How common is psychopathy? Interesting facts and discoveries

The prevalence of psychopathy in the general population appears to be much higher than previously thought.

In principle, in the world, the prevalence of psychopathy is estimated at one person in 100. However, a study carried out by the Department of Personality, Evaluation and Clinical Psychology of the Complutense University of Madrid, where the average prevalence of psychopathy was calculated based on several studies, estimated to be 4.5% for the general adult population. Of course, this percentage varies depending on the segments of the population we are looking at, as we will see later. In certain types of people, psychopathy is more common.

But… why is there such a difference? What are the reasons why psychopathy is not correctly diagnosed? In this article we explain the problem of calculating the prevalence of psychopathy and present the figures found for the different population groups.

    What is psychopathy?

    Psychopathy is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in personality disorders as antisocial personality disorder. The psychopath has an abnormal personality type, although it is not in itself a psychological disorder.. As we can see, the term psychopathy has a loose definition. It is actually used to describe those antisocial traits and behaviors that other disorders cannot describe.

    But within the general population, even though we don’t really know what it means to be a psychopath, there is a clear consensus that a serial killer has a very high degree of psychopathy. Well, that doesn’t really have to be the case.

    This confusion comes from psychology, where psychopathic traits have been studied, especially in criminals. People who engage in behavior that is contrary to social or legal norms obviously run a high risk of ending up in prison. Psychopathy it has been widely used in the field of criminal and prison psychology to describe behavioral differences between criminals.

    All this led to the identification of a psychopath with a criminal. But not all criminals show signs of psychopathy, nor are psychopathic disorders the source of all criminal behavior. And, on the other hand, many psychopaths, not being criminals, do not recognize themselves as psychopaths.

    It is not criminal behavior that defines psychopathy but, as in other personality disorders, a series of traits (or lack thereof) and characteristic behavioral patterns.

    In addition, there is a bad tendency to associate psychopathy with sociopathy. Psychopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy and guilt, as well as self-centeredness, impulsiveness, and a tendency to lie and manipulate. Sociopathy also possesses most of these traits. But there is a clear difference between psychopathy and sociopathy. A psychopath knows what he is doing and acts for his own benefit. While sociopathy is associated with inherited and unavoidable behavior. The sociopath exhibits little or no premeditation in his actions.

    Equating psychopathy with sociopathy assumes that psychopathy is, like sociopathy, a rather individual problem of genetic origin. And forget the socialization component that probably influences the multiplication, in recent years, of it. Some authors have shown the benefits of psychopathic behavior in today’s society.

    The traits and concepts that describe psychopathy today are largely based on the work of Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare and include: lack of empathy, self-centeredness and narcissism, superficial charm, emotional poverty, antisocial and criminal behavior, difficulty learning from experience, impulsiveness and lack of planning, insincerity and manipulation, proneness to boredom, parasitic lifestyle, lack of remorse, sexual promiscuity.

    Additionally, some people with high levels of psychopathy, far from being criminals or depicted as dangerous to society, they fit in perfectly; these are the so-called “integrated psychopaths”. For some people, psychopathy allows them to be successful and successful in their lives. So-called “successful psychopaths” benefit from certain typical traits of psychopathy such as courage, high self-confidence or charisma to reach the highest social level.

      Measurement of this psychological trait

      The PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist) over the years it has become the standard for assessing psychopathy. This test developed by Robert Hare consists of 20 items, it is in fact an evaluation scale, where a series of questions are asked and each one is assigned a score between 0 and 2 points. This test, however, was developed primarily to assess psychopathy in prison populations.

      The use of other tools to measure psychopathy significantly affects the calculation of prevalence, obtaining very different results between surveys.

        What do we know about the prevalence of psychopathy?

        In recent years, there has been a strong interest in studying the presence and influence of psychopathy in the general population as well as its prevalence and influence in all sectors and areas of daily life. From the world of work and the predisposition of psychopaths to exercise certain professions, to relationships: psychopathy is associated with promiscuity. Do they choose a particular personality trait to match? As we can see, the questions and objects of study can be endless and quite interesting to solve.

        The study “Prevalence of psychopathy in the general adult population: a systematic review and meta-analysis”, mentioned in the introduction, summarized all scientific research, where the prevalence of psychopathy in different population groups had been calculated . of which prison population and general population. This study led to a number of interesting conclusions.

          Psychopathy is underdiagnosed in the general population

          The study, based on several international studies, calculated that the prevalence of psychopathy in the general adult population was higher than previously thought. standing at 4.5%. Additionally, there is a significant difference in the prevalence of psychopathy between males (7.9%) and females (2.9%).

          Studies show widely varying results

          The prevalence of psychopathy in the general population obtained in the studies reviewed shows considerable variation, ranging from a low of 0% to a high of 21%.

          These differences depend on many factors, such as the tool used to define and measure psychopathy, gender of participants, type of general population sample and the countries of origin of the participants. The study results suggest that the first three factors, but not country of origin, have a significant impact on the prevalence of psychopathy.

          As we can deduce, this result highlights a fundamental problem in prevalence studies. The studies may not vary depending on the tool used because otherwise they will never be reliable. For example, if PCL-R is used, the prevalence of psychopathy in the general adult population is only 1.2%. However, if other instruments are used, such as self-reports of psychopathic personality traits, the prevalence of psychopathy in the general adult population reaches 5.4%.

          The prevalence of psychopathy differs between groups of adults

          Another interesting result of this work is related to the discovery of differences in the prevalence of psychopathy between different groups of adults. Especially, the prevalence of psychopathy among workers in certain organizations and companies (managers, executives, publicists) is significantly higher than among university students or the general population (12.9% compared to 8.1% and 1.9%, respectively).

          It may seem surprising that college students have more psychopathy than the general population. However, this makes sense, as most professions with more psychopathy characteristics require a college degree.

          Professions with more psychopaths

          Not all professions seem to have the same percentage of psychopaths. It’s obvious that Psychopathic Traits Help You Succeed in Certain Types of CareersUnscrupulous businessmen, self-centered executives, lying politicians, unscrupulous investors, unrepentant salespeople, empathetic surgeons, lying lawyers, lying telemarketers, the list goes on. Indeed, many authors have highlighted the benefits and virtues of personality and psychopathic traits in the current work context.

          Some of these occupations are typically associated with clerical occupations, giving rise to the term “White Collar Psychopathy”. Robert Hale described them as “informal and unreliable workers, predatory and unethical entrepreneurs, corrupt politicians or unscrupulous professionals who use their prestige and power to harm their clients”. These reflections make us think of people at the forefront of various financial scandals, such as the arrest of Bernard Maddof in 2008.

          A study conducted in the United Kingdom by psychologist Kevin Dutton, with a sample of 5,400 people, revealed the 10 professions with the greatest characteristics of psychopathy:

          • CEOs of companies
          • Lawyers
          • Radio or television presenters
          • Sellers
          • surgeons
          • Journalists
          • priests
          • Cops
          • cooks
          • Officials

          On the other hand, the 10 professions they presented lowest levels of psychopathic traits were:

          • Socio-sanitary assistants
          • Nurses
          • therapists
          • craftsmen
          • Stylists
          • Charity workers
          • Teachers
          • Creative artists
          • Doctors
          • accountants

          It was also mentioned in this study that people who held managerial positions at work had higher rates of psychopathic traits. Also high occupational risk jobs, such as police, firefighters, military, etc. they had more psychopaths in their ranks compared to other professions.

          These results seem quite logical since in the first list are professions where being cold, calculating, not very empathetic, manipulative or having other psychopathic personality traits can be beneficial in the career. However, the real problem is that the world and society we live in values ​​these traits.

          Bibliographic references

          • Sanz-García, A.; Gesteira, C.; Sanz, J.; García-Vera, MP (2021) Prevalence of psychopathy in the general adult population: systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 12: 661044.

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