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Matthew Burnett (Photo by Liam Richards)
October 02, 2006

Media Depiction of Psychopaths May Undermine Treatment:  Study
>Eighth in a Series
Monday, October 2, 2006
By David Hutton
For The StarPhoenix

Psychopaths are depicted in the mainstream media as dangerous, irrational, and even demonic -- a portrayal that may impact the treatment and potential reintegration of some offenders, says University of Saskatchewan psychology graduate student Matthew Burnett.


Burnett has selected and analyzed newspaper articles -- ranging from crime stories to gossip columns -- containing the term “psychopath” in the country’s national and major municipal newspapers over a one-year period.


His research seeks to find out how the Canadian media represents the psychopath and to investigate how such representations may ultimately be linked to people’s attitudes and behaviours towards them.


The project is funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) doctoral fellowship and has been presented at several conferences.


“Newspapers offer a very dramatic and emotionally loaded representation of the psychopath that isn’t necessarily consistent in all ways with what we actually know of the disorder,” Burnett says. 


According to researchers, psychopathy is a very specific type of mental disorder in which manipulation, violence, and intimidation are used to control others and satisfy selfish needs. Psychopaths can be intelligent and highly charismatic, but may be unable to feel guilt or remorse about their actions.


Recent American research suggests that 15 to 25 per cent of men and seven to 15 per cent of women in U.S. prisons display psychopathic behaviour.  And up to one per cent of the general population could be described as psychopathic and many of these people may be capable doctors, scientists, and CEOs.


“Clinicians define this construct very specifically, in a very matter-of-fact way,” says Burnett. “But outside of our discipline, within the broader culture, the term takes on all sorts of connotations.”


He says media often depict the psychopath “as criminal, highly destructive, and intensely violent, both sexually and non-sexually.” 


“The term is often associated with explosive, uncontrolled, and highly graphic forms of violence – a depiction somewhat consistent with the scientific literature yet clearly and dramatically embellished within the media,” Burnett says. 


“Media also tend to depict the psychopath in religious terms as a modern folk devil, a corrupter of innocence, and a lurking evil or demon,” says Burnett.   


A big issue, he says, is that, “unlike other illnesses and disorders, psychopathy is often portrayed as incurable and untreatable.”  


“Emphasis on treatment and effective reintegration may be consequently undermined given the culture’s expectation of intractability.”


Burnett’s research is somewhat unique in forensic psychology, a field normally dominated by quantitative research.


The next step is to conduct interviews examining potential connections between these perceptions and attitudes and correctional treatment.


“You have to assume that cultural scripts in some way are related to behaviour, whether directly or indirectly,” he says. “They may be accepted or resisted, either in part or in full.”


Such scripts may affect correctional treatment, prison programming, behaviour and attitudes of correctional staff and offenders, decisions and actions of policy-makers, and the self-perception of “psychopaths” themselves.  


“These portrayals supply certain expectations and constrain the way people behave,” says Burnett.


“What happens when a person in a position of authority, perhaps a parole board member, reads a story about a particular psychopath?  How will that shape his or her behaviour with respect to so-labelled persons? How does a mental health professional go about treating someone that the culture defines as untreatable? How does that person go about treating ‘evil’?”


His research will potentially shed light upon issues related to effective treatment and management of psychopathic offenders.


“I hope that it ultimately produces benefits with respect to effective correctional treatment, enhancing the reintegration potential of such offenders and yielding benefits with respect to public safety.”



 (This article is part of a partnership initiative between The StarPhoenix and University of Saskatchewan Research Communications Office to highlight the work of student researchers and showcase the efforts of student writers and photographers.)

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