The general public has long been steeped in the lore and lure of psychopathy. It is often bandied about in everyday conversation and is an easy throwaway term used to categorically dismiss someone as evil, bad, or repugnant. “He’s a psychopath!” is frequently used and that’s often the end of the conversation. On the other hand, “She’s a psychopath!” is rarely heard. Why is this?
Why aren’t female psychopaths as obvious as males?
Hollywood and news media have long conditioned the public to believe that psychopaths are generally alpha males who are obsessively self-centered evil killers, or at least fraudsters, all without a conscience, inflicting mayhem on those around them. Certainly there is some truth to this, simplistic as it may be, but it has virtually no relevance to females. This has led some to question whether females can even be psychopaths.
Are there any female counterparts to the murderous or dominant male? Of course there are. Statistics indicate that female psychopaths may constitute a half percent of the general population, whereas males may be about double that. One-half of one percent is not an insignificant number. Why aren’t they as visible as their male counterparts? The simple answer is that they are psychopaths, but fundamentally different in their expression of this personality disorder.
Malignant hysteria is at the heart of the female psychopath
Over the past several years, psychopathy researchers Carl Gacono, Ted Cunliffe, and Jason Smith have analyzed many studies and conducted research into the underpinnings of female psychopathy.1,2,3 Their conclusions demonstrate that female psychopathy is rooted in malignant hysteria – a personality that is characterized by aggressiveness, attention seeking, promiscuity, an inability to form stable attachments, impulsivity, hyper–emotionality, shallow affect, superficiality, dependency and high drama. “Psychopathic women lack men’s grandiose self-structure and are not immune from experiencing themselves as damaged. They need others (e.g., pseudo-dependency, maladaptive neediness) to bolster self–esteem and obtain some sense of stability with their troubling affect.” 4
A Case Study
While the manifestation for their psychopathy may be different than for males, female psychopaths are no less dangerous. They can be serial murderers, child abusers, perpetrators of fraud and violent offenders. Their callous disregard for others, coupled with their lack of remorse for offenses against others, can bring much suffering.
Malignant hysteria comes sharply into focus in the life of Diane Downs, a seemingly ordinary woman until the night of May 19, 1983. On that night, one of her children was killed and two were seriously wounded when her car was stopped on a back road.5 A jury ultimately convicted her of murder, attempted murder and assault. She maintained her innocence throughout the trial, manipulated the press and basked in the national attention she received. Diane acted the role of a suffering mother and even became pregnant before the trial so she could appeal to the jury’s sympathy. She committed her crimes because her boyfriend did not want children and their loss was a small price to pay for her pleasure.
The testimony of the prosecution’s psychiatrist was especially convincing. He determined that she was narcissistic, histrionic, and antisocial. She fit the profile of malignant hysteria psychopathy. He noted that “[She] shows no remorse. She regards the children with no empathy and as objects or possessions. Feelings she has for them are superficial and only extend to how they are part of her and her life.”6
Newly proposed psychopathy descriptors specific to women
Based on their analyses, research and findings concerning the utility of the malignant hysteria construct, Gacono, Cunliffe and Smith have proposed eight detailed psychopathy descriptors for women, to be used in conjunction with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (“PCL-R”),7 the gold standard for measuring psychopathy.
These descriptors reflect nuances and differences presented by females for the following traits: superficiality, pathological self-focus, manipulative behavior, absence of remorse, pseudo-emotionality/unstable affect, empathic deficits, opportunistic interpersonal relationships, and Indiscriminate sexual behavior.8 Considering these descriptors while conducting PCL-R interviews with women should improve the quality of the determinations made.
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1. Smith, Jason M., Gacono, Carl B. & Cunliffe, Ted B. (2021). Understanding Female Offenders: Psychopathy, Criminal Behavior, Assessment, and Treatment. (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press).
2. Gacono, Carl B. & Smith, Jason. (2021) "Commentary: A Psychodynamic Model of Psychopathy, Using Gullhaugen et al. (2021) as a Reference," in Archives of Assessment Psychology, Vol. 11, No 1., 113-126.
3. Gacono, Carl B. & Smith, Jason M. (2001) "Understanding the Psychopath from a Psychodynamic Perspective: A Rorschach Study," in Archives of Assessment Psychology, Vol 11, No. 1, 77-93.
4. "Understanding the Psychopath from a Psychodynamic Perspective: A Rorschach Study." 78.
5. Rule, Ann. (1987). Small Sacrifices. (New York: Berkley).
6. Small Sacrifices. 443.
7. Hare, Robert D. (2003) The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, (2nd. Ed.).(Toronto: Multi-Health Systems).
8. Understanding Female Offenders. 455-463.