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Psychopaths Don’t Mellow With Age

In many cases, researchers find that people with antisocial personality disorder get worse, not better

Rearview shot of a mature man looking through a window in a bedroom at home
kupicoo / Getty Images

Most people mellow out with age, but in the case of psychopaths and those suffering from similar antisocial personality disorders such as sociopaths, bad behavior tends to get worse, according to new research from New Zealand’s University of Otago.

Examining the old assumption that psychopaths are calmer and change their stripes the older they get, researchers led by Donna Andersen, founder of nonprofit Lovefraud Education and Recovery, and Martin Sellbom, a professor in the University of Otago’s psychology department, surveyed over 1,200 partners, family members and friends of psychopaths who are 50 or older to see if they calmed down. Those who knew the individuals before and after the age of 50 were asked if there was a change in the person’s manipulation, deceit and other antisocial behaviors. The result: 93 percent said the person was “just as bad, or worse,” as he or she aged. The research was published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.​

“Anyone who is waiting for a senior sociopath to grow up or calm down — whether this person is a romantic partner, family member, work colleague or friend — should stop wasting their life and escape. He or she will not change,” Andersen said in a report highlighting the research.

What constitutes antisocial personality disorder?

Antisocial personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people show little respect for others. People suffering from this disorder, including psychopaths and sociopaths, engage in long-term patterns of manipulating, exploiting and harming others. They don’t follow the rules, tend to blame others, and have little regard for the pain and suffering they cause.

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Andersen said the notion that psychopaths mellow by the time they hit their 40s is based on studying criminal data, not the experiences of the victims. Sure, antisocial behavior may not get older adults arrested as much, but they are still inflicting emotional and physical pain on their victims. “The mental health field has conflated this with antisocial behavior. They look at the criminal data and then assume the disorders got better, but that’s not the case,” Andersen says.

She should know. She began studying this concept because she married a con artist who scammed her out of money. When Andersen met him, he was 55 years old. “They say they burn out in their 40s. That’s not my experience,” she says.

Manipulation, emotional abuse, fraud on the menu

Based on the survey of 1,200 people, the researchers found that 935 individuals age 50 or older demonstrated traits of either antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy.

  • 99 percent were manipulative
  • 94 percent engaged in antisocial behavior
  • 93 percent were emotionally abusive
  • 89 percent were psychologically abusive
  • 58 percent were financially abusive 
  • 47 percent were violent
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While often the focus is on studying the offenders, researchers wanted to learn what impact these older psychopaths are having on their families, friends and loved ones. Turns out, these over-50 individuals bring significant harm to those close to them.

  • 68 percent of victims lost money
  • 45 percent incurred debt
  • 26 percent were physically abused or injured
  • 27 percent had their lives threatened
  • 88 percent suffered from anxiety or depression
  • 76 percent reported the stress of it all made them sick
  • 70 percent suffered post-traumatic stress disorder
  • 31 percent considered or tried to commit suicide

“This research gives a voice to the victims of psychopathy, providing a general indication of the degree to which victims are affected. Most of the time we focus on the individuals with such traits, and their biased perspectives,” says Sellbom. “There are many ways people can be victimized and many are unaware of the warning signs of psychopathy before it is too late.”

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