Psychopaths comprise 1-4% of the total population in the U.S. There are few people who haven’t been mistreated by a psychopath at some point in their lives. Despite this, North American media tends to glamorize the psychopath, casting him as the brave war hero, the fearless police officer, the dynamic villain, or the misunderstood antihero.
The Psychopathic War Hero
Contrary to popular belief, psychopaths (also known as sociopaths) don’t make ideal soldiers. Classic movies such as the Dirty Dozen, in which psychopathic prisoners become heroes, glorify the psychopath as a brave individual who performs well under pressure due to his lack of fear and moral qualms about killing, and thus has the capacity to save others. The reality is very different.
During various wars, it has been noted that psychopaths are inclined to run away and save themselves rather than saving others. They will steal, lie, and take unnecessary risks that endanger their own lives and those of their squads. Additionally, while some individuals who met the criteria for psychopathy distinguished themselves as fearless fighter pilots during World War II, they were also inclined to be careless when it came to checking such things as fuel supply and the location of other planes, which caused many to be killed, and others to be considered unreliable.
Psychopaths are also not suited to dangerous professions such as bomb disposal. Despite being calm under pressure, they are too impatient, impulsive, and unreliable to be entrusted with delicate operations.
Psychopaths cannot be part of heroic teams because they usually don’t get along with one another. There is only room for one selfish, egocentric person in a pair or group. Occasionally two psychopaths will work together for a time when their interests are similar, but one always ends up betraying the other in the end.
True heroics require altruism, and altruism requires a conscience. It doesn’t matter how fearless a person is; if he has no capacity to empathize with others, there is absolutely no motivation to risk his life to save them.
The Psychopathic Cop
Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character is a classic example of the popular archetype of the psychopathic cop who can shoot people all day long without losing his appetite. In reality, many police officers suffer posttraumatic stress disorder after being forced to shoot someone. Psychopaths do have nerves of steel, but put them in service of their own ends rather than for the protection of others. A common use of psychopathic “courage” is deceiving others in high-pressure situations, as when serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, driving around with a body in his car, managed to convince the police that he was going for a night drive and planned to take some garbage to the dump.
Dynamic Psychopathic Villains
Bonnie and Clyde are examples of folk hero criminals. Many people are intrigued by those who break the rules, and get a vicarious thrill from such stories. Public fascination with psychopaths is evident in the number of hit movies, crime shows (both fictional and factual), mafia movies and television dramas, and books about famous killers.
A particularly disturbing trend is for killers such as Richard Ramirez, Lawrencia Bembenek, and Ted Bundy to have “groupies” and receive love letters from admiring fans. Motivated by a draw toward vicarious danger, the desire to love safely from afar, the need to save souls, or a belief that monstrous criminals are the products of abusive childhoods who should be pitied rather than reviled, such followers indicate the tremendous sway that the psychopath has over certain people.
The Psychopathic Gangster
A common character in movies, TV shows, and music, the psychopathic gangster is often depicted as an antihero. The appeal of the antihero is reflected in the popularity of the video game Grand Theft Auto. Unlike most traditional shooting games in which the protagonist kills evil aliens, zombies, monsters, or violent criminals, Grand Theft Auto makes a violent criminal the hero of the game, allowing players to engage in murder and mayhem from the bad guy’s perspective.
Rap music is frequently maligned by those who worry about violent media, and this generally negative assessment is unfair because rap is a broad musical genre with many different subtypes, some of which are politically progressive, enlightening, or fun without malice. But the more violent, gang-glorifying subtype holds up the cold-blooded killer and user as a role model to be emulated. Of course, rap isn’t the only genre with negative subtypes that glorify callousness. Other musical genres have their share of negative role models as well.
Music and other media don’t adversely affect most people’s ethics, and in some cases, they provide a much-needed release for negative emotions. However, certain individuals, particularly those who live in social environments where there are few positive role models, may be more susceptible to negative messages.
For more psychology articles, see the main Psychology page.
- Hare, R.D. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. The Guilford Press.
- Richtel, M. (22 July 2005). “Some Retailers May Keep Video Game off Shelves.” (22 July 2005). New York Times online.
- Stout, M., PhD. (2005). The Sociopath Next Door. Crown Archetype.