“Psycho for Psychology: American Psycho”
October. Halloween. Tons and tons of scary movies.
I’m usually not one for a horror flick, but occasionally I gather the courage to watch something spooky or eerie. Daring and up for a challenge, I watched Christian Bale portray Patrick Bateman in the cult thriller American Psycho, based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis.
Working as an investment banker in Manhattan in the late 1980s, Patrick Bateman has it all: wealth, a steady job, a girlfriend, a social circle, and easy access to the finer things in life. Apart from this seemingly perfect life, however, the real Patrick Bateman hides dark, twisted thoughts, urges, and behaviors that might cost someone’s life if they come too close.
What is it that makes Bateman so sinister, convoluted, and – wait for it – psycho? He is consumed with the need to excel and to be acknowledged as the best in his job, and he obsesses over his looks and physique. Not only does he say things that imply fake empathy, but he also manipulates others with his superficial charm. Furthermore, he consistently lies without guilt to uphold his façade of normalcy. When something doesn’t go his way, or if he simply desires, he may torture and murder the unsuspecting victim.
Such narcissism, manipulation, callousness, and lack of conscience describe Bateman as a psychopath, according to the Psychopathy Checklist developed by Dr. Robert Hare in1993 (Hesse, 2009). These characteristics fit along the two axes used to measure psychopathic behavior, antisocial behavior and affective disturbance. An example of a real-life psychopath, Ted Bundy, demonstrates traits similar to Bateman, including a cover-up of normal life over his many murders of women back in the 1970s.
Inaccuracies, however, are bound to follow in media portrayals of psychology. First, psychopathy doesn’t exactly imply violence, and psychopathic behavior can sometimes be changed with treatment or therapy (Skeem, Polaschek, Patrick, & Lilienfeld, 2011). Psychopaths also are noted for their irresponsibility and absence of direction in their actions (Hesse, 2009). Bateman, with his violent and sadistic tendencies, seems that he will never change, and he carefully calculates his actions. It is important to remember that this is a movie meant for entertainment, to scare or shock, or to evoke thought, and it doesn’t look to evidence in psychological studies.
For psychology aficionados who are interested in this satirical, blackly comical thriller, be warned – it’s not for the faint of heart.
Hesse, M. (2009). Portrayal of psychopathy in the movies. International Review of Psychiatry,
21(3), 207-212. doi: 10.1080/09540260902747441
Skeem, J.L., Polaschek, D.L.L., Patrick, C.J., & Lilienfeld, S.O. (2011). Psychopathic
personality: Bridging the gap between scientific evidence and public policy.
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(3), 95-162. doi:
Article by: Amanda Sebesta (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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