Understanding Psychopathy

Hervey Cleckley
Not much is known about Dr. Hervey Cleckley famous within psychological and criminal justice realms and throughout popular culture for creating a widely accepted and definitive construct of psychopathy. Some biographical information about Cleckley can be assembled through small biographical snippets available on the internet and press releases. Cleckley published his first book, The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality in 1941. He became a clinical professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Medical College of Georgia in 1955, and two years later published The Three Faces of Eve and The Caricature of Love; A Discussion of Social, Psychiatric, and Literary Manifestations of Pathologic Sexuality. The same year both books were published, Cleckley received the Georgia Writers Association Literary Achievement Award for Non-Fiction.

Robert Hare

Robert Hare, professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia, is widely recognised as the worlds leading authority on psychopathy and psychopaths. Producer of the infamous psychopathy checklist’ (See appendix) and providing the first stepping stone to recognising psychopathy in a person, Hares research has made it easier for scientists to identify psychopaths and given a fighting chance to investigate the causes of antisocial personality disorders, both psychologically and neurologically.

Psychopaths around us.

“Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.” (Hare, Without Conscience, 1993/1999)

As comforting as it might be to remove psychopaths to comfortable distances, like correctional institutes and distant prison cells after they have been caught doing their despicable deeds by a plucky police officer, unfortunately it isn’t quite that simple. Psychopathy isn’t an instantly violent condition, it is a personality disorder and it affects the way you deal with people and solve problems, it doesn’t order you to mindlessly slaughter anyone who gets in your way. Many psychopaths are in prison for violent crime, but this is because they have come to the conclusion this is the easiest way to achieve what they want. With no sense of right or wrong and no remorse, as soon as there comes a problem in which the most efficient way to move past it is to remove someone, then they become dangerous. People call this a trigger’ and some psychopaths go through life without finding them. Depending on their place in society and their class, normally this will mean they become exceedingly successful in some other part of life. For instance, the vicious rat race that is business today. Ruthlessness, charm and a lack of remorse, while frowned upon in a social contexts are positively welcomed in the capitalist consumer marketing companies and law professions, and with the right education, a psychopath can make a perfect home for himself and collect a group of like- minded individuals to egg him on.
Manipulative mindsets seem to fit in to modern workforces rather well, and it is only when they do something wrong’ (to a psychopath, killing a vice-president of a company may not even seem wrong, it must be understood that they do not have the societies view of justice that everyone else does) that people ever even notice they are there. Robert Hare has even published a book; Snakes in Suits: When psychopaths go to work (2006) elaborating on how dangerously easy it is to mistake a psychopath for a go-getter.
That being said, a huge amount of psychopaths don’t just go for business success. Many want fame, recognition and worldwide renownand will do horrific things to get it.

Charles Manson

Charles Manson is perhaps Americas most famous and most feared serial killer, having been convicted not of murdering people, but convincing other people to murder with a sign from his four angels, the beatles hidden in a song.
What was so terrifying aide from the killings themselves was the fact that Manson had been able to convince a group of impressionable young women that he was the messiah, and that as their god, he would take over the world, to the extent that the girls would slaughter celebrities in their own home and seriously consider removing and eating their hearts as proof of their devotion to Charlie’.
Over the few years Manson was free to roam and wreak havoc on the world he displayed the perfect definition of a psychopath that other fear, manipulating others into horrible crimes, charming a gang of women to live with him as their messiah, and more importantly slaughtering people he thought deserved to die. He didn’t feel for them, or his girls’ and used them as sex toys and incubators for the children with which he knew he was to take over the world.
Charles Manson continues to be the most famous and popular prisoner ever to have been held by Americas prison service, receiving four letters a day from fans and admirers, and applied for parole every year until he was condemned to do so only if he would wear shackles and refused. He has appeared before parole boards with swastikas and Xs carved into his forehead and never has he shown any real remorse, or even admitted to his guilt for his killings.

Snakes in Suits

I was intending here to elaborate upon and maybe take an example to show how these characteristics were appreciated within business culture but I was suddenly made aware that showing this may just get me sued for libel by the example. So! We will take the character from Liar Liar, of the lawyer, played by Jim Carrey. A pathological liar, certain of his own inflated self-worth and determined to be a partner in his company. He manipulates his way into situations that will win him friends in high places and influence people, missing his own sons birthday party to sleep with one of his targets, ingratiating himself with them to secure his own advancement, with no remorse for the people he’s destroying.
In film worlds, a little boy makes a wish and cures his father by removing one of his faults, but in the real world, the people who behave this was lose their families and continue to lie cheat and steal their way to the top of whatever business they’ve chosen.


Biological Explanations.

Emotional Biology

Everyone has heard it said that psychopaths don’t think like normal people. But few people knew how true that actually was until recently. Psychopaths and other sufferers of ASD have low arousal rates, they are not easily stimulated they are very easily bored. The part of the brain that controls this is named the reticular formation, and resides in the centre of the brain, to connect the base impulses, located in the lower back part of the skull, to the more highly evolved parts of consciousness in the top front of the brain.
Psychopaths have problematic or sometimes practically none functional reticular formations, and they fail to react to things that would frighten most people. Explosions and other alarming things have little or no effect, and so they will experiment and start to try new ways to interest themselves, to amuse themselves. In the same way one man may watch a football match and become massively involved and excited, a psychopath may hunt down and kill a man and the activity of the reticular formation would be about the same. Levels of both cortisol, the steroid hormone produced in times of stress, and serotonin, a chemical used in the brain to enhance communication between nerve cells, acting as a halt on brain cell activity, are ideal ways to test or measure emotions, and low levels indicate an inactivity in emotional circuits.

The amygdala, part of the limbic system, controls emotion. In normal minds, the amygdala is liked to the decision making part of the brain, the frontal cortex, making emotion and decision closely integrated. In psychopaths, this link is weak, in some almost non-existence so they feel no fear of consequences of their action and no regret for an action that may be seen as horrible.

Other functions

Other parts of the brain, like the hippocampus, a portion of the temporal lobes, located above the ears, show disturbance and dysfunction in psychopaths, the lobes as a whole promote our sense of self and faith, starting to hint towards why a psychopath feels a grandiose sense of self worth. The hippocampus regulates aggression and transfers information into memory, indicating a difference between the psychopaths who get caught and the ones who don’t, when they learn about fear conditioning.

Psychological Explanation

More traditionally people tend to believe that society is to blame for psychopathy, that the world of violent video games, murderous music, gangsters, horrific attacks every other day and neglectful parents somehow breed this disorder into the minds of the people who suffer from it. Developmental psychology indicates that parental techniques when a person is very young can dictate for life who a person is in later years, and that neglect at the stage can result in serious flaws in a personaalmost that without the proper nurture, the nature of a person can be changed.


Psychological explanation

This is rapidly coming under close scrutiny and people are starting to disbelieve it is the sole reason, due to statistics. According to Hare maybe 1% of the entire population is psychopathic. If that is so, why doesn’t everyone who is abandoned, rejected, or abused become a psychopath? There are a huge number of people have hard lives, and really bad childhoods who work hard and become honest, successful people. There are many who have really bad attitudes and act as if the world owes them everything and anything they want because of it, and some who will resort to criminal behaviour, but not all are psychopaths. So something else has to be there as well as the hard start to life to make a person so formed. Some stand by the fact that the society and the environment can cause the problems, but more are come to the opinion that it merely exacerbates the situation.

Biological Explanations

There is no denying that these problems exist in a psychopathic brain, and similarly there is no arguing about the functions that they fail to show are linked with the parts of the brain that is malfunctioning. But there are a couple of problems. One being the all the problems to do with emotion and arousal can appear in run of the mill criminals almost as often as they do in psychopaths, it is only the problems in the temporal lobes that appear to be unique to them. The other that the subjects show these defects, but have a high enough percentage of the approximated 7000000 psychopaths been scanned to prove that all psychopaths have this? It can’t be definite if we don’t know where enough of them are to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.


Well I have dragged you unwillingly but diligently through the shallows of the psychopaths fractured thought processes, and shown you the links between their physical problems and their emotional ones. Personally, the hypothesis is true and proven. Even without complete knowledge of the psychopathic community globally, the problems formed in their brains are simply too big to ignore. That majority of discovered psychopaths are now behind bars having hacked and slashed their way through anything that got in their way, and if each of the incarcerated psychopaths display the same mental deficits, it’s something physical that causes their actions, it is most definitely worth pursuing further.
Psychological factors obviously have a part to play in this, too. They are by no means irrelevant to a persons development, ever, and maybe this is what makes the difference between a psychopathic lawyer and a psychopathic killer. The real questions now are ethical ones to do with treatment and punishment, and where the law goes from here


Class Notes
The Mask of Sanity, Hervey Cleckley (PDF version, no longer copyrighted by any publisher)
Without Conscience- The disturbing world of psychopaths among us, Dr Robert Hare, 1993, The Guildford Press
www.wikipedia.com (list of Serial Killers)
The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, Mike Maguire, Rod Morgan, Robert Reiner, 2002, Oxford University Press
All in the mind, BBC Radio Show, www.bbc.co.uk aired Tuesday 10 February 2004