Real-life psychopaths actually have below-average intelligence

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Manipulative, dishonest and lacking in empathy – the traits that describe a psychopath aren’t particularly pleasant. But the idea that they are also fiendishly clever – as often portrayed in films and TV – isn’t quite true. In fact, in general, psychopaths seem to have below-average intelligence.

You have probably met a psychopath at some point in your life. They make up around 1 per cent of the population, says Brian Boutwell at St Louis University in Missouri. A person is classified as a psychopath if they achieve a certain score on a test of psychopathic traits, which include callousness, impulsiveness, aggression and a sense of grandiosity. “Not all psychopaths will break the law or hurt someone, but the odds of them doing so are higher,” says Boutwell.

Because many psychopaths are charming and manipulative, people have assumed they also have above-average intelligence, says Boutwell. Psychologists term this the “Hannibal Lecter myth”, referring to the fictional serial killer, cannibal and psychiatrist from the book and film The Silence of the Lambs.

But Boutwell wasn’t convinced. “Psychopaths are impulsive, have run-ins with the law and often get themselves hurt,” he says. “That led me to think they’re not overly intelligent.”

Not so smart

To investigate, Boutwell and his colleagues analysed the results of 187 published studies on intelligence and psychopathy. These papers included research on psychopaths in prison as well as those enjoying high-flying careers. They also included a range of measures of intelligence.

Overall, the team found no evidence that psychopaths were more intelligent than people who don’t have psychopathic traits. In fact, the relationship went the other way. The psychopaths, on average, scored significantly lower on intelligence tests. “I think the results will surprise a lot of people,” says Boutwell.

Matt DeLisi at Iowa State University hopes that the findings will help put the Hannibal Lecter myth to rest. “The character promulgated the notion that psychopaths were highly intelligent, and there were real offenders that embodied this, like Ted Bundy,” says DeLisi. “But I have interviewed thousands of offenders, some of which are very psychopathic, and I have found that the opposite is true.”

Towards a treatment

In his experience, DeLisi says psychopaths tend to do poorly at school. “They are very sensation-seeking,” he says. “They don’t like to sit and read books – they end up engaging in substance abuse.” In his own interviews, he has found psychopaths to be rather inarticulate, and to swear a lot. “They talk over you in a brusque, aggressive style,” he says.

Boutwell hopes that his research will add to a growing understanding of how psychopathy works, and whether we might be able to treat it. As things stand, psychopaths tend to be considered “untreatable”, and many of those who have been incarcerated end up reoffending. “Psychopathy isn’t amenable to psychotherapies,” says Boutwell. “As we better understand psychopathy, we should be better able to develop treatment and rehabilitation for psychopaths.”

Changing the way people perceive psychopaths might also affect the way they are treated by the criminal justice system. “If they have low intelligence, you could say that they are likely to offend again, or you could say that if they have cognitive difficulties, a lengthier prison sentence is not going to help them,” says Boutwell. “You could make the argument in either direction.”


2 thoughts on “Real-life psychopaths actually have below-average intelligence

    winfred said:
    January 31, 2017 at 20:12

    But then I hope they weren’t manipulating him to believe they had low levels of intelligence..

    Garth Amundson, Psy.D. said:
    February 1, 2017 at 02:01

    I can’t say that I have had the opportunity to treat many “true” psychopaths, as they are the most unlikely of all people to seek psychotherapy. But I have worked with a large number of people who may be viewed as having psychopathic traits…lack of empathy, an impulsive defiance of authority, manipulativeness, shallow and superficial relationships, etc. For whatever it’s worth, these individuals have generally seemed to me to be of more or less average intelligence, with a few “outliers” who seemed highly talented or extremely concrete. The individual who may be described as an unalloyed psychopath is rare indeed; I think it is more realistic to think of psychopathy as a phenomenon that exists as a strain within the personality. Further complicating the picture is that there are certain permutations of psychopathy that are socially adaptive…for example, the individual who feels him or herself outside the limits imposed by commonsense moral restrictions, may then feel free to explore new, alternative ways of looking at and engaging reality. This is why the research shows that talented, innovative persons often show an abundance of psychopathic (that is “anti-social”) tendencies. Because they are not bound so securely by social norms, they see the creative possibilities in a given situation that other, “law-abiding” persons would ignore. Anyway…if you like what I have written here, you may be interested in my blog

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