Here's What a Psychopath Actually Is

We use the term psycho all the time but what does it actually mean? 

There are a lot of misunderstandings about mental health and casually using terms with a deeper meaning can propagate them further. So let’s get right into it. In this case using a fictional character as a template for a concept most of us tend to misunderstand in real life. Fansplainer is a YouTube channel created by comic book enthusiast Evan Geary (full disclosure: a friend to this writer) in which he explains the real-life science and politics behind popular comic stories and characters. Like the science of psychopathy for example.

In his most recent video Geary checks the Joker’s score on Robert Hare’s 20 point psychopath checklist: the list includes an assessment of behaviors like impulsivity grandiose estimation of self lack of empathy and rates them on a point scale of 1 to 3. Anyone who scores above 30 points is in the danger zone. If you’re familiar with the Joker you’d probably guess he’s past the tipping point. But it’s unlikely you know too many actual Jokers.

The Signs

You may not be able to resist running through the Hare checklist even if you know it’s inappropriate to diagnose someone as a non-doctor! (And to be clear: it absolutely is inappropriate to armchair diagnose the people in your life whether they be colleagues friends or even public figures.) But the real list of markers for psychopathy are pretty extreme; while lots of people exhibit some or many of these traits few cover all of them. It might rest your mind to go through them and see that maybe the person you’re worried about is just a run-of-the-mill jerk. Common traits of an actual psychopath include:

The Difficulty Of Diagnosis

One reason you probably don’t know too many real psychopaths is because there aren’t too many; they make up about one percent of the general population though there tend to be larger numbers in certain places like prisons or amongst CEOs according to Geary.

A diagnosis is also difficult to get. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders puts psychopathy under the larger umbrella term of anti-social personality disorder. Some psychiatrists conflate sociopaths and psychopaths while others define psychopaths as being born with the condition while sociopaths have some nature but mostly nurture to blame for their issues. As Geary points out we don’t really know the Joker’s origin story for sure so it’s hard to say if he was born this way.

Other Options

Mislabeling someone with a very specific mental health disorder ends up changing our understanding of what that disorder is. For example the common colloquial misuse of the word “psychotic” which clinically means you’re suffering from delusions and hallucinations. If someone having a psychotic episode committed a violent act they could recover with time and medication then experience remorse or empathy. A psychopath would not.

Psychopathy is measured on a spectrum because many of the markers of the condition overlap with other issues—like the ego-centrism of a narcissist or the risk-taking behaviors of someone in a manic episode. Those people are still not psychopaths! Your co-worker who microwaves fish probably isn’t either. The Joker however definitely is according to Geary the 20-point checklist and a certain bat-dressed man with his own issues to unpack.