6 Incredibly Common Misconceptions About Psychopaths

Popular culture has offered some flamboyant, unrealistic images of the psychopath: the giggling, twitchy maniac; the silent, masked slasher; the snobbish, culturally refined, highly intelligent cannibal and—depending on how much you like your job—your boss.

Another potentially misleading image appears in the recent trend to imply that anyone with some psychopathic traits is a psychopath. For example, in the eyes of some, a surgeon with a rotten bedside manner, and no inclination to weep with sympathy as he cuts you open to repair your faulty heart valve, nudges his occupation higher on the list of “professions with the most psychopaths.” An alternative view suggests this person might be an ambitious, no-nonsense professional, with limited people skills, who wants you to live. He studies for years, trains diligently, and ends up operating on you to repair your faulty heart and extend your life…

Read the whole article on the Huffington Post!


This blog originally appeared on Literary Carrie: A Glimpse Into the Life of a Literary Agent


This Wednesday is the pub day for Dean A. Haycock’s new book, CHARACTERS ON THE COUCH: EXPLORING PSYCHOLOGY THROUGH LITERATURE AND FILM! I’m so excited to introduce you all to the book with Dean’s interview below…enjoy and be sure to pick up a copy of the book on the 31st!


For everyone who doesn’t know, tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to start writing?


I’m a science and medical writer who believes the subjects he writes about are much more interesting than he is. My goal is to make interesting scientific material easier to understand without oversimplifying or misrepresenting it. When I graduated from college, I wrote for two weeks straight. When I evaluated what I’d written, I found only one good paragraph. I put aside the idea of making a living writing and took other jobs, like many writers have. In my case, I was an animal care technician, a laboratory technician, a graduate student/teaching assistant, a post-doctoral fellow and a research scientist. But I kept writing. When a pharmaceutical company I worked for wanted me to move out of state to a city and away from my country home, I choose to quit and finally try writing full time once again.


What lead to the concept of this book?


In my previous book, Murderous Minds, I explored the criminal psychopathic mind and brain. I explained how scientists are investigating people who lack empathy, emotional depth and a conscience. I explained how and what we know about the biological origins of this fascinating type of person. All of the subjects discussed in that book are real, both the scientists and the psychopathic prisoners they studied. During my research, I became interested in how psychopathy was portrayed, both accurately and inaccurately, in novels and in movies. That was the start of my next book, Characters on the Couch, Exploring Psychology Through Literature and Film. I expanded the subject material to include many different types of mental disorders as well as characters with positive psychological traits and strengths.


What was it like writing and researching this book? Did you come upon anything unexpected that surprised you?


I was surprised to learn how often medical schools, as well as psychiatric and psychological training programs, use fictional characters to help train future psychiatrists and psychologists, to teach them about the features of mental disorders. For example, scholarly journal articles discuss the features of mental disorders in Star Wars characters and several have explored the evolution of psychopathic characters in the history of film. It was a confirmation that the topics in Characters on the Cough were worth writing about.

My second surprise was due to my naivete. I underestimated how much work it would be to discuss 101 different literary and film characters and their psychological traits or illnesses. It was much harder than I thought it would be. I’m sure my blood pressure went up as my final deadline approached but I am very happy with the final result.

This was offset by how much fun it was to read so many novels, novellas, short stories and poems, and to watch so many movies, while researching the book.


How was working on this book different from your previous book, MURDEROUS MINDS?


Although I seriously considered majoring in American literature in college, I ended up studying biology and then neuroscience. For most of my writing career, I have read nonfiction books. Taking the time to get back to reading lots of fiction for this book was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the last year and a half.


What do you hope readers take away from CHARACTERS ON THE COUCH?


Besides hoping the book increases readers’ enjoyment and understanding of the fictional characters they encounter, I hope it encourages them to think more about the psychology behind the behavior of both fictional and real people. Anything we can do to increase understanding of mental health will hopefully help reduce prejudice against mental illness.


Anything that other nonfiction writers can learn from your experiences?


It’s obvious but always worth saying: as much as you possibly can, write about topics that fascinate you. And carefully evaluate the time and effort a new project will require.


What’s a fun fact about yourself?


I was once stopped on a back road in Bulgaria by two communist soldiers carrying machine guns while somewhere nearby, a public address system blared at maximum volume Tom Jones singing “Daughter of Darkness.” As I listened to the music and looked at the machine guns, I was simultaneously struck by the knowledge of what the automatic weapons could do to me and the surreal soundtrack playing during the interrogation.

Forthcoming Publication: August 2016

Characters On The Couch: Exploring Psychology through Literature and Film


Our favorite fictional characters from books and movies often display an impressive and wide range of psychological attributes, both positive and negative. We admire their resilience, courage, humanity, or justice, and we are intrigued by other characters who show signs of personality disorders and mental illness — psychopathy, narcissism, antisocial personality, paranoia, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among many other conditions. This book examines the psychological attributes and motivations of 100 fascinating characters that include examples of both accurate and misleading depictions of psychological traits and conditions, enabling readers to distinguish realistic from inaccurate depictions of human behavior.


  • Provides an engaging and entertaining way to learn about both positive psychology and mental health issues through the behavior of interesting and often familiar characters, leading to a better understanding of human behavior.

The Stanford Prison Experiment: Why Ordinary People Do Terrible Things

Stanford Prison Experimtne

“The participants rapidly descend into their assigned roles, with guards becoming cruel and sadistic and prisoners rebelling or sinking into despair. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his team monitor the escalation of action, not realizing that they too have shed their identities and been absorbed into the experiment. After the screening, we’ll explore the film’s central question, a refrain echoing from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib to ISIS: What insight does science provide regarding why some of us become capable of extraordinary cruelty?”

This program is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of its Public Understanding of Science and Technology Initiative.

MODERATOR: Jeffrey Toobin
PARTICIPANTS: Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Scott Atran, Dean A. Haycock, Christina Maslach
DATE: Thursday, May 28, 2015
TIME: 7:00 PM-10:00 PM
VENUE: Redstone Theater, Museum of the Moving Image

The Sociopath Next Door to the Psychopath

Featured on Biographile, Discover the World Through Biography and Memoir – March 17, 2014


Editor’s Note: The definition of “sociopathy” is quite the contentious one. Despite our casual use of the word as a catchall for “crazy,” it remains an unsettled term in the scientific community. Back in 2013, we asked self-affirmed sociopath M.E. Thomas to debunk some myths around the stigma of the term. Furthering the discussion is Dr. Dean Haycock, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Brown University and whose new book is called Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain. He joins us today to talk about M.E. Thomas, the role played by the DSM-5, the opinions of psychopathy experts, and the swirling semantics between “sociopathy” and “psychopathy.”

Confessions of a Sociopath author M.E. Thomas chose to describe herself as a sociopath. According to the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM–5, she might also have chosen the label psychopath or antisocial personality disorder. Thomas says four percent of the population shares her sociopath classification. The DSM-5 estimates that the prevalence rate of antisocial personality disorder (its equivalent of sociopathy) is between 0.2% and 3.3%.

A good indication of how much we still have to learn about the nature of psychopathy is the confusion that surrounds the labels different people apply to this disorder or personality type, depending on your view of its nature. Psychopathy expert Robert Hare asserts that most individuals with antisocial personality disorder are not psychopaths, who account for a little less than 1 percent of the population. Psychopaths, according to Hare and other academic researchers, have core features that are not included in the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder, including lack of empathy.

There are a couple of reasons the label sociopath gained a foothold firm enough to create confusion in the field of abnormal psychology, which is still struggling for agreed upon definitions. In the early part of the 20th century, the word psychopath described not only individuals who lacked a conscience but included others who had additional mental or personality disorders, such as weak mindedness and depression. Another reason the label sociopath lingers alongside that of psychopath is because the American Psychiatric Association used the diagnosis Sociopathic Personality Disturbance from 1952 to 1968.

The term sociopath became popular starting in the 1930s in part because it conveys the impression that the antisocial symptoms can be traced to social influences rather than to biological ones. (In the past, social influences in criminal behavior were considered more important than biological influences. Today, the most popular explanation is that both influences can contribute to criminal behavior, and very likely, to the development of psychopathic behavior).

The persistence of the terms sociopath and psychopath reflect the need for a better understanding of subtypes of psychopaths. Some people think of sociopaths as pseudopsychopaths or as a subtype of psychopath with less severe psychopathic traits than more “hardcore” psychopaths.

Also, use of the word sociopath would be one way to avoid confusion between psychotic (which makes a person legally insane) and psychopathic (which makes a person legally sane). Sadly, there is no general agreement that the label sociopath reflects these distinctions. Academic researchers, in contrast to many clinicians, favor the term psychopath almost exclusively.

Thomas’s account raises the interesting question of whether the presence of some psychopathic traits that do not trouble her or others — that is, that do not call for judicial, psychiatric or psychological care or intervention — even warrants use of the label sociopath or psychopath. Psychopathic traits do not equal psychopathy. Extreme psychopathic traits equals psychopathy.

Thomas doesn’t have much patience with psychologists who, she says, “quibble ad naseum on the psychological classification of sociopathy.” But perhaps she should if she wants to understand herself a bit more. Jennifer Skeem, one of the psychologists Thomas quotes in her Biographile piece “Little Do We Know: 5 Myths About Sociopathy, Debunked” co-authored a paper in which she said: “…the definition of psychopathy itself — what it is, what it is not — is one of the most fundamental questions for psychological science.”

Adapted from the book Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain: Neurological Imaging and the Manifestation of Evil by Dean A. Haycock. Pegasus Books. 2014.

Common Misconceptions About Psychopathy

HuffPost Blog Posted: 04/03/2014 7:35 am EDT Updated: 04/07/2014 3:59 pm ED

Popular culture has offered some flamboyant, unrealistic images of the psychopath: the giggling, twitchy maniac; the silent, masked slasher; the snobbish, culturally refined, highly intelligent cannibal and–depending on how much you like your job–your boss.

Another potentially misleading image appears in the recent trend to imply that anyone with some psychopathic traits is a psychopath. For example, in the eyes of some, a surgeon with a rotten bedside manner, and no inclination to weep with sympathy as he cuts you open to repair your faulty heart valve, nudges his occupation higher on the list of “professions with the most psychopaths.” An alternative view suggests this person might be an ambitious, no-nonsense professional, with limited people skills, who wants you to live. He studies for years, trains diligently, and ends up operating on you to repair your faulty heart and extend your life.

A psychopath does have not a few psychopathic traits. He or she has, as the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy explains, “a constellation of traits.” And the image outlined by that constellation doesn’t evoke confidence over the long term: lack of empathy and guilt, an inability to form meaningful emotional bonds; narcissism and superficial charm; dishonesty, manipulativeness, and reckless risk-taking. Risk-taking is tolerable in surgeons. Reckless risk-taking is not.

The well-validated Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised is the best known tool psychologists use for measuring psychopathy. It’s dominance in the field is being challenged, but it has the advantage of not relying entirely on the psychopath to report on him- or herself. The PCL-R considers 20 personality traits and behaviors. It considers evidence of other traits and features in addition to the familiar listing of callousness/lack of empathy, lack of remorse or guilt, grandiose sense of self-worth, glibness and superficial charm, pathological lying, conning/manipulative behavior, and shallow emotions. It also rates failure to accept responsibility, need for stimulation, parasitic lifestyle, lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, poor behavioral controls, early behavioral problems, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, criminal versatility, promiscuous sexual behavior and many marital relationships.


When enough of these traits are present to a high enough degree, an outline of the psychopath emerges. The emerging outline, however, should not include any of these common misconceptions:

1. Psychopaths are insane.
The American Psychiatric Association considers psychopathy (which it equates with sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder) to be a personality disorder, while some people regard it as a personality type. Both agree that psychopaths know the difference between right and wrong. Legally, psychopaths are not insane. They do not hear voices or experience other hallucinations. Their thoughts are not disordered or skewed by delusions. In other words, they are not psychotic, a feature of mental illness.

2. All mass murderers are psychopaths.
A frequent response after telling someone that I was writing a book about biological studies of criminal psychopaths was: “You should write about [fill in name of mass murderer].” I often explained that psychiatrists had determined that the person they named was mostly likely psychotic and not psychopathic. Sometimes the response was puzzlement, sometimes understanding, and sometimes indifference. Most adults who kill multiple people during a single event are suffering from psychosis and have had a history of psychiatric illness. That is the conclusion forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy reached after studying many of the mass killings that have occurred in the last 50 years. Most mentally ill people, of course, are not violent, but the lurid, over-coverage of these rare events by the media makes them seem like weekly occurrences. A minority of mass murderers includes depressive homicidal individuals, and very few are psychopaths like Columbine shooter Eric Harris.

3. All psychopaths are violent.
Psychopathy is a risk factor, but not a guarantee, that someone could be physically violent. That is not surprising if reckless risk-taking is combined with lack of empathy and guilt, and an inability to form deep emotional bonds with other human beings. You might not want to hang out with someone with these traits and you certainly don’t want to share a situation in which resources are scarce. But the collection of traits and behaviors that characterize psychopaths leaves plenty of room for nonviolent lifestyles.

4. Prisons are full of psychopaths.
Prisons are not full of psychopaths, but they are full of people with antisocial personality disorder. Although the American Psychiatric Society still equates psychopathy with antisocial personality disorder, the majority of psychopathy experts do not. Antisocial personality disorder is diagnosed based on antisocial acts and behaviors. Not surprisingly, most–75 percent or so–of the folks you will meet in prison qualify for this diagnosis. As outlined in the introduction, a diagnosis of psychopathy is based on more than the antisocial behaviors used to identify someone with antisocial personality disorder. Approximately 20 to 25% of prisoners are psychopaths, according to estimates by psychologists.

5. Boardrooms and Wall Street are teeming with psychopaths.
Despite media accounts, psychopaths are not swarming the financial district of New York or the offices of corporate America. Unfortunately, the less than teeming numbers may be more than enough to seriously inconvenience the rest of us. A preliminary study by psychologist and business management consultant Paul Babiak and his co-authors found that eight of 203 corporate professionals taking part in management development programs scored high enough to be classified as psychopaths. This 4 percent is indeed four times the number found in the general population. Testing of larger, more representative groups, of course, could yield different results. But the irresponsible behavior of remorseless, empathy-deficient, conning members of the financial community– remember 2008?–has convinced many of their victims that we need to do more to understand such behavior and prevent it. Psychologists who study corporate psychopaths do not downplay the damage a relatively small number of psychopaths can do in their organizations and to society.

6. Experts agree on the nature of the psychopath.
There is little disagreement among experts about the presence of psychopathy in certain individuals. One classic example is the criminal who scores high on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. These people show mean, callous, remorseless, coldblooded, and aggressive behavior. These are the rare folks FBI profilers encounter on the job.

Disagreements among experts start to emerge when the concept of psychopathy is extended to other populations and when newer, different measuring tools are used to identify them. Subtypes of psychopaths such as successful versus unsuccessful, and primary versus secondary are discussed but still very poorly understood. Should a cold-hearted, empathy-deficient, callous and emotionally shallow person share the label “psychopath” with a cold-hearted, empathy-deficient, callous but anxious person? Should the label be reserved for extreme cases? Or can the elements of the constellation of psychopathic traits be present in different degrees and combinations to yield a variety of problematic, and some less problematic, personalities we have hardly begun to explore?

As psychiatrists Samuel Leistedt and Paul Linkowski conclude in a recent Journal of Forensic Sciences article, Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction?, “Although we are able to describe the psychopath fairly well, we do not understand him.”

Dean A. Haycock is the author of Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain: Neurological Imaging and the Manifestation of Evil published by Pegasus Books, 2014.

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