What makes a criminal a psychopath?
Their grisly deeds and commanding presence attract our attention – look no further than Ted Bundy, the subject of a recent Netflix documentary, and cult leaders like Charles Manson.
But despite years of theorizing and research, the mental health field continues to hotly debate what are the defining features of this diagnosis. It might come as a surprise that the most widely used psychiatric diagnostic system in the U.S., the DSM-5, doesn’t include psychopathy as a formal disorder.
As a personality researcher and forensic psychologist, I’ve spent the last quarter-century studying psychopaths inside and outside of prisons. I’ve also debated what, exactly, are the defining features of psychopathy.
Most agree that psychopaths are remorseless people who lack empathy for others. But in recent years, much of this debate has centered on the relevance of one particular personality trait: boldness.
I’m in the camp that believes boldness is critical to separating out psychopaths from the more mundane law-breakers. It’s the trait that creates the veneer of normalcy, giving those who prey on others the mask to successfully blend in with the rest of society. To lack boldness, on the other hand, is to be what one might call a “shy-chopath.”
The boldness factor
About 10 years ago, psychologist Christopher Patrick and some of his colleagues published an extensive literature review in which they argued that psychopaths were people who expressed elevated levels of three basic traits: meanness, disinhibition and boldness.
Most experts in the mental health field generally agree that the prototypical psychopath is someone who is both mean and, at least to some extent, disinhibited – though there’s even some debate about exactly how impulsive and hot-headed the prototypical psychopath truly is.
In a psychological context, people who are mean tend to lack empathy and have little interest in close emotional relationships. They’re also happy to use and exploit others for their own personal gain.
Highly disinhibited people have very poor impulse control, are prone to boredom and have difficulty managing emotions – particularly negative ones, like frustration and hostility.
In adding boldness to the mix, Patrick and his colleagues argued that genuine psychopaths are not just mean and disinhibited, they’re also individuals who are poised, fearless, emotionally resilient and socially dominant.
Although it had not been the focus of extensive research for the past few decades, the concept of the bold psychopath isn’t actually new. Famed psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley described it in his seminal 1941 book, “The Mask of Sanity,” in which he described numerous case examples of psychopaths who were brazen, fearless and emotionally unflappable.
Ted Bundy is an excellent example of such a person. He was far from unassuming and timid. He never appeared wracked with anxiety or emotional distress. He charmed scores of victims, confidently served as his own attorney and even proposed to his girlfriend while in court.