Psychopath Study: Most Are Found in Washington, DC, Says Scientist

We're looking at you, DC, and California.

Try as they might, some states can’t shake their reputations. Some are friendly (hi, Minnesota!), others laid back (sup, California), and others are still deeply unchill (avoiding eye contact with you, New York). But hidden behind those stereotypes may be a much darker geography of personality, suggests an ongoing study by Ryan Murphy, Ph.D., an economist at Southern Methodist University. His research on the places psychopaths tend to congregate has revealed a pretty damning list of states.

Murphy’s paper, which is still in its preliminary stages — it hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet — combines previous research by other scientists to estimate psychopathic levels by state. In particular, his work relies on one sweeping 2013 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study of “Big Five” personality traits per state and another unpublished study showing how to estimate psychopathy from those traits.

Highest on his list of states with high concentrations of psychopaths were Washington, DC, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, and a tie between New York and Wyoming for fifth. The lowest concentrations were in West Virginia, Vermont, Tennessee, North Carolina, and New Mexico. Murphy tells Inverse that some of these findings were more surprising than others.

“I was not expecting the degree of Washington, DC’s outlier nature to manifest itself so well in the data, despite my earlier research,” he said in an email, referring to his previous work on psychopathy’s relationship to politics. “I also did not expect West Virginia to be “best” (least psychopathic) since it is almost never ‘best’ in various rankings of states.”

Washington DC topped the list of psychopath-dense regions.

Flickr / The White House

What Is Psychopathy Anyway?

Psychopathy is often misrepresented in pop culture, but it’s well defined among psychologists. In a 2012 article for io9, psychologist Maria Konnikova, Ph.D., laid it out in full:

According to Robert Hare, creator of the standard diagnostic tool for psychopathic personality disorder and one of the world’s leading experts on the topic, psychopathy is characterized by four major factors, or groups of traits: the interpersonal, the affective, the lifestyle, and the antisocial. Into the first bucket fall such traits as glibness and superficiality, grandiosity, pathological deception, and manipulative cunning; into the second, characteristics like lack of guilt or remorse, shallow affect, lack of empathy, and a failure to accept responsibility for actions; the third, proneness to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, and a lack of long-term goals coupled with impulsivity; and the fourth, poor control of behavior, childhood problems, breaking of parole (or other conditional release), and criminal versatility. Oh, and there are two other traits that don’t fall into any category but are important nonetheless: sexual promiscuity and numerous short-term relationships.

Murphy notes that the data his study is based on treats psychopathy as a spectrum rather than a binary categorization. In other words, while there are “true psychopaths” in any given state, the average level of psychopathy can differ from region to region.

A Geographic Theory About Psychopaths

Murphy’s findings about psychopath-dense states, though preliminary, are consistent with existing theories about where they might tend to congregate. “It’s difficult to generalize from a single cross-section of data, but the prominence of or closeness to large, urban centers in each state appears to have a high correspondence with the psychopathy data,” he says.

Sure enough, the five states that topped the psychopath-dense list are jam-packed with major cities. “This follows from theory — psychopaths prefer both opportunities for power and the anonymity that a city can offer.” This observation — that the percentage of the population in the state living in an urban area correlates with the proportion of psychopaths in that state — was the only close relationship Murphy found in the data.

While it might be tempting to correlate the high density of psychopaths in Washington, DC with certain political groups, Murphy points out that he has previously established a link between psychopathy and politicians in general. His earlier work “suggests a broader connection of politicians to psychopathy, not a connection of particular political parties to psychopathy,” he says.

Disproportionately Psychopathic Professions

It’s one thing to say there are a lot of psychopaths in a state, but it’s not clear whether that translates into any cultural or social trends. To explore possible links, Murphy compared his findings to data on homicide rate and professions previously linked to psychopathy. He didn’t find any clear correlation with either variable, but his study did bring to light a list of “disproportionately psychopathic” professions outlined in a 2012 book by University of Oxford research psychologist Kevin Dutton, Ph.D. called The Wisdom of Psychopaths.

Murphy’s study used Dutton’s list of psychopathy-linked professions: CEO, lawyer, media, salesperson, surgeon, journalist, police officer, clergyperson, chef, and civil servant. The least psychopathic occupations, according to that book, are care aide, nurse, therapist, craftsperson, beautician/stylist, charity worker, teacher, creative artist, doctor, and accountant.

Murphy illustrates what distinguishes occupations that are linked to psychopathy with an example. “A doctor must focus more on human relationships and helping people. The work of a surgeon can be thought of as requiring ruthlessness and emotionless calculation under pressure,” he says. “While those latter traits do not describe every journalist and lawyer, it is easy to imagine situations where the work of a journalist or lawyer would reward ruthlessness and a lack of emotion.”

A Work in Progress

As this study is still a work in progress, Murphy is careful to point out that his paper doesn’t show causality — that is, a person isn’t a psychopath just because they live in a certain state.

“It is a preliminary working paper, and its contribution is acting as the first approximation to answer the question, not the final word,” he says, referring to the inquiry at the heart of this study: Are certain states more psychopath-dense than others?

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