Systematic Failure – Why the Study of Psychopathy is Flawed

What if oncologists did not study less lethal forms of cancer?  What if they studied only lung and pancreatic cancer and declared the rest of cancer untreatable and unworthy of study as a result?  This may sound ludicrous, but this is exactly what happens with the study of psychopaths.  Academic researchers go to where they know they can find psychopaths: prisons.  However, they did not include the possibility that there are psychopaths outside of prison walls because such field studies would prove “too hard”.  This leads to a general picture of what the psychopath can do but not the complete picture of all psychopaths.  If Kent Kiehl is right in his book, The Psychopath Whisperer, then 77% of psychopaths are in jail.  This means that roughly 1 in 4 are not, however.  Leaving 25% of any population unaccounted for is laughable, but yet we are expected to treat the prison psychopath as representative of all psychopaths.  This is the result of nothing less than systematic failure when it comes to the study of psychopaths.

I get it.  It is difficult to study that which does not want to be found.  Successful psychopaths tend to stay under the radar and would be hesitant to admit many of the core traits of the condition under most circumstances.  Who would admit to being lying, manipulative, parasitic, etc. to someone that they did not know?  However, I would place less blame on the psychopath and more on the psychological community for the underrepresentation of successful psychopaths in studies.  Most psychotherapists will not touch Antisocial Personality Disorder, much less psychopathy.  An endless cycle of referrals are constructed for those academically-inclined psychopaths that want to learn about themselves (with my therapist being a rare exception).   Most researchers are – I would submit – lazy and take the easy opportunity samples (a statistical no-no) from prisons rather than constructing expensive, time-consuming, but proper random samples.  And, all of this gets attributed to what all psychopaths must look like.  It would be laughable if it did not have such terrible consequences for the psychopath.

Most everything I write is directed toward the experience of the successful psychopath.  I have not been convicted of any crime and I communicate with others that are not in prison either.  It is exhausting to see a portrait painted of the psychopath that is only 75% correct.  We may resembled our imprisoned brothers and sisters, but that does not necessarily imply that we are pure-blooded relatives.  The only way that this can ever be corrected is either through our voices being heard, which is rare, or by academics stepping up and doing the “hard” work that they should be ethically required to do.  I am hopeful for neither.

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Comments

  1. M says

    Other thing that is not well studied about psychopathy is its cause(s). Research about associated genes and expression levels and patterns is incomplete and I see little effort to discern the exact way in wich genes interact with environmental factors, such as various types of abuse and neglect in patients with this specific condition. However, some studies (not directly about psychopathy) show that hormonal changes occur when a child is abused and lead to alterations in the brain and that specific forms of abuse are associated with specific areas (that are altered in the sense that they are less thick, including the amygdala). At this point it’s specific causes are unknown and we can only make educated guesses.

  2. says

    You might be interested in The Good Psychopath’s Guide To Success by a psychologist and an author/ex-UK Special Ops soldier who is a psychopath.His psychopathy helped his career. It focuses on how psychopathic traits make people successful.

  3. NT says

    J.

    I’ve disputed this elsehwere on your blog. I honestly cannot believe that 77% of psychopaths are in jail. The research I’ve done indicates that only a fraction of you are caught. It’s counter-intuitive to suggest that 77% of psychopaths are in jail because that would imply that you are easy to spot, and the whole issue around psychopathy is how difficult it is for NT’s to identify psychopaths. I’d appreciate your feedback on this point. TIA.

    • FNP says

      Pretty sure I explained this to you before. 1-4% of the general population of the US is psychopathic. 15-25% of the inmates in the US prison system are psychopaths. There are X inmates in the prison system and Y psychopaths in the general population. Y minus X divided by Y = 23% of psychopaths not in prison.

      Psychopaths in prison are quite easy to spot, due to the PCL-R and other such tools. Plus, they got caught, so they get tested.

      • NT says

        Hi FNP.

        I appreciate the attempt but that mathematical explanation is as clear as mud, and I have a Bachelors in Computer Science which means that I have studied some pretty hectic second year level university maths. Are you saying the formula you used to get to 23% was (psychopathsingeneralpop% – psychopathsinprisonpop%)/psychopathsingeneralpop% = psychopathsnotinprison% = 23?

        • FNP says

          1% of the population are psychopaths (lowball). 15% of the inmates in prison are psychopaths (again, lowball). There are X inmates. 15% times X = number of psychopaths in prison (P). 1% of population minus P presumably = 23% of psychopaths not in prison.

          • NT says

            I know a very intelligent borderline (finance) who displays some sociopath traits and she can’t calculate percentages either.

          • J. Kelly says

            This is exactly the mathematical thought that Kiehl employs. The next time I’ve got the book in front of me, I will check the appendix where the calculation is laid out in full.

            Some very rough numbers given the recent explosion in the U.S. prison population are

            no more than 1% of U.S. adult population are psychopathic ~= 2 million psychopaths
            20% of prisoners are psychopathic ~= 1.5 million psychopaths (based on recent metrics of 1:20 adults being in prison or on parole / probation)

            This implies ~25% of psychopaths are free.

        • NT says

          Thanks J. I appreciate the response.

          A couple of points based on the numbers you’ve given.

          1. There are 2 million psychopaths in the US. Therefore, the maximum number of psychopaths that *could* be in prison is set at 2 million, and is obviously not unless you are blogging from your cell.
          2. Working on a ratio of 1:20 and a population of 200 million (your population is higher but I have deduced that from the statement that 1% = 2 million), it means that 1 million Americans are in jail/on parole/probation.
          3. 20% of 1 million prisoners is 200 000 not 1 500 000.
          4. Therefore, if there are 200 000 psychopaths in prison, and 2 000 000 in total, the percentage of psychopaths in prison is equal to (200 000 / 2 000 000) * 100 = 10%…which more naturally fits my perception of the problem.

          • J. Kelly says

            Ok, I received my book back from a friend, so here are the mathematics cited by Kiehl.

            “According to the 2011 US Census, there were approximately 68,873,400 adult (18-50) males in the US. If 1 in 150 men meets the criteria for psychopathy there are 458,156 male psychopaths in the US. The US DoJ reports that there are 2,266,832 inmates in the US jail and prison systems, or about 1,772,073 males aged 18-50 after subtracting females, juveniles, and men over age 50. Assuming 20% of these inmates meet criteria for psychopathy, then approximately 354,414 psychopaths are incarcerated or 77 percent of the psychopaths in the US are in prison. Note that men over 50 can be psychopaths, but research shows the majority of antisocial behavior occurs prior to age 50”

            Source: The Psychopath Whisperer page 275

          • NT says

            K, well you got me. I’ve got nothing in response to that. The logic seems sound. My perception tells me otherwise.

  4. NT says

    “The only way that this can ever be corrected is either through our voices being heard, which is rare, or by academics stepping up and doing the “hard” work that they should be ethically required to do”

    “ethically” …. That made me chuckle. 🙂

    • FNP says

      Well, we’re antisocial because we don’t care about things like ethics. This means that the prosocial thing to do is to act ethically. It’s therefore a reasonable expectation that psychologists/psychiatrists act ethically.

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