Hannibal Lecter Isn’t a Psychopath, But You Might Be

Robert Stroud (Birdman of Alcatraz). Mug shot ...

Robert Stroud (Birdman of Alcatraz). Mug shot 29 October 1951. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) (PD)

It appears that the many forms of media may have skewed the common perception of what a psychopath is and how they appear.


Some of the most famous psychopaths of the silver screen are anything but, according to an extensive analysis by forensic psychiatrist Samuel Leistedt. In fact, you probably have the wrong idea about psychopaths in general—and you almost certainly know a few.

A psychopath, Leistedt told ScienceNews, is someone who lacks empathy. “They’re cold-blooded,” he said. “They don’t know what emotion is.” To create a cinema-based curriculum for teaching psychiatry students about psychopaths—and about how popular perception of them has shifted over time—Leistedt watched 400 movies depicting psychopaths (and “sociopaths”—some distinguish between the two, but there’s no official diagnostic difference) and diagnosed each and every one of their featured villains. Once he weeded out supernatural characters, he was left with 105 male and 21 female characters to analyze with a team of 10 forensic scientists.

In the results published in The Journal of Forensic Sciences (paywall), the researchers say a pattern emerged: Nearly all the villains were either socially functional misfits with a compulsion (usually sexually motivated) to kill, or extremely violent, chaotic mass murderers with “idiosyncratic behaviors and appearance.” Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho would be an example of the former, and Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre represents the latter. Additionally, many “psychopaths” in film are actually “psychotic.” Norman Bates, for example, experiences severe delusions and hallucinations during his stint as a villain—and being disconnected from reality isn’t a psychopathic trait.

And the king of the hollywood psychopaths—Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of the Lambs franchise—failed to impress Leistedt and his colleagues. The quintessential “hollywood psychopath” has certain characteristics—ones that aren’t always present in real-life psychopaths. The researchers list high intelligence (and a preference for intellectual pursuits like music and fine art), a vain, “cat-like” demeanor, a prestigious career, a calm and “always-in-control” attitude, and an “unrealistic, exceptional skill at killing people, especially with blades or household objects.”

Not surprisingly, this combination of attributes is difficult to achieve in real life, empathy or none. But this character archetype, the “elite psychopath,” has become increasingly common in the literature and cinema in recent decades.


  • BuzzCoastin

    a rose by any other name
    would still be as psychopathic

  • Eric_D_Read

    In Dr Lecter’s defense, it was even stated in the film that, “they don’t have a word for what he is.”

    • Spasmodius

      He just likes good manners, is all it is.

      • Eric_D_Read

        Nothing wrong with that.

  • Damien Quinn

    “[psychopathic traits] include callousness and a lack of empathy,
    shallow emotions, an inability to accept responsibility for one’s
    actions, overconfidence, insincerity, selfishness, an inability to
    plan for the future, impulsivity and violence.”

    Well, it’s hardly surprising that they needed to sex psychopaths up a bit, that sounds more like a petulant teenager than the monster under the collective bed.

    “Shut up, I never asked to be born” just doesn’t have the same chill factor as fava beans and chianti.

  • codedp

    Empathy as I see it, is sort of like a muscle that must be flexed and used in practice in order to gain more ability to feel it in depth– Of course, there are those whom come to this planet with better starting capability than others// But if you think about the order of society in which we grow, there is quite the ability to grow up without having actually flexed these muscles by switching perspectives to gain a richer insight– Most people are stuck in their own heads, and cannot get past themselves.. So to me it is really a symptom of a sick society, rather than a sick individual–

  • Larry



    I wonder what he thought about Patrick Bateman.

  • Oginikwe

    “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout; “Without Conscience” by Robert Hare, and “The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo.

  • tibby trillz

    tony soprano, a “sociopath” who has panic attacks? or a guy with a really shitty psychiatrist?

  • Blake Mullins

    I stopped reading immediately. A psychopath isn’t someone who lacks empathy and remorse. Someone who lacks empathy and remorse is a sociopath. Who wrote this article that doesn’t even know the difference between the two?