“The Unscrupulous”: Invariably and Unalterably Criminals?

-By Akanksha Singh

[The article is the first part of a two part series]

Theophrastus, one of Aristotle’s disciples, was probably the first person to ever write about psychopaths, calling them ‘the unscrupulous’, which precisely translates to ‘someone having or showing no moral principles; not honest or fair’. These people lack the ordinary connections that bind us all and lack the inhibitions that those connections impose. They are, basically, people without empathy or conscience.  

The term psychopathy comes from the German word “psychopastiche”, meaning ‘a suffering soul’, which was first used by the German psychiatrist J.L.A. Koch in 1888.    

Psychopathy is a neuropsychiatric disorder marked by deficient emotional responses, lack of empathy, and poor behavioural controls, usually resulting in persistent antisocial deviance. According to certain estimates, psychopathy is found in about one per cent of the general population, and for reasons that are poorly understood. In the eighteenth century, medicine recognized only three broad classes of mental illness: melancholy (depression), psychosis, and delusion, and psychopathy fit into none of these. Even now, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not formally recognize psychopathy but uses instead the largely subsuming diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). 

Psychopathy is linked to thrill-seeking, impaired capacities for empathy and remorse, low neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and proneness to hatred and contempt. Their abnormally high need for excitement and thrill is because of an impairment in their ability to feel arousal and anxiety, only the extremely high-risk activities can make the psychopath feel bodily arousal. This form of psychopathy is also known as true/primary psychopathy. When people speak of psychopathy, it is usually this variety of psychopathy they have in mind. People with extreme variants of primary psychopathy often have all the traits of the “Dark Tetrad,” including Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism. 

Secondary psychopathy, one of the vulnerable dark traits, overlaps considerably with borderline personality disorder and vulnerable narcissism. While linked to antisocial behaviour, low conscientiousness, and proneness to hatred and hostility, it is also associated with high neuroticism and hypersensitivity to negative feedback.

The causes of psychopathy are still not well understood. Though the growing body of evidence shows that psychopathy is highly correlated to aberrant neuronal activity in specific regions of the brain. Those neurological causes are in turn almost certainly either genetic or the product of very premature developmental predicaments. Indeed, the clinical evidence of signs of psychopathy in very young children suggests the classical blank slate model of the psychopath, as the adult product of childhood maltreatment probably misses the mark.

Point of views of notable Experts in Psychopathy

The discursive definition of psychopathy eventually centered in the book ‘The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality’[1] by Harvey Cleckley. In the first edition of this book, Cleckley described 21 characteristics that constituted a psychopath. In 1980, Robert Hare drew heavily on ideas from Cleckley’s book to produce a determining measure for psychopathy. In 1991, this test was revised to become The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), the “gold standard” of psychopathy diagnoses. PCL-R lists 20 characteristics of (primary) psychopaths, including some narcissistic and Machiavellian traits. Traits are identified and examined through PCL-R where the patients are scored out of 40. A clinical diagnosis of psychopathy is issued at a score of 30 or more.  

As for the clinical signs of psychopathy in children, one of the vital factors is believed to be the causative influences. But there are currently no studies that correlate environmental factors to psychopathy. A paper presented by Hare and his colleagues in 1990 shows that on average there is no detectable difference in the family backgrounds of incarcerated psychopaths and non-psychopaths.[2] None of this means a baby born with a disposition for psychopathy is destined for it. But it does mean, as Hare has put it, “that their biological endowment, the raw materials that environmental, social, and learning experiences fashion into a unique individual, provides a poor basis for socialization and conscience formation.” Studies suggest that a certain type of therapy may be able to make up for this poor start and take young people with psychopathic predispositions off their psychopathic track. There is also evidence that even if young psychopaths cannot be cured, the environment in which they grow up is highly correlated to whether they will become criminal psychopaths or the kind of psychopaths who avoid crime and manage to function among us.    

Hervey Cleckley wrote extensively about ordinary patients he classified as having severe forms of psychopathy and whom he opined were almost all “plainly unsuited for life in any community; some are as thoroughly incapacitated as most patients with unmistakable schizophrenic psychosis.” But he also examined patients who were highly functioning businessmen, scientists, physicians and even psychiatrists. These people were able to navigate the demands of modern society, despite having the same clinical constellations as their less-functioning brethren, including grandiosity, impulsivity, remorselessness and shallow effect. These successfully functioning psychopaths have become the objects of much recent attention.

According to Neumann, the true definition of “psychopath” is pretty narrow: “Broadly speaking, psychopathy refers to a pathological personality style that is interpersonally deceptive, affectively cold, behaviorally reckless, and often overtly antisocial,” he writes. To qualify, he says, a person must possess traits pertaining to each of four “domains.” The corresponding traits are as follows:

Interpersonal: They are manipulative, deceitful and narcissistic.  

Affective: They lack remorse, are callous, and may take pleasure in hurting others.

Lifestyle: They are impulsive, may use an illegal substance, and may have disregard for the consequences of their actions.

Antisocial: They are physically aggressive and may have a history of or tendency toward criminal behaviour.

Importantly, Neumann notes, psychopathy is a scale. “It’s not that you’re either a psychopath or not,” he says. In other words, Neumann does not put psychopathy in just black or white. The grey area for this kind of personality, according to him, was like “the way someone can have severe depression but it’s also possible for someone to have mild or moderate depression.”

Considering the brain imaging technology, Neumann says “Just because the amygdala shows hypo-activation does not make you a psychopath. This is a characteristic that’s associated with psychopathy, but biology is not destiny. We believe that the syndrome, the personality disorder, is a coming together of these four major domains.” While certain people may possess a few, or even most of the psychopathic characteristics (like superficial charm, sexual promiscuity, and early behavioural problems, etc.) listed on the Psychopathy Checklist (the PCL-R), unless they fulfil each of the four domains, as listed by him, Neumann doesn’t consider them truly psychopathic. 

Now, if we consider William Sheldon’s Theory of Body Types. The American Psychologist William Herbert Sheldon categorized the human physique according to the relative contribution of three fundamental elements which he termed as ‘Somatotypes’, classifying them as ‘ectomorphic’, ‘mesomorphic’, and ‘endomorphic’. He named these after the three germ layers of embryonic development. Later, Sheldon gave the theory to constitutional psychology where he attempted to associate his somatotype classifications with human temperament types.

According to the theory,

  • Endoderm-
    • It’s the germ layer that develops into the digestive system in the body
    • The characteristics include being relaxed, sociable, tolerant, peaceful and comfort-seeking people
    • Their body type is plump, buxom, developed visceral structure
  • Mesoderm-
    • The layer which becomes muscles, heart and blood vessels
    • The characteristics include people being active, assertive, vigorous, combative, aggressive and action-oriented.
    • They have a larger and muscular body.
  • Ectoderm-
    • The layer which forms the skin and the nervous system
    • They are quiet, fragile, restrained, non-assertive, sensitive and nervous
    • The body type includes more lean features

Every human is a mixture of all these above-mentioned characteristics, though in different ratios. A balanced ratio is considered a balanced personality. Whereas an improper ratio can give out an extreme form of personality. The original work of Sheldon was used to characterize criminals, where he found that most of the criminals were mesomorphs because violent crimes were usually committed by big strong men. It makes sense because according to Sheldon’s theory, as people with a muscular and attractive body tend to be competitive and want power and dominance. This also proved that mesomorphic people are usually criminal in nature.

On the other hand, if you consider a ratio that is low in the ectoderm. Low Ectoderm implies insensitive or inconsiderate behaviour; traits that are compatible with lack of empathy, sympathy etc. This brings us back to the psychopaths. As discussed above, psychopaths are people with low morality, empathy towards society. So, according to this theory, psychopaths can be considered to be people whose ectoderm did not develop adequately (as far as the biological factors are considered).

To understand this concept better, let’s consider some fictional characters from certain well-known shows, i.e. Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory and Villanelle/Oksana from Killing Eve. The physical features of both these characters were lean and their personality traits being inconsiderate of one’s feelings, lack of empathy or sympathy, assertiveness, weary of co-habitation etc… Both these characters can be considered to be a perfect fit for the Constitutional Theory, for people low on the formation of ectoderm. (Further classification as to the criminal and non-criminal behaviour of these characters and their psychopathic traits are specified below.)

Psychological profiling based on physical features isn’t traditionally relied upon, but these observations in Mr. Sheldon’s theory tend to be true, while having its own set of criticisms.


Based on the ‘accurate’ depiction of the entertainment industry, psychopaths are apprehended to be individuals that never feel genuine guilt or concern for others; cold, inhuman beings that lack the ability to empathize, whose main focus is always on themselves, and who can readily be put down in the ‘criminals’ column.

The purpose of this article is to understand the psyche of psychopaths and to break the stereotypes surrounding psychopaths being criminals. Psychopathy does not imply a criminal mind, it can be considered as just a different way/perspective of looking at the world. This concept of different demeanors of similar diagnosis has been explained in detail in the 2nd part of this article.   

[1] Cleckley, Hervey M. (Hervey Milton), 1903-1984. The Mask of Sanity; an Attempt to Reinterpret the so-Called Psychopathic Personality. St. Louis: The C.V. Mosby Company, Elsevier Ltd. Revised Edition. 5. 1976.

[2] DeVita, E., Forth, A.E. and Hare, R.D., 1990. Psychopathy, family background, and early criminality. Canadian Psychological Association19, p.174.

[The author is a 5th year law student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow]


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