Most of what we know about psychopathy comes from studies with people diagnosed as psychopathic who have been incarcerated, to protect others and/or themselves. Consequently, people who have the personality characteristics of a psychopath, but who have not (yet) been imprisoned for crimes or violent acts, have been little researched until now. To find out more about this group, Christine Kirkman at Bolton University interviewed twenty women (average age 48 years), recruited via newspaper advertisements, who rated their partners as psychopathic according to the Hare P-SCAN scale, a 90-item questionnaire used by police and social workers to screen for psychopathic traits. The recruitment adverts mentioned a soap opera story line, popular at the time, that involved a psychopathic character. “Were you duped like Deidre?”, the adverts asked.
Twenty-three recurring themes emerged from interviews with the women, each of which was mentioned by at least half the interviewees. Further themes also emerged from analysis of letters written by the women in response to the newspaper advert. The themes related to the way the women’s partners behaved and included: talking the women into victimisation; lying and use of false identities; economic abuse; emotional and physical torture; multiple infidelities; isolation and coercion; physical/sexual assault and/or rape; and the mistreatment of children. One woman recalled having petrol poured over her before being raped by her match-wielding husband. Kirkman was struck by the similarity and consistency between the interviewees’ accounts. Most of the women’s partners had been charged with crimes, usually of a fraudulent nature, consistent with Hervey Cleckley’s seminal description of psychopathy – “The Mask of Sanity”, originally published in 1941.
“Although the male partners were not assessed, it became evident while conducting this study that there are males living amongst us who have the characteristics associated with psychopathy”, Kirkman said. Of course, it can’t be ruled out that some of these women had vivid imaginations and/or paranoid dispositions.
Kirkman, C.A. (2005). From soap opera to science: Towards gaining access to the psychopaths who live amongst us. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, In Press. DOI: 10.1348/147608305X26666.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.