Why Are Psychopaths Thought of as Highly Intelligent?

Wikimedia commons

Source: Wikimedia commons

Do people fear the dark side of high intelligence?

by Scott A. McGreal 

When lay people think about a psychopath, they may, quite reasonably, think of someone who’s potentially very dangerous, or even evil. Yet they may also consider someone who’s highly intelligent. However, research shows that psychopaths are no more likely to be highly intelligent than the average person. Why does this misconception occur? Popular culture, with its frequent portrayals of “evil genius” characters may be partly to blame. Yet this misconception might also reflect something about the way people perceive the nature of intelligence. That is, people may associate intelligence with emotional coldness and disregard for social norms, whether or not this is really true.

Psychopathy is a personality disorderassociated with extreme callousness and willingness to exploit others and violate their rights. Although not all people who might be regarded as psychopaths commit crimes, they have considerably higher rates of criminality and violence than other people.

Lay people tend to have a number of misconceptions about psychological disorders, and this seems to apply to their understanding of psychopathy as well. In one study, people were asked to read a series of statements about psychopathy, and rate how much they agreed each statement is true (Furnham, Daoud, & Swami, 2009). Most participants were likely to agree with statements like “psychopaths are often highly intelligent” and “psychopaths are very socially skilled and competent in most social situations.” The latter statement contains a grain of truth: Psychopaths tend to be socially bold and highly confident, and they possess superficial charm that they use to manipulate others. However, there is no evidence that they are more likely to be highly intelligent than the average person. A review of studies found that the correlation between psychopathy and intelligence is nearly zero, suggesting that most people with psychopathic traits are neither highly intelligent nor particularly dull (O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, & Story, 2013).

In another study, people who were participating in a mock jury were asked to rate their perceptions of a defendant in a murder trial based on a brief summary of the case (Edens, Clark, Smith, Cox, & Kelley, 2013). Participants rated the defendant on how strongly they possessed 20 psychopathic traits, which were derived from the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), used by psychologists to assess psychopathy in real life. The PCL-R assesses two broad factors of psychopathy: Factor 1, called primary psychopathy, is associated with shallow affect, low empathy, and interpersonal coldness. Factor 2, called secondary or hostile/reactive psychopathy, is associated with aggressive, impulsive, antisocial behavior and socially deviant lifestyles.

The defendant was also rated on several other psychological and behavioral characteristics, including intelligence, boldness, dangerousness, and evil. Participants who rated the defendant high in psychopathic traits also tended to rate him as highly bold, intelligent, dangerous, and evil. This was true of ratings of the defendant on Factor 1 (primary psychopathy) traits, although not entirely true of ratings of Factor 2 (secondary psychopathy) traits, which were predicted by boldness, dangerousness, and evil, but not intelligence.

People tended to associate intelligence with the emotionally cold Factor 1, but not with the more emotionally reactive Factor 2. This was despite the fact that the case vignette contained minimal information, with nothing that would indicate intelligence (e.g. there was no information about the defendant’s general knowledge, professional skills, or education). Interestingly, participants were also asked who was the first person (real or fictional) who came to mind when they heard the word “psychopath” or “sociopath”—90% of respondents could identify someone in this category. People were more likely to draw on real-world examples than fictional ones. The majority identified serial killers or mass murders (e.g. Charles Manson), while the next most popular response concerned political figures (e.g. Hitler), while only a small minority (8%) identified a fictional character (e.g. Hannibal Lecter)…




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