Making Sense of the Psychopathic Mind

Sep 24, 2014

The disappearance of Hannah Graham reminds parents of the need to warn their kids about dangers in the world, but it’s not an easy job  -- especially as children grow into young adults.  Experts in the field of psychology say it might be a good idea to teach kids the “P” word. 

When members of the so-called Islamic state began beheading American and British journalists and aid workers, recording and posting the executions online, one mother pleaded publicly with them to spare her son.  That plea failed, perhaps because the killers are psychopaths or sociopaths.

Daniel Murrie, UVA’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.

“Sociopaths are folks who have sort of been trained to be more remorseless, more aggressive, usually by the culture they’ve grow up in.  They are prone to less empathy,  tend to be callous, but superficially charming ," says Daniel Murrie, Director of Psychology at UVA’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy. He says these people are relatively rare in our culture, comprising maybe one percent of the population.

“Even in a prison, even in a high security prison we’re talking about only 10-20% of the inmates.”

Psychopaths are usually bold and have little anxiety.  At times, people might describe them as mean,  manipulative and self-centered.  They come from various backgrounds, and often this personality disorder shows up  early.  Tod Burke is a Professor of Criminal Justice at Radford University and a former police officer. He says that as kids, psychopathic serial killers often abused insects and other animals.

Dr. Tod Burke, Radford University Criminal Justice Dept.

“And what this is is kind of a rehearsal to hurt human beings.”

More commonly, psychopaths have what teachers would call behavioral problems.  Often they get away with things because they can be so likable – even charismatic. But Burke says it’s difficult to maintain a friendship or marriage with a psychopath.

“They’re very unreliable, they lack empathy, very impulsive.”

And, he says, in our day to day lives, we may have encountered such a person without even knowing it.

“You wouldn’t recognize it if it were in front of you, because again, these people are very charming.  They fit in with everyone else.  They’re the neighbor next door.  They’re the people that  you say, ‘ Oh they were just so friendly.”

Many experts believe psychopaths exist on a continuum, with some exhibiting more anti-social behavior than others.  Not all are violent, not all are criminal, but studies suggest their brains are different from those of most other people.