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.

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