Lecture Me! On the misconceptions around psychopathy
Psychopaths are commonly mislabeled as social predators and dangers to society—but is this a myth or fact?

When we hear the word “psychopath,” we typically associate it with “danger.” This is no surprise, as one of the most notorious psychopaths that come to mind is Ted Bundy, a serial killer who used his charm and intelligence to murder and rape women. However, Dr. Rasmus Rosenberg-Larsen, an associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science and Philosophy at the University of Toronto Mississauga, challenges the validity, understanding, and misconceptions of the existence of psychopathy in the latest Lecture Me! talk

In his evidence-based research, Dr. Larsen explores the literature on psychopathy and the stereotypes associated with it. He notes that the word “psychopath” is not just a term; it’s an actual mental health disease diagnosis. Traditionally, psychopaths are defined as social predators that lack conscience and feelings for others. According to Dr. Larsen, they selfishly do so on command, thereby violating social norms with no regrets. “Psychopathy is, arguably, the most heavily researched, well-validated, and well-established personality disorder,” he says.

He states that in North America, over a third of incarcerated individuals are psychopaths. Due to the perceived threat of psychopathy, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) test was developed in the early 1990s to “rate a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies.” This test is performed by qualified professionals and used in adult male prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and detention facilities. It can also be used during trials or when an inmate is up for parole. If a subject tests higher than 30 points, they are diagnosed with psychopathy. 

“[It is important to note that] this diagnosis will constrict and constrain the individual,” explains Dr. Larsen. “For example, the individual might be sentenced to prison time instead of community service, given a longer sentence, [and] usually denied parole.” 

He adds that the PCL-R test is only justified because experts believe it protects society. If those positively diagnosed with psychopathy turn out to be threats to society, then the use of the constricting PCL-R test in our judiciary system is justified. However, if some that are positively diagnosed turn out not to be social predators, Dr. Larsen realizes that this may be problematic since the stakes are extremely high. Through his research, he has surprisingly found that psychopaths, as traditionally described, do not seem to conform to this persona. He therefore challenges the use of PCL-R testing and the diagnosis of psychopathy itself.

Dr. Larsen has found that although the PCL-R test can predict criminal behavior, it is only effective to a weak or moderate degree. The criminal predictability revealed by the test is often not a result of psychopathy. Instead, it could be due to other factors, such as past criminal activities or socioeconomic status. “It turns out that the people who received a positive diagnosis on the PCL-R test were less criminally prolific than those identified as high risk through other instruments,” notes Dr. Larsen.

When it comes to a psychopath’s moral capacity, he states that it’s as if they are colour blind. Even though they acknowledge that murder violates social norms, they will proceed with the act with an unclear reasoning as to why it’s wrong. Dr. Larsen says this is the problem with psychopaths. He breaks it down into four main misconceptions that make them such dangers to society: their heightened propensity to commit crimes, their lack of conscience and capacity to make moral judgments, the rooted neurobiological difference which makes their brains abnormal, and the lack of available treatments. In fact, treatments can allegedly make psychopathy worse.

However, there’s no evidence that finds psychopaths diagnosed through the PCL-R test are untreatable. Instead, Dr. Larsen found that they responded positively to treatment methods used in rehabilitation schemes. Further, no evidence was found that they got worse after receiving treatment. In fact, he shares that the only study that reported no decline in psychopathic tendencies or behaviours was sued in 2017 due to torture of the subjects. Thus, the suggestion that psychopaths respond adversely to treatment has been widely dismissed.

There’s also no evidence that psychopaths lack moral consciousness. Dr. Larsen explains that there have not been any studies or research on the matter. He further delves into the slight evidence of decreased emphatic responses compared to others. However, an incapacity altogether to empathize is untrue. According to him, there is strong evidence that they are equally capable of empathizing and making moral judgments. Moreover, there is no substantial evidence that a psychopath’s brain is different. “The problem is that the diagnosis is not indicative of a social predator,” adds Dr. Larsen. “It’s not the reality behind the label.”

Today, hundreds of thousands of North Americans are subject to PCL-R testing, he states. As a result, their legal treatment is constricted due to our misplaced beliefs about psychopaths. While we have been conditioned to believe that they are social predators, the evidence indicates otherwise.

Given the mere lack of proof for the heightened dangerousness of PCL-R psychopathy, it seems like this risk assessment is more harmful than helpful. Rather than providing these individuals with fair sentencing or the rehabilitation treatment they need, PCL-R testing is a constricting measure that does the opposite. Thus, as Dr. Larsen puts it, we must re-evaluate the use of PCL-R testing and our understanding of psychopathy altogether. “This clinical diagnosis of psychopathy is de facto acting more as clinical stigma with [unwarranted] alarming consequences, rather than as a beneficial judicial instrument,” he concludes.

Features Editor (Volume 49) | features@themedium.ca —Maneka is a third year student completing a specialization in Philosophy with a minor in political science. Previously, she served as one of The Medium’s Staff Writer and Associate Features Editor. As this year’s Features Editor, Maneka hopes to raise awareness, shed light over current issues, and highlight student voices and organizations. When Maneka is not studying, writing, or working, you’ll probably find her binging on, or rather re-watching her favorite shows, listening to music, thinking about her dog, or likely taking a nap.

One Comment

  1. I’m a diagnosed Psychopath having been testing by a battery of tests of which 2 are much better predictors of psychopathy and by functional MRI. Heck, I appreciate the kind words in your article towards us, but hell even me, the psychopath disagrees with you some. You are correct on the flaws in the PCL-R and some of the dangers is proposes for criminals who may face more negative consequences based on their scores; however, you are 100% dead wrong on functional MRI and psychopathic traits, or to be more specific, no imaging research that correlates with psychopathy. There is absolutely overwhelming evidence supporting incredibly strong correlation with psychopathy and functional MRI related to the structural variation we are born with. Additionally, you fell to mention that the PCL-R is not the only psychological test used for criminals. They are generally subject to at least 2 other tests in addition to the PCL-R and the courts/parole boards/prosecutors take a combined approach in making decisions on sentencing, parole, probation, etc.

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