Why do serial killers and psychopaths tend to gravitate to certain careers?


The startling arrest of the elusive Golden State Killer, aka the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Diamond Knot Killer/Visalia Ransacker in what was arguably the most vexing and disturbing constellation of interlinked cold cases in American history, has raised more questions than answers.

One question is how a serial burglar, rapist and murderer could operate in so many jurisdictions simultaneously and, much like the case of Paul Bernardo in Canada, have law enforcement officials so myopically overlook the connections among his crimes in several different cities.

Another question is, of course, how a police officer like Joseph DeAngelo, the accused Golden State Killer, could be capable of such sadistic brutality throughout a large portion of his brief and troubled law enforcement career.

Similar questions have been raised in the past about other serial offenders, killers whose innocuous and even virtuous jobs seemed to belie the horrors they committed while hiding behind a veneer of respectability. That includes the infamous Canadian Col. Russell Williams (who once piloted a VIP aircraft whose passengers included Queen Elizabeth) to lesser-known computer store owner and prominent Nashville businessman Tom Steeples, who killed three people for thrills before committing suicide while in police custody.

But in fact, occupations and serial murders are often linked, and some specific full-time and part-time jobs are strangely over-represented among serial killers. So much so, in fact, that over the last 50 years, some dominant patterns have emerged.

As detailed in my recent book, Murder in Plain English, these same occupations are commonly broken down into four categories based on skill, training and turnover. Some of them might surprise you, others not.

Serial killer job breakdown

  • Top 3 Skilled Serial-Killer Occupations: 1. Aircraft machinist/assembler; 2. Shoemaker/repair person; 3. Automobile upholsterer
  • Top 3 Semi-Skilled Serial Killer Occupations: 1. Forestry worker/arborist; 2. Truck driver; 3. Warehouse manager
  • Top 3 Unskilled Serial Killer Occupations: 1. General laborer (mover, landscaper, et. al.); 2. Hotel porter; 3. Gas station attendant
  • Top 3 Professional/Government Serial Killer Occupations: 1. Police/security official; 2. Military personnel; 3. Religious official

Obviously, not everyone occupying these jobs is a serial killer, nor are they likely to become one.

But there’s something about these jobs that is inherently appealing to offenders, or that otherwise cultivates the impulses of serial killers-in-waiting and causes them to be curiously over-represented among this rare breed of murderer.

DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer, for instance, actually held down three of these jobs over the course of his lifetime: Police officer, military personnel (he was previously in the U.S. navy), and, peripherally, truck driver, although his post-police career (he was fired in 1979 for shoplifting) was spent mostly as a mechanic for a fleet of grocery store freezer trucks.

Bygone era

A closer look at the these occupations reveals a bygone era in terms of available jobs — occupations that, while once common and accessible to killers in the ‘60s, ’70s and ’80s —are now largely obsolete. The job market is changing; with that, so is the disturbing but legitimate nexus between murder and labour.

The shift toward a service-based, tech-driven and typically contractual economy, what is often called precarious work, along with the disappearance of once traditional career paths will obviously have profound effects not only on the jobs held by offenders but also how they acquire their victims.

As discussed in my forthcoming book, Monster City, there was a precipitous surge in serial murder in Nashville with the rise of the “new” country music scene in the ’80s and ’90s, giving would-be killers access to new victims.

Serial killers once used the guise of their employment to stalk and acquire specific victims or types of victims (Dennis Rader, Roger Kibbe and Bruce Mendenhall all immediately come to mind).

But new research suggests that leisure activities like music, including online interactions, may be the new avenue through which serial killers troll for their victims.

It’s also where they mentally rehearse their crimes amid a shrinking offline public sphere and work world.

The result is that we are likely to see, returning once again to alleged Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur, blurred occupational-recreational categories involving both online and offline dimensions — a new paradigm that will force us to adjust the list of the most common jobs among serial killers.

The caveat, of course, is that a single defining occupation is in continuous flux. Could “occupation,” for instance, denote a primary vocation, a part-time avocation or even just a paid hobby or pastime?

Pastimes as well as professions?

Might it also include an unpaid pastime by which a person defines himself or herself?

A quick perusal of top LinkedIn “influencers” and “open networkers,” for example, suggests many people actually list their passions or pastimes and not their paid jobs as their primary occupation.

In McArthur’s case, we see that while he conforms to the “general labourer” category, as a landscaper and not just a grass-cutter, as well as the owner of his own company, he also fits no clear vocational definition.

And yet, as we already know from the morbid mass grave recovered from a client’s home on Mallory Crescent in Toronto, the occupation of the accused was central to his alleged offences and how he reportedly disposed of victims — it was integral to his apparent modus operandi.

So while many killers use their employment as a pretext to acquire vulnerable victims, obtain information or cultivate violent fantasies for reasons we still don’t fully understand (“Milwaukee Cannibal” Jeffrey Dahmer once admitted that his work as a chocolate factory machinist awakened homicidal and necrophilic urges he had otherwise suppressed), in McArthur’s case, occupation was the back-end to his alleged crimes, not the inspiration for them.

What about the psychopaths?

As we begin to redraw the map of serial murder and career paths, it might also be useful to look at the otherwise better-known index of occupations over-represented among psychopaths.

While not all psychopaths are serial killers, psychopathy — or at the very least, the possession of psychopathic traits — is a common denominator among serial killers, sex offenders and most violent criminals.

Have a look at the Top 10 occupations according to an Oxford University psychologist:

  1. CEO or business executive
  2. Lawyer
  3. Media personality
  4. Salesperson
  5. Surgeon
  6. Journalist or news anchor
  7. Police officer
  8. Religious official
  9. Chef
  10. Miscellaneous civil servant (military, city council, corrections, etc.)

In overlaying the two lists, we can see that even amid a perpetually changing economy, certain jobs are always likely to appeal to those people we will later be stunned to learn managed to carry on that type of work while also being monsters in our midst.


History and Controversy Surrounding Psychopathy

Psychopathy is widely recognized as the first diagnosed personality disorder in psychiatry (Million, Simonson, Davis, & Birket-Smith, 1998).  As far back as 1809, it was described by Phillippe Pinel, who is widely considered to be the father of modern psychology, as “Mania Sans Delir”, which is translated as a state of being “insane without delirium”, which was described by Pinel as those who “acted crazy without being crazy” (Wahlund & Kristiansson, 2009). This term was used by Pinel to describe a condition marked by lack of restraint and remorselessness. Pinel considered the psychopath to be suffering from deficit in passion and affect rather than in reasoning.

This condition was described by Pinel by stating “there were many maniacs who betrayed no lesion whatever of the understanding, but were under the dominion of instinctive and abstract fury, as if the affective faculties alone had sustained injury” (as cited in Balfour & Browne, 1875, p. 275). The father of American psychology, Benjamin Rush (1812), recorded having patients who displayed “innate preternatural moral depravity”. The first person to actually introduce the term “psychopathic” was German systematists Robert Koch.

This condition was the primary area of interest to Hervey Cleckley. Cleckley was one of the first to research and study the phenomenon in depth with his book The Mask of Sanity, published in 1941. This book is still considered to be the most comprehensive book written on the subject.  Cleckley included 30 individual cases in the study (Cleckley, 1941).

From this study, Cleckley developed a list of 16 characteristics that emerged repeatedly within the samples. Cleckley asserted that the psychopathic personality was suffering from a strong disassociation between emotion and cognition, and that this dysfunction caused them to fail to appreciate many of their life experiences (Cleckley, 1941, 1976). In many ways the psychopath is just living life “going through the motions”, and mimicking the behaviors that others exhibit in various situations.

Table 1 lists the traits observed by Cleckley and is followed by a brief discussion of each.

Table 1 – Psychopathic Traits According to Cleckley’s Research

Trait #                Characteristic

  1. Superficial charm and good “intelligence”
  • Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
  • Absence of “nervousness” or psychoneurotic manifestations
  • Unreliability
  • Untruthfulness and insincerity
  • Lack of remorse or shame
  • Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
  • Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
  • Pathologic egocentricity and capacity for love
  1. General poverty in major affective reactions
  1. Specific loss of insight
  1. Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
  1. Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without
  1. Suicide rarely carried out
  1. Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
  1. Failure to follow any life plan

  Source: Adapted from Cleckley (1976)                                                                                   

Superficial charm and intelligence. Most Psychopaths seem very friendly and engaging when you first meet them. They are easy to talk to and appear genuinely interested and involved in many things. They do not seem to be “weird” or odd and, in fact, are most likely to be very charming and engaging (Cleckley, 1976, p. 338). On the outside, the psychopathic personality appears to be well adjusted and pleasant. Most psychopaths also score very high on Psychometric tests due to their above average intelligence. Upon first encountering a psychopath, you generally feel that he or she is a “genuine” person and in excellent mental health. Psychopaths generally do not exhibit any outright signs of mental illness that would cause any wariness in those who first encounter them.

Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking. The psychopath is usually absent of any typical outward signs of overt mental illness. They typically exhibit no delusional qualities and are aware of reality (Cleckley, 1976, p. 339).

Psychopaths are typically able to understand the possible outcomes and consequences of their actions. Direct psychiatric examination will reveal nothing pathologic or lead one to believe that they are incompetent in any way. Psychopaths tend to display and react with what appear to be “normal” emotions to various situations to most outside observers (p. 339). Most who interact with them report feeling that they reacted with the proper amount of emotion and enthusiasm when discussing personal issues such as family and their work.

Absence of “nervousness” or psychoneurotic manifestations. It is perfectly normal for a psychopathic personality to seem completely calm during what others would feel to be an extremely tense and anxious situation. They typically remain very calm and in control at all times and any tension that they may exhibit is almost always caused by some external stimuli (such as incarceration) and is never due to guilt or remorse (Cleckley, 1976).

Unreliability It is exceedingly common for psychopaths to agree to do something for someone or commit to a project with great enthusiasm and subsequently fail to follow through. This is often a major source of disappointment to those who interact with the psychopath (Cleckley, 1976). It does not matter how pressing the obligation is, the psychopath typically reacts as if he or she has no real responsibilities and cannot be deterred from this behavior even if confronted about it. The reason that they are able to continue this devastating behavior for so long is often because it is cyclic. They do what they say they will do just often enough that much is overlooked as mistakes. Cleckley summed this quality up best by saying “Here, it might be said, is not even a consistency in inconsistency but an inconsistency in inconsistency” (p. 341).

Untruthfulness and insincerity.  Psychopaths show no serious regard for the truth.

They are able to make exorbitant promises and passionately defend themselves from accusations whether trivial or grand. Psychopaths seem to ooze trustworthiness and unpretention.  They will even appear to be righteous by seeming to take responsibility for some wrong doing, mostly when they know they are going to be caught for it (Cleckley, 1976). Psychopaths often brag about their honor and about “giving their word” without any actions or intent to follow up.

Lack of remorse or shame. Psychopaths are incapable of accepting blame for any of the negative consequences that they endure or for the harm and depravity they inflict on others. They raucously deny any accusations of responsibility and always place the blame for their behavior on others. Psychopaths, even when confronted with their transgressions, no matter how minor or depraved, show no sense of shame, humiliation, or regret (Cleckley, 1976, p. 343).

Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior. Psychopaths often commit crimes of risk such as theft, fraud, adultery, assaults, and the like for extremely small gains or even none at all. They are willing to put themselves at great risk just for the sake of the risk itself. It is not for the monetary, personal, or social gain that they commit these crimes, but often for no apparent gain at all (Cleckley, 1976). This is in contrast to the “average” criminal who would not usually take such great risks without the motivation of some hefty gain.

Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience. It is habitually observed when dealing with psychopaths that they continuously exhibit poor judgment. This is especially true in their actions. When engaging in a verbal test with a psychopath, they appear very sound in their reasoning abilities; however, when it comes to a test of their actions in these same situations, their decisions show their true sense of judgment (Cleckley, 1976).

Psychopaths are also very self-deprecating when it involves their ability to learn from experiences. Often, they will pull every weapon in their arsenal in order to be released from detention, only to go out and commit a crime that puts them right back where they lobbied so extensively to get freed from (p. 346).

Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love.    One of the main features of psychopaths is their egocentricity. The level of this trait is often shocking to most ordinary people. There is a deep self-centeredness and an incapability of object love that is profound and absolute (Cleckley, 1976).

The psychopath is capable of very generic feelings of like and dislike, but even these are not to the degree that most would label as typical, or “normal”. Most psychopaths are very adept at mimicking affection for their mate or children, often deceiving those closest to them for long periods of time. The absolute and unrelenting disregard and apathy for the hardships they bring on others gives away their true nature in time.

General poverty in major affective reactions. The psychopath generally expresses a defect in affect. Some are capable of displays of pseudo-emotion such as vanity and self-pity.  Cleckley states that “mature, wholehearted anger, true or consistent indignation, honest, solid grief, sustaining pride, deep joy, and genuine despair are reactions not likely to be found within this scale” (Cleckley, 1976, p. 348).

Cleckley encourages consideration of this trait that is common to all psychopaths, and poses a very intriguing query regarding the interdependence of the incapacity for object love and their shallowness of affect. Cleckley hypothesizes that it is possible for a person to feel some sort of “tragic” or “transforming” emotion without the ability to feel that particular personal commitment to another.

Specific loss of insight. Psychopaths have an extraordinarily distorted sense of insight. They have absolutely no capacity to see themselves as others see them. They are prone to extreme amounts of projection when it comes to blame. They will deny facts that would usually provide them with the insight needed to adequately assign blame.

Psychopaths rationalize and blame all of their trouble on everyone else but themselves (Cleckley, 1976). They have the appearance of someone who uses all the words that would be used in the case of someone who understands the words but is still blind to their meaning. Cleckley also gives the example for lack of insight as the psychopaths’ assumption that the legal penalties for the crimes they have committed do not apply to them. They commonly react to the idea of being prosecuted for their crimes like it is completely inappropriate.

Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations. When dealing with psychopaths, it cannot be depended upon that they will have the typical responses to displays of kindness or trust. They show no consistent and recognizable reactions to kindness and appreciation save the usual shallow mimicry. Even then, they often even fain these responses if they perceive some personal gain. They can appear very generous and obliging when it serves their purpose; however, it s not uncommon for them to spend $1000 on an escort or frivolous shopping and not show any distress over the deprivation that may be endured by their families as consequence (Cleckley, 1976, p.354).

Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without. Although there are many psychopaths who do not drink, overindulgence is often a common theme among them. Alcohol is often a catalyst for many antisocial behaviors. With psychopaths many of the asocial and self-defeating behaviors are present even without extreme intoxication required to produce it (Cleckley, 1976).

Most psychopaths react oppositely to inebriation than do most typical drinkers. Where most people who partake in alcohol find themselves more boisterous, joyful, and excitable the more they ingest, psychopaths often become quiet and sullen. The normal gaiety that often accompanies a few drinks is markedly absent. What does often emerge is shocking and unexplainable behaviors in the psychopaths. With just a few drinks, they indulge in vastly antisocial behaviors.

Cleckley gives the examples of those who would climb into a tree nude and shout to the top of their lungs in the middle of a busy intersection. This would not be typical of someone who had only had a few drinks. For psychopaths alcohol can be a powerful catalyst to fuel their darkest behavior because it temporarily numbs the inhibitory processes. For most psychopaths the inhibitory process is already very minimal, so it does not require much numbing.

Suicide rarely carried out. Even though psychopaths are prone to throwing away their opportunities and destroying the lives of those in their wake, suicide among psychopaths is exceedingly rare. In most instances it is observed that for psychopaths there is no general predilection for suicidal tendencies. This is true even though most psychopaths at some point often manipulate themselves and others into situations that often evoke suicide in the normal person. It is not uncommon for the psychopath to cleverly premeditate an attempt as another form of manipulation on those around them (Cleckley, 1976).

Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated. It is nearly an accepted standard that the psychopath’s sex life shows some type of peculiarities. Because they have no capacity for object love, the sexual inclinations of psychopaths do not include

any personal relations or desire to enjoy a shared experience with their partner. They do not seem to be encumbered by the normal complex emotional experiences that encompass most loving adult sexual relations (Cleckley, 1976). For most psychopaths sexual contact is regarded with absolute casualness. With psychopaths the feeling is the same for the wife, mistress, casual “hook up”, or prostitute.

None of what is felt for any of these persons can inspire loyalty or influence their behavior one way or another. The typical promiscuity that is observed for both male and female psychopaths is most likely due to their immense lack of restraint and not to an abnormally excitable libido. Because they relish in high risk behaviors, they will often seek to have sex with high risk persons and in very squalid surroundings (Cleckley, 1976).

Failure to follow any life plan. Psychopaths do not tend to maintain any true effort toward any specific goals. They have very little ambition to follow any life plan whether it is good or evil. Most psychopaths actually seem to go out of their way to make sure they will fail. When in a career where everything is going well and they are on the track to be immensely successful, they will find a way to self-sabotage any headway they have made, usually in a grand and spectacular fashion (Cleckley, 1976).

It was from this invaluable insight and groundwork that the possibly most significant strides have been accomplished in the study of psychopathy by Hare. Cleckley’s influence can be readily observed throughout the career of Hare. Through his vast research, Hare states that even though the psychopath’s crimes are sensational and receive widespread coverage, that only about 1% of the total population and 10%-20% of the prison population are psychopathic (Hare, 1993).

With the vast amount of research that was emerging in the study of psychopathy, there became a greater need to postulate a standard definition of the disorder. McCord and McCord (1982, p. 4) described this dilemma by stating “for 150 years, science has known of the psychopath’s existence; for at least 140 years, scientists have quarreled over the definition of this disorder”.

One of the main problems with this, according to Cleckley, is that the motives of the psychopath are “more obscure” than those of the average criminal (Cleckley, 1976, p. 227). Both Cleckley and Hare agree on some traits that are exhibited in nearly all psychopaths. Both find the psychopath to have a callousness and lack of affect, risk taking behavior that would not be indulged by other forms of criminals, exploitation of others weaknesses, and are free from any other disease that could affect their judgment or movement (Cleckley, 1976, p. 227; Hare, 1993, chapter 12). It is also acknowledged by both Cleckley and Hare that the threat of punishment is not an effective deterrent for the psychopath.

From all of the previous studies by Pinel, Cleckley, Freud, and others, Hare began to form a detailed description and definition of the psychopath. This explanation is the standard characterization of encompassed characteristics that are widely accepted, by the psychiatric, legal, and medical communities today. Hare’s description is as follows:

Social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret (Hare, 1993, xi).

Hare also comprised a list of character traits that he deemed to be typical of the psychopath: glib and superficial charm; egocentricity; selfishness; lack of empathy; lack of any guilt or remorse; manipulativeness; deceitfulness; lack of attachment; lack of principles or goals; impulsivity; irresponsibility; and regular violation of social norms (Hare, 1980).

Another brilliant mind in the study of psychopathy, Meloy (1992), in his work Violent Attachments offers an eerily similar construct for psychopathy when he states:

The nature of the psychopath’s violent behavior is also consistent with his callous, remorseless, and unempathetic attitude toward his victims. I theorize that the psychopath was psycho-biologically predisposed to predatory violence, a mode of aggression which is planned, purposeful, and emotionless (Meloy, 1992, p. 72- 73).

Meloy also describes the self-aggrandizement and narcissistic behavior patterns exhibited by psychopaths. One term that Meloy uses to depict the other inherent behaviors that psychopaths portray is “omnipotent control” (Meloy, 1992). Meloy suggests that this level of control over others by the psychopaths is possible through their severe detachment and limited capacity to form effective emotional bonds with others (Meloy, 1992).

Although it is common to hear some other terms being used interchangeably for “psychopathy” or for being a “psychopath’, it is important to quickly address these and their differences in order to maintain consistency in definition throughout this work. It is not uncommon to hear some psychiatrist, psychologist, and sociologists use the term “sociopathy” or “sociopath” when discussing someone with the same or similar symptoms.

It is also common to see this diagnosis confused with “Antisocial Personality Disorder”, or APSD. Hare disagrees that these are all interchangeable terms for the same disorder. Hare defines a “sociopath” as a criminal who is molded entirely from social forces and dysfunctional environment (Hare, 1993). In Without Conscience Hare states that he can find “no convincing evidence that psychopathy is the direct result of early social or environmental factors” (1993, p. 23). Hare suggests that psychopathy “is defined by a cluster of both personality traits and socially deviant behaviors” (1993, p. 24).

Psychopathy is also not fully defined within the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. This is a disorder described within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2000. This manual is the core diagnostic tool for psychiatrists today.  It is noted that many of the same traits are exhibited in those suffering from APSD are present in those diagnosed with psychopathy such as: failure to conform to social norms; deceitfulness; impulsivity; consistent irresponsibility; and lack of remorse (APA, 2000).

These criteria are applied to those who are over 18 years, not otherwise psychotic since age 15, and exhibit at least three of the preceding criteria on a regular basis. While these criteria are very similar to some of those used to diagnose psychopathy, it is worth noting that “psychopathy’ is not currently listed among the possible diagnoses in the DSM-IV, or any prior edition (APA, 2000). ASPD is a useful and meaningful diagnosis that is readily applicable to most of the current prison population; however, it is understood that while all psychopaths have APSD, not all of those diagnosed with APSD are psychopaths.


When the debate over classification and diagnostic criteria began, the question of the etiology of psychopathy became of even greater importance to researchers and clinicians. It is fundamental human nature for us to wonder “why” and “how” someone behaves in the manor that they do.

This is especially accurate when discussing the disconcerting behavior exhibited by psychopaths. The easiest and most convenient explanation that has previously been assigned to these individuals is “insanity”. Most of society feels comfortable with the assumption that in order to behave this way, and commit such heinous acts, they must be insane. This assumption creates a level of comfortability with the psychopath. These acts are not truly their fault, because they are not mentally sound. This is actually a very precarious and erroneous assumption to make.

Hare has asserted that psychopathy is a personality disorder, it is not to be confused with “psychosis”, which is a mental disorder. Those diagnosed with psychopathy, are deemed sane by both legal and psychiatric standards (Hare, 1993). Psychopaths are rational, able to premeditate their actions, and in control of their actions. They are able to understand the concepts of right and wrong and weigh out the risk versus reward ratio of their decisions. Because psychopaths do understand their actions and there possible consequences, they are legally accountable (Hare, 1993).

Once it had been decided that the psychopath was, in fact, considered to be sane, there grew an even greater need for an explanation for the cause of such appalling behavior. The great debate for this, as is for many difficult humanistic issues, is “nature versus nurture”.

Was psychopathy caused by organic deficits or environmental deprivations? So the two schools of thought were essentially (1) bad brain, or (2) bad parenting. What has occurred from this in the last 20 years, due in large part to Hare, has been a paradigm shift from the hypothesis that psychopaths are created by severe childhood trauma and abuse to a more inherent, bio-physiological explanation.

Over the course of his research, Hare discovered that the majority of those he diagnosed with psychopathy had not reported coming from psychologically traumatic or emotionally dormant backgrounds (Hare, 1993). This is largely the case for most of the serial killers included in this thesis. 

The majority of the psychopathic personalities in Hare’s work  The Mask of Sanity reported coming from relatively “normal” homes, with attentive and caring parents. This revelation has led to the search for a more complete and accurate explanation for the origins of this disorder.

The preponderance of research has narrowed down the possible genesis of this behavior to three main areas: attachment, arousal, and anxiety. The disorder is best personified by those having “no” attachments, very low arousal, and nearly nonexistent anxiety levels. Attachment is a biological mechanism that allows the infant to survive by creating closeness with its caretaker.

According to British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who first conceptualized the principle, it is highly present in all mammals but not reptiles (Robertson & Bowlby, 1952). Attachment begins in infancy when the infant learns the concept of “object permanence”. This is the behavior learned when the infant realizes that the mother will return again and again, even after leaving the room. This helps form a standard cycle of response behavior of seeking proximity to an object; feeling stress when it leaves; and behaving a certain way when it returns. This is the same for adults

and children throughout the lifespan (Cassidy & Shaver, 1999). Bowlby regarded the outcome of attachment disorder as being self-absorption, lack of emotion, and apathy. Bowlby labeled this condition as “affectionless psychopathy” (Bowlby, 1969).

The second area of interest in this deadly trifecta is low arousal. Hare (1970) conducted most of the work on this construct. Hare conducted research using galvanic skin response to show that psychopaths showed peripheral autonomic hyporeactivity to adverse events. Essentially, Hare measured the sweat response on the skin of the psychopaths in response to anxiety or punishment related stimuli. It was established that in psychopaths, a small skin conductance reaction in anticipation of negative stimuli followed by a hefty increase in heart rate.  

The opposite was observed in nonpsychopathic patients. The nonpsychopaths had a large galvanic skin response followed by a decrease in heart rate (Hare, 1970). To sum these findings: in nonpsychopaths an important event or stimuli caused an increase in skin conductance and a lower heart rate, but negative stimulus caused an increase in fear, thus causing a rise in both heart rate and conductance. In the psychopaths the fact that they experienced an increased heart rate, but low skin reaction shows that they are somehow able to negate the impending negative stimuli or threat of punishment and experience no increased fear (Hare, 1970).

Anxiety is the third dimension in what Bowlby labeled “the house of the psychopath”. The biological basis for anxiety is believed to serve to keep the infant close to the mother and keep the infant safe from any predators (Bowlby, 1969).  Anxiety in this form is readily observable when the infant is handed to a stranger too quickly and it reacts with fear and anxiety. This usually initiates startle and crying that evokes the mother to retrieve the infant and thereby remove the perceived threat. Anxiety has been shown to be absent or drastically diminished in psychopathic personalities.

This was originally observed by Lykken (1957) during his testing on anxious and nonanxious psychopaths at the University of Minnesota. During this study Lykken discovered that according to the low electro dermal reactivity in anticipation of punishment, psychopaths fail to develop feelings of anxiety in expectation of punishment. It is believed that this detrimental trifecta of emotional detachment; underarousal; and low anxiety levels are the biological walls that construct Bowlby’s “house of psychopath”.

The low fear and anxiety hypothesis was more recently examined by Bradley and Lang in 2000. In this study a sample of male psychopathic and nonpsychopathic prisoners was shown three different pictures: erotic and thrilling (pleasure inducing); victim or threat (unpleasant); and neutral. This study concluded that there was a significant delay in reflex inflection at early intervals in those inmates diagnosed as psychopathic, signifying a deficit in their initial evaluation of the photos (Bradley & Lang, 2000). Bradley and Lang’s study furthermore concluded that the psychopathic prisoners showed a distinct delay in their startle response when shown photos of mutilation and vicious attacks. This is most likely related to the reflex inhibition as well.

These revelations have guided even further exploits into the psyche of the psychopath in current years. Building upon this very strong base, the neurobiological emphasis has emerged. One chief breakthrough for explanation achieved in recent years has been dysfunction in the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) of the brain.

The amygdala, which is Greek for “almond shape”, is a small organ located in the temporal lobe of the brain. It is the area responsible for anxiety and fear response. This area delegates the “fight or flight” response when confronted with a perceived threat (Blair, 2006).

The OFC is located in the frontal lobe of the brain and plays and integral part in anticipation of reward or punishment. With deficits present in these areas, it is conceivable that one would present with symptoms of low fear response and low anxiety levels such as those present in the psychopathic prisoners sample (Blair, 2006). There is still considerable debate in the scientific community on whether the amygdala or the OFC play a bigger role in the underlying development of psychopathy. It is widely accepted that the pathway is likely multi-systemic and widespread. The need for future research in this area is vast, but the groundwork has been well laid.

Effects on Personality Structure

The theory that psychopathy is, in part, of biological and innate origin aids considerably in understanding why psychopathy tends to emerge during childhood and remain relatively stable throughout the lifetime (Hare, 1993). Those who are in contact with the psychopath as a child often describe them as being “inexplicably different” from other children (Hare, 1993, p. 157). Frequently, these children are found to be very aggressive, manipulative, and deceitful from a very early age, and are often considered to be hard for others to relate to (Hare, 1993).  It is also hypothesized by Hare (1993) that the best chance for treatment of psychopaths is during these early years when many of the behaviors are first presenting.

During these years they can be taught to channel these antisocial behaviors and needs into more prosocial channels rather than the destructive outlets chosen by most psychopaths.  This concern lends credibility to the bioneurological theories offered and also offers hope for future treatment options.

Because psychopathy is essentially a personality disorder and not considered to be a “mental illness”, there is no formal diagnosis of psychopathy included in the DSM-IV (APA, 2000) or in any previous edition of the manual. This discrepancy left a great need within the scientific, legal, and behavioral science communities to have a formal tool for diagnosis of this disorder. Hare recognized and responded to this need with his creation of the Psychopathy Checklist based on previous research by Cleckley and others and numerous years of his own research and observations (Hare, 1993).

This instrument was revised in 1991 and renamed the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) (Hare, 1991). In the revised edition two of the factor items were removed due to low correlations with the total score. These factors were: (1) previous diagnosis as a psychopath or similar; and (2) drug or alcohol not a direct cause of antisocial behavior (Hare et al., 1990). This tool was considered to be the “Gold Standard” for assessing psychopathy in both male and female subjects (Fulero, 1995). The PCL-R second edition includes differential information according to gender. The inclusion of female samples is why this tool was used by the author for the purpose of thesis.

According to Hare (1994), “this checklist is now used worldwide and provides clinicians and researchers with a way of distinguishing, with reasonable certainty, true psychopaths from those who merely break the rules” (Hare, 1994). Hare also remarks that we should be aware that many people who are not psychopathic exhibit many of these symptoms. Psychopathy, as a disorder, is a syndrome comprised of clusters of associated symptoms (Hare, 1994).     

The PCL-R has been proven as a valid and vigorous predictor of psychopathy and violent criminal activity and recidivism (Hare, 1991; Quincey, Harris, & Rice, 1990). The PCL-R is a diagnostic instrument consisting of three parts: a semistructured interview, review of file information, and collateral review.

The PCL-R was originally designed to always include a direct interview with the subject; nevertheless, studies have suggested that for purposes of research a record review alone is sufficient if the information used is high quality (Grann, Langstrom, Tengstrom, & Stalenheim, 1998).  It must be noted that there is some evidence to suggest that  increasing the amount of information available to those conducting testing has been found to amplify the amount of elevated scores and positive diagnosis (Rutherford, 1993).

The instrument has been shown to be equally applicable and reliable across genders (Hart & Hare, 1999) and ethnicities (Kosson, Smith, & Newman, 1990). Even though the instrument has been validated for the assessment of female psychopathy, some significant procedural concerns have been raised.

These concerns have arisen from the conclusion that females generally present with a much lesser base rate of psychopathy, as opposed to their male counterparts (Vitale et al., 2002). This has led to discussion on factor structure reassignment for females in the future to help account for the lower base rate.

The foremost issue with application to females is the female psychopath’s tendency to express these traits in dissimilar conduct to their male counterparts. The sensitivity is lower for females because of this disparity. For instance, the female scores lower on the “callousness” factor because she often exhibits less violence and aggression in her behaviors. This does not mean that she is not just as callous as her male counterpart, but her callousness is achieved through more subtle methods (Vitale & Newman, 2001). Most of the issues being addressed with using the PCL-R for females are due to the differentiation between the female’s expressions of these factors.

It is not that the females are any less psychopathic than the males, but they are often more understated and sly in their expression. Females often use sexual promiscuity and subtle manipulation to achieve their antisocial goals, whereas males often use aggression, violence, and harassment to achieve the same ends (Cleckley, 1976; Hare, 1993). Even with these issues being suggested, the studies have shown that the PCL-R is still stable and reliable for use with female psychopaths.

The internal consistency of the PCL-R has been established my numerous studies in which the Chronbach’s Alpha is collectively reported above .80. Meta-analysis in one of the most recent studies reported Chronbach’s alphas >.80 for all results (Hemphill, Hare, & Wong, 1998). In his studies Hare (1991) reported alphas of .87 and .85 for his pooled prison and forensic patient samples respectively.

The PCL-R is a 20 item scale useful in measuring the core characteristics and personality traits of psychopathy. The items on the scale account for traits and lifestyle behaviors relating to criminal behaviors, substance abuse, medical history, lifetime antisocial behaviors, psychological test results, behavior while institutionalized, family life; financial behavior, work history, and sexual and relationship histories (Salekin, Rogers, & Sewell, 1996).

Each of these items is then rated using a 3-point scale from (0-3) in which 0= (Not Applicable) no examples of behavior evident; 1= (Uncertain) at least one example of behavior exhibited, but behavior not exhibited consistently; or 3= (Definitely Present) multiple examples, pattern of behavior exists (Hare, 1991). This allows for total scoring of (0-40), with the standard cut off for a diagnosis of psychopathy being a score of 30 or greater.

Those with a score < 30 are not considered to be clinically psychopathic. These items are also grouped by factor analysis into two main factors and four facets. These four facets are (1) Interpersonal, (2) Affective, (3) Lifestyle, (4) Antisocial (Hare, 1991).

Factor 1 traits are consistent with behaviors indicative of the “selfish, callous, and remorseless use of others”. These traits are highly correlated with the disorders of narcissistic personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder (Hare, 1991). This is also described as aggressive or malignant narcissism and describes the interpersonal and affective interactions of the personality (Hare, 1991). The key features of this personality disorder involve exaggerated sense of entitlement and self-importance and lack of empathy (APA, 2000).

These traits are most closely considered to be those of the “primary” or “true” psychopath. Factor 2 traits are consistent with “chronically unstable, antisocial and socially deviant lifestyle”. These traits are most consistent with antisocial personality disorder (Hare, 1991). The key features of this disorder include frequent law or rule breaking, using others for personal gain, and charming and seductive personality (APA, 2000).

These factors are more consistent with anger issues, chronic criminality, and impulse control violence. Most of these features are consistent with the “secondary psychopath”, considered by some to be a more virulent form of APSD and not truly psychopathy at all. Those with primarily Factor 2 traits (common criminals and those with APSD) tend to “age out” of their criminality, while those displaying primarily Factor 1 characteristics (core psychopaths) do not (Hare, 1993).

Primary psychopaths suffer from what McCord and McCord (1982) termed “lovelessness and guiltlessness”. These patients are the true predators of society. Primary psychopaths present low anxiety, little stress response, and no fear. They are emotionally detached, callous, master manipulators, dominating, and are often perceived to have difficulty understanding the meanings of others’ words.

They often seem to be unable to discern the meaning of their own words as well, a condition termed “semantic aphasia” (Cleckley, 1976). Primary psychopaths also appear to be devoid of any genuine emotions, although they are very adept at mimicking them (Cleckley, 1976; Hare, 1993). This group is considered to be the “core” or “true” psychopath. This term is applicable to those whose psychopathy is innate and unchanging throughout the lifespan (Hare, 1993).

Secondary psychopaths have more in common with those diagnosed with APSD by the DSM-IV criteria. This category shows more risk taking behaviors, high anxiety levels, aggressive and prone to violent outbursts of anger, and impulsivity (Cleckley, 1976; Hare, 1993). One of the main distinctions observed in the secondary psychopath is their capacity to feel guilty for their actions (Hare, 1993).

This class of psychopath is more prone to petty criminality and thrill seeking behavior than are the core psychopaths. Secondary psychopathy is often more associated with substance abuse and childhood trauma (Hare, 2003). It is also common with this group to see them “age out” of many of their antisocial and criminalistic behaviors, whereas primary or core psychopaths never show a steady decline in those behaviors throughout their life (Hare, 1993). Table 2 lists the items included in the PCL-R and is followed by a description of each.

Table 2 – 20 items included in the PCL-R

Item                                        Description

  1. Glibness and Superficial Charm
  2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
  3. Need for stimulation and Proneness to boredom
  4. Pathological Lying
  5. Conning and Manipulative
  6. Lack of remorse or guilt
  7. Shallow affect
  8. Callous and lack of empathy
  9. Parasitic lifestyle
  10. Poor behavioral control
  11. Promiscuous sexual behavior
  12. Early behavior problems
  13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
  14. Impulsivity
  15. Irresponsibility
  16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  17. Many short term marital relationships
  18. Juvenile delinquency
  19. Revocation of conditional release
  20. Criminal versatility

Source: Adapted from Hare (1991).

The core traits of psychopathy according to Hare can be divided into two key categories: 1. Emotional and Interpersonal that includes glib and superficial, egocentric and grandiose, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, deceitful and manipulative, and shallow emotions. 2. Social Deviance that includes impulsive, poor behavior controls, need for excitement, and lack of responsibility, early behavior problems, and adult antisocial behavior (Hare, 1993).

Glib and Superficial. Most psychopaths are very well spoken and can often spin a great tale, making sure to cast themselves in the very best light. They are able to easily draw others in due to their exuberant charm and charisma (Hare, 1991, 1993).

Egocentric and Grandiose. Psychopaths present with extreme narcissism and egocentricity. They feel that they are so extraordinary that the world owes them anything they desire. Psychopaths have little regard for society’s rules, laws, and regulations.

They often explain that they ‘live by their own set of rules”. Psychopaths often talk about their grand plans and life goals but nearly never actually work toward bringing them to fruition, even though most are exceedingly capable of doing so (Hare, 1991, 1993).

Lack of Remorse or Guilt. Psychopaths always have a dozen excuses for their actions and show relatively little concern for the effect these actions have on those around them. They are never sorry and often express that they do not understand why others are upset or hurt by them. Psychopaths often rationalize away their deviant behaviors, blaming everyone but themselves. Typically, the psychopaths often deny culpability, even when presented with definitive evidence of their guilt (Hare, 1993).

Lack of Empathy. The most devastating characteristics displayed by psychopaths evolve from this trait. They are unable to see things as others do or put themselves “in other’s shoes”. Psychopaths do not give any thought to the needs, feelings, fears, or rights of others. The only reason they keep any ties to anyone at all is because they feel possessive of those persons. It is not out of any type of true emotional attachment (Cleckley, 1996; Hare, 1993).

Deceitful and Manipulative. Psychopaths are intensely overconfident with their ability to lie. They are unafraid of anyone catching them in the lies. If they are discovered and confronted, psychopaths will just make up another lie to cover the lie that was discovered. They are very adept at keeping this cycle going until the listener is so confused he or she does not even know what the original tall tale was (Hare, 1993).

Shallow Emotions. Psychopathic personalities have little to no emotional depth. They appear to suffer from a form of emotional poverty not seen in normal individuals. They can appear very distant, cold, and blank. At times, they may be prone to outburst of superficial attempts at emotion, but most people will be able to see through this (Cleckley, 1976; Hare, 1993).

Impulsive. Psychopaths are prone to behavior that is self-serving and unplanned. They will often decide to do something without consulting anyone or stopping to think and evaluate the possible consequences. They often live by the motto “if it feels good, do it”. This often leaves those closest to them wondering what is happening when they decide to leave suddenly, stay gone for days with no explanation, or quit their job on a whim (Hare, 1993).

Poor Behavior Controls. Psychopaths frequently react with sudden violence when confronted with any perceived insult or threat. They respond to any type of inconvenience in a similar fashion. The psychopath’s controls are very weak and any provocation overwhelms them and cause intense overreaction.

Once this occurs, it is usually over very quickly, and they will immediately act as if nothing has happened. It can be said that it is like they are “flipping a switch” within themselves, and it occurs just as quickly (Hare, 1993).

A Need for Excitement. Psychopaths are very easily prone to boredom. They are in constant need of some form of excitement or stimulation. They do not bother with or involve themselves with any routine, monotonous activities. This is part of what makes them so devastating to their families. They habitually gain the trust, admiration, and love of others, even entering into marriages and having children, but will soon tire of the routine and disappear. Much of what excites them is nonconformity and risk-taking.

These thrill seeking behaviors are often the only way that they end up getting caught (Cleckley, 1976; Hare, 1993).

Lack of Responsibility. Psychopaths cannot be bothered with the responsibilities of the common person. They do not worry about the well being of their mates or children, leave and return as they please, spend every dime in the shared account on frivolity, and feel nothing in response to confrontation about their behaviors. At work psychopaths make grand suggestions and brag about their prime business acumen while misusing company property and doing absolutely nothing all day. They have no sense of pride in any “real’ work, only in their ability to manipulate others into doing it for them (Cleckley, 1976; Hare, 1993).

Early Behavior Problems. According to Hare (1993) most psychopaths begin to exhibit their peculiar behavior patterns early in life. The behaviors may include “persistent lying, cheating, theft, vandalism, and/or be precocious sexually”. Even though many children exhibit some of these traits, even in the best of situations, the psychopath has these to a more persistent and prolonged extent (Hare, 1993).

Adult Antisocial Behavior. Psychopaths carry these behaviors into adolescence and adulthood. Psychopaths are more diverse and recurrent in their criminal behavior than is the standard criminal. They are more adept by adulthood and show no particular affinity for any one kind of criminal activity (Hare, 1993).

The characteristics that are incorporated in the Factor 1 cluster (Emotional and Interpersonal) are 1-2, 4-8, and 16. The traits that are included in the Factor 2 cluster (Social Deviance) are 3, 9, 10, 12-15, and 18-19. Items 11, 17, and 20 are excluded from either Factor cluster due to marginal factor loadings and similar descriptive strength.

Only those that are indicative of lack of empathy, remorse, guilt, and shallow affect are included (Hare, 1991). Without many exceptions, Hare’s two-factor model is widely supported as the preeminent method for analysis. Most notably, one of those exceptions was proposed by Raine (1985). Raine suggested that the scale be divided into four clusters instead of Hare’s two. These four clusters are Egocentricity, Emotional Detachment, Impulsiveness, and Superficial Relationships. Regardless of the newer suggestions, the two factor model implemented by Hare continues to be the standard accepted worldwide.

Female Versus Male Psychopathy

It is the common misconception that females are less capable of unprovoked and undeserved violence than are males. This misconception has hindered the progress of study on the female psychopath for nearly 100 years. Society tends to underestimate and underplay the amount of violence that women are capable of. Females have never been excluded in the study of psychopathy, having been cited in studies by both Cleckley (1941, 1976) and Hare (1993).

The main issue with these and other studies including females and psychopathy is the constructs are being applied exactly the same for both males and females. The females are being analyzed by the criteria designed for males without regards for possible differences in expression of traits according to gender. It is worth noting that even Cleckley may have been swayed by the traditional gender roles in society when analyzing some of the female psychopaths in his practice.

This is evidenced by his analysis of a psychopath in his practice named “Anna”. Although Anna displayed many of the same aggressive and deviant behaviors as her male peers, Cleckley seemed to make excuses and downplay the seriousness of her actions (Cleckley, 1941; 1976).

Anna was a pathological liar, promiscuous (even knowingly transmitting sexually transmitted diseases), physically aggressive with classmates, and even expelled from school for urinating on her classmate’s clothing. Despite all of the evidence of her being just as callous and unremorseful as her male equals, Cleckley states that “Anna never really seems to have meant much harm to others or to herself” (Cleckley, 1941). It seems Cleckley may have himself “fallen prey” to the gender stereotypes regarded by society. Cleckley, in all probability, felt that because she was female, her actions were less insidiously motivated.

These assumptions have been allowed to persist for so long due to the fear of recognition that those expected to be the nurturers and caregivers are just as capable of unemotional and unremorseful evil as any male. This is an uncomfortable notion to digest. Due to this feeling of unease, nearly all of the female criminals exhibiting these symptoms are labeled psychiatrically unstable ( Kelleher &  Kelleher, 1998).  Once again, this takes a sense of accountability away from the offender, as a way of mitigating their behavior. 

This notion is slowly being dispelled through more frequent and extensive studies involving female psychopaths. Carozza (2008) suggests that female psychopaths also demonstrate many of the same interpersonal and affective features considered to be the hallmarks of the disorder including shallow emotion, lack of empathy, egocentricity, and deceptiveness. It has also been observed that females use more covert methods of operation.

They often use more sexuality and physicality to manipulate and achieve their goals rather than blatant physical aggression (Carozza, 2008).  Salekin et al. (1997) suggests female psychopaths show more inappropriate sexual behaviors and shallow or exaggerated emotions, traits in common with Histrionic Personality Disorder, moreover, male psychopaths have more need of admiration, lack of emotion, and grandiosity; traits familiar to Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Both males and females show analogous irresponsible behavior and parasitic lifestyle components, although it is often scored lower for females due to the perception of acceptability for females to be dependent on their parents or spouse. The key differences between male and female psychopaths lie in the methods used to achieve their parallel goals.

Females use more sexual manipulation, and various other nonviolent behaviors, whereas males often use more aggressive violent behaviors (Cruise et al., 2003; Grann, 2000; Salekin et al., 1998). Guze (1976) stated that women are almost never classified as psychopathic, those characteristics are generally labeled as hysterics instead. These differences have led discussions of possible changes being made in the evaluation and scoring of female psychopathy using the PCL-R and other self-reporting measures in the future.

Grann (2000) conducted the first direct comparison regarding psychopathy and gender using the PCL-R. Grann found the prevalence of psychopathy to be substantially lower for females at 11.0 % than males at 31.0%. In the numerous studies that have been conducted thus far, the incidence of psychopathy has been universally lower for females. In one large-scale study conducted by Hare including 1,218 female inmates and 5,408 males, the mean PCL-R scores were 19.0 for females with a standard deviation of 7.5.

The mean score for males was 22.1 with a standard deviation of 7.9 (Hare, 1993). This outcome has been proven consistent in both inmate and college student populations; showing a much lower level of psychopathy in the females (Bolt et al., 2004; Forth, Brown, Hart, & Hare, 1993; Hart & Hare, 1996). While Hare contends that this is due to an actual lower incidence of psychopathy inherent in the female populations, some researchers contend the disparity could be due to the factor structure of the PCL-R itself. Cooke and Michie (2001) proposed that the two-factor model proposed by Hare is biased toward males due to the different expressions of psychopathy between the sexes. Cooke and Michie developed a three factor model they believed would be better suited to female psychopathy because it lowered the emphasis on antisocial behaviors and re-emphasized the apathy and callousness that were more prominent determinants of female psychopathy (Cooke & Michie, 2001).

The affective defects present in the male psychopaths also appear to be applicable to the female persuasion of the disorder (Vitale, Brinkley, Hiatt, & Newman, 2007).

Sutton et al. (2002) in a study of 528 female prisoners found that the female psychopaths also displayed a moderately delayed startle response to unnerving photos. This provided some of the initial evidence regarding the female psychopath’s display of similar emotional processing deficits.

One definitive difference between male and female psychopaths is in the area of empathy. Research has consistently demonstrated that the females display higher scores for empathetic concern (Eisenburg & Strayer, 1987; Zagon & Jackson, 1994). To a great extent the most significant disparity between the sexes lies in socialization and gender roles. Typically, males have been socialized to be more aggressive, independent, and emotionally inhibited.

Females are expected to be more inhibited and dependent; therefore, women tend to be saddled with a less deviant diagnosis of Histrionic Personality Disorder, versus males with the same symptomology who are more often diagnosed with APSD (Forth et al., 1994; Lillienfield, 1992; Magdol et al., 1997). This happens, perhaps, due to both gender biases on the part of the clinicians, as well as that of society at large. These chief disparities serve as a prompt for much needed future research on psychopathy and gender differences.

REFERENCE LINK :https://dc.etsu.edu/etd/1340

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