Hervey Cleckley, father of psychopathy

Hervey Cleckey, a not too well known American psychiatrist, opened the doors to the studies that today define and trace the profile of the psychopath. If you’ve never heard of it or if you think you don’t fully understand the meaning of the term psychopathy, read on to find out more.

Hervey Cleckley, father of psychopathy

Last update: January 03, 2023

American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley (1903-1984) was a brilliant professional able to observe in detail the clinical aspects of psychopaths. His most important book The Mask of Sanity (1941), describes the case of sixteen psychopaths hospitalized in the centers where he worked as a psychiatrist.

Have you ever wondered what exactly psychopathy is? How could we define it? Hervey Cleckley revolutionized studies in his field and, above all, deepened and anticipated those of psychopathy.

Basic criteria for defining psychopathy

Starting from the observations made on his patients, Hervey Cleckley enunciated the hypothesis that psychopaths have an emotional deficit and insights which prevents them from experiencing life on a par with other people.

We are therefore dealing with people who experience a certain difficulty in accepting and integrating into the social, ethical, legal and moral norms of a society. Cleckley also defined the main traits of psychopaths and grouped them into a total of sixteen basic criteriafurther classified into the following three groups:

  • Positive adjustment: superficiality and high intelligence, absence of irrational thinking signals, absence of nervousness” or psychoneurotic manifestations, very low suicidal tendency.
  • Chronic Behavioral Deviation: lack of remorse or shame, falsehood and insincerity, pathological self-centeredness and inability to love, generalized poverty in the main emotional relationships, lack of insights.
  • Emotional-interpersonal deficits: lack of reliability, “grotesque” behavior with and without alcohol consumption; sex life impersonal, trivial and poorly integrated; inability to follow any life plan; poor judgment and inability to learn from past experiences; antisocial and inadequately motivated conduct.

How did Hervey Cleckley define psychopathy?

Hervey Cleckley developed his studies starting from the previous points, expanding the field and defining the main characteristics of psychopathy in broader terms.

Positive adjustment

Cleckley described the psychopath as a charismatic, sincere and personable individual most of the time. He tends to give the impression of being a person of superior intelligence, with perfect reasoning abilities and high skills. He understands, understands and argues with perfect logic about social norms, as well as the action-consequence relationship of his actions. At the same time, Cleckley revealed that in situations where a person should feel nervous, tense or stressed, the psychopath remains calm and free from anxiety symptoms.

On the other hand, in most cases studied by the author psychopathy proved to be a protective factor in the face of the idea and the suicide attempts. Although the life of these individuals was chaotic and self-destructive, the only suicide attempts were few and far between. It was mostly a matter of premeditated ploys to gain attention and favor from the family.

Chronic behavioral deviation

Faced with their own actions, often harmful to family, friends and themselves, these patients responded by lying, hiding and blaming others, thus showing no remorse or shame. For this reason, Cleckley came to the conclusion that the psychopath feels a remarkable indifference to the truth.

This fact, together with its superficiality and its high power of conviction and manipulation, make it difficult to establish its sincerity. But even when you have evidence to the contrary, it’s hard not to believe his arguments.

“Despite having Anna’s past in mind in detail, it was hard not to be convinced that all the facts shown by her file could be ignored, thanks to the incredible refutation skills of this attractive woman.” (The mask of sanity, p.103).

-Hervey Cleckley-

As regards the affective capacity of his patients, despite the fact that they swore with absolute credibility that they felt love towards family members, spouses or children, their actions proved the opposite. The feelings of these individuals appeared to be merely superficialand their emotions, although at first sight completely convincing, were motivated not so much by the strength of the emotion itself, but by more logical than visceral reasons, such as avoiding a punishment or getting something.

Thus, no matter how many sacrifices are made for them, however many demonstrations of love or appreciation are shown to them, psychopaths are not able to respond with the same degree of intensity. The human axiom that one good work leads to another is valid here only when there is an ulterior motive.

Emotional-interpersonal deficits

Still within the emotional sphere, it is necessary to highlight the promiscuity shown by all the cases analyzed by Cleckley. In his book he reflects on promiscuous conduct and multiple sexual relationships.

In some cases, prostitutes and other forms of infidelity towards the partner are used. Such behaviors are due, according to the author, to the lack of restrictions and impulsivity presented by psychopaths, as well as to the indifference towards their obligations and the consequences of their actions, to the lack of guilt, remorse or shame.

The psychopath described by Hervey Cleckley does use and abuse of alcohol, fails in the realization of any life project and is not able to maintain the effort towards a goal. Consequently, it is not reliable.

Furthermore, his judgment is practically unchangeable with experience, as he does not learn from his mistakes and tends to make them all the time. This fact is accentuated by the lack of remorse, shame and indifference of his actions and the lack of insight. This problem of judgment shows up when you look at their actions and past. Conversely, in the hypothetical situation where the psychopath is faced with a moral dilemma, his judgment is excellent.

Delinquency in Hervey Cleckley’s Patients

As a last feature, we emphasize that the crimes related to psychopaths described in Cleckley’s book were minor. This refers to petty theft, inciting or participating in fights, public scandals, issuing false checks, etc. Only three of the sixteen cases described by the author were described as seriously and serially aggressive.

Nonetheless, the main characteristic for which this criterion is highlighted is the lack of motivation in antisocial behavior. In fact, most are adopted without a specific purpose or at a cost that greatly outweighs the benefits.

As for i ordinary offenders or criminalsthe difference between these and psychopaths is based, according to the author, on the lack of insights and intentionality of the acts. The ordinary criminal, therefore, recognizes that his actions (crimes) are a means to obtain a determined end. As a rule, his intentions are understood – but not shared – by the ordinary public.

This does not happen in the case of psychopaths. They have no specific purpose or understandable reason for carrying out these actions. For this reason they can steal a minimum amount of money, risking being discovered but without really needing it, and perhaps without ever using it. In addition to the lack of insightsCleckley says:

“(The other criminals) don’t seem to have that strange belief that they are, or should be, in any way exempt from the prisons made to control those who have committed the same crimes for which they themselves have been convicted.” (The mask of sanity, p.172).

-Hervey Cleckley-

Hervey Cleckley’s legacy

The description of the psychopathic profile made in this article is based on a cornerstone of psychopathy, fundamental for the study of this discipline. However, it is fair to take into account the time, the context and the scarce scientific literature that existed on the subject when Hervey Cleckley published The mask of sanitymore than 70 years ago.

We must not forget, therefore, that scientific advances and posthumous studies have retouched, refined and expanded all of Cleckley’s original answers, whose contribution continues to be of inestimable value.

Hervey Cleckley’s name will forever remain linked to psychiatry and, specifically, allo study of psychopathy. Probably, without his studies and without his work many of the later researches would not have developed. Cleckley’s legacy therefore remains a starting pointa door that has opened to future studies in the field of psychopathy.

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Hervey Cleckley, father of psychopathy