Can we trust Hollywood when it comes to psychopaths?

Are psychopaths really super smart?
21 February 2017


Creepy hand


Graihagh Jackson has been enjoying some fava beans and nice chianti while looking into this week's myth-conception.

Graihagh- There’s a particularly chilling scene in a film which has always stuck with me: Hannibal Lector sauteing the pre-frontal lobe of Paul Krendler’s brain in white wine and shallots. In my eyes, Hannibal the cannibal is the ultimate villain because:

He’s exceptionally skilled at killing people and feels no remorse or empathy. Ergo, you can’t barter your way out of this one.
He always has this creepy, calm demeanour - he’s never unnerved or unhinged despite the enormity of what’s he’s doing.
He has this distinguished career, further veiling his ability to eat people.
Oh, not to mention, he’s highly intelligent and can outsmart everyone in the FBI.

A plus b plus c plus d = once Hannibal’s got his eye on you, you’re toast, possibly served with a side of quince jelly. The idea that psychopaths like Hannibal exist is terrifying and even more so given the fact that some some scientists think they make up 1% of the population. Think about how many people you’ve met over your life - statistically, you’re likely to have met a few - that guy you met at some networking event, your highly manipulative ex-girlfriend and - depending on how much you like your job - your boss.

The thing is - a meta analysis that looked at 187 papers charting psychopathy and intelligence found no evidence that psychopaths are smarter than the average person. The study looked at those with esteemed careers as well as those in prison and do you know what they found?

Psychopaths, in fact, scored ‘significantly’ below average on intelligence tests. And a similar study published in 2011 in Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment found the same.

I know what you’re wondering, given you can’t trust Hollywood’s depictions of psychopaths, it would be good to know what psychopathy is…

It’s a personality disorder and because of that, it falls on a spectrum - like age and height - and is commonly diagnosed using a 20-part checklist called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. In the States, if you score 30 out of 40, you’re deemed a psychopath, in the UK, the cut off is 25.

It measures a number of traits, which includes things like callousness, insincerity, selfishness, an inability to accept responsibility for one’s actions or plan for the future, overconfidence, impulsivity and violence.

Turn all those traits up to maximum - like sliding up all the inputs on our mixing desk in the studio - and you’re a psychopath. However, turn up a few and you may have psychopathic traits, but it doesn’t make you a psychopath and what’s more is that some researchers from Oxford University have found you actually may be more successful if you have some of these traits.
The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton

Those diagnosed as a psychopath rather than simply having some of the traits, commonly have a different brain structure with deficiencies in the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex - these two areas are associated with emotions and decision making. Interestingly, scientists aren’t sure whether psychopaths don’t experience emotions at all or whether they can but then cannot use that information later on when making a decision.

Which makes sense if you think back to the long list of traits before - the callousness, the selfishness, the inability to plan for the future, overconfident, manipulative, cunning etc. And whilst some of these may appear to make psychopaths seem clever, statistically speaking, they’re not. It’s a facade, which means if Hannibal the cannibal does break through our tv screens into reality, you can rest assured it’s unlikely he’ll be able to outsmart the FBI forever.


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