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- Psychopaths make up around 1% of the population.
- Most people exhibit some psychopathic traits, so it can be difficult to diagnose someone with the personality disorder.
- One study suggests answering ethical dilemmas could work out whether someone is a psychopath or not.
- However, there is a difference between thinking logically and lacking any empathy or remorse.
Diagnosing a psychopath isn’t simple.
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, antisocial or psychopathic personality types are defined as having an inflated, grandiose sense of themselves, and a habit of taking advantage of other people.
However, it’s still a hard disorder to define, as most of us have some psychopathic traits. In fact, some psychologists believe everyone falls on the psychopathy spectrum somewhere.
On their own, some traits are beneficial to us, such as keeping a cool head, and having charisma. This is why many psychopaths become CEOs, because they can look at the cold, hard facts and make decisions without becoming emotionally involved.
Still, a number of researchers have attempted to find a way of diagnosing psychopathic behaviour.
One well-known test for psychopaths is the “The Hare Psychopathy Checklist,” which analyses how you see yourself and other people.
Another study from 2011, published in the journal Cognition, looked into whether how someone would respond in a fake scenarios could diagnose them as a psychopath.
The team from Columbia Business School and Cornell Universities gave participants a set of moral dilemmas, and also asked them to complete three personality tests: one for assessing psychopathic traits, one assessing Machiavellian traits, and one assessing whether they believed life was meaningful.
This was one of the questions they were asked:
“A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people and you are standing on a footbridge next to a large stranger; your body is too light to stop the train, but if you push the stranger onto the tracks, killing him, you will save the five people. Would you push the man?”
The team found that those who answered the dilemmas with an “ethic of utilitarianism” – the view which says the morally right action is whichever one produces the best consequence overall – possessed more psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits.
In the above question, if you’d choose to push the man, you have more in common with the people who had psychopathic or Machiavellian traits.
This makes sense when you think about how Machiavelli generally believed “the ends justifies the means,” and that killing innocent people could be normal and effective in politics, as long as the outcome was for the greater good.
A diagnosis isn’t that easy
However, as a press release from Columbia Business School itself points out, diagnosing a psychopath is not that simple.
“Although the study does not resolve the ethical debate, it points to a flaw in the widely-adopted use of sacrificial dilemmas to identify optimal moral judgment,” said Daniel Bartels, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School, and one of the authors of the study.
“These methods fail to distinguish between people who endorse utilitarian moral choices because of underlying emotional deficits (like those captured by our measures of psychopathy and Machiavellianism) and those who endorse them out of genuine concern for the welfare of others.”
In other words, just because you can make a theoretical calculated decision that results in the death of hypothetical people doesn’t mean you’re actually a psychopath.
The same problem arises with another popular conundrum, which can supposedly pinpoint a psychopath.
Here’s the dilemma, which was de-bunked on the website Snopes:
A girl, while at the funeral of her own mother, meets a man she didn’t know before. She thought he was amazing, and believed him to be the love of her life. However, when he left she realised she didn’t get his number.
A few days later, the girl killed her own sister. Why did she do it?
Supposedly, if you work out her motive, you think like a psychopath. This is the answer:
If she kills her sister, she has a chance of meeting the man again, because he will come to her funeral.
If you got the ‘psychopathic’ answer, don’t panic
As pointed out earlier, psychopathy is a spectrum. Many psychopaths have similarities in the way they view things, and many have cold, calculated ways of working things out – but this doesn’t mean they are exactly the same.
Working out the answer to the funeral dilemma requires a certain level of critical thinking. Getting to it could just mean you are good at solving problems. After all, just because you come to the correct answer doesn’t mean you would actually do it yourself.
Psychopaths are all around us – they make up about 1% of the population – and usually they won’t be identified by the people around them. What sets them apart isn’t their response to a single question, but more their lack of remorse and empathy.
Ultimately, if you pushed the guy onto the train tracks, or you figured out why the girl’s poor sister needed to die, it doesn’t mean you’re a psychopath. If you felt good about it, that’s a different matter.