Not all psychopaths are criminal

Experts have recognised for some time that not all psychopaths are violent criminals. Many of them live inconspicuously amongst us (see item 4 here). But according to Mehmet Mahmut and his colleagues, these more benign psychopaths have been relatively uninvestigated. It’s not even clear how comparable they are to their more notorious counterparts.

One hundred university students completed a self-report measure of psychopathy that probed four key areas – lack of empathy, grandiosity, impulsivity and delinquency. The top 33 per cent and bottom 33 per cent of scorers subsequently formed high and low psychopathy groups. The low and high psychopathy groups then completed the kinds of neuropsychological tests that have often been used on research with criminal psychopaths.

The high psychopathy students, as well as recording low empathy on the self-report test, also scored poorly on the Iowa Card Gambling task (relative to the low psychopathy students), reflecting the same kind of performance seen in criminal psychopaths. This gambling task is thought to measure functioning in a specific frontal region of the brain called orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is known to be involved in emotion and decision-making.

Yet despite this deficit, the high psychopathy students showed normal executive function and IQ, just as most criminal psychopaths do. The researchers said their findings show that criminal and non-criminal psychopaths share the same neuropsychological profile.

So what is it that makes criminal psychopaths get into trouble, while non-criminal psychopaths do not? The researchers speculated that criminal psychopaths may be steered towards criminality by their backgrounds, in particular a lack of early parental supervision, deprivation and having a convicted parent.

“An increased research focus as to the nature of psychopathy across non-criminal and criminal populations is important in that it may reveal factors protecting non-criminal psychopaths from becoming criminal psychopaths and hence reduce the emotional and financial havoc they can wreak” the researchers concluded.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related Digest item on psychopaths.
Link to another related Digest item.
Link to yet one more related item.

MAHMUT, M., HOMEWOOD, J., STEVENSON, R. (2008). The characteristics of non-criminals with high psychopathy traits: Are they similar to criminal psychopaths?. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(3), 679-692. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.09.002

25 thoughts on “Not all psychopaths are criminal”

  1. May I suggest _People of the Lie_ by M. Scott Peck? He explored the concepts of everyday evil committed by law abiding citizens many years ago. For me, it provided the parameters with which I could express my gut discomfort with certain people I’ve known. Reading this book will change you; you’ll never be the same again.

  2. Anyone who has spent time around corporate management has seen a whole zoo of psychopaths.

  3. I wonder about the sweeping conclusions drawn about psychopaths vs. nonpsychopaths. Is a psychopath, especially a non-criminal one, by nature unreformable and always a psychopath? Is it possible that psychopaths have flashes of conscience? I ask because the current wave of latchkey kids/Internet addicts might well be considered psychopathic by some standards.

    1. Having personal experience with someone who is definitely a functional psycopath I can tell you a true psycopath is hard wired, what is not in the picture is their natural disposition. This person wants things that resemble domestic life, so he must learn the manorisms of those around him in order to conform and fit in. However regardless of his outward manorisms he has NO concience whatsoever, it simply does not exsist. It took me a long time to understand that I would never overcome that frustration.

  4. It seems to me you are still using ‘psycopath’ as innately derogatory. Perhaps this research shows lower levels of empathy can be part of normal human diversity and not lead to cruelty–therefore not need to be cured.

  5. Could it be that emotions are not necessary for ethical/socially acceptable conduct? I bet many ethicists would say so.

  6. No, psychopaths don’t have any conscience. They couldn’t tell the expression of fear or sad, which make them not consider the bad consequence of their behavior. They fail to associate the cues which signals the later punishment, therefore can’t follow the rules or law. However, we must consider the large population with psychopathic-like characteristics but do not break the law, such as the college students with high psychopathy score. The researchers’ mission is to find out what protect these at-risk individuals from becoming a criminal.

  7. Having been in a relationship with a psychopath for 3 years, just because they are not “caught” breaking the law, doesn’t mean they don’t. The disturbing fact, is that some get away with destroying life after life, not by killing them, but by systematic control, manipulation, mind games, mental cruelty, emotional abuse, threats to kill and actual bodily harm. Once they have rendered someone of no more use because they have rendered the victim exhausted, emotionally wrecked, etc , etc (the hurt is endless), they move on to the next . . . . . . . Believe me, it is soul destroying and you cannot even imagine what really goes on, I hope you never do. x

  8. I don't even know how to put into words the destruction of your inner self when you become involved & in a relationship with this type of person.You can be in the relationship and know theres something not right with this person,the way he thinks,acts conducts himself,even tell him,he is NOT wired properly,that something is just not right with him,but him being so much of a con a manipulator he agrees or gives really good believable reason to his way of thinking.They can lie without thinking and can make u believe something that u know is not true,have a way of making u dis-trust ur close friends and family.They can be the sweetest most attentive ppl,feeling ur needs and wants and come across as the best thing to walk into ur life,they can keep this up for yrs if need be,but I guess its in them just waiting to come out.I have been in a relationship the last 16yrs with one(not now) but I didnt even know it,knew there was something wrong with him,that he wasnt wired “upstairs”properly” knew he had lack of epathy and felt he didnt have a conscience,he was never physical towards me nor did he call me down or make me feel worthless(2wards end he did).The 1st few yrs he was the best 2me,but treated others in a ruthless way then things started going down hill and I couldnt understand where this nice sweet attentive guy went,couldnt understand or get a grasp on it,the next 13yrs were spent with ups and downs,break ups,getting bk together and in these periods I'd see that sweet attentive guy who loved me to death and couldnt do enough to prove it or show it,but then when he had a feeling I was doing something I shdnt be ,the crazy guy came bk,I told him not to believe everything he thought,but have now come to realize,this was all an act he didnt think I was doing anything wrong,knew I wasnt,but this was his way to justify something he was up to that he shouldnt be.Told me once if I didnt go bk with him,he'd walk out on our kids,told him that wd destroy them & he said well thats on u,I said nope u can't blame me for ur actions,he said if u don't go bk with me,then its ur actions causing harm to them,I didnt go bk then and he basically walked out on them for 14months,the whole while still trying to control and sabotage my life.He was jealous of my friends,job anything I had that made me happy he tried to destroy,even pics,clothes,furniture.I had no privacy he broke into everything I had,went thru my place with a fine tooth comb when I wasnt even there,took away every piece of privacy I as a human being is entitled to,but what bothered me most was he justified his every action,he truly believed he was doing nothing wrong,showed no re morse and when he did apologize,he'd only turn around and do the exact same thing again,he just never “GOT IT” and when I thought he did,he'd do something again to make me see he didnt….No matter what went wrong in his life,he'd find a way to make me think 75%of it was my fault,never took responsibity for his own actions(always told him this) he wd lie to me effortlessly to friends about me,,try making me look like the liar,gd thing my friends know who I truly am and knew he had a tendency to lie,but I'm sure he put doubt in some of their heads…He would use stuff I told him about to try and hurt me and ppl I love,even if it was 10yrs ago I told him,he wouldnt/couldnt let the past die,never forgot ANYTHING I've ever said to him!!Everytime we broke up he became soo vindictive I cdnt rap my brain around how he cd do this to me,he would interfere in shameless ways to end every relationship I started,but I always felt sorry for him and partly fearful of what he'd do to me if I didnt,b/c he'd shown in past to be ruthless,crazylike,well I took him bk,thought he truly loved me and just went crazy b/c I wasnt giving him enough love/attention and he would tell that was y 2…I knew I didnt want 2b with him,knew I wasnt in love with him,but he always made me feel guilty for not loving him properly,he cd profess his undying love to me one day and of had done the sweetest thing,bt the next day he cd be with some other girl professing his love to her and pretending he hated me and ignoring me,always told him he had a switch he shut on/off with his feelings and this wasnt how “normal”ppl operated/felt…I cd go on forever on this b/c I'm just finding out 4sure what his problem is,always knew he had one but never researched it,I guess b/c I seen too much of the perfect guy in the 1st yrs that I mighta helped drive him to where he was in his thinking,I cdnt grasp why I a smart,intelligent honest person kept half believing all his lies,felt like he always was manipulating me,so I typed up manipulate on Google,brought me to the Emotional Manipulator,then to Psychopaths and also to Borderline Personality disorders and I was like OMG THATS HIM!!!! he displays 99% of these traits we argued about these traits,it really wasnt me,he really is wired differently then the majority of the population,I am NOT crazy,but I am glad to be free,even tho I miss him to some degree I now know I did everything I cd,but it was never enough for him.He's in another relationship just like that,claiming to love her and wants to marry her,only been with her a month(did the same to me)Its just mind blowing to see all of his actions,words laid out like that on articles about Emotional Manipulators/psychopaths and ppl with borderline personality disorders,its just Nuts and very relieving at the same time,glad I'm out,hope he stays with her b/c if not he'll be bk to make my life miserable and thats what scares me,is he will never leave me alone,I believe if he breaks up with her in 5yrs he'll be bk at me,but maybe not maybe he'll suck her in the next few yrs b4 he shows his true self and Iall that'll take is for her to do one thing that he portrays as betrayal,then she's in for the rollercoaster ride with the monster from hell..I tried to warn her,but I came off looking like the crazy one,he even started off there relationship with a one month lie,telling her he wasnt with me and he didnt love me,while the whole time telling me how much he loved me and wd forever and wd do anything to prove it,she forgave him for the lies(her 1st mistake) now he knows he's already gotten her somewhat attached to him..Let the Games begin…now I get to leave in peace

  9. I absolutely agree with the posters who have outlined relationships with psychopaths – they are incredibly destructive to the psychologically normal target who is used and abused to the point of wanting to end their life. I believe that is their intention – to provoke murder through suicide – the ultimate in control over another person.

    I am deeply damaged after a ten year ordeal and find it very difficult to trust others. Psychopaths are extremely dangerous and I wish the APA would get their act together and realise that not all psychos are caught breaking the law. The stupid DSM IV criteria discounts most psychopaths who live mostly on the right side of the law due to a requirement for conduct disorder. This confusion as to criteria for diagnosis has to stop so finally the public can be educated about these monsters and learn the danger signs.

    I held the common misconception that all psychopaths are somehow recognisable or are serial killers. I expected they would all be openly violent. My ex never hit me but tried to murder me psychologically and emotionally. Without public education there is no hope for victims presently and in the future … we should be warning young people of the signs of this disorder and teaching them to get the hell away from them.

    I sincerely hope the revised DSM V has clear and simplified symptoms for diagnosis of this disorder – having three potential names and multiple lists of criteria for diagnosis has caused this confusion in the public as to what a psychopath is and the ones who suffer are the family and partners and children of them.

    I too found the term quite by accident when googling psychological abuse. I too knew something was really wrong but had no name for it. I too ended up close to suicide at the darkest hour of the relationship. It took me years to get away from him – leaving is the most dangerous time for a partner and it must always be remembered that due to ZERO CONSCIENCE the psychopath truly is capable (more capable than the rest of the population) of murder or serious physical harm.

    Personally I would have rather he had beaten me than the horror torture he inflicted on me over a ten year period – at least bruises are visible and people believe you about abuse if they see them. Psychological and emotional abuse are very clean forms of violence that happen behind closed doors with no witnesses – no proof.

    After leaving psychopaths engage in the most awful smear campaigns against their targets – usually some slur on their mental health so if she says anything about him she won't be believed and he can say she is mad. Imagine the horror of having suffered a dreadful toxic and damaging relationship and then hearing untrue slander around town about you – it's just too much for anyone to go through and I cannot believe there are not tougher laws against emotional and psychological abuse – it can be much more harmful than physical abuse.

    They always come back – just when least expected – no contact is the only option for victims and I am thinking of moving far away from him. I cannot hold my head high in my home town despite the fact I did nothing wrong – he was the one who abused me. If I speak out against what he is saying, I will just look crazy … it's a horrible position to be in.

    They have no conscience and should not be walking around free like the rest of us who try to do good for others. But until society sees sense and locks them up, our best hope is a huge public education campaign.

  10. Yeah, blame the psychos, losers. You people who stay in relationships with them and let them abuse you are just as guilty and are not “wired” properly upstairs. No normal person would accept that kind of abuse. You people are either mentally or physically (are you guys hunchbacks?) damaged–And the damage took place way before the psycho entered your lives.

    Also, being cunning and ruthless is NOT a crime. In fact, success is built upon these attributes and rewarded by society. So bear that in mind before you send out the Gestapo to round up people willy-nilly for not being filled with sugar and spice and everything nice.

    And NO, you would not prefer physical abuse. Broken bones leave mental and emotional scars too.

    A bit of perspective…perhaps the so called “psychos” in your lives have just seen the true you, and thus treated you accordingly, as sub-human pieces of crap? Just a thought. I don't know you guys, you could be the best peeps since Jesus, who knows. I just like to keep an open mind.

  11. Mox's comment provides a nice example of the way that people with antisocial personality disorder behave toward others. I am just coming out of a relationship with someone who behaved in a very similar, but more covertly cruel manner. My advice is to learn about emotional manipulation so that you can recognize the signs in a new acquaintance. The best of luck to anyone who is going through this kind of ordeal.

  12. My dad was some kind of a psychopath, or at least exhibited many of the characteristics. And I can tell that I inherited some of his personality traits. I have a very hard time registering emotions, and I really don't respond well to other people suffering. Its almost like they are whiny puppets being played in a game. You will always have those that want to be dominate and in power, and feel it is their responsibility to do so. Hierarchy exists, and some people are just less than others.

  13. Manipulation is the best way to get your way on top of weak individuals like the people in this room. Just pawns in the game.

  14. I am a diagnosed physcopath. I don't kill things, or people. I do not steal or make peoples lives rotten. I do things in life that interest me. I have no interest in making people around me that care for me suffer. I guess I am lucky enough to have had an awesome upbringing.

    How about Dexter! 😉 great show.

  15. The comments of the scorned women on this thread, and their attempt to turn the discussion toward their ex's really demonstrates a trend i've noticed….that Anti-Social men tend to match up with bi-polar and borderline nutjob women.

  16. I am a self reported psychopath, just so you know you are wrong. Psychopaths are very good at reading peoples emotions, in fact we thrive off being able to do so. And what you call a conscience is something that is an absurd concept, we have not emotional connection to a value system. Instead many of us do what is the most productive means of obtaining our wants and needs. detach ourselves from the emotions we feel, so where see someone going through pain, that is their problem, and not ours.

  17. @Anonymous: No. Criminal behaviour can result from any emotion, from social disenfranchisement to needing to provide for your starving family. Also, the law and what is right are not always the same thing. Look at the homophobic and misogynistic laws in numerous Islamic countries, for example.

  18. But there is a difference between not caring about someone else's pain and being willing to or desiring to cause that pain. There are lots of people that don't give a damn about others. It seems to me that a criminal psychopath would, at the least, be willing to cause pain if it would further their own ends and some might enjoy it. Others might not care if other people are suffering but don't necessarily go out to cause pain. But maybe they are more concerned about the potential consequences to themselves.

  19. Were the “high psychopathy” students actually psychopaths? It sounds like they scored highly on measures of psychopathy relative to their peers, but that doesn't indicate that their scores were high enough to for them to be classed as psychopaths. I think before labeling them “non criminal psychopaths” we should make sure that they actually are psychopaths.

  20. Here's a non-specific situation that I have a question about. An individual exemplifies most traits of psychopathy. Not all but most. Disregard for how others are affected by their actions, self importance, manipulation, and in my view the most important being power and control (mainly in reference to power and control over one's self). I believe a pyschopath whether criminal or not has a strong desire to need to control everything around them. They become overwhelmed, standoffish, develop lack of interest, and actually are quitters in many cases that they know the final outcome is not controlled by them.

    How would you define this person if in certain circumstances they seek something to overpower them. They want someone or something, at least, in some strange sort of “controlled” way, to manipulate them. An example in this realm sort of relates to that of sexual fetishes in which there is a dominant figure involved that is not them. You see that a lot with people in high power often political or religious positions. (scandal etc…) Another example would be immersion into extreme nature scenarios. IE Climbing a mountain, crossing a desert, or even extreme sports like skydiving, and rock climbing.

    Do you think this willingness to hand over power could just be a form of release, and they still really want the power anyway? Or maybe this person that exemplifies all of these initial traits of psychopathy is really not pyschopathic? or how do you think this relates to anything at all?

    Everything in our minds are so intertwined I get that there is really no right answer, I just wanna see what kind of input I can get…

    Thanks in advance, I hope this sparks a discussion

  21. if you were truly a psychopath, you wouldn't care enough about appletea's opinions to correct them. self reporting psychopath? psh … you are romanticizing psychopathy by the very nature of your reporting — a very un-psychopathic thing to do. perhaps you should throw yourself from a cliff …

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