Could a Psychopath Ever Be a Saint?

The role that motive plays in activating key personality traits

Some have suggested that psychopaths and saints share certain characteristics and imply that these shared traits show some commonality between them.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and one only has to consider two female paradigms, one a literal saint, and the other, a classic psychopath, to reach this conclusion.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a modern-day saint

“One of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century,” Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu established a religious order and became known to the world as Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  She led an exemplary life of love for mankind, living among the poorest of the poor, doing the work that no one else would do. She served lepers, orphans, beggars, the sickest and poorest, touching the lives of untold thousands.She radiated joy, exuding love by her mere presence. Undaunted by criticism, she persisted at her mission with perfection, paying attention to the smallest of details. She worked with ardor – an unquenchable thirst as though a fire burned within her.  Fearless as she was, she never gave a thought to herself.  Instead, she humbly served, putting her life and health in constant danger while taking credit for none of her work, thinking herself “too small” – a nothingness.

Motive propels and infuses key personality traits

The 1979 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize accomplished her mission with self-confidence, focus, coolness under pressure, and charisma, traits that some have attributed to psychopaths too.  But what matters is the motivation behind the traits.  Hers was a life of service to others.  She exemplifies a “light” personality profile, a person “genuinely interested in others  [who] treats them well without question, not as a means to an end.”

Diane Downs, a modern-day female psychopath

Diane Downs, a female psychopath, also evinced self-confidence, focus, coolness under pressure, and charisma, but she was only motivated by a desire for pleasure and self-interest.  In 1983, Downs became notorious for shooting her three children, killing one, seriously wounding a second, and leaving her young son permanently paralyzed.  Her motive was to please her lover who did not want children.  After the shooting, hospital staff noticed she was emotionally flat, and the next morning, while her two surviving children were in the hospital struggling to live, she telephoned her boyfriend to tell him how much she loved him.Downs won media attention, constantly calling press conferences while grandstanding before the television cameras protesting her innocence.  Demanding and persuasive, she basked in the attention, even gaining public support.  Maintaining her innocence, she blamed police for the chaos in her life that she herself had brought on while enjoying the attention she was getting.  Ultimately found guilty, her psychopathic ways are evident throughout the trial, but are especially exemplified when she said: “A trial is a play and the best actors will win.”

Dark personality traits in the extreme

Unlike Mother Teresa, Diane Downs displayed “dark personality traits” … narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism to the extreme.  There is absolutely no commonality between her and Mother Teresa.  Motivation is the key.  While both displayed self-confidence, focus, coolness under pressure, and charisma, one employed these key personality traits in selfless devotion, the other used them for selfish, destructive purposes.  In the end, the saint has a loving and contrite heart.  The psychopath is incapable of love and has no remorse.1