When you think of a psychopath, what qualities do you imagine? Your answer may depend on the country you’re from. Newly published research suggests that psychopaths are not the same worldwide: The most salient feature of psychopaths in the US seems to be callousness and lack of empathy, while the most central feature of psychopaths in the Netherlands is their irresponsibility and parasitic lifestyle.
An article published in Journal of Abnormal Psychology in January analyzed the level of psychopathy among three samples totaling 7,450 criminal offenders from the US and the Netherlands. A significant number from each sample met the criteria for clinical psychopath according to the Psychopathy Checklist – Revised, or PC-R.
There are 20 questions in the PC-R, and four broad areas of psychopathy, assessing a person’s affective characteristics (such as lack of empathy, callousness, shallow emotional experiences, and fearlessness), interpersonal problems (such as being detached, manipulating others, or pathological lying), lifestyle issues (such as being irresponsible and having poor behavioral control), and antisocial behavior (such as behavioral problems in childhood and criminal behavior.)
The researchers, led by Bruno Verschuere, a forensic psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, used network analysis to map the psychopath scores and identify which characteristics were most often present. They found that callousness/lack of empathy was the most central characteristic in both the US samples. In the Netherlands sample, though, “irresponsibility” and a “parasitic lifestyle” were the most central. Meanwhile, “shallow emotional experiences” was one of the most peripheral characteristics in the Netherlands sample, but far more central for US psychopaths.
It’s possible that those rating PC-R scores do so differently in each country. But the results raise the possibility that American psychopaths are simply different from those in the Netherlands. Though this may sound implausible, cultural conditioning shapes both behavior and conceptions of mental illness. Symptoms of mental illness change according to time and geography—the symptoms of anorexia in Hong Kong, for example, have shifted in recent decades as the Western notion of the illness has spread.
So while both the US and the Netherlands are home to psychopathy, it could be that the type of psychopath in each country varies considerably. Studying this further should reveal the key characteristics of psychopathy worldwide and, according to the authors, help solve “the unresolved question of what psychopathy is.”