Psychopaths Are Misunderstood: UC Irvine Psychologist

Could Hannibal Lecter maybe have not attacked nine people and eaten their flesh if he went through intensive treatment?

Quite possibly, according to new research from a UC Irvine forensic psychologist.   

Psychopaths don't just make for great movie characters that cause the sales of fava beans to plummet. They're real people, according to Jennifer Skeem, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the university.    

Her report, Psychopathic Personality, suggests that psychopathy is a personality disorder that is widely misunderstood.

"Psychopathy remains a poorly understood concept reflecting some combination of our childhood fears of the bogeyman, our adult fascination with human evil, and perhaps even our envy of people who appear to go through life unencumbered by feelings of guilt, anguish, and insecurity," the article states.

Skeem dispels some myths. First, psychopathy is likely not a single personality disorder, but "a confluence of several different personality traits" including "disinhibition, boldness, and meanness." Second, while many might think psychopaths are born that way, one's environment and experiences also play a role. Third, psychologists tend to assume the notion of "once a psychopath, always a psychopath," but research suggests that youth and adults with high scores on measures of psychopathy can show reduced violent and other criminal behavior after intensive treatment.

Most importantly, she says we understand that psychopaths aren't the Jack the Rippers and Ted Bundys of the world. At least, not always. 

"Psychopathy cannot be equated with extreme violence or serial killing," Skeem said in a press release. "In fact, 'psychopaths' do not appear different in kind from other people, or inalterably dangerous."


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