U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Construct of Psychopathy (From Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Volume 28, P 197-264, 2001, Michael Tonry, ed. -- See NCJ-192542)

NCJ Number
Date Published
68 pages

This essay reviews the concept of psychopathy and its relevance to the criminal justice system through the direct application of various research studies and findings.


Psychopathy is a condition characterized by aggression starting in early childhood, impulsitvity, resistance to discipline or punishment, lack of emotional attachment or concern for others, social dishonesty and selfishness, and high levels of promiscuous and uncommitted sexual behavior. Evidence indicates that psychopathy lies within both sexes and all racial and ethnic groups. In the assessment and treatment of serious and violent offenders, the concept of psychopathy is seen as of paramount importance. Psychopathy is viewed as the strongest indicator of treatment response and risk for violence for offender populations when measured optimally. The evidence supports a heritable component to lifelong and persistent antisociality as indisputable, however complex. There are seven hypotheses explaining the nature and causes of psychopathy with substantial evidence to support it: (1) Hare's Lateralization Theory; (2) Lykken's Low-Fear Theory; (3) Fowles-Gray Neurobehavioral Theory; (4) Disinhibition Theory or the Frontal Lobe Defect Hypothesis; (5) response modulation; (6) low-neurotransmitter syndromes; and (7) psychopathy as variation in personality. Psychopathy is viewed as important in assessing risk among offenders, planning treatment and other interventions for forensic populations, and determining sentences and other criminal sanctions. Research in psychopathy has the potential to serve as a model for applied psychological research in general. References

Date Published: January 1, 2001