Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Psychoticism versus Psychopathy


Eysenck's personality trait of Psychoticism is - overall - probably the best description of the typical personality of a creative intellectual genius


However, Psychoticism - in its usual self-rating questionnaire form - contains a lot of traits which could better be described as Psychopathic - and these are not necessary to genius, indeed they tend, overall, significantly to impair the functional role of a genius - which is to promote the reproductive success of the group.

In a nutshell - and as a generalization, to the extent that a genius has a Psychopathic personality, to approximately that extent he will have a legacy of harm rather than benefit.

Here I try clearly to distinguish Psychoticism from Psychopathy - I aim to show that while they may share superficial behaviours in common, they represent fundamentally different modes of thinking- different personality types.

In particular, high Psychoticism trait (properly understood) is necessary for the real creative genius type, but Psychopathy is not, and indeed overall detracts from Genius.

And in terms of natural selection; high Psychoticism trait as it occurs in a creative genius on average benefits the group; while high Psychopathy trait harms the group: the pure Genius is thus altruistic, while Psychopathy is parasitic.

Some Geniuses have also been Psychopaths, but the Psychopathy was not intrinsic to their Genius, and indeed these were the 'evil Geniuses' who (usually) overall harmed their group, and left a bad legacy.



Psychopaths are a fairly well-defined type of 'personality disorder'; which means that the word Psychopath names a characteristic personality type, substantially inherited, present from childhood, and tending to endure through life.

Because it is an innate personality type, this means that Psychopathy is not really an illness, cannot really be 'cured', and neither treatment nor punishment seem to have much effect; so that when they are criminals, for instance thieves or violent, Psychopaths tend to continue behaving that way despite repeated punishment, imprisonment, or whatever.

A personality disorder is therefore primarily a problem for 'other people' rather than for the person with that disorder - and this is certainly obvious for the Psychopath.


The Psychopath is usually and characteristically (but not always) a man; and one core feature is an indifference to the feelings of others which is probably a product of an innate inability to empathise, or sympathize - so that observing suffering and misery in others does not evoke suffering and misery in the psychopath.

Thus the Psychopath is 'cold-hearted', and other people are regarded in an instrumental fashion - as means to the end of self-gratification.

Therefore the Psychopath is untruthful when this is expedient,since he feels no obligation to be truthful except when he benefits.


So far, the Psychopath seems defective; but this is not quite accurate nor is it the whole story - the Psychopath is motivated by a sort of cruel, dominant pride; his main satisfaction is to assert himself, and his whole 'moral' perspective assumes that he himself is always in the right: the Psychopath is never wrong by his own lights, and whatever he does is justified and correct: he has no guilt, no remorse, and any problems are always due to 'other people' and not himself.

(The Psychopath-type has been called a Right Man,because he always believes himself to be right about everything; and bad happening are the fault of others. The worst he will admit of himself is that he was driven to do something wrong by another person's fault.)

Successful Psychopaths - that is to say 'successful' in terms of gratifying themselves and evading imprisonment, exile or execution; are often intelligent, quick-witted,  'charming', glib, socially-dominant, good at presenting an appropriate false front; quick to infer what other people want to hear, and tell it to them.

(Yes, this is very much the normal type of successful modern politicians, mass media people, advertisers and public relations consultants, lawyers, professors and those in 'management' and positions of 'leadership'.)

Since successful Psychopaths come-across as dominant, due to total lack of self--doubt/ indifference to others; their personality may be sexually attractive. Therefore psychopaths are often strategically sexually promiscuous, sexually-exploitative, -manipulative and -dishonest; and sexually violent when it suits their preferences and purposes.

They tend to be thieves, fraudsters, con-men, claiming responsibility for good outcomes and deflecting it for bad outcomes. 

Psychopaths may also be violently jealous - because sexual infidelity threatens their aim of total domination and control - they want others to submit, and signs of resistance may provoke coldly cruel torment or a murderous frenzy.

Psychopaths respond to love, kindness and generosity by regarding it as despicable weakness; they congratulate themselves on always taking much more than they ever give - and regard this as evidence of their natural superiority.



Hans J Eysenck made an important theoretical breakthrough in devising the personality trait of Psychoticism - in particular, in clarifying that this trait is usually high and causal in creative geniuses.

But one serious problem with the trait as it is generally conceptualized is that the usual self-rating questionnaire is focused on de facto Psychopathy.

This despite that Psychoticism is intended to be related to the mode of thinking characteristic of those having psychotic experiences such as hallucinations (e.g.hearing voices) or delusions(having false beliefs), or exhibiting dream-like highly-associative, highly-inclusive 'stream of consciousness' styles of thinking.

True Psychoticism is (I have argued) related to a constitutional inner-ness; inner attentiveness, inner-directedness, and domination by inner-generated cognitions (which are the creative mode of thought).


And it is this true Psychoticism, nut not Psychopathy, which is causally-associated with creative genius.

That is to say, creative geniuses are necessarily high in traits of psychosis-like Psychoticism, but not necessarily (and only rarely) high in Psychopathic traits.

Furthermore, those higher-than-average-in-psychosis-type of people with Psychoticism; are usually creative, in the sense of high in spontaneous, driven, 'raw creativity' (although they may also have low intelligence and lack concentration, focus, and sustained motivation which thwarts their creative achievement).


In contrast, most Psychopaths are utterly uncreative, except insofar as perceived (but maybe stolen or faked) creativity is expedient for the domination, exploitation or subordination of other people.

Even when a Psychopath is also creative, his achievement is undermined by his dishonesty, and the fact that it is usually easier for him to lie, cheat and manipulate his way to high status than actually to put in the long, hard, focused work necessary for even a Genius to make substantive achievements. 

The Psychopath will seldom resist an easy, but false, short-cut.


In sum, Psychoticism may be, as it were, co-morbid with Psychopathy - but Psychopathy is not necessary nor intrinsic to Psychoticism.

Yet, if you look at the questions in a common form of the Eysenck Psychoticism rating scale you will see what I mean by its mistaken focus on Psychopathy.



The Wikipedia article summarizes Psychoticism as follows: " toughmindedness, non-conformity, inconsideration, recklessness, hostility, anger and impulsiveness. "  - which sounds almost exactly like Psychopathy; and says nothing about creativity, and not much about inner directedness.

And when we look at Eysenck's Psychoticism scalein detail, there are many specific 'diagnostic' questions which address typical Psychopathic behaviour:

For instance a high Psychoticism score is given for answering YES to the following: Would you take drugs which may have strange or dangerous effects? Do you enjoy hurting people you love? Do you enjoy practical jokes that can sometimes really hurt people? Are you more easy-going about right and wrong than most people? Would you like other people to be afraid of you?


These are questions about Psychopathy, and not about Psychoticism-proper. Indeed, there is almost nothing about the 'psychotic' aspects of Psychoticism in the standard scale.


My feeling is that Eysenck was misled by the imperative to provide a reliable self-rating scale - and true Psychoticism is very rare (in particular, seldom seen at a high level in college students- who constitute most of Psychology samples) - the distribution of Psychoticism is NOT a normal distribution, but positively skewed (most people in a normal population scoring at a low level, and only a few at higher levels).

Population samples drawn from psychiatric patients will tend to show a high frequency of 'co-morbidity' for high Psychoticism  and high Psychopathy - and intelligent, successful Psychopaths can and will fake their self-rated answers if they regard it as expedient to do so. (Eysenck's effort to detect this with a 'lie scale' was laughable.)

Real 'creative' Psychoticism is also very difficult to self-rate. There is often a lack of insight - with high P people not realizing how atypical they are. Also psychotics tend to take for granted and to believe-in the reality of their experiences.

Indeed, the experience of psychiatry is that it usually takes prolonged and careful, one-to-one, 'phenomenological' interviewing - which invites reflection and educates in introspection - to elicit inner experiences.

Self rating questionnaires are simply not up to the job. 


The Psychopath is therefore in a sense the opposite of the Genius.

The Psychopath is fundamentally parasitic (and harms the group, lives-off the group), while the genius is fundamentally altruistic (and benefits, the group; gives more to the group than he receives).

Psychotics and Psychopaths may superficially share several similar behaviours - especially an indifference to the opinions of other people, an autonomy from mainstream social values - but for completely different reasons!

Therefore is it wrong to conflate Psychotic and Psychopathic mechanisms in the same scale, and wrong to regard them as two sides of the same coin.

In other words, contrasting Psychoticism and Psychopathy, we can see that the same (or very similar) behaviour is typically a consequence of completely different thought processes. 


For instance, a man high in trait Psychoticism is indifferent to the opinions of other people because he is focused on inner experiences and driven by inner motivations - thus he may be very solitary.

By contrast, the Psychopath is also indifferent to the opinions of other people, but because he is unable to empathize with them, has no sympathy for them, wants only to dominate and manipulate them for his pleasure (which is often a sadistic pleasure).

Similar behaviour, very different underlying psychology. 


So, here is a pen-picture of the typical (high-Psychoticism but non-Psychopathic) Genius-type; compared with the typical Psychopath - to emphasize the stark differences in the way of thinking, the way of relating to the world: the basic motivation with respect to life.

The Typical Genius - Abstracted, eccentric, warm-heartedly emotional, vulnerable and sensitive in the way of being easily-hurt, loving towards family or close friends but uninterested by most other people, abstractly altruistic, tends to be asexual or monogamous, altruistic and well-meaning, innocently self-confident, open and undefended, concerned that his work will benefit others, inner-motivated, introverted, introspective, sweet-natured but not charming, non-violent unless thwarted and driven to desperation - when he may be wildly and desperately violent whatever the odds and without regard for safety or chance of success, loves life is seldom bored and has a lot he wants to do, modest about himself but inflexible and brave over matters of moral principle. A public benefactor.

The Psychopath - Charming but cold-hearted, subject to strong and contradictory moods, manipulative, possessive rather than loving, preys-upon the vulnerable, sensitive but in the way of prickly and likely to take offense, indifferent to all people (including family and 'friends'), easily bored and motivated by need for external stimulus (extraverted), needs to dominate and control and humiliate, sexually promiscuous, strategically violent when expedient (but backs down and becomes submissive, even docile, in face of superior force or will), over-confident because wildly overestimating his own abilities, impulsive and risk-taking because he does not intuitively perceive or understand hazards, prone to aggressive suicide attempts or suicide motivated by wanting to hurt and harm others, self-righteously asserting moral principles for others but in a wholly self-serving and morally-inconsistent way (e.g angrily accusing others of selfishness or cowardice at one moment, while at another moment boasting of 'looking after number one' and ridiculing the idea of his own self-sacrifice). A parasite on society.


Acknowledgement: My thanks are due to Michael A Woodley for conversations which stimulated the above reflections. 



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"In particular, high Psychoticism trait (properly understood) is necessary for the real creative genius type, but Psychoticism is not, and indeed overall detracts from Genius."

You meant to write "Psychopathy" in the second clause, right?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Thanks - Fixed. Just goes to show how easy it is to get them mixed-up - a bit like Sauron and Saruman...

aeolipera said...

I had an idea for measuring psychoticism that I want to run by you. It's based on the idea that psychoticism is the mind's ability to draw inferences, so that psychosis- paradolia, delusion, sensory hallucination, etc.- results when the mind's rational ability can't keep up with the task of scrutinizing all the conceived possibilities.

My first idea is to measure the rate at which a person can learn nonsense associations from flash cards. Maybe the flash cards have nonsense syllables on one side and nonsense ink blots on the other side. It’s based on the established fact that people are more likely to remember nonsense syllables that sound like real words that “make sense”. That is, the nonsense calls up something from semantic memory- maybe the nonsense “pne” reminds someone of “pen”, which is easier to remember. Similarly, we’re better able to remember the shape of an ink blot after we’ve interpreted it to look like something meaningful.

More practically speaking, a library of nonsense syllables and ink blots already exists: the Chinese alphabet. In short, my test is to hand someone a stack of Chinese alphabet flashcards and see how many they can memorize within a given time limit (where it is assumed that nonsense -> semantic free association is the best possible method), then control for IQ. A higher number of flashcards indicates higher psychoticism.

This leaves a couple of practical psychometric problems. 1) Some people do not realize free association can be used to learn information from flashcards much more quickly than mere rote and repetition. 2) You can get better at free association through practice. 3) An older person has more semantic associations to use, but younger people seem to be able to call them up more quickly. For theoretical purposes, all we’d have to do is assume that test-takers have practiced this method to the point of diminishing returns, but that presents a psychometric hurdle all its own. We’d have to measure this curve before even attempting to pull psychoticism out of the data.

Bruce Charlton said...


That's a very interesting idea, and you well may be onto something.

One problem I foresee is that high P individuals might refuse to do such a boring and irrelevant test! - in effect, they might just give up and cease to make the considerable mental effort required to do this test.

But it is always a problem to 'operationalize' and indeed routinize Psychological measurements - and sometimes it cannot be done.

For example, in psychiatry all attempts to try and standardize the psychiatric interview - or to reduce it to a questionnaire - have reduced the validity of diagnosis - to the point that it is not normal to diagnose almost anybody for almost any diagnosis (if you really want to! - for example in recruiting subjects for a randomized trial where you are payed per subject).

But when it comes to psychotic features such as hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder and catatonia; these just are very difficult to elicit properly - it takes, time, patience, practice and some degree of innate empathic ability (which some people lack). Thus the vital investigative discipline of phenomenology/ psychopathology has been more or less discarded - simply because it is too difficult and time-consuming for most modern psychiatrists (and because they do not realize how important it is).

The crucial thing is not to put the cart in front of the horse - not to allow concepts to be distorted by the constraints of convenient measurement - but to be as clear as possible about the theoretical concepts, and accept that all/ most measurement methods (especially those that are quick and convenient and numerically quantified) are imperfect, and sometimes almost useless.