How intelligent are psychopaths? Study examines the "Hannibal Lecter myth"

A new study makes a surprising finding on the intelligence of psychopaths, often portrayed as evil geniuses in popular culture.

We tend to think of psychopaths as dangerous, antisocial, lacking in key human emotions like empathy or remorse. Psychopaths can be obsessed evil tyrants like Hitler or cunning and monstrous like the fictional Hannibal Lecter. Now a new study casts a surprising look at psychopaths, finding that whatever qualities they might have, high intelligence is not one of them. In fact, psychopaths were found to be less intelligent than average people.


Scientifically, to be classified as having the personality disorder of psychopathy, a person would need to achieve a corresponding score on a test of psychopathic traits like aggression, inflated sense of self-importance and dishonesty. Around 1 percent of the population would fall into this category.

"Not all psychopaths will break the law or hurt someone, but the odds of them doing so are higher," explained Brian Boutwell of St. Louis University in Missouri, who led the study.

One reason that spurred his research was the prevalence of the popular culture version of a psychopath, referred by psychologists as the “Hannibal Lecter myth." But that kind of Hollywoodized psychopath did not sit well with observed facts.

"Psychopaths are impulsive, have run-ins with the law and often get themselves hurt," said Boutwell. "That led me to think they're not overly intelligent."

Boutwell and his team conducted a meta-analysis of 187 previous studies on the relationship between psychopathy and intelligence, involving over 9,000 participants, some in prison and others in successful careers. The researchers found that psychopaths scored lower on intelligence tests. A surprising result, according to Boutwell.

"The results of the current meta-analysis produced a small, but significant effect size suggesting that individuals who score higher on measures of psychopathic traits tend to score lower on measures of IQ," the researchers wrote in the paper.

The researchers hope that their finding will contribute to our understanding psychopathy, currently an untreatable condition.

"Psychopathy isn't amenable to psychotherapies," pointed out Boutwell. "As we better understand psychopathy, we should be better able to develop treatment and rehabilitation for psychopaths."

Further research might also change how psychopaths are treated by the criminal justice system.

"If they have low intelligence, you could say that they are likely to offend again, or you could say that if they have cognitive difficulties, a lengthier prison sentence is not going to help them," said Boutwell. "You could make the argument in either direction."

You can read the study here, currently in pre-print.

Cover photo: Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter. © 1991 - MGM

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Is it "perverseness," the "death drive," or something else?

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

Keep reading Show less

34 years ago, a KGB defector chillingly predicted modern America

A disturbing interview given by a KGB defector in 1984 describes America of today and outlines four stages of mass brainwashing used by the KGB.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Bezmenov described this process as "a great brainwashing" which has four basic stages.
  • The first stage is called "demoralization" which takes from 15 to 20 years to achieve.
  • According to the former KGB agent, that is the minimum number of years it takes to re-educate one generation of students that is normally exposed to the ideology of its country.
Keep reading Show less

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.

Think Again Podcasts
  • It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
Keep reading Show less