Science Speakeasy: Psychopaths and Sociopaths

Grace Dean discusses the "nothing is taboo" panel session on psychopathy and sociopathy.

Grace Dean
15th April 2020
Image - CSP on Wikipedia
We may be in the midst of unprecedented times, but the Centre for Life has not let the current pandemic daunt them. Newcastle’s flagship science museum has converted many of its activities to online alternatives, one of these being its Science Speakeasy series. Aimed at adults, Science Speakeasy is a lecture series where nothing is taboo, and attendees are encouraged to ask questions and participate in debate of important and often controversial topics. Last week, they held a free Speakeasy via Zoom called “Psychopaths and Sociopaths”.

After a brief introduction by Dr Alistair Ford, Lecturer in Geospatial Data at Newcastle University, in which he welcomed the nearly 300 online participants, the Speakeasy began.

Dr Luna Centifanti, Lecturer in Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool, launched the discussion by first explaining what psychopaths and sociopaths are. She explained how the two concepts have emerged from different schools of thought in the nature or nurture debate; the idea of sociopathy focuses on the influence of external environment and upbringing, while psychopathy stems from biology. In genetics, the term psychopathy is used, but is often misinterpreted. Psychopaths are often associated with violence and murder – such as the Hitchcock classic Psycho – but yet the multifaceted nature of the condition is overlooked. As a broad definition, Luna described psychopaths as those with a limited emotional range or what is known as “emotional dampness”, where they do not experience empathy or strong emotions, those who strongly reject societal norms, and those who engage in narcissistic or self-gratifying behaviour. Because they struggle to feel guilt, psychopaths are often seen as exhibiting deceptive behaviours, and they have no sense of self-reflection.

This general description was followed by a more personal take by M. E. Thomas, who describes herself as “a high-functioning non-criminal sociopath”.  Thomas explained that “I don’t think I have the urge to kill people more than normal people…or at least the bottom half of people,” before emphasising the distinction between sociopaths and psychotic individuals.

After this, Dr Mark Freestone, a consultant on the TV series Killing Eve, provided further information from his perspective as a lecturer in psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London. He explained how, in academic and medical circles, the term “sociopathy” is fading out, being known instead as anti-social personality disorder. He explained how there is often great confusion on the overlap between psychopathy and criminal justice, as not all psychopaths are damaging to society and many just experience limited emotions.

This was followed by a discussion of the portrayal of psychopaths in the media from Luke Jennings, best known as the author of the Killing Eve novels whose antagonist is the psychopath Villanelle. Luke explained how he isn’t a scientist himself, and thus didn’t tie the characterisation of Villanelle closely to psychology, as she would have then become an amalgam of scientific elements rather than a real person.

The first audience question asked whether there is truth in the perception that psychopaths are predominantly male. Luna explained that the Psychopathy Checklist, developed by Robert Hare in the 1970s, was based on his experience interviewing make prisoners, and thus many of the defining personality traits associated with psychopathy have been based on these prisoners. Furthermore, men regularly score higher on risk taking, being more likely than women to engage in drug use or get in car accidents, and risk taking is closely associated with psychopathy. In addition, many of the best known case studies are of men.

The Psychopathy Checklist developed by Robert Hare was based on his experience interviewing male prisoners, and thus many of the defining personality traits associated with psychopathy have been based on these prisoners.

Dr Luna Centifanti

The discussion moved onto the seemingly large fanbases that fictional and filmic sociopaths and psychopaths have. Luke explained how the personality traits of these characters often lure viewers in as they are equally charismatic and horrifying, with Villanelle very evidently living her life for herself and taking no one else in account. He described how attentive and charming Ted Bundy is often referred to as, alongside the panache and suavity of Hannibal Lecter. These behaviours make these characters not only compelling and attractive but also a source of envy for the spectators because of their seemingly carefree natures. M E furthered this by saying how sociopaths are often a “source of fascination” but are often different from expectation. She described how many try to conform to social norms, but because they were not socialised in the same way they do not fully reflect these conventions. Luna then addressed the misconception that psychopaths are exceptionally intelligent, describing how they are often of average intelligence but will often become singled out in prison because of the generally lower IQs of their fellow inmates.

The personality traits of sociopathic characters often lure viewers in as they are equally charismatic and horrifying

This was followed by an audience question on whether sociopaths can engage in genuine and meangingful relationships given that they suffer from such emotional “dampness”. M E explained how sociopaths sometimes enter into relationships to appear more normal and to cover up their sociopathy. She explained how relationships can be difficult as sociopaths find it difficult to trust and be vulnerable, and want rigid boundaries. Despite that, circumstantial evidence suggests that sociopaths mellow with age and try more to be their authentic self, though this is difficult because their personality disorder means that they struggle to identify their true self.

After this the discussion turned to the similarities and differences between autism and sociopathy. While they share many personality traits, both conditions are treated differently by society, who generally see the need to work with autism but the need to cure or treat sociopathy. Mark explained how there is less of a correlation between autism and committing harm to others.

When asked whether there is a connection between social media and psychopathy, Luke explained how people often desire a bombacious portrayal online, and often behave malevolently because there is no real fear of comeback. Social media is therefore seen as conducive to psychopathic behaviour.

Social media can be seen as conducive to psychopathic behaviour.

The debate throughout the evening was fascinating and offered an intriguing insight to sociopathy and psychopathy, and the passion of the panellists and enthusiasm of the audience clearly shone through.

Science Speakeasy is a partnership between Life and the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences (PEALS) Research Centre at Newcastle University. The next Speakeasy, titled “Will the pandemic expose our climate hypocrisy?”, will take place on Thursday 14 May, and tickets can be booked online here.

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AUTHOR: Grace Dean
Editor-in-Chief of the Courier 2019/20, News Editor 2018/19, writer since 2016 and German & Business graduate. I've written for all of our sections, but particularly enjoy writing breaking news and data-based investigative pieces. Best known in the office for making tea and blasting out James Blunt. Twitter: @graceldean

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