Psychology suggests that psychopaths can be changed by the power of love

Hard love.
Hard love.
Image: AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
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From Norman Bates to Patrick Bateman to Hannibal Lector and Dexter Morgan, pop culture’s fascination with psychopathy has made us familiar with the condition’s telltale traits. Psychopaths, we have been told, have little empathy and remorse; they are impulsive, manipulative liars with swollen egos and charm to spare.

At a glance, such brazenly self-centered behavior seems enviable, almost decadent—the prospect of living a life unfettered by human decency is like the ultimate joie de vivre. After all, if one has no fear, shame, or conscience, then what could ruin the party?

Just a little thing called love.

The question of whether psychopaths are, in fact, happy is the basis of a new study on the relationship between psychopathy and subjective well-being. Conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, the study’s authors—associate professor Mark Holder, who specializes in the science of happiness and teaches psychology and behavioral neuroscience, and graduate student Ashley Love—set out to discern whether psychopaths can lead satisfying love lives (and whether love and happiness are even relevant to them at all).

In a series of questionnaires, the study asked 431 students aged 18 to 47 to rate the quality of their interpersonal relationships based on trust, commitment, and romance, as well as their overall wellbeing. The researchers used these responses to place participants on the psychopathy spectrum, which is a method of measurement used to determine the severity of psychotic traits. Where you sit on this spectrum differentiates criminal psychopaths from your “average” successful, nonviolent, high-powered lawyer variety. The questions were intended to help researchers answer one key question: If people who skew high on the psychopath spectrum don’t give a hoot about anyone but themselves, are they happy?

“On the one hand, we thought psychopaths might be very happy,” Holder says. “After all, they focus on their own needs and don’t lose any sleep feeling guilty about how they treat others. On the other hand, we thought they might be very unhappy, as personal relationships are critical to happiness, and psychopaths have unhealthy relationships characterized by manipulation, lying, and cheating.”

The study revealed that the higher a participant scored on the psychopathy spectrum, the less happy they tended to be. The participants with psychopathic tendencies were also shown to be less satisfied with their lives, and more likely to be depressed.

Love says the findings surprised her. “People who score high on psychopathy questionnaires tend to do what they want without concerning themselves with how these actions will affect the people around them,” she says. “It seemed to me that if a person typically does what they want, they should be happy.”

Though they are largely disassociated from feelings of sincerity and vulnerability—emotions which are central to forming strong romantic bonds—psychopaths are not impervious to love’s benefits, and they suffer when they’re absent. “Good social relationships are a key component of happiness,” Love explains. “Therefore, the fact that people who score high on psychopathy questionnaires also tend to have poor social relationships may partially explain why these people also tend to be less happy.”

While loving a psychopath may seem like a potentially risky prospect for the partner in question, it’s certainly easy to be seduced by one. Studies have shown that men who exhibit mild narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—the “dark triad” of personality traits—are deemed more attractive by women. (Just look at the womanizing prowess of pop culture’s two most infamous Jameses: Bond and Dean.) Furthermore, depending on the severity and manifestation of an individual’s psychopathy, a relationship with a psychopath could be mutually successful.

“Past research has indicated that [psychopaths] can display concern for others when properly motivated,” Love says. “This suggests that they could be taught to behave in ways to improve their social relationships.” For instance, Love notes that individuals high on the psychopathy spectrum prefer friends who contribute to their volatile lifestyles, such as criminals, fellow thrill-seekers, or ego-feeding suck-ups. Teaching psychopaths how to form healthier, more positive, interpersonal relationships with emotionally stable individuals, however, may help to reduce their antisocial behaviors.

“Taking part in healthy social relationships may increase the empathy felt by people high in psychopathy and, by extension, decrease their psychopathic traits,” Love says. “Good interpersonal relationships may also provide an important protective factor that could potentially be used as an intervention to decrease psychopathic behavior.”

Holder and Love’s study therefore suggests that carefully cultivating friendship and romance with nonviolent psychopaths can be beneficial to their wellbeing while also helping to improve their social behavior. By being surrounded by people who trust, share, and empathize, psychopaths may embark on a positive upward spiral that will eventually lead to a decrease in their symptoms.