Defining Psychopathy

Psychology has long debated as to what defines a psychopathic personality disorder and whether it is a mental illness or not. To date the best we can say about psychopathy is that it is an unhealthy conscience, lacking in morality and empathy toward others.

Jason Dobrow gives us a general consensus as to what characteristics a psychopathic individual can display: antisocial, manipulative, selfish, and unemotional (Dobrow, 2016). American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley outlined superficial charm, absence of delusional thinking, lack of remorse or shame, and untruthfulness and insincerity as a criterion to identify a psychopathic individual (Cleckley, Hervey, 1976).

Diagnosing Psychopathy

Diagnosing psychopathy should be done by a professional. The difficulty in diagnosing comes with the many different factors and misconceptions involved in analyzing and determining whether an individual has psychopathy.

For example, someone is not really able to distinguish a psychopathic personality disorder solely based on antisocial characteristics such as lawbreaking. An individual who often lies, lacks empathy, and is often selfish might share very similar characteristics of a psychological disorder but might only have an antisocial personality disorder.

The key difference between antisocial personality disorder and psychopathic personality disorder is that someone with a psychopathic disorder displays more superficiality, egocentricity, and glibness in their communication (Patrick, 2007).

Another reason diagnosing this disorder has been difficult has been due to the often held belief that psychopathic traits are set and inflexible and that these traits should be categorized as such, rather than observing psychopathic traits as dimensional in nature, ranging from low to high and progressive (Guay, Ruscio, Knight, & Hare, 2007).

Causes of Psychopathy

Given the complexity of this disorder, one might find it difficult to determine the root cause of this personality disorder. There has been more light shed on what might be the leading cause of this disorder by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Their study showed that individuals with psychopathic personality disorder have reduced and weaker connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala (University of Wisconsin-Madison 2017). The ventromedial prefrontal cortex facilitates sentiments and the amygdala facilitates fear. The connections between these two are very important. Researchers found diminished connecting fibers and coordination between these two parts of the brain break down the signals and communication processing abilities.

Whether the root cause is biological, environmental, or psychological, it can well be that this disorder might be an actual mental illness. Just like other illnesses, a professional should be consulted in regards to psychopathy diagnostics and possible treatments.


Dobrow, Jason A., “The Relationship between Psychopathic Personality Traits and Lying” (2016). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.

Cleckley, Hervey. “The Mask of Sanity” (1976). St. Louis: Mosby.

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