The Psychology of Psychopathy

“Violent psychopath” (21,700). “Psychopathic serial killer” (14,700). “Psychopathic murderer” (12,500). “Deranged psychopath” (1,050). We have all heard these phrases before, and the number of Google searches following them in parenthesis attests to their circulation in popular culture. We are fascinated by them, and yet each phrase embodies a widespread misconception regarding the psychopathic personality. But why are we so fascinated by them? What draws us to their study? In my opinion, it is the superficially charming nature and heightened intellect of psychopaths. It is also their ability to put emotions aside and act entirely without them. It’s undeniably fascinating, and equally as terrifying.

We associate the word, ‘psychopathy,’ with figures of extreme violence and manipulation, such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. However, we are also likely to encounter psychopaths working in normal functioning environments, including hospitals, where they are performing incredibly high pressure procedures without breaking a sweat. In Kevin Dutton’s fascinating book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, he describes one of the greatest and most successful neurosurgeons as ‘ruthlessly cool,’ and ‘incredibly focused under pressure.’ The surgeon freely admits that he has no compassion for those he works on, because compassion is distracting in a room where every second counts. He talks about turning into a ‘cold, heartless machine, who is totally at one with the scalpel, drill and saw,’ because emotion has no place when he is cheating death. The words are disconcerting, but they make perfect sense. There are benefits to being a psychopath, which is quite difficult to comprehend. However, as Kevin Dutton eloquently states, the psychopathic arsonist who sets fire to your house is also more likely to be the hero who braves the flames to seek out your loved ones in a parallel universe. Psychopaths are very capable of putting emotions aside to do what is necessary.

Claims like these are hard to believe, but they are true. Psychopaths are fearless, confident, ruthless and focused. These specific characteristics are certainly sought after for certain job positions, and recent studies have found that we are more likely to encounter psychopaths in the operating theatre, on the trading floor, and in a courtroom legal battle. Psychopathic talents can be advantageous, which is quite unsettling to consider. When harnessed to suitable situations, such as the hospital operating theatre, the psychopath becomes a truly valuable member of society. Unfortunately, our experiences of psychopathy are nearly always defined by what we have seen in popular culture. The term, ‘psychopath,’ is more likely to conjure images of Hannibal Lecter in our mind, rather than the somewhat terrifying but necessary brain surgeon who saves lives on a daily basis whilst detaching entirely from emotions and empathy.

Am I the only person in the world who wishes I could turn off my emotions at times? I certainly wouldn’t do it permanently, but the complexity concerning the psychopathetic condition is definitely thought-provoking.

Is ‘clique’ behaviour an evolutionary weakness?

Most of us have experienced some form of social ‘clique’ in our lifetime. These groups consist of people who share similar interests and bond over them, such as the football team at school, the cheerleaders at college, or the ‘ladies-who-lunch-together’ in the office. They can be quite intimidating and cruel towards outsiders too. Despite the emotional effect such groups can have on individuals, there has been very little study into the science behind them. This blog entry will seek to investigate the science behind the ‘clique’ mentality, and introduce the idea that this behaviour is actually an evolutionary weakness.

The science of clique behaviour is fascinating to consider. Since the beginning of time, human beings have felt a natural affinity towards each other, and have clubbed together in order to survive. Groups of hunters were far more adept at finding food than lone huntsman, and groups of warriors were more able to protect their families from harm. Groups of people would travel together, and fight against outsider groups who may seek to steal provisions from them. Outsiders were a real threat, and therefore the targets for violence. This theory may seem difficult to apply to modern day situations, but it isn’t as far-fetched as you’d think. Sociologists argue that people form cliques because they need to feel a sense of belonging in order to survive in a world ruled by social interactions. Many academics argue that this need is equally as crucial as food and shelter, and stems back to our ancestors who survived in clans, or in a herd mentality. Lone outsiders were unlikely to survive in the wilderness, and are still viewed with suspicion and dislike in the modern day.  If a person doesn’t gravitate towards a certain group, or ‘clique,’ then they become a target for gossip, hearsay and bullying.

Being an outsider is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve never felt a sense of belonging to any particular social group, and that’s always been a difficult burden to bear. I never engaged in office politics, because I had no idea how to, and I was bullied continuously at school. I didn’t fit the ‘mould’ of other workers or pupils either, so was often left out when people went for ‘drinks’ after work or sleepovers at the weekend. This can leave a person feeling humiliated, and it absolutely crushes self-esteem. However, I have started to see that being an outsider is actually an advantage. Outsiders are more capable of being objective, and less social commitments result is far less stress. I am quite glad that I don’t feel obligated to go out with a certain group of people on a weekend, or have to deal with the stresses of trying to belong. I pride myself on being an outsider, and I would urge other people to do the same. Cliques are an outdated method of survival, and there is far more power and pride to be had in being an independent and lone entity in this day and age.

Meanwhile, in my uterus…

“It’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s just your period. Keep taking ibuprofen,” stated my doctor, as he dismissed my frustrations and concerns about having bled profusely for six months.  I nodded numbly in agreement, and left the doctor’s office without another word. Frankly, I didn’t have the energy to argue. I’d been in debilitating pain for a long time and I could barely get out of bed in the mornings. I was crippled by never-ending backache, and felt weak, disorientated and extremely sick. I described these symptoms to my doctor, who was all too keen to dismiss them. He didn’t take my concerns seriously, and he certainly didn’t suggest that I might have a disease called Endometriosis, which affects 10% of the female population (1). That’s 176 million women worldwide.  That’s a large number of women out there, who suffer in silence.

Six months after fourteen similar disastrous doctors’ appointments, I was admitted to hospital where I received an internal ultrasound and laparoscopy, which led to a formal diagnosis of this disease. I felt a mixture of relief and absolute dread. I was relieved that my symptoms weren’t just in my head, which my doctors had convinced me, but this relief was swiftly followed by trepidation, because I knew there was no known cure. Endometriosis is a complex condition, and every case is different. There is also a distinct lack of accessible information regarding how to live with it. It took a far kinder (and infinitely more patient) doctor to explain that this disorder is caused by a woman’s endometrium, which is otherwise known as the tissue that usually lines the inside of the uterus. A person suffering from endometriosis will have this tissue growing outside of the uterus and elsewhere in the body. During the menstrual cycle, this tissue creates an inflammatory response in the body. It forms painful lesions, scars, and nodules. These can cause a variety of life-changing symptoms – moderate to severe pain, migraines, fatigue, pain during sex, heavy bleeding, and many more.  I knew that I’d made alterations to my life because of this disease, and I wondered how many other women had done the same.

My doctor recommended another laparoscopy, which would be aimed at removing the excess tissue. This is a very popular method of easing the symptoms associated with endometriosis. It isn’t a cure, but there is statistical evidence that it can help in the long term. In a recent study of 176 women who had confirmed endometriosis, 67% of these women noted a lessening of their symptoms after surgery (2). After almost a year of being stuck in bed, and using only ibuprofen to deal with the pain, I told my doctor that I would be a willing participant in this operation. It took two weeks for the hospital to arrange a date, and then I was under the surgeon’s knife. The procedure went without a hitch, but I’d be lying if I said the outcome wasn’t painful. I went home two days later with a stomach that rivalled the size and shape of a good-sized watermelon. I was bloated, sore, and I could barely move. I spent five days in bed, before starting to move around again.

Would I recommend the procedure? I absolutely would. I was far more comfortable for a long time afterwards, and was eventually able to return to work. Unsurprisingly, the lesions returned, and I am always in agony during my menstrual cycle. My doctors still haven’t found a solution to my pain either, although they are more willing to prescribe stronger anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) to try and keep me out of their waiting rooms.  They have recommended hormonal treatment, but as a super sensitive sufferer of anxiety, I declined. It worries me that there isn’t more research going into discovering a cure for this disease, and awareness is fairly rubbish too. As I delve deeper into online communities of the suffering, I’m learning that it can take years to achieve a diagnosis, because the symptoms are simply dismissed. The NHS are also under increasing pressure to see more and more patients within limited timeframes, which results in patients feeling like a number to be ticked off. It almost feels impossible to gain a proper exploration into the symptoms, which was half my battle in the beginning. Awareness has to be key here. There is a still a ridiculous stigma attached to the discussion of the female’s intimate anatomy, but this draconian view needs to be overcome. Doctors must be educated about this debilitating disease that is affecting a huge number of the female population, and be informed about the treatments that are available.  It isn’t good enough to send women home when their symptoms are so severe. Doctors have a duty of care to their patients.

I know it’s going to be a long fight, but I’m in it for the long haul, so wish we luck! If you are a woman who is suffering in silence, please reach out to your doctors, health professionals and friends. It’s not something that should be endured alone, nor should it be brushed beneath the carpet.

  • (1) Rogers PA, D’Hooghe TM, Fazleabas A, et al. Priorities for endometriosis research: recommendations from an international consensus workshop. Reprod Sci 2009;16(4): 335-46.
  • (2) Morris, KA. Living Well with Endometriosis. William Morrow 2006: 97