What is a “Psychopath”?
Most people have heard the term, but many aren’t sure exactly what it means. On television, the term “psychopath” is frequently used interchangeably with terms like “psycho” and “psychotic,” but those terms don’t mean the same thing. A psychopath is an individual who exhibits a higher level of psychopathic traits than both the general public and a majority of criminal offenders. Such traits include superficial charm, callousness, pathological lying, lack of empathy, taking advantage of others, and shallow emotions, among others. Compared to non-psychopathic offenders, psychopaths are likelier to engage in high-risk behaviors including promiscuous sexual activity, thrill and sensation seeking, and heavy drug use.
How are Psychopaths Identified?
The Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R, Second Edition) is frequently used to assist with the diagnosis of psychopathy. It’s a 20-item checklist that measures traits including those listed above. Each assessed item earns examinees a score ranging from 0 to 2. The greater presence of the trait, the higher the score. An individuals who scores higher on the PCL-R is considered to possess a high level of psychopathic traits. In other words, he or she is a psychopath. Not all criminal offenders are considered psychopaths. Psychopaths tend to engage in crimes that are more violent, versatile, and larger in number than offenders who do not meet the cutoff score to be classified as a psychopath.
Psychopaths and Criminal Offending Over Time
Individuals who exhibit psychopathic traits engage in antisocial behaviors throughout their lifetime although they likely engage in different types of antisocial behaviors as they age. Some research suggests that psychopathic offenders engage in violent criminal activities, on average, from late adolescence through their 30s. Interestingly, research also indicates that these offenders’ violent behaviors then decrease and rebound prior to a second reduction closer to age 40. It seems that after that final reduction, psychopathic offenders are less visible. Scientists formerly believed that psychopaths stopped offending during middle age, but there is now a theory that these individuals are simply less visible because they have either learned to remain undetected or they engage in different types of offenses. Some researchers also determined that there may be fewer psychopaths around during the later stages of adulthood due to a lifestyle that may result in premature death (e.g., lengthy incarceration, increased risk-taking, irresponsible behavior, etc.). Finally, more recent research suggests that individuals with psychopathic traits were more likely than individuals without those traits to die from serious health conditions including cancer, HIV, and suicide.
More research is needed to develop a clearer picture of the exact outcome of psychopaths during late adulthood.