We Need to Give the Term “Psychopath” a Break

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Many of us have heard horror stories on the news or seen terrible events occur on television shows such as “Law and Order: SVU”. Much of society and pop culture labels the perpetrator as a “psychopath”, and this term has stuck for years. While the term “psychopath” has gained popularity, and is used quite casually even do describe people we don’t particularly like, it’s used far off kilter. Psychology Today notes that psychopathy is one of the most difficult disorders to recognize, mainly because the characteristics of a person with psychopathy seem “normal” – even likable. By understanding the reality of what “psychopath” really means, perhaps we can discuss crime and people more appropriately.

Terms such as “psychopath” and “sociopath” are often used interchangeably, but there are key notable differences. Psychopathic traits are more innate, and sociopathic traits are centered more around antisocial tendencies as they pertain to social and environmental factors. Many individuals classified as psychopaths tend to be charming, self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and may engage in reckless behavior for the sheer fun of it. Those with psychopathy often don’t feel guilt, empathy or love, and routinely offer excuses or place the blame on others for their dangerous decisions.

The Scientific American notes, however, that most people classified as psychopaths are not violent, and most violent people are not psychopaths. They provide an example of the 2007 killer Seung-Hui Cho being classified in the newspaper as a “psychopath”, but those who knew him said he was markedly shy, withdrawn, and peculiar. These characteristics contradict that of a psychopath is defined as. Another common misconception is that psychopaths are psychotic.  Psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, often involve people losing touch with reality – people who are considered psychopaths often do not lose touch with reality, however. They are very rational, and often recognize their actions are viewed as wrong in the eyes of society, but they do not care.

There are conflicting beliefs about whether psychopathy can be cured. According to Yale University, “There is no pill that can instill empathy, no vaccine that can prevent murder, and no amount of psychotherapy that can change an uncaring mind.” Psychology Today claims that psychopathy lies on a spectrum, and some researchers believe that psychotherapy (talk therapy) has benefits for those with psychopathy. While we may not understand the acts of someone with psychopathy, we can learn to use the term in it’s appropriate context.




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