for stimulation / proneness to boredom, pathological lying, conning / manipulation, lack of remorse / guilt, shallow affect, callousness / lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle, promiscuous behaviour, early behavioural problems, lack of realistic long term goals, impulsivity, failure to accept responsibility, many short term marital relationships, juvenile delinquency and criminal versatility. 

At the conclusion of the test, a ranking is applied between 0-40 with 40 being the maximum score. The cutoff point for determining psychopathy is 30 in the US and 25 in the UK. It is unclear just why these cut off points vary from the UK and the US. One must bear in mind that in order to be diagnosed as a psychopath you would have to score highly on all of these traits, not just a few and not in isolation.


Another emerging method of determining psychopathy is due to the advancement in brain imaging techniques. Neuroscientists expose selected groups of subjects to a range of images and statements under MRI scanning designed to invoke emotional responses linked to empathy and sympathy. Those areas of the brain linked to these responses are located in the prefrontal cortex and more specifically the amygdala. Researchers are basically looking to see whether those areas of the brain light up with neurological activity consistent with empathy, remorse and sympathy.

In normal subjects, the brain activity noted when exposed to these images is healthy, in those of psychopaths the activity is sluggish or seemingly non-existent in regards to empathy, sympathy, remorse etc. The more studies that are conducted the more the findings are consistent, robust and valid, these findings no doubt have added thrust to the biological / hereditary proponents debate that nature rather than nurture is the predominant force behind what constructs the personality of the psychopath.


However just as this debate was gathering biological momentum an astonishing an unexpected finding resulted propelling the nature vs nurture argument straight back into focus.

Professor James Fallon, an American neuroscientist known for his pioneering work in researching schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other neurological disorders got the shock of his life when he included himself and other family members into a sample brain imaging size for one of his studies into Alzheimer’s disease.

Fallon was going through concealed brain imaging results not knowing which one was which. Suddenly, he baulked at one of the images he was looking at. He called out to his research team stating the imaging he was looking at showed the brain of a psychopath, who was dangerous and should not be out in the streets. He called in one of the technicians thinking it was a joke and said: “OK, you switched the brain imaging of one of the worst psychopaths into my family”.

The technicians said “no it is part of your family”. Fallon stunned said, “you’re kidding, they should not be walking around in society, they are a dangerous person” and the tech replied, “it’s you”. Following this, Fallon’s mother conveyed to him that he was related to a number of presumed psychopaths including Thomas Cornell, who burned his mother alive in 1673, and Lizzie Borden, suspected of killing her parents with an axe in 1892. All were on his father’s side of the family.

Radio broadcaster Ray Hadley has been accused of bullying numerous colleagues for years (Image: 2GB)

So what do we make of this? Fallon became a successful neuroscientist and is happily married with two children, no trail of destruction, no criminality. Fallon whilst admitting he was a little surprised – even taken back by this finding – was undaunted and in true scientific fashion offered an explanation. He described himself as a “pro-social” psychopath that is on the borderline. He exhibits traits common to psychopaths but he has learned to adapt and model a conformity to societal rules and expectations. He advances this further by describing his upbringing as full of love and support, conceding his path may have been different had he been raised in an abusive, violent and unsupportive household.

It’s worth noting that Michael Mosely – trained GP, documentary maker and host of the series Trust Me I am A Doctor – also got taken quite by surprise when he discovered he had the brain imaging of a psychopath. Similar to Fallon his upbringing was unremarkable for abuse or lack of love.


Despite the wealth of interest and research into psychopaths as opposed to other personality disorders many experts still fail to agree on exactly what causes it. Fallon’s take on pro-social psychopaths has some merit but it falls short of explaining just how some psychopaths that have been raised in a supportive, loving environment still go on to display a full, destructive and sometimes seriously criminal expression of psychopathy. Nor does it move the debate any closer to answering the question as to why many who have been raised in an abusive, unsupportive lacking in love households do not move on to be full-blown psychopaths.

Fallon rejects the notion of evil preferring to psychopathy as a genetic societal interplay and that we as a society are lurching toward revering the psychopath and or those who behave like ones with the rise of reality TV and the suite of shows that capture an audience all to eager to absorb with enthusiasm the antics of those who display all the ruthlessness, lying, manipulating behaviours employed to achieve what they want at all costs no matter the hurt inflicted on others. He adds that psychopaths are an “intraspecies predator”. Humans who are predators of other humans”.


In an observational context research from day care centres, pre school and early childhood schools have indicated that children as young as seven or eight-years-old have displayed, callous, cruel and even assaultive behaviour towards other children seemingly unconcerned about the distress they have caused other children. This is compared with the fact that emotionally balanced children commonly display empathy toward other children in distress often becoming tearful and visually upset when witnessing distress in other children.

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With the advancement of brain imaging techniques and interpretation of same, there is a growing belief that psychopathy is biological in origin, whilst other experts and researchers believe that it’s origins exclusively lie on the scale of nurture (for example, upbringing, abuse and trauma). Others believe its a complex interplay between the both. Whilst it is a key factor as exampled in the cases of James Fallon and Michael Mosely who’s loving supportive upbringings appear to have nullified the genetic and biological expression of psychopathy it still falls way short of explaining the precise causes and origins.

Robert Hare states that:

“You can pass on your genes by having one or two children and investing a lot into their well-being. But we know psychopaths’ relationships are impersonal, that they favour the strategy of having a lot of children, and then abandoning them.”

This biological adaptation theory qualifies psychopathy as an advantageous, albeit deplorable, method of genetic reproduction, not as a neurological disorder.

“…but maybe we’re also just a bunch of algorithms. It’s a mystery of human nature that makes my head hurt.” 

Both theories could have serious real-world implications. Could children be vilified as bad seeds or given special resources, interventions and or medical treatment? Could workers be tested for psychopathic tendencies by employers? Could criminals be imprisoned for life-based solely on brain scans? Research findings regarding observations in early childhood

Whatever way you view psychopathy or sociopathy it certainly continues to have its day in the sun as far as public interest and media representation. However, it’s vitally important to be able to identify them early across all walks of life, whether from the workplace to close personal and social relationships. Having said that, obviously the general public cannot walk around armed with Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist nor have people sent for brain imaging studies however there are some basic tenets or signs to look out for. Lying, manipulation, playing people off against each other and a ‘too good to be true’ impression, also a rather explosive reaction to being disagreed with. All of this easier said than done and still most psychopaths by the time they are found out have already caused huge damage.

They rarely if ever seek treatment. You will never see a psychopath present to a GP, psychiatrist or psychologist and say, “Help me I think I am a psychopath”. But what they will do is grab with both hands if another psychiatric diagnosis if offered, particularly if is fashionable and most importantly if it is a chance for them to be absolved of responsibility for their actions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: Wiki Commons)

Being careful with people over time until trust is gained and maintaining healthy but firm boundaries are but a few basic approaches in regards to self-protection. Each year in the US it is estimated that at least 40% of psychiatrists and psychologists are suspended or deregistered due to inappropriate, unethical and or illegal behaviour as a result of being manipulated by psychopaths. That gives a sense of just how potent their powers of manipulation and persuasiveness are and how in the extreme cases can yield deadly results.

Man Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan has written a book titled The First Person. It is loosely inspired by his experiences as a biographer for John Freidrich; arguably one of the greatest conmen ever. One whose image and persona was based on fabrication, lies and fraudulent criminality. He would rise to the position of “Director Of The National Safety Council Of Australia”, attracting millions in  funding from high ranking government officials who even granted him defence force security clearances. He later took his own life after being exposed. The whole episode caused great embarrassment for not only the govt but the officials who were taken in by this conman who if not exposed the consequences could have been disastrous.

As psychologist Martin Seligman once said, they are as successful to some extent as we may allow them to be.

That said and done, the question is how do we as a general population acquire those skills to recognise a psychopath in our daily lives early enough to avoid the destruction they are so capable of inflicting?




About Tim Kent 14 Articles
Tim Kent is a mental health professional with a keen interest in crime. He has had experience over many years as a registered nurse as well as a mental health clinician, in a role that frequently involved a forensic crossover. He holds a BA in the Behavioural Sciences and has an active interest in attempting to understand the complexities that drive criminal behaviour and the public perceptions of the same.


  1. Dutton the big hero boycotted the apology to the Stolen Generations and now wants the power to spy on Australian citizens and let ASIO question kids. He has politicized the AFP. People speculate that he has mental issues from being a cop. But what’s Morrison’s excuse? Not even his own Liberal cronies like him. I used to feel embarrassed for Australia when Abbot was prime minister. But now I feel a weird sort of embarrassment for myself when I see Morrison. I feel self ashamed watching him on tv. And I didn’t even vote Liberal.

  2. Morrison and Dutton are keeping an innocent family imprisoned on Christmas Island and have been for months. Millions of taxpayers’ money wasted keeping one family in an off-shore prison even though a whole community in Queensland wants them to return and the rest of the country wants these two thugs in jail instead.

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