Psychology Melbourne Blog

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So you think you're a psychopath

Edited by Jill Wright,

It's almost a year since I wrote about my concerns that people were being encouraged to diagnose themselves and others as psychopaths, in a piece about suggestions by psychology professor Paul Verhaeghe that the prevailing social and economic climate were encouraging psychopathic personality traits.

Judging from an article in The Guardian last week by two British researchers, Dr Molly Crockett and Professor Essi Viding, things have not improved, to the extent that we have an increasing number of publications and online quiz sites that claim to allow the average man in the street to identify psychopaths, or, as the researchers write, "show how psychopathic traits can be advantageous".

Crockett and Viding point out that the condition is a rare and serious personality disorder "which is primarily diagnosed in criminal justice settings". 

These individuals, who make up only about 1 per cent of the population, "lack empathy and remorse, do not emotionally connect with other people, are manipulative, use other people to their own ends and are often aggressive or violent".  The chance of your being a psycopath are quite small, but nevertheless it seems that a lot of people are relying on these quizzes for genuine feedback about their personality issues.

The researchers are deeply worried that the so-called tests are trivialising the condition and leading people to imagine that they have had a genuine diagnosis of psychopathy, when they've had no such thing, with either no, or at best irresponsible, feedback.

At worst, they write, the feedback appeared to celebrate the "discovery" of psychopathic "symptoms" and even appeared to exhort people to capitalise on their “psychopathic personality” to use others for personal gain" . "We were also concerned about some of the feedback “diagnosing” the respondent as a psychopath and telling them that they cannot change and that no therapy will work for them."

In fact, therapy can help treat the condition.

The effect of all this, the article suggests, could be to license antisocial behaviour by suggesting that people are not responsible for their behaviour.

Their diagnosis is this: "Online quizzes might be fun, but they are probably better suited for assessing your knowledge of pop music than for self-diagnosing a serious personality disorder."

Of course, one can't help wondering about the people who are running these sites. Do they, perhaps, "lack empathy and remorse"? Do they "not emotionally connect with other people"? Are they "manipulative [and] use other people to their own ends"?

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.