Let’s just face it, as scary as they are, psychopaths fascinate us! Psychopathy has earned a place both in science and pop culture. Just look at the most recent episode of Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds to find the latest manifestation of psychopathy on the screen.
Since the first use of the term in the 1800s, mental health professionals and society alike have struggled to define this elusive construct that characterizes those among us who violate social norms with ease and lack any semblance of empathy, remorse, or concern for others. While most closely associated with males, we do see these traits in females. Some characters like the lead character in Gone Girl or biotic film Monster about Eileen Wuornos attempt to portray these traits in females.
However, the fields of psychology and psychiatry have struggled to understand how this disorder presents in females. Look at much of the research on psychopathy (particularly the studies that employ correctional inmates as participants) and you’ll see that most of it involves male samples. Some research has proposed that symptoms of a related (albeit different personality disorder) Borderline Personality Disorder may represent a female-variant of psychopathy in incarcerate female offenders. Borderline Personality Disorder has also been depicted in film- think Glenn Closes’ character in Fatal Attraction or Wynonna Rider in Girl Interrupted.
Dr. Dustin B. Wygant, Associate Professor of Psychology & Director of Clinical Training, lead a research team of graduate and undergraduate students at EKU to examine this more closely in a recent research project that was presented at the Society for Personality Assessment last March in Brooklyn, New York.
Investigating a sample of 200 female offenders from the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Woman near Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Wygant and his students found that borderline and psychopathic personality disorders did in fact show a high degree of overlap in their sample. Some of this is likely attributed to the shared underlying personality traits for these disorders. Indeed, both disorders are characterized by high degrees of impulsivity, risk taking, and angry hostility.
Some of the difficulty in differentiating the two disorders lies in the nature of psychopathy. Research is finding that not all psychopaths show the same traits. Some psychopaths show symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, which is generally characterized by high levels of emotional expression. Other psychopaths are more cool and calculating in their persona. These types of psychopaths will generally show fewer borderline traits.