Fact Sheet: Psychopathy

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful.

About the author: This article was written by Leandro Velasco, EAPL-S representative for Mexico and Ph.D. student at Texas A & M University (United States).

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Remember to also read our fact sheet on the Dark Triad personality characteristics!

Psychopathy as a construct

Categorical or dimensional manifestation?

In the US, legal crime dramas provide a steady diet of criminal and investigative procedures. More often than not, the criminal offences focus on homicide, physical assault, and sexual assault.  This may result in the (inaccurate?) labeling of fictitious characters as “psychopaths” or “sociopaths.” Mental health professionals and researchers can appreciate when these characters are described as exhibiting psychopathic traits—rather than explicitly labeled a “psychopath”, per se. A main concern is the evolving clinical and theoretical criteria of psychopathy. Variability among investigators regarding the definition and measurement of psychopathy as a psychological construct is also present (Hare & Neumann 2010; Gurley 2009; Furnham, Daoud, & Swami 2009).

“Because constructs are unobservable, indefinite, and evolving, they are best served by multiple and incrementally revised measures…” - (Skeem & Cooke 2010, 456)

Defining Psychopathy

An ongoing, if imperfect, objective.

As noted in the Forensic Risk Assessment Fact-Sheet (ed.1), psychopathy is considered to encompass specific personality, cognitive, and behavioural traits. These may include lack of empathy, callousness, shallow affect, and superficial charm, among others. Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity (1988) provided the contemporary conceptualization and sixteen descriptions of psychopathy (Furnham, Dasoud, & Swami 2009).  These theoretical descriptors by Cleckley are often cited in the literature and were incorporated, to some extent, in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL; Hare 1980) and Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare 1991).

The PCL-R has been researched and administered extensively within forensic settings as a measurement of some of these conceptualized psychopathic traits. Psychopathy, as with any psychological construct, continues to evolve. Healthy debate regarding the inclusion (or exclusion) of factors, traits, and behaviours theorized to manifest or epitomize psychopathy is important for the field (Skeem & Cooke 2010). As with other psychiatric and personality disorders, psychopathy may have biological, psychosocial, neurological, physiological, and psychological underpinnings that combine and/or are exhibited by an individual with psychopathy (Neumann, Hare, & Newman 2007).


DSM-V and beyond.

According to Gurley (2009), there is indication that the next generation of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (i.e., DSM-V) may continue to confound antisocial behaviour with psychopathy. Legitimate questions remain as to the clinical (and investigative) utility of antisocial personality and its relation to psychopathy. At present, we may not definitively state what psychopathy is (if anything), what it is not, how does it develop, and how do we measure and treat this phenomena? However, the research and discussion continues…

Quick summary:

  • Specific cause of psychopathy remains incomplete
  • There is a difference between psychopathy and sociopathy
  • DSM-IV does not officially recognize psychopathy
  • “Diagnosis” of psychopathic traits is primarily used for research and risk-assessments
  • Psychopathy may have a neurobiological basis
  • Individuals with psychopathy may be less responsive to stimuli

Where can I get more information?

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1.     Cleckley, H. (1988). The mask of sanity (5th ed.) St. Louis, MO: Mosby, Co.

2.     Furnham, A., Dasoud, Y., and Swami, V. 2009. How to spot a psychopathy. Social Psychiatry & Psychiatry Epidemiology, 44, 464-472.

3.     Gao, Y., Glenn, A. L., Schug, R. A., Yang, Y., Raine, A., and Phil, D. 2009. The neurobiology of psychopathy: A neurodevelopmental perspective. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54, 813-823.

4.     Gurley, J. R. 2009. A history of changes to the criminal personality in the DSM. History of Psychology, 4, 285-304.

5.     Hare, R. D., Neumann, C. S. 2010. Structural models of psychopathy. Current Psychiatric Reports, 7, 57-64.

6.     Hare, R. D. (1980). A research scale for the assessment of psychopathy in  criminal populations. Personality and Individual Differences, 1, 111-119.

7.     Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. Toronto, ON, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

8.     Neumann, C. S., Hare, R. D., and Newman, J. P. 2007. The super-ordinate nature of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. Journal of Personality Disorders, 21, 102-117.

9.     Skeem, J. L., Cooke, D. J. 2010. One measure does not a construct make: Directions toward reinvigorating psychopathy research—Reply to Hare and Nuemann (2010). Psychological Assessment, 22, 455-459.

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Overview of Fact Sheet topics covered to date