Blame the Amygdala

Brain Stains, Killers, and Psychopaths

Hervey Cleckley

Hervey Cleckly. Photo from Wikipedia.
Hervey Cleckly. Photo from Wikipedia.

Hervey Cleckley is arguably one of the first mental health researchers to make sense of psychopathy. He worked as a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Georgia School of Medicine. In 1941 he published The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. As you can guess by the latter part of the title, in the 1940s there was a lot of confusion about what psychopathy was and how it should be addressed – not just how the public saw it, but how it was treated in legal and psychological/medical circles. In fact, at the end of an article Cleckley wrote for Federal Probation in 1946, he admits, “Psychiatry has not yet been able to prove or demonstrate precisely what is wrong with the psychopath.”

There were a least a couple of reasons for this confusion. First, psychopathic individuals appeared to commit crimes impulsively, even knowing that what they were doing was legally wrong. Cleckley wrote, “While on parole for stealing something [the psychopath] did not need, he will steal again, often taking an object he does not particularly want, and under circumstances that he knows may result in his being discovered as the thief.” This behavior was deeply puzzling, and it must have appeared that the psychopath was acting self-destructively. Now we of course can easily distinguish between knowledge of the law and feeling what is morally right. And we have also hypothesized that psychopaths often get their psycho-physiological kicks from acting recklessly and abusing other people, kicks that are far more important than any legal consequence.

The second reason for this confusion was that the psychopath appeared to act perfectly normal, right up until the very moment that they didn’t. This made it hard to determine whether or not the psychopath knew what was morally acceptable and whether or not they met the legal definition for insanity. The psychopathic offender wasn’t hallucinating. They didn’t display any evidence of brain damage as measured by instruments and tests of the day. The psychopathic behaviors of pathological lying and manipulation made it increasingly difficult to gauge the sincerity of the individual, and that still poses a problem for people today, including trained psychologists.

The writing of Cleckley is actually very amusing. It certainly betrays a stereotypical male attitude from the 1940s. For example, when describing the behavior of the psychopath, Cleckley writes, “Not rarely the records will show that [the psychopath] has won the chancellor’s prize at college for an essay on the Renaissance, or graduated from high school summa cum laude, or outstripped 20 rival salesmen over a period of 6 months, or married the most desirable girl in town.” I think Cleckley overestimates the intelligence of psychopaths to the point where he thought psychopathy and intelligence were naturally entwined, but writing about the Renaissance? To Cleckley, perhaps that is the epitome of scholarly brilliance. But marrying ‘the most desirable girl in town’ is surely a reflection of male chauvinism, even though psychopaths might enjoy the status of being with a beautiful woman.

Another example of Cleckley’s 1940s attitude comes through with, “If [the psychopath] escapes detection [for theft] he will repeat his stealing or perhaps forge a check or noisily entertain a prostitute in the apartment of his respectable and devoted aunt who is away on a week’s vacation.” I feel like this quote speaks for itself.

I have yet to come across any evidence that Cleckley believed women to be psychopathic. If anyone knows different, I would appreciate a reference. The psychopath is always addressed in third person male, which while is a writing bias, I’m sure it also reflects that many (if not all) of the psychopaths Cleckley studied were male. Even now it does seem like most psychopaths are male, but it has been suggested that the diagnostic criteria for determining psychopathy has come from male-dominated research. It is possible that the behaviors of the psychopathic are expressed differently in men and women. In fact, some believe that women are more likely to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) than Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD – this is fairly closely related to psychopathy), because BPD reflects an emotional instability that is strongly associated with women. This bias could naturally lead to the wrong diagnosis.


Cleckley, H. (1946) The Psychopath: A Problem for Society, 10 Federal Probation 22 (22-25)

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