Office Hours: How Not to Spot a Psychopath

Sir Francis Burton was a nineteenth-century British scholar, soldier, author, spy, poet, diplomat, adventurer, and explorer who was lauded for his knowledge of languages and cultures and for being one of the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa.

Was he also a psychopath?

Professor of Psychology Scott Lilienfeld and two of his graduate students, Sarah Francis Smith 13G 19PhD and Ashley Watts 20PhD, drew on the life story of Burton and others for their article “On the Trail of the Successful Psychopath,” published recently in the Psychologist.

Modern-day scholars, the authors write, have noted that Burton displayed many of the traits of so-called “successful psychopathy,” also known as “adaptive psychopathy.” A constellation of characteristics are associated with psychopathy, including superficial charm, dishonesty, narcissism, lack of remorse, lack of empathy, physical fearlessness, social boldness, and relative immunity to anxiety.

The authors describe how Burton often traveled to areas full of turmoil and dangerous enemies, and he reported feeling “quite jolly” about killing another person. In addition, Burton’s obituary stated that he was known for “telling tales about himself that had no foundation in fact.”

“Perhaps in response to recent economic and social disasters, such as the United States housing market crash in 2008, the Enron scandal, and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi schemes, the concept of successful psychopathy has become the subject of increasing interest to researchers and the general public alike,” the authors write.

“In fact, we know surprisingly little about how prevalent psychopaths are in the business world, whether they’re more likely to attain positions of power, and what they’re like as bosses,” Lilienfeld says. Psychopaths can seem completely “normal” and can be hard to detect, even by those who study the disorder in depth, he adds. “Hollywood has shaped the popular perception of psychopathy more than anything else,” he says.

It may be easier to define what not to look for in a psychopath, despite what popular culture has told us about them. Following are five common myths about psychopaths.

Five Myths about Psychopaths

Psychopathy is a general term for severe mental illness.

“Psychopathy is a very specific type of mental disorder. It is not the same as mental illness in general,” Lilienfeld says. “In fact, ironically, classic psychopaths are less likely to develop many mental illnesses like severe depression or severe anxiety disorders because they probably don’t have much capacity for emotional distress.”

Psychopaths are always violent.

It is true that psychopathy increases the risk for violent behavior to some degree, but that increased risk tends to be only modest,” Lilienfeld says. “Most psychopaths are not particularly violent, and the substantial majority of violent people are not especially psychopathic.

Serial killers are always psychopaths.

Many, if not most, serial killers are not markedly psychopathic,” Lilienfeld says. “And we certainly know that the overwhelming majority of psychopaths are not serial killers.

Psychopathy is similar to psychosis.

People who are psychotic are out of touch with reality. They typically don’t know the difference between right and wrong,” Lilienfeld says. “Psychopaths, in contrast, are almost always quite rational. They can even reason through moral problems quite well. That reasoning just doesn’t necessarily translate into their actual behaviors.

Psychopathy is a basis for an insanity defense.

“The primary basis for an insanity defense is some variant of not knowing the difference between right and wrong,” Lilienfeld says. “Psychopaths will almost always fail that cognitive prong because they do know the difference between right and wrong in nearly all cases.”

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