Friday, September 11, 2009

Show Me The Numbers

When I tell people I research people on the psychopath checklist, they are frequently taken aback.  Why spend my time looking at such a small and insignificant part of the population they wonder.  This misunderstanding comes from commonly held myths about psychopaths.  People assume that all psychopaths are drooling axe murders as represented in slasher films.  If we hold this view, it would appear that for there are more films about axe murdering psychopaths then exist in real life.  A small group indeed.

However, axe murders are only tiny fraction of the psychopaths who live among us.  It should also be remembered that just because someone is an axe murder, it doesn't follow that they are a psychopath.  It is far more likely that they suffer from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, where they are not in control of their actions and feel compelled to perform horrible acts.  Given the right circumstances non-psychopaths will also commit grisly crimes, although in that case the circumstances usually involve a psychopath somewhere behind the scene.

So what is the scope? Estimates of the number of true psychopaths in the population have been given between one to four percent of the population.  Hare started out with an estimate of three percent and later reduced it to one percent.  Why the drop?  Probably it was done as the extent of the subthreshold group, that display enough traits on the checklist to be a problem, became more recognized.  The estimate for that group is ten percent of the population, which is in addition to the true psychopaths.  These people do a lot of harm even if they do not cross the threshold.  Still they are responsible for a staggering amount of child abuse, corporate practises that hurt others, living off of others,  psychological abuse, addiction, fraud, and irresponsible behaviour.  

Keep in mind, as well, that the placement of the threshold is subjective; a point placed along a continuous line of behaviour.  Since Hare developed the checklist and the threshold to have a consistent group for various researchers to study, it would make sense that they would be looking at keeping the group they study relatively pure by having more stringent guidelines of who qualifies.  Remember, also, that Hare and Cleckley were working with convicted prisoners and the designation is weighted towards their behaviour.  And, lastly, the designation of psychopath is not one that can be achieved at birth.  Half of the checklist is made up of lifestyle choices and actions taken.  To some degree you have to work to become a psychopath.  Which means that all of the one percent who are true psychopaths started out in the ten percent group that is below the threshold.

In the the US, that one percent represents just over three million individuals, while the additional ten percent is thirty million people in the country.  To put this in perspective that is the entire population of Canada.  

Try this as an exercise.  Start your day tomorrow by counting the people you come across. Within every ten you count is someone on the checklist.  For every hundred you come across there is a psychopath.  Since this group have no problem about hurting people they don't know and cause damage to people at a distance, you should include everyone in the cars going past you, where it can be acted out in road rage, drunken driving, unsafe driving, or abductions.  Count as well those sitting on the bus or walking the street and everyone at your work or school - not just your department or class.

The number is quite large isn't it?  Now over the course of the day most of the people on the checklist will not be doing anything to hurt you; they are just going about their day as you are.  The problems arise when they want something and how they set out to get it.  It could be money, revenge, sexual satisfaction, or, perhaps, your job or partner.  They are all around us and yet most of us do not know hardly anything about how these people react and how to notice the danger signs.

Happy counting.

Post Script:  I think pictures look nice on the blog, but I will not put up endless pictures of well known murders.  So we will have to settle for other unrelated pictures. I will start with images of space taken from the Hubble to put things in perspective.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Origins of What We Know About Psychopathy

The personality disorder that I research is psychopathy and the group of individuals that fall just below the threshold to be designated a psychopath.  In the beginning, identifying them was a harder task then it should have been and that difficulty is part of this story.  There is a lot of confusion about what psychopaths are, how they became that way, and even what to call them.  (Even more with the latter group that are below the threshold.)  This confusion does not exist because there is no research that empirically gives us a reliable profile of the disorder.  The research exists and the diagnostic tool - the Psychopathy Checklist, which is one of the most reliable diagnostic tools - has been available since 1980 (its one  revision was in 1985).  The checklist was developed, in part, because there was no consistent definition of what a psychopath was.  Each individual researcher, prior to this, could have be using a different set of criteria.  This made it impossible to develop a standardized body of results. 

The checklist was developed by Robert Hare a Canadian who, after getting his masters in psychology in the early sixties, took a job in the B.C. penitentiary.  What he experienced there - with one inmate, Ray, in particular - lead him to his life's work.  We should be grateful that his life has turned out to be long lived instead of possibly ending soon after he left the penitentiary and Ray, who had access to his car being repaired in the prison workshop.  Soon after, Hare's breaks gave out going down a long hill.  The mechanic who looked at the car afterwards found that not only was the break-line cut, but that ball bearings had been put into the carburetor fluid system and the hoses to the radiator had been tampered with. 

It is this personal brush with a psychopath that usually leads to a person deciding to find out more about them.

Robert Hare was building on the work done by Hervey Cleckley, who is considered the pioneer of the field of psychopathy.  In 1941, Cleckley published The Mask of Sanity originally a study of male hospitalized psychopaths.  (Imprisoned psychopaths frequently manipulate authorities to move them to psychiatric wards where they believe that they will receive better treatment and more perks.  They wreck havoc there and can often be bounced back forth between the two institutions.)  He kept revising his work until shortly before his death in 1984, expanding the group he was studying in later revisions.  Over the years both Hare and Cleckley influenced each other.   However, Cleckley's work was based on observation, sometimes using psychoanalytical concepts popular at the time to explain what he saw, whereas Hare and others who came afterwards have a more empirical foundation to what they study.

Psychopaths have existed throughout the ages and they are found in every culture around the world.  They have always been present in a reading of history and folklore.  The systematic exploration of their traits and why they act the way they do, however, has a relatively brief history.  Starting in 1941 with the Mask of Sanity, it took almost forty years to develop a consistent working definition.  From these beginnings a body of research has developed.  The portrait of the psychopath is far from being filled in, but there is enough material for us to be able to confidently identify them and to look at the societal implications that stem from our shared existence with them.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Inadvertent Beginning

After I set this blog up and posted the Gusty photo entry, I was left to wonder where to go next.  I am an eclectic thinker and have by accident and design established a life that allows me the time to think, read, and research that which catches my fancy. And I tend to fancy a fair amount of the world around me.  Usually it is the anomalies that catch my attention and gets me to ask why and wonder what is going on behind the surface.  Once on the trail of an idea I try to treat it with respect; allowing it to unfold on its own rhythm; not preordaining the outcome of where we are going; and staying open to the teasing offshoots of enquiry whose pursuit can be immensely rewarding.  While following an idea, I cross several disciplines which both enriches what I am pursuing and adds depth to my understanding of each area I traipse through.  There are many directions that this blog could go if left to document the numerous rocks I turn over in the course of my day to day life.

Over the last decade, however, I have been drawn to try to understand one part of this world in more detail.  I became fascinated in knowing what happens when people are sideswiped by individuals with personality disorders.

I realize that this was not exactly the most mainstream interest.  Or at least I thought that in the beginning when I started to delve into the subject.   In time, I noticed that it is actually an undercurrent to many areas of our lives.  Even though they are not identified, they show up in most movies and quite a few books - the more mainstream the entertainment the more they or their values are there.  You can't get through the news without see several stories where they figure in. They fill our court system.  You can't understand the current economic meltdown without taking them into account.  Nor can you avoid them when looking at Ponzi schemes.  They are a large part of corporate greed and political corruption. They are on reality shows and they are people we talk about.  Because, by definition, they exploit others they gravitate to professions where they can do that: politics, finance, personal development, religion, celebrity, cult leader, crime - among others.  They are the people in our lives who we would like to forget about, but can't.  They are the people in our lives that draw us in and leave us mesmerized and queasy at the same time.  They are the people who hurt us and cause massive financial and emotional hardship.

For a minority of the population, individuals with personality disorders have a huge impact on how we live.

And yet we know almost nothing about them.  To calmly examine their behaviour is a cultural taboo.  The misconceptions about them are rampant.  Yet a growing body of work has developed over the last forty years which allows us to understand them with greater and greater clarity.  It is a body of work that is largely ignored, under reported, and unacknowledged.  The work is fascinating and the implications that derive from it will change your perceptions of what it is to be human.

That is predominately what we will cover in this blog.  Which occasional means that we get to explore a few mysteries like the one about the Gusty photos.  Sometimes to understand what happens, you have to stop thinking how you would behave in a situation and, instead, take on the perspective of someone with a personality disorder (as well as how the people around them would be reacting).

There is a lot of ground to cover.  I hope that you learn more about yourself and the world as we explore it.