Psychopathy: Symptoms, Definition & Treatment

Instructor: David White
In the field of mental health, psychopathy presents a particularly challenging and troubling problem. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define psychopathy, explore some of the symptoms, and gain an understanding of how it is being treated.

What Is Psychopathy?

When it comes to reading preferences, it is fair to say that we all probably have a guilty pleasure or two that we don't necessarily admit freely. I don't exactly have tons of free time to read, but I will admit that I love a good true crime book. I should clarify that it's not the gory details of violent crime that interest me; rather, it's the actions and behaviors of violent offenders that, though chilling, I find absolutely fascinating.

In a broad sense, this type of criminal or antisocial behavior is referred to as psychopathy, which is generally characterized by a lack of empathy or compassion, and a willingness to act without regard for others. Although the term gets used quite frequently on television and in the media, it is important to point out that psychopathy isn't a specific diagnosis, but is more of a general term referring to symptoms of other illnesses.

In fact, psychopathy tends to be a symptom of a much larger personality disorder. In most cases, personality disorders involve characterological deficiencies that affect a person's interpersonal relationships, perceptions, and expectations of others.

Symptoms of Psychopathy

As it is portrayed in fiction or understood in popular culture, psychopathy often bears several similarities to antisocial personality disorder, which is a disorder than often causes a person to manipulate others or act with little or no regard for the feelings of others. Among the most prominent symptoms of psychopathy is a strong and imposing personality and obvious disinhibition.

In our social worlds, inhibitions are the feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness that prevent us from doing certain things, particularly if we think we will be judged by others. Disinhibition, on the other hand, is a lack of those feelings, which allows for a person to do whatever they want whenever they want because they aren't particularly concerned about what people will think.

For example, if I found myself in a social situation with someone that I greatly disliked, I doubt very much that I would tell them how much I disliked them because I know that it would not only hurt their feelings, but others would probably perceive me poorly as well. A disinhibited person, on the other hand, wouldn't care how the other person felt, nor would they care what other people thought, leaving nothing to stop them from being cruel.

Cruelty is another important hallmark of psychopathy. In general, people with this type of personality disorder lack the empathy for others that is required for forming close relationships, which allows them to freely manipulate others or to be hurtful, often for no other reason than they find it entertaining or amusing.


The most common exposure that people have to those who demonstrate these behaviors might just be through television or other fiction. This is because, in addition to being uncommon (a little over 3% of the U.S. population has antisocial personality disorder), psychopathic people tend to isolate themselves socially, either voluntarily or involuntarily.

The combination of disinhibition, lack of empathy, and boldness of personality generally contributes to these individuals engaging in criminal behavior. For example, a psychopathic person that derives pleasure from causing someone pain would have no problem engaging in violent or destructive behavior, which is referred to as instrumental violence. Unlike other acts of violence, which are most often in response to something, instrumental violence is an intentional act that is used to achieve a specific goal.

If, for example, you needed to borrow money from someone, you would probably ask them if you could, and if they said no, that would likely be the end of the conversation. A psychopathic person, on the other hand, would be likely to demand that someone give them money, and if they refused, the psychopathic person would most probably immediately use violence to force the person to do what they wanted them to do.

Given their propensity for bold and aggressive behavior, it probably comes as no surprise that many serial killers or other violent offenders demonstrate these personality traits. It is the inability to empathize with others and a desire to cause harm or be cruel that contributes to their crimes.

American serial killer Ted Bundy demonstrated many symptoms of psychopathy.

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