With near-daily mass shootings, and near-constant accompanying media coverage, we all fancy ourselves experts on psychopaths. After Elliot Rodger killed six people in Isla Vista in May, even as we argued about the role misogyny played in the attacks, one opinion was expressed with utter certainty: Only a psychopath could perform such a horrific string of murders and then kill himself as police closed in.
Not according to the world's leading authority on psychopaths.
"Based on the information that's been released publicly, it doesn't appear that he was a psychopath. Most psychopaths won't kill themselves, because they are far too egocentric," Dr. Kent A. Kiehl tells the Weekly. "It appears that Rodger was very asocial, very socially inhibited."
In his insightful new book, The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience, Kiehl writes that most spree killers — alienated loners who suddenly lash out with little or no warning, such as Aurora, Colorado's James Holmes, Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech or Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School — are not psychopaths. Instead, they suffer from psychosis, a fragmenting of the thinking processes in the brain, which leads to hallucinations and delusions.
Most serial killers, however, are indeed psychopaths — glib, charismatic, manipulative people without empathy or remorse. They're able to con victims into situations where they can then quietly kill them without attracting attention. "Serial killers score high on the psychopath scale and the sadism scale," Kiehl says. "They get physically aroused by the act of killing."
Kiehl's book, his first, draws on his experiences studying more than 500 psychopaths. He got his start as a graduate student interviewing Canadian inmates who had been assessed as psychopaths, and later continued his research at Yale and the University of New Mexico, where he is currently a professor of psychology, neurosciences and law.
Kiehl's use of brain imaging machines helped explain one common denominator among psychopaths: They are unable to understand and interpret metaphors. Whenever Kiehl asked what love meant to them, they would typically reply, "sex," and launch into their favorite sexual escapades.
"Psychopaths get stuck on the physical, the concrete, and they fail to describe the abstract connections that love provides," he says. "It's because they typically have damage to their right temporal lobe. The more abstract the concept, the more difficulty they have understanding it."
The most frustrating finding in his book is his answer to the age-old question of what causes psychopaths: nature or nurture?
"It seems to be 50-50," he says. "It's absolutely possible that some psychopaths are more genetically predisposed than other people, but there is no good evidence for a trigger theory. Psychopathy is a developmental disorder, so even as kids they are very different."
Kiehl, 44, says he set out to write the book to correct the misconceptions floating around about psychopaths.
"Misconceptions like that the boss is a psychopath, that the guy next door is a psychopath, that having some psychopathic traits is actually a good thing," he says. "I wanted to help people understand the reality of psychopaths."
If you're wondering whether your boss, your spouse or even you might be a psychopath, some personality traits can help separate those with difficult personalities from those who are true psychopaths.
"Psychopaths don't get depressed, don't ruminate, don't worry that they might have left the oven on when they're out of the house, and they lack insight into themselves," Kiehl says.
So if you're depressed, are constantly thinking about your unhappy past and your uncertain future while trying to figure out what makes you succeed at some things and fail at others, take heart: At least you're not a psychopath.
But then neither was Elliot Rodger, James Holmes or Adam Lanza.
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