Behavioural differences in female psychopaths could cause them to slip under society’s radar.
Hear the word psychopath and most of us think of violent, dominant men. There are lots of male psychopathic monsters from movies to illustrate this point: Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, and any number of villains.
We do have some female examples: Annie Wilkes in Misery, and who could forget Alex Forrest’s bunny-boiling character in Fatal Attraction? These frightening fictional femme fatales stay with us – I’ve heard the term “bunny boiler” used to signify a woman behaving irrationally and violently – but they are unusual. We largely expect psychopaths to be men.
They are keen observers of the human condition and can mimic normal behaviour, but their brains are wired differently.
Research indicates there are likely to be fewer female psychopaths than male. However, a compounding factor leading to the underestimation of the true occurrence rate of psychopathy in women could be behavioural differences that cause them to slip under society’s radar. This is important to acknowledge as female psychopaths can be just as dangerous as their male counterparts.
What is psychopathy?
Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterised by a number of abnormal behavioural traits and emotional responses. These include lack of empathy, guilt or remorse, and being manipulative and deceitful. People with psychopathy are often irresponsible and have a disregard for laws or social conventions.
Psychopaths often get away with these behaviours because they can be superficially quite charming. They are true observers of human behaviour, often being able to mimic love, fear, remorse and other emotions well enough to go undetected.
Current thinking suggests psychopaths’ behaviour patterns result from variations in the structure of their brains at birth. A recent study from Harvard University indicated their brains are wired in a way that can lead to violent or dangerous actions.
Researchers using MRI scans revealed psychopaths make more short-sighted, impulsive decisions based on short-term gain, when compared to non-psychopaths, and that it is the structure of their brains that leads them to make these kinds of poor decisions.
Add this to their lack of empathy and it means if violence or dangerous behaviour will help a psychopath achieve a short-term goal, that is the path they will take. There is also evidence genetics are at least partly responsible for the development of psychopathic traits. In essence, psychopaths are born, not made.
How do male and female psychopaths differ?
In terms of occurrence rates, studies show female inmates with psychopathy make up 11-17% of the overall prison population, compared to their male counterparts at 25-30%.
This may be because female psychopaths are likely to be more relationally or verbally aggressive than physically violent, and therefore commit less violent crimes than male psychopaths. This might help explain the initially surprising fact that women with psychopathy are found to be less likely to commit murder than non-psychopathic women.
Female psychopaths can also be jealous and parasitic, meaning they feel entitled to live off other people, using threat and coercion to get support.
So, while female psychopaths are not all like Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, they certainly exist and can be as violent, cunning and calculated as their male counterparts. But they more often express their psychopathy in more covert and manipulative ways, meaning their true natures are rarely identified.