The Female Psychopath
BETWEEN DECEMBER 1989 and November 1990, Aileen Wuornos killed seven men in Florida. Multiple shots from a .22 firearm did each of them in, and their bodies were left in secluded areas off of main roads. The "who," "what," and "when" of the murders are well known. The "why" is not. During her decade-long stint in prison after being apprehended, her accounts vacillated, from self-defense, to robbery, to cold blood. A few months before her execution by lethal injection, she seemed to settle on a story:
“I killed those 7 men in 1st degree murder and robbery.... Not so much for thrill kill, I was into the robbery biz. I was into the robbery and to eliminate witness[es].... I pretty much had ‘em selected that they were gonna die...there was no self-defense [sic].”
Aileen Wuornos was a psychopath. Cold and callous, she also succumbed to most of the other symptoms of the personality disorder. She was impulsive and irresponsible, borderline mentally deficient, aggressive and unremorseful. When examined by psychiatrists from the University of Florida, Wuornos scored a 32 on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, placing her in the 97th percentile of female North American female offenders.
"The severity of psychopathy in this case would provide Aileen Wuornos with the emotional callousness and cruel aggression to carry out a series of murders," the Florida psychiatrists would later report in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
AILEEN WUORNOS was actually not your typical psychopath. For one, it's very rare for a psychopath to be a serial killer. Most aren't even criminals. There are around 3.2 million psychopaths in the United States, and around 500,000 of them are incarcerated. Yes, that's a notable percentage, especially when compared to the much lower incarceration rate among the mentally healthy, but it's plain that the majority of psychopaths are law-abiding members of society. Though these people may show up as a psychopath on the Hare Checklist, they retain key mental faculties that render them functional.*
Wuornos also differed from most other psychopaths in one glaring category: she was a woman. Though the exact rates are in question, almost all psychologists agree that male psychopaths clearly outnumber female psychopaths. The difference has resulted in a dearth of research on female psychopathy.
Like their male counterparts, female psychopaths are egocentric, manipulative, lack empathy and guilt, and are often grandiose. These broad traits manifest in different ways, however. Norwegian scientists Rolf Wynn, Marita H Høiseth, and Gunn Pettersen explained some of the distinctions in 2012:
Women who are manipulative more often tend to flirt, while manipulative men are more likely to run scams and commit fraud. In women, the tendency to run away, exhibit self-injurious behavior, and manipulation, all characterize impulsiveness and behavioral problems. Moreover, their criminal behavior consists primarily of theft and fraud. In men, however, the criminal behavior often includes violence. Indeed, the form of aggression that is displayed appears to differ between the sexes. Although the results are divergent and inconclusive, some studies have suggested that while men more often show physical aggression, women more often display a more relational and verbal form of aggression. This may, for instance, occur through manipulation of social networks in attempting to exclude the victim from a community. Alternatively, it may take the form of threats of self-injury, with consequences for family and friends.
Just like in men, psychopathy in women develops as a result of "complex interactions between biological and temperamental predispositions as well as social and environmental influences." Female psychopaths may have been abused as children, subjected to abandonment, or perhaps suffered some sort of head trauma.
WHO ARE FEMALE psychopaths? That's a tricky question to answer -- demographic studies on female psychopaths are scarce, to the point of nonexistence. We know that roughly 16% of incarcerated women are psychopaths, while rates among men are much higher. Clearly, a higher proportion of female psychopaths are functional, perhaps even quite successful, members of society. Remember that psychopathy is a continuum. In minor doses, certain psychopathic traits can be beneficial. Some of the most talented female CEOs, lawyers, media personalities, actors, journalists, and politicians would likely display detectable levels of psychopathy. While psychopaths like Aileen Wuornos get all the attention, they're almost certainly the exception, not the norm.
*Section updated 3/20 to clarify the statement that "most psychopaths are law-abiding..."