Posted in Psychology & Medicine


A common character found in psychological thrillers are those who seem to have no regard for the well-being of others, disobey social rules and act violently for seemingly no reason. They show no remorse or empathy and can be very intelligent, charming and high-functioning (although not typically). We describe these people as psychopaths, or sometimes sociopaths. To over-simplify it, a psychopath essentially has no moral conscience and do not believe in the social contract.

The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, but in modern psychiatry, they both fall under the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). ASPD patients tend to have a long history of criminal charges, often relating to violence, chronic lying and fraud, drug use and other law-breaking actions. These characteristics may show from early childhood, with the typical psychopathic child being described as one murdering animals and being violent towards other kids. These children are often diagnosed with another disorder called conduct disorder.

Psychopaths are very popular in movies and TV shows due to their unpredictable nature, wanton violence and maniacal behaviour inflicting terror into the audience’s hearts. After all, who wouldn’t be afraid of a remorseless killer who finds enjoyment from others’ suffering? Unfortunately, many movies distort the image of the psychopath and blend in various other mental health disorders such as psychosis into the character. Sometimes psychopaths are even sensationalised, being described as an antihero.

It is true that many serial killers turn out to be psychopaths, but physical violence is not necessarily a feature of all psychopaths. A subset of “successful” psychopaths differentiate themselves by being less physically violent, appear to follow the social norm and succeed in challenging fields such as business, finances, law or even medicine. However, they will also have a pervasive disregard for others and will only care about having their way. Their lack of empathy allows them to act immorally, stabbing people in the back and lying, cheating and manipulating their way to the top. It is not some sick sexual perversion or power trips that motivate psychopaths, but impulsivity, egocentricity and gratification. To psychopaths, the aim of the game is to win, no matter the cost.

This makes you wonder. How many people around you are secretly a psychopath – one who would take advantage of you without a shred of guilt? How many people around you hide behind the mask of sanity?

(NB: Just putting it out there, Sherlock Holmes is neither a psychopath nor a sociopath. If anything he probably has an autism spectrum disorder like Asperger’s syndrome.)

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Unless you are a psychopath, as a human being you are bound to feel emotions. Love, happiness, anger, sadness… there are many emotions that range from simple to complex. Emotions are an interesting system as they allow us to respond rapidly to a situation without thinking, while alerting other members of our society to what is happening to us. Essentially, emotions help us in survival and social interactions. 

According to Professor Paul Ekman, emotions are universal from culture to culture, with facial expressions being almost identical from tribal cultures to modern ones. He found that there are six major emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise and happiness. He also pioneered the field of micro-expressions, which studies the flickering change in our facial expressions whenever we feel a certain emotion. As emotions usually occur before the conscious mind thinks, we are often unaware of the expressions we make.

Another psychologist, Dr. Paul Gilbert, divided emotions into three affect systems. They are as follows:

  • Threat/protection system: associated with the fight-or-flight response, activates in response to danger. It causes anger and fear and is related to catecholamines (e.g. adrenaline) and cortisol (stress hormone).
  • Want/desire system: associated with hunting and rewarding behaviour, helps us perform actions that aids survival such as obtaining food and mates. It is related to the emotion of excitement, which is caused by the neurotransmitter dopamine (part of the reward system).
  • Contentment system: associated with met needs and social connection, especially when we feel safe and relaxed. It produces feelings of happiness and peace, linked to the hormone oxytocin (released with human touch, especially during kissing).

Dr. Gilbert also posited that as societies have evolved over time, our affect systems have been altered. For example, despite the lack of natural predators around, urban dwellers are often in a state of high anxiety. This causes a sustained stress response, leading to negative health outcomes. Furthermore, the agitation and the paranoia caused by constant fear leads to crimes such as murder and war. Our want/desire system has also been heightened as we find pleasure in gaining material wealth. This has led to aggressive capitalism, exploiting other people and the environment for selfish gain.

On the other hand, the contentment system has shrunk. People feel less content despite being in a generally healthier and richer world than 100 years ago. The reason being, our brain has evolved to help us survive, not to keep us happy. 

One must learn how to adapt to these changes by finding a way to relieve tension and stress, while finding inner peace and happiness. Whether it be through sports, music, humour or simply talking to another person, finding your own way to deal with anxiety is the best road to being happy and content.