Nearly 5% of Adults Are Psychopaths, Study Finds

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A meta-analysis published this summer in Frontiers in Psychology reveals the prevalence of psychopathy in the general population: 4.5% of adults have this personality disorder. The study authors specify, however, that this rate varies according to the sex of the participants, the type of sample from the general population studied, and the method used to define psychopathy. According to the Revised Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) established by psychologist Robert Hare, the percentage drops to 1.2%.

This meta-analysis is based on fifteen studies, most published in the last ten years, involving 16 participant samples representing a total of around 11,500 adults. Most of these participants were university students (43.75% of the total samples) and adults from the community (37.5%), which constituted, respectively, seven and six of the samples considered. The other three cohorts studied (18.75%) were recruited from different organizations.

To study the possible influence of the country of origin on the prevalence of psychopathy, the samples were grouped into three categories: North America (USA and Canada: 43.75%), United Kingdom-Australia (31.25%) %) and continental Europe (Sweden, Belgium and Portugal: 25%). In most of the studies listed (60%), psychopathy was assessed and defined with self-report instruments (in particular, the self-report scales developed by Michael Levenson and Robert Hare); 33% of these involved clinical assessment instruments (PCL-R) and the rest were based on interviews.

Are you an unconscious psychopath?

Psychopathy is generally defined as “a type of personality disorder characterized, among other important characteristics, by the presence of behaviors that are in conflict with the social, moral or legal norms of society, giving rise in many cases to behaviors clearly criminal “, specify the authors. However, criminal behavior does not fundamentally define this disorder.

In the 1940s, the American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley, considered a pioneer in the study of psychopathy, highlighted the personality traits of psychopaths, in particular the lack of emotion (lack of nervousness, lack of remorse or shame, inability to love, superficial affection). reactions), associated with a “normal” appearance (absence of delusions or other signs of irrational thinking, superficial charm and good “intelligence”). In other words, being a criminal does not mean that you are a psychopath. And so some people could be psychopaths without committing crimes (and they never did).

Cleckley’s research has largely inspired the work of Robert Hare, who has become one of the foremost authorities in the field of psychopathy, especially since he established, in 1991, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (or PCL-R ), a classification scale that groups different typical symptoms of the disorder. Over the years, this tool has become a benchmark for the evaluation of psychopathy in medical-legal and prison contexts, and has led to several increasingly refined versions.

Better understanding of psychopathy and evaluating it in a relevant way makes it possible to highlight possible environmental, social and situational factors that lead to crime, and improve the assessment of the risk of recidivism and violence to select appropriate treatment programs.

A predominantly male disorder

Research has consistently shown that the prevalence of psychopathy is highest among male offenders and inmates. The prevalence of psychopathy and levels of psychopathy were also found to be higher in North American prisoners (both sexes) than in Europeans.

In addition, the scientific literature recognizes the existence of people with high levels of psychopathy, who are not criminals or violent; These psychopaths are said to be “on board” or even “successful” when they are doing very well in their life. The absence of fear, a great confidence in oneself or the charisma that characterizes them can be real assets in certain contexts. For example, it has been suggested that psychopaths move up the corporate ladder more easily because they naturally exude charisma and confidence.

The meta-analysis seems to confirm this last hypothesis, since the prevalence of psychopathy in the samples of organizations is much higher than in the community samples (12.9% vs 1.9%); it is also higher among student samples (8.1%). Likewise, the results confirm that sex has a significant influence on the prevalence of psychopathy: in the 13 samples selected to evaluate the role of sex, the disorder was diagnosed in 7.9% of men and “only” 2.9% Women’s.

Finally, the authors of this meta-analysis specify that in the 13 selected samples, “gender was the only moderator significantly linked to the prevalence of psychopathy”, since not only the country of origin was found, nor the evaluation method, nor the type of sample. be significant in their respective individual meta-regression analyzes.

The average of the results allowed estimating the prevalence of psychopathy in the general adult population at 4.5%, a prevalence much lower than that found in samples obtained in forensic or prison contexts (which varies between 10 and 35%), note the researchers . But it turns out that the prevalence rates obtained in the studies reviewed here show considerable variation, from 0% to 21%! This analysis confirms that this variation is due to the type of instrument used to define psychopathy, the sex of the participants, and the type of sample from the general population; on the other hand, the country of origin does not appear as a significant parameter.

Frontiers in Psychology, A. Sanz-García et al.

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