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.  

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