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Sooner or later, most of us run into someone who might be diagnosed as having a psychopathic personality disorder. If we're lucky, we aren't living with them. But the encounter with psychopathy in daily life can help us understand their contributions.

Psychopathic personalities aren't just found in murder movies. Nearly all of us eventually meet someone who could be described as a psychopath in real life. And the condition isn't especially rare.

Who Is a Psychopath?

While the term "psychopath" is still used in everyday conversation, mental health professionals typically refer to "antisocial personality disorder" or "dissocial personality disorder."

The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM-IV), which is used by mental health professionals in the United States, defines antisocial personality disorder as a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others since the age of 15, indicated by three or more of the following behaviors:

  • Lack of remorse for having hurt or stolen from someone else, not even making an effort to rationalize the act.
  • Consistent failure to honor work or financial obligations.
  • Reckless disregard for safety of others, while paying attention to safety needs of oneself.
  • Aggression or irritability resulting in physical fights with others.
  • Failure to plan ahead.
  • Conning others for pleasure or gain, a consistent pattern of lying.
  • Repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest as a criminal.

The DSM-IV goes on to specify that the diagnosis is not to be made before the patient is 18, that there should have been evidence of a conduct disorder of some kind (for instance, oppositional defiance disorder) before the age of 15, and the behaviors are not the result of schizophrenia, the manic phase of bipolar disorder, or as a manifestation of what is currently called a borderline personality disorder, the need to deal with abandonment issues. Psychologist Theodore Milton further categorized this disorder as having nomadic, covetous, risk-taking, reputation-defending, and/or malevolent features.

In plain language, psychopaths are mean, bullying, con artists. They coldheartedly lie, cheat, and steal, and they manipulate others to maintain a parasitic lifestyle without remorse. They may adopt a hit-and-run attitude toward their victims, or they may be greedy, or they make take risks just for the thrill of it, they may demand "respect," or they may be just plain evil. Most of us know someone who fits the bill.

How Common Are Psychopaths?

Antisocial personality disorders are found in about 1 in 200 to maybe 1 in 100 people in the United States. People who wind up on a medical examiner's table, in one study, were found to have a diagnosis of "psychopathy" in about 1 in 15 cases, and the condition is relatively common in paid mercenaries and, interestingly enough, first-year medical students.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Bertsch K, Grothe M, Prehn K, Vohs K, Berger C, Hauenstein K, Keiper P, Domes G, Teipel S, Herpertz SC. Brain volumes differ between diagnostic groups of violent criminal offenders.Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2013 Feb 5. [Epub ahead of print].
  • Howard R, McCarthy L, Huband N, Duggan C. Re-offending in forensic patients released from secure care: The role of antisocial/borderline personality disorder co-morbidity, substance dependence and severe childhood conduct disorder. Crim Behav Ment Health. 2013 Jan 31. doi: 10.1002/cbm.1852. [Epub ahead of print]
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