What is a psychopath? A guide to Antisocial Personality Disorder

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Answered by: Angelo, An Expert in the Psychology Basics Category
In psychology, there are a branch of disorders known as personality disorders. These disorders are noteworthy for affecting significant parts of one’s personality, as well as the way that a person interacts with those around him or her. While many personality disorders alter the way a person would normally behave, none of them are so fundamental or conceptually jarring as that of Antisocial Personality Disorder (or APD for short) is often more commonly known to many as “psychopathy” or “sociopathy”. It was originally known as psychopathy, but the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM V) has reclassified it as a personality disorder, and labeled it as Antisocial Personality Disorder, but the terms are interchangeable, and will be used interchangeably here. Even though the term psychopath is much more recognizable to many people, those who recognize the term often fail to fully understand what APD is.

People with APD, or a "psychopath" are distinguishable and noteworthy because they do not have a conscience. They feel no guilt or remorse for their actions, cannot distinguish between right and wrong (other than based on their environmental and social cues) and completely fail to recognize other people as human beings. This distinguishing factor causes many people to assume that those with APD are all serial killers and mass murderers, or vice versa, but this is not always the case. Many serial and mass killers had other disorders (such as schizophrenia, brain tumors, or severe trauma) and many psychopaths lead lives perfectly devoid of violence (in fact, many of them are high-level CEOs). The lack of a conscience does not immediately mean an insatiable bloodlust.

Even though psychopaths lack a conscience, their environment is often a major factor in determining how their lack of conscience expresses itself. Those born in more poor and unstable environments often are more aggressive, and are more likely to commit violent crimes and end up in jail. However, psychopaths born in middle-class or upper-class environments are less likely to commit violent crimes, and more likely to manipulate those around them for their own gain without breaking any law, although likely breaking many social and ethical codes. However, if they do commit crimes, are more likely to commit white-collar crimes such as blackmail, bribery, fraud, or embezzling. These crimes can have an enormous negative impact on thousands, or even millions of people. Of course, a psychopath has no regard for the negative effect these actions cause, and is more concerned with the immediate benefit provided to him or herself.

The precise cause of Antisocial Personality is not entirely clear to psychologists, although most believe that the general cause is a malfunction in the prefrontal cortex - the front quarter of the brain responsible for a large portion of a person's personality, decision-making skills, emotions, and social behavior. Most psychologists believe that the disorder is formed during prenatal development, although some believe that some cases are caused by severe social and personal trauma causing a distrust of society and others, and a shut-down of the conscience and remorse (for those who believe this, the term sociopath is often used as a separate term from psychopath to distinguish this situation, however, sociopath is not always used in this way).

Even though a psychopath has a complete lack of guilt and remorse, this is not always something that is easy to recognize. Psychopaths are often incredibly cunning, charming, and manipulative, and can often make even trained professionals doubt whether they have any disorder. They are very good at emulating emotions, and watching others to simulate genuine sorrow and guilt. Additionally, they are not lacking in emotions entirely, instead they are noted to have more shallow emotions, and a more shallow affect - that is, they are more superficial than an average person, and while they may come across as exceptionally charming at first, prolonged time around them shows a lack of emotional depth. For this reason, many people are initially very taken in by psychopaths and believe them great company, and only in hindsight do they recognize having been manipulated and charmed by psychopaths.

At this time, there is no known cure for APD, most psychological treatment is ineffective because the psychopaths have no willingness to change their behaviors, except for as a ruse to convince others that they are normal, trustworthy, and not dangerous. However, many psychologists are researching many different ways to correct the disorder.

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