Psychopaths: Maybe they're born with it, maybe it's labeling

Updated: May 21

When we say “iPhone,” what thoughts come to your mind? Is it different than the thoughts when you hear “Android” or “cell phone” more generally? The label we assign to an object can change our perception of the object. The same can be said regarding the way people are labeled – labels placed on us (i.e., doctor, professor, child) can impact how we are seen and treated and can impact our own actions as well. But what happens if someone is given a traditionally negative label, like psychopath? Would you let a psychopath near you or your family? If you were in a juror in a case and you knew the defendant was a psychopath, would it change your decisions?

Berryessa and Wohlstetter (2019) were interested in how the label of psychopath influences punishment decisions. In their article, “The psychopathic "label" and effects on punishment outcomes: A meta-analysis,” they present data from a meta-analysis of 22 studies exploring how the label of “psychopath” influences three key aspects: legal sentence or sanction, perceived dangerousness, and perceived need for mental health treatment. All 22 studies gave participants vignettes about defendants who were either labeled psychopaths, labeled with another psychiatric diagnosis, or were not labeled.

Results from this meta-analysis indicate that psychopath defendants were more likely to receive harsh sentences/sanctions, be rated as dangerous, and be perceived as needing mental health treatment than defendants who were not labeled. But, there was no difference between perceptions of psychopaths and people labeled with other mental health diagnoses. Thus, it is probably having a mental health-related label generally leads to a labeling effect that impacts legal decisions, rather than specifically being labeled as a psychopath. The results were slightly surprising, and raise concerns about a general bias against defendants with psychiatric illness.

The stigma associated with a mental health label can be daunting. More research should be done to examine how the label effect can be mitigated. It is particularly concerning because a diagnosis usually means that someone has met with a mental health professional, which might mean they are seeking help. It would be interesting to know whether help-seeking behavior can mitigate the effect of the label. Alternatively, if the effect cannot be mitigated, it could be important for courts to prevent the factfinders (e.g., juries, judges) from learning about specific diagnoses as the effect of label might be more prejudicial than probative (i.e., informative) to the decision.

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