Dr. Evelyn Talbot, the psychiatrist heroine of my suspense series—which began with Hanover House and Her Darkest Nightmare and now continues with Hello Again on October 3—studies psychopaths at a remote facility in Alaska. Creating this unusual prison where so many inmates are serial killers has been a fascinating project for me, probably because Evelyn’s desire to know why these people do what they do—and why they are so difficult to detect and treat—mirrors my own. Although I don’t have Evelyn’s education in psychology, I have done a great deal of research in order to help me create believable characters with this personality disorder.
Psychopaths are almost always portrayed as sadistic monsters, so you might be surprised to learn that some are “subclinical,” meaning they don’t kill people or get in trouble with the law. They are prone to wrecking lives in more subtle ways, however (i.e., using people, sabotaging people, manipulating people, blaming people, etc.), and there are a lot of them out there. Statistics indicate that psychopaths comprise about 4% of the population. That means, if you live in the United States, you have a greater chance of being a psychopath than of getting colon cancer!
Here are six criteria that might indicate whether you have at least some antisocial traits.
1. Do you take your coffee black?
A study from the University of Innsbruck in Austria found that people who like their coffee black are more likely to have psychopathic tendencies. Actually, the study tested “bitter foods” like coffee, but out of the 1000 people tested, there was a strong correlation between those who exhibit antisocial personality traits and those who prefer strong bitter flavors (such as coffee, beer, tonic water, and radishes). Earlier studies seem to back this up. A dislike of bitter tastes is linked to greater emotional sensitivity in humans and rats.
2. Do you show lower levels of activity in the prefrontal regions of your brain?
Josh Buckholtz, associate professor of psychology at Harvard University, mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions of the brain in 49 psychopaths. He found the connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy.
“We need the prefrontal cortex to make prospective judgments on how an action will affect us in the future—if I do this, then this bad thing will happen… If you break that connection in anyone, they’re going to start making bad choices because they won’t have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more adaptive ends.”
He claims this is why psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime—they lack the ability to make good decisions.
3. To what extent, on a scale of 1 – 7, do you agree with this statement, “I am a narcissist.” (1 being that you aren’t very narcissistic and 7 being that you are very narcissistic.)
If you answered that you are very narcissistic, you’re probably right. According to Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University and the author of a study that claims to be able to determine whether you are a psychopath from only the above question:
“People who are narcissists are almost proud of the fact. You can ask them directly because they don’t see narcissism as a negative quality—they believe they are superior to other people and are fine with saying that publicly.”
Extreme narcissism is definitely one of the defining traits of a psychopath!
4. Are you a CEO, lawyer, salesman or surgeon?
According to an article published in Forbes Magazine, psychopaths “display a fearless dominance over other people,” so they are perfect for these careers. The ones I’ve already named might not surprise you, but journalist, chef, and even clergyman made the list of top ten careers that attract the most psychopaths!
5. Were you a callous and unemotional child?
Dr. Eva Kimonis, a psychologist from the University of New South Wales, led an international research team who evaluated more than 200 children between three and six years old for these traits. The results, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, revealed that 10 percent of the children tested showed signs of CU traits, including lack of empathy, affection, and remorse. According to Dr. Kimonis:
“We essentially found that preschoolers that show impaired development of conscience are deficient in how they process emotions, similar to what we find in older adolescent and adult populations with the same problems. These children are poorer at recognizing other people’s emotional expressions, and images depicting others in distress don’t capture their attention like it does for typically developing children as young as age three.”
6. Can you turn your empathy on and off?
For quite some time, it was believed that psychopaths felt no empathy. This was proven to be the case through brain imaging. In one study, 24 convicted psychopaths were transferred to a Dutch forensic clinic where activity in the part of the brain that registers empathy was measured while they were shown movies of people hurting each other. Their scans revealed much less empathy than that of the normal control group. But when the psychopaths were asked to identify with the people who were being hurt, the activity level in this part of their brains rose to the point that it became difficult to tell their scans apart from that of the controls. In other words, psychopaths can feel empathy if they choose to engage in that way. It just isn’t their default.
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you might be a little worried. But if that’s the case, you’re probably not a psychopath. Psychopaths don’t feel the same worry, anxiety, and fear as normal people, which is why it’s so easy for them to do such terrible things.
Also, many of these studies have their critics. Just because you like your coffee black might not indicate anything. Not only do tastes change over time, “bitterness” is subjective. And if you have lower levels of activity in the prefrontal regions of your brain? Brain activity can vary widely within normal people. We certainly aren’t at the point where we can look at someone’s brain scan and claim, on that evidence alone, that they are or will become dangerous.
Still, the research in this field is fascinating, and I hope you’ll find Evelyn Talbot’s work with the serial killers in Hanover House just as intriguing. In Hello Again, she must match wits not only with a new inmate aptly nicknamed the Zombie Maker but she might have to contend with the serial killer who nearly took her life when she was only sixteen (hence the title).
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Brenda Novak is the New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of sixty books. A five-time Rita nominee, she has won many awards, including the National Reader’s Choice, the Bookseller’s Best, the Book Buyer’s Best, the Daphne, and the Silver Bullet. She also runs Brenda Novak for the Cure, a charity to raise money for diabetes research (her youngest son has this disease). To date, she’s raised $2.6 million.