“Psychopaths are not monsters”

Karolina Sörman is a researcher in neurobiology at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience and studies psychopathy. She thinks that the topic is often described in stereotypical terms and would like a more nuanced picture.

Karolina Sörman. Photo: Mattias Ahlm

Text: Ann-Cathrine Johnsson, first published in the magazine Medical Science no 3, 2015.

How accurate is the general picture of psychopaths?

“Psychopaths are often described as cold-blooded, evil monsters or as people you might find heading up any company. Both these stereotypical portrayals are too simplified. It’s possible to have certain psychopathic traits, such as being manipulative, fearless or selfaggrandising, without being classified as “a psychopath” according to established criteria for psychopathy. A real psychopath, on the other hand, is characterized by elevated levels of several of these characteristics, in combination with deviant anti-social behaviour such as poor impulse control and in some cases criminality and violence. This combination of deviant character traits and behaviours means that the person often has great difficulty relating to other people. For example, individuals with psychopathy don’t seem to react in the same way as most people to fear and punishment, which can lead to reckless behaviour. In the absence of studies in Sweden, it remains unknown what proportion of Swedes could be classified as psychopaths, but according to a British study the figure is less than one per cent of the population.”

What did you conclude in your thesis?

“Until date, psychopathic traits have mainly been investigated in criminal populations. We have evaluated alternative models and assessment tools developed in the US that can also be used with non-criminal groups. These models have not been tested in Sweden, but we could see that they were considered to be in line with perceptions of psychopathy among individuals working in the Swedish judicial system. We could also see that assessments of psychopathy are not always entirely reliable in clinical situations, i.e. two clinicians assessing the same person sometimes arrive at different conclusions. More research is needed on this subject.”

Has your outlook on people changed since you researched psychopathy?

“I’ve gained a greater understanding of the complex interplay between character traits and behaviours. Having explicit psychopathic traits can lead to a range of problems, but can also be advantageous in specific circumstances. Another thing that has struck me is that as humans we are constantly reflecting ourselves in other people. There is always a recipient who will be charmed and perhaps feel special in the company of a person with explicit psychopathic traits, who may often have an air of grandeur and self-importance.”

Did you meet many people with psychopathic traits during your work? What was it like?

“I have met some individuals who were very contradictory in that they seemed to function normally and could sometimes even be charming, but they had a fundamental lack of insight into what they had done to other people. There are probably biological explanations for it, but we need more neurobiological research to get a better understanding of people with psychopathy.”