The psychology of psychopathy: An inside look at the psychopathic brain

A 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison study was the first of it's kind to show structural differences in the psychopathic brain.

  • According to a 2017 study led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, psychopaths have reduced connections in the areas of the brain that control fear, anxiety, empathy and sentimentality.
  • Psychopathy is typically diagnosed using a 20-item checklist called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
  • Psychopathic tendencies could be considered "warning signs" of psychopathy, but it's important to note that not everyone who shows psychopathic tendencies becomes a psychopath.

Psychopathy is defined as a condition (sometimes referred to as a personality disorder) characterized by the absence of empathy and the bluntness of other affective states. Psychopaths can be highly manipulative, often coming across as typical or even charming.

According to Psychology Today, callousness, detachment and a lack of empathy are key traits of a psychopath, but underneath the facade, they lack any semblance of a conscience.

    Defining psychopathy

    concept of psychopathy split personality manipulation and deceit man showing half his true face

    Psychopathy is typically diagnosed using a 20-item checklist called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.

    Photo by FGC on Shutterstock

    Psychopathy, like many other conditions, is a spectrum. Common traits of psychopaths can include things like superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulation, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, behavioral problems in early life, impulsivity, and shallow affect (reduced emotional responses) to name a few.

    Psychopathy is typically diagnosed using a 20-item checklist called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This list features questions that gauge common traits such as a lack of empathy, pathological lying, and impulsivity (among many others).

    Each question on this scale is then scored on a three-point scale: The item doesn't apply (0), the item applies to a certain extend (1), or the question fully applies (2). The bar for "clinical psychopathy" is 30 points on this test.

    For reference, here are some of the scores of notable evaluations:

    Ted Bundy - 39/40
    Richard Ramirez - 31/40
    Brian David Mitchell - 34/40

    Differentiating psychopathy and sociopathy

    The terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" are often used interchangeably but they aren't the same - and the difference is quite important. A sociopath is someone with antisocial tendencies that are specific to social or environmental factors. A psychopath is someone whose traits are more innate.

    A psychopath will be more manipulative but can be seen by others to lead a charming, "normal" life - whereas sociopaths tend to be more erratic, rage-prone, and are unable to keep up the facade of normality.

    Psychopathic tendencies versus psychopathy

    concept of trying on many faces hiding your true personality psychopath

    A psychopath may be able to create a seemingly typical personality and life to fool others. Psychopathic tendencies don't always extend into psychopathy.

    Photo by FGC on Shutterstock

    What causes psychopathy?

    Brain anatomy, genetics, and the person's environment may all contribute to the development of psychopathic traits. However, it's important to note that not all psychopathic traits and tendencies mean the person will grow into a psychopath.

    What are psychopathic tendencies?

    Psychopathic tendencies could be considered warning signs of psychopathy, but it's important to note that not everyone who shows psychopathic tendencies becomes a psychopath. Some, with the intervention of various therapies and strong, nurturing relationships, can assimilate to a relatively normal way of life.

    The most well-known case of this would be the case of Beth Thomas. The subject of a 1990 documentary entitled "Child of Rage," Beth began to show psychopathic tendencies extremely early in life after suffering physical neglect and sexual abuse at the hands of her birth father before the age of one.

    Later moved into an adoptive family where she could get the help she needs, the documentary (which you can view here, be warned, this footage may be disturbing to some) showed the disturbing thought process of a young 6-year-old girl struggling with an attachment disorder that led to psychopathic tendencies.

    However, Beth, with the help of her adoptive family and professionals, became a relatively typical young woman who works as a nurse and has co-authored a book called "More Than a Thread of Hope" with her adoptive mother.

    Psychopaths' brains show differences in structure and function

    According to a 2017 study led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, psychopaths have reduced connections in their brains between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the amygdala.

    This is noteworthy because of the functions of both parts in play - the vmPFC is responsible for sentimentality, empathy and guilt and the amygdala mediates fear and anxiety.

    Not only did the research here show there were differences in how these parts of the psychopathic brain functioned, but this was the first study of it's kind to show physical (structural) differences in the brains of psychopaths.

    How common is psychopathy?

    While there may never be a specific answer to this, there have been several studies that can give us insight into how common psychopathy is. According to most research, psychopaths make up about 1 percent of the general population. Additional research claims up to 15 percent of the U.S prison population may meet the criteria for being psychopaths.

    More From Jaimee Bell
    Related Articles
    Eau De Space
    Surprising Science

    A new perfume can help you smell like an astronaut

    Ever want to smell like a spacesuit? Now you can!

    • After years of trying, a group has produced the smell of outer space in a perfume.
    • Astronauts have described the smell of space as similar to "ozone," "gunpowder," and "fried steak."
    • Exactly what causes the scent is still debated.
    Keep reading Show less
    Image source: Sergei Mironenko/Shutterstock
    Surprising Science

    Humanity’s impact is monkeying with animals’ evolution

    Animals are adapting all the time these days to stay out of our way.

    • If you don't want to get poached, try losing that trunk.
    • Pollution determines which moths dominate the tree trunks of the U.K.
    • More animals are becoming night owls.

    We often think of evolution as taking place over extended periods of time as mutations prove themselves advantageous, or not. Mutations, though, are not rare things: They happen all the time. Scientists estimate that there were 37 trillion of them in your own body just over the last 24 hours. (It's amazing more things don't go wrong, right?) The characteristics we see in ourselves and other organisms are merely the latest winners in a wild and woolly mutation free-for-all competition, in which nature, or random chance, tries out many, many wonderful, bizarre, and ridiculous traits as things settle out over the long term.

    Adaptations in response to changing environmental factors occur all the time, too: An attribute that may have been meaningless before may suddenly become very helpful. Here in the Anthropocene, animals are adapting to all sort of habitat changes we've imposed on them. While not yet long-term changes, necessarily, these characteristics suggest we may be having a considerable impact on the ongoing process of evolution in the world's organisms.

    Industrialized moths

    Image source: Marek R. Swadzba/Shutterstock

    Before the Industrial Revolution got up and running in the U.K., light-colored pepper moths, Biston betularia morpha typica, were a common sight. However, by about 1864, they'd been essentially replaced by a darker pepper-moth cousin, Biston betularia morpha carbonaria. Why?

    Pollutants — mostly coal soot —covered the British countryside, darkening its trees. Worse, sulfur dioxide emissions wiped out many of the trees' lichen and moss coverings. Against these darkened backdrops, light-colored pepper moths became far too easy to spot by predators. Better suited were the darker pepper moths, which soon came to dominate the habitat — by 1895, some 98% of pepper moths spotted were the darker variety.

    Fortunately, the Industrial Revolution days passed, with dirty factories over time being replaced by cleaner alternatives, and today, the ligh-colored pepper moths are back on top.

    The story is a pretty fast-paced and dramatic example of how extreme our impact can be, and also — and there's a hopeful feeling to this — how short- lived it can be if we fix what we've broken.


    Urban vs. rural red fox skull measurements

    Image source: K.J. Parsons, et al

    NAs investigations continue apace into what, exactly, the fox says, researchers published in June a really interesting study regarding a surprising way in which foxes are adapt to life in human-dominated urban environments.

    An examination of 111 red fox skulls from London, UK, revealed "urban individuals tending to have shorter and wider muzzles relative to rural individuals."Essentially, the more urban a fox's environment is, the shorter was its snout likely to be. The change may be considered an example of Darwin's "domestication syndrome," as Big Think has reported.

    The study suggests it's all about the biomechanics benefits imparted by such a change:

    "Firstly, a shorter snout, as found in urban foxes, should confer a higher mechanical advantage but with reduced closing speed of the jaw. This may be advantageous in an urban habitat where resources are more likely to be accessed as stationary patches of discarded human foods. Furthermore, in some cases, these foods may require a greater force to access them, explaining the expanded sagittal crest in skulls of urban foxes."

    If these traits make an individual fox better suited to its city life, it's that much more likely to survive and reproduce than a longer-snouted competitor.

    Nighttime on human Earth

    Image source: Viktor Grishchenko/Shutterstock

    Obviously, habitat loss is the single most destructive thing we're doing to animals. It can lead to utter displacement and death, and it can also change the way animals go about doing the things they need to do to survive.

    In many cases, animals dealing with fresh human encroachment bend before they break, and some are trying to carry on around us, so to speak. A 2018 study in the journal Science, finds, for example, that animals are becoming more nocturnal to get out of the bipeds' way.

    The authors of the study analyzed data from 76 other reports to learn how 62 species on six continents were trying to adapt to our intrusive presence. The data was sourced from all sorts of devices such as cameras to GPS trackers, and ran the gamut from 'possums to pachyderms.

    What the researchers found was that animals known to split their activities between day and night were overwhelmingly becoming busier after dark. There was a 68% increase in nighttime activity among such animals.

    If this habitat pressure continues, will we start to see individuals with, for example, better night vision, come to dominate as competitors for scarce resources? It'll be interesting to see.


    When people say, "Such and such animal has this trait because it allows them to…" what they're really saying is that "Of all the crazy mutations that nature tried out, individuals with this mutation fared better than others did." Whether it's effective camouflage, the ditching of a trunk, or becoming a night owl — except for owls who already… never mind — temporary adaptations become fixed evolutionary traits when the conditions in which they're beneficial remain in place long enough. In the case of the pressure we're continually imposing on other life forms, it bears saying that only the ones lucky enough to survive humankind's challenging influence in the first place will get that chance to change.

    Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

    R.P. Eddy wrote about a coming pandemic in 2017. Why didn't we listen?

    In his book with Richard Clarke, Warnings, Eddy made clear this was inevitable.

    • In their 2017 book, Warnings, R.P. Eddy and Richard Clarke warned about a coming pandemic.
    • "You never get credit for correctly predicting an outbreak," says science journalist Laurie Garrett in the book.
    • In this interview with Big Think, R.P. Eddy explains why people don't listen to warnings—and how to try to get them to listen.
    Keep reading Show less