I Love Animals — Can I Still Be a Psychopath?

Reader’s Question

I have a very confusing and interesting point of view. Most of the time, I am not very interested in the pain and suffering of people. Either I don’t see it or understand it, or I don’t really care about their problems. On the other hand, I can, more or less, empathise with animals. If I had a choice of hurting an animal or a human being, contrary to what most people would choose, I would hurt the human. Interestingly enough, I don’t like seeing or hearing about people abusing animals; I get angry and I want to hurt or kill those people, but I would have no problems with abusing animals myself. Interesting! Do you know or have any ideas why I would show more compassion for animals than for humans?

Some people (psychiatrists) have said that I am a psychopath and a narcissist. I did my own research on the topic and, while the majority of traits apply to me (all but criminality), I didn’t act this way before the age of 15. Some thoughts and feelings may have been there; I can’t remember exactly now but it was not as prominent as it is now. Also psychopaths have no feeling for anyone, and that includes animals. I do feel for animals. Apparently this throws the “psychopath” label in the water. Maybe you know if people can be psychopaths without exhibiting the behavior before the age 15, or is there something else at play here?

Psychologist’s Reply

The term “psychopath” is rarely used and as you describe, is a label often applied to criminals who have no sense of conscience or morality. The clinical term used to describe psychopathic features with or without criminal behavior is “Antisocial Personality” or in some cases “Narcissistic Personality”. Both fall under the general category of a Personality Disorder (see my introduction to personality disorders on this site). Both are totally selfish, manipulative, and have little or no concern for those around them. As you describe, both personalities often attempt to diminish their lack of morality by emphasizing some exceptions to their antisocial attitudes, in your case being concern for animals, although you quickly mention that you have no difficulty abusing animals. Other antisocial, narcissistic, and criminal personalities have other features they often place in the forefront as their “good side”. The extreme of this behavior occurs in prison where there is a prison code against sexual offenders, especially offenders of children. You can murder your entire family for insurance money yet become a prison hero if you beat a sexual offender to death on the recreation yard, as though you’ve done something that is now morally right and deserving of praise. Like your report of anger when others abuse animals, criminals exhibit a type of justified and self-righteous anger against the sexual offenders but not against those who kill children for profit, during kidnappings, or in automobile accidents.

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A Personality Disorder typically does have early signs that are present before the age of 15, but those signs can be subtle or difficult to detect. In the old days of psychiatry, we tended to think of early signs as 1) firesetting, 2) bedwetting, and 3) cruelty to animals. You may have also been in a living situation where early signs did not have an opportunity to emerge.

Antisocial Personality is probably the best fit for your self-description, especially with the willingness to hurt both humans and animals. Individuals with Antisocial Personality are incredibly narcissistic but unlike the Narcissistic Personality, are not often preoccupied with fantasies of wealth, success, or grandiosity. I’d recommend reading the introduction to personality disorders, followed by researching Antisocial Personality. As you will read in the research, the long-term projections for Antisocial Personality are not good — typically alcohol/drug addiction, incarceration, and no family. If you want to explore changing your long-term prognosis, individual counseling may be of help.

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