A New Face of Psychopathy? Female Manifestations of Psychopathic Personality Traits & Its Implications of Gender Bias // Erin Wolfe
Photo from http://www.sott.net/article/268449-Empathic-people-are-natural-targets-for-sociopaths-protect-yourself
The construct of psychopathy is a phenomenon regularly portrayed in news specials, documentaries and film adaptations, and even television networks (e.g., Investigation Discovery and Crime & Investigation channels), yet is still far from being fully understood in the field of psychiatry. The term “psychopath” often brings to mind images of notorious serial killers such as the Gacys, Bundys, and Dahmers of the world, yet do little to provide a full scope meaning behind the term. Furthermore, such stereotypical images allude to a constrained understanding of the disorder, limiting it to the perception that this disorder solely exists in men. Only in the past two decades has the investigation of psychopathy in women begun to take off in the literature (Kreis & Cooke, 2011).
As a woman and a student with a keen interest in everything forensic, I began to question why the study of psychopathy in women is so exceedingly under-investigated. Furthermore, I was curious to explore whether part of the reason why men make up the majority of the antisocial/psychopathic demographic is because the antisocial woman is being labeled as something else (e.g., a bully, a psycho/neurotic bitch), demonstrating yet another example of how society views male attributes as the preferred norm. With this said, I felt compelled to use my graduate coursework as an excuse to delve deeper into the research in order to investigate what the female psychopathic prototype may look like (if she in fact exists). To my benefit, not only did I acquire extensive knowledge of psychopathic personalities, but a research proposal for which I hope to attain funding.
My extensive research on the phenomenon of female psychopathy has informed me of two things: 1) up until the past decade, the study of psychopathy and women has been vastly under-investigated, and 2) although there is some symptom overlap, there are indeed unique gender distinctions between psychopathic men and psychopathic women.
For the sake of brevity, I will only discuss the unique gender distinctions relevant to portrayals of aggression, means of manipulation, relational dominance, and emotional instability. With regard to distinct presentations of aggression, Kreis and Cooke (2011) found that aggression in women is seen more in intimate and familial settings; whereas, men tend to show aggression in more public and obvious situations. Men may express their aggression and dominance through physical intimidation (e.g., strong-arming, instilling of fear, grandstanding, etc.); whereas, women tend to exercise dominance over others through the use of their sexuality and stronger interpersonal skills. Furthermore, women tend to convey their aggression in more indirect fashions than men (Salmivalli & Kaukiainen, 2004), or in other words, their anger predominately tends to be displaced or passively administered.
In terms of relational aggression, Crick (1997) identifies this concept as “behaviors in which relationships specifically serve as the vehicle of harm.” Such behaviors include spreading rumors, threatening another’s social status, sabotaging relationships, using social exclusion as a form of retaliation, and threatening to withdraw acceptance or friendship as a means to dominate others.
Not only does the research imply that females may have additional strategies to express their hostility, but they may have also mastered hiding it by presenting as nurturing and empathetic or, “as a manipulative guise, a mask of maternalism” (Kreis & Cooke, 2011). In this exploitive strategy, the psychopathic woman is able to use the traditional gender norms that society has affixed to her to her advantage; i.e., playing up her perceived physical weakness and sensitive emotions (Campbell, 2002).
The most common gender-specific means of manipulation that the literature has found to be true is the use of flirtation and sexuality in women’s exploitation of others. This behavior may underline the parasitic lifestyle associated with this population where a woman uses her sexuality as a manipulative measure to obtain financial, social, or narcissistic gain. In contrast, their male counterparts are more likely to use physical oriented tactics (i.e., physical intimidation, implied harm, and other fear-mongering methods) in order to obtain such gains (Forouzan & Cooke, 2005).
In addition to the aforementioned varying manifestations of psychopathy, another reason why psychopathy or ASPD may be under diagnosed in women is because it is being confused and possibly misdiagnosed as something else. Many of the symptoms presented in antisocial personality disorder overlap with the symptoms of other cluster B personality disorders, particularly those of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). A diagnosis of BPD is far more common in women than in men. Not surprisingly, the diagnostic language used to identify BPD is greatly influenced by female attributes, as ascribed by the male-dominated society in which we live. Symptoms associated with this disorder, as noted in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) include: Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, patterns of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships, affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood, and persistent unstable self-image. One could argue such symptoms tend to “represent a stereotypical woman at her most extreme—emotional labile, relationally dependent, and self-destructive” (Tseris, 2013). These exaggerated symptoms would either be overlooked or perhaps even chastised if they were to appear in a man. Furthermore, this begs the question if clinicians are searching for the more male-like symptoms associated with ASPD when making a diagnosis, while the more female-like symptoms are investigated more for making a BPD diagnosis.
One might ask why anyone should care what we choose to label these women, to which I say the answer is simple: both the foundation of our diagnostic language and the measurement tools used to assess psychiatric personality disorders may, in part, reflect the overarching gender bias which continues to exist in our field and society at large. Although our expectations cannot help but be partially based on society’s preconceptions of gender norms and roles, without addressing such discrepancies, clinicians are further perpetuating gender bias in the mental health field.
I would like to end this blog entry with a final thought on the study of psychopathy and its apparent glorification in our society. The studies of psychopathy, or to be more specific, the study of serial killers, has somewhat become a ‘publicized phenomenon’ in today’s age. As mentioned above, we have television networks dedicated to delivering the utmost horrifying and shocking stories of fatal human tragedies, glorified television series (e.g., Dexter, Hannibal, Criminal Minds) and extensive media coverage on the world’s most perplexing individuals. It could be argued that the Bundys, Dahmers and Gacys of the world are celebrities in their own way. Yet do names such as Genene Jones, Rosemary West, Karla Homolka, or even Aileen Wuornos conjure up the same familiarity? Doesn’t it say something about our society that even in a man’s most deviant pathology where he hurts other people, he is still stronger and more recognized than a woman?
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental
disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Campbell, A. (2002). A mind of her own: The evolutionary psychology of women. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Crick, N. R. (1997). Engagement in gender normative versus nonnormative forms of
aggression: Links to social-psychological adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 33, 610–617.
Forouzan, E., & Cooke, D. (2005). Figuring out la femme fatale: Conceptual and
assessment issues concerning psychopathy in females. Behavioral Sciences & the Law.
Kreis, M., & Cooke, D. (2011). Capturing The Psychopathic Female: A Prototypicality Analysis Of The Comprehensive Assessment Of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP) Across
Gender. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 634-648.
Salmivalli, C., & Kaukiainen, A. (2004). “Female aggression” revisited: Variable- and person
centered approaches to studying gender differences in different types of aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 30, 158–163.
Tseris, E. (2013). Trauma theory without feminism? Evaluating contemporary
understandings of traumatized women. Journal of Women and Social Work, 28(2), 153-164.