Are The Mafia Psychopaths?

By Neuroskeptic | April 3, 2014 2:26 pm

The view that the Mafia is an organization of especially ruthless psychopaths is wrong – in fact, members of ‘Cosa Nostra’ have lower psychopathic traits than other criminals.

That’s according to a new study from Italian researchers Schimmenti and colleagues, who, appropriately enough, are based in Sicily, the Mafia’s birthplace.

psychopath_mafiaSchimmenti et al went to a prison in Palermo, Sicily, and interviewed 30 convicted Mafia members:

Seven of the Mafia members (23%) had been convicted of murder, 17 (57%) for other violent offenses, and the remainder for crimes including trafficking in narcotics, extortion, fraud, sexual exploitation and kidnapping…

They compared them to a comparison group of 39 prisoners from the same jail, whose crimes were not gang-related. Their offenses included murder, rape, child sexual abuse and armed robbery.

To measure psychopathic traits, the researchers administered the Italian version of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R). This is an interview in which the assessor rates whether the subject displays each of 20 specific features characteristic of psychopathy, such as pathological lying; impulsivity; and callous lack of empathy. The scores are added up to give a total, with 30+ being the conventional cutoff for being ‘a psychopath’.

It turned that none of the Mafia scored above cutoff on the PCL-R, while 10% of the comparison group did. Overall, scores were significantly lower among mob members than in the ‘other’ criminals. The difference was quite pronounced.

Numbers can only tell us so much. Also interesting are Schimmenti et al’s descriptions of the Mafia personality:

This means that they were less ‘manipulative’, ‘Machiavellian’, ‘narcissistic’, ‘unemotional’, ‘parasitic’ and/or ‘impulsive’ than the other participants. Further, during the interviews, they often expressed concerns for their children and their families, and they had never ceased to write and call them. Such expressions of attachment were less apparent among the comparison men.

Even criminal actions for most of the Mafia members were led by loyalty to their families or adherence to the family’s ‘mission’ rather than personal interest… It is possible that these individuals compartmentalized their lives and behaviors –on the one side, the Mafia affairs, on the other side, their positive feelings and affects towards relatives and friends.

The Mafia members were also less likely than the controls to have a substance abuse problem:

Mafia members are required to appear reliable, maintain power and adhere to the internal representations and principles of their organization, and such skills tend to be impaired by substance use. It may be that substance misusers would be less likely to be selected for Mafia membership (as they would be viewed as liabilities), and if selected by chance, their involvement would be short lived.

Indeed. Who can forget the bit in The Sopranos where Mafia boss Tony organizes an intervention to convince his lieutenant and nephew Chris to go to rehab for his heroin addiction, saying that ‘If you weren’t my nephew, your intervention would have been a bullet in your head’?

However… while this is a very interesting study, it’s hard to know whether these Mafia members are a representative sample of their kind. They were all in prison: it might be that the ones on the outside are a different breed. The authors also noted that they could only interview low-ranking mafiosi, since Italian law forbids any contact with jailed Mafia bosses, even for research.

But a bigger problem, in my view is with the control group. These non-Mafia criminals are not a representative sample of all Italian criminals because most criminals don’t go to jail. Jail is reserved for serious and persistent cases.

The problem is that we don’t know if the threshold for going to jail is the same for Mafia and non-Mafia offenders. It’s quite possible that Italian courts are harsher on Mafia members, jailing them (or sending them to a high security jail) even though their offenses might not otherwise warrant such a sentence. The Mafia’s own code of conduct might land them harsher sentences because it forbids them from making plea bargains etc.

In other words, maybe ‘ordinary’ criminals need to be especially horrible to end up in the same jail as the Mafia – and in the comparison group of this study. In which case, the Mafia might be just as psychopathic as those who commit similar crimes outside of the organization.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchimmenti, A., Caprì, C., La Barbera, D., & Caretti, V. (2014). Mafia and psychopathy Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health DOI: 10.1002/cbm.1902

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, law, mental health, papers, select, Top Posts
  • Sk0gr

    Not surprising. Mafia has, after all, to acquire money and maintain an organization and is thereby subject to objective feedback. If Mafia would exclusively consist of completely sick tyrants and liars, this would not work in the long run. Please, please, do extend this study to political organizations! My prediction would be that all members of Norwegian organizations would score really, really high, including those in the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The world would be surprised to find which countries´ politicians actually are the very worst.

    • aon

      “Mafia would exclusively consist of completely sick tyrants and liars, this would not work in the long run” … it hasn’t worked.

  • JayMan

    Representativeness is one issue, and a huge one. But equally important is that the samples were too damned small.

    • Neuroskeptic

      It is small, but the effect size was pretty huge (d = about 1.00 in total PCL-R scores) so the study was powered.

      • JayMan

        I don’t trust even large effects from small samples (it’s easier to get big results in small samples, not to mention get the results you might want).

        But then were also back to the representativeness issue.

  • Rolf Degen

    If this trend should wear out in a better designed study, it would mean that the concept of psychopathy is completely invalid and useless. Mafia membership should be a calibration measure for that concept.

  • Steven Trotter

    It is possible that these individuals compartmentalized their lives and behaviors –on the one side, the Mafia affairs, on the other side, their positive feelings and affects towards relatives and friends.

    This in itself is a form of pschopathy

    • roberta4343

      possibly a split personality, split personalities are themselves signs of mental illness. reminds me of the wizard of oz when he was the wizard he was crude, mean and basically murderous, he sent off the gang to be murdered by the witch but once he was exposed all of a sudden he says I am a good man just a lousy wizard. excuse me sir they are one and the same. you cannot absolve your crimes by turning one personality on and off at your whim. your in full charge of them both. positions of power can cause serious conflicts in ones mind (in one hand you have to be ruthless and cold to gain and keep power and on the other your conscience accuses you at the same time) so to turn off the pangs of accusation for failing to live up to high moral standards you have to split your personality and switch between them when needed. that my friend is true insanity to do this willfully.

    • Winston Cardillo

      Poor impulse control including problems with planning and foresight,
      lacking affect and urge control, demand for immediate gratification, and
      poor behavioral restraints.None of these things speak to people who carefully organize to commit crimes. Clearly they lack empathy for the people they kill – but then so does the US government. Is the government psychopathic?

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  • roberta4343

    which mafia are you speaking of? there are many, I would call governments of the world as mafia too, and there are some dusies of insane psychopaths in there. immoral people are basically the same, they are immoral because it is more profitable to be immoral then to be moral, how many wealthy and powerful moral persons do you know personally? which are in power honestly without lying or stealing or being bribed or who has not turned a blind eye to wrongdoing in their midst? Who has not ordered someone assisanated that was a threat whether actually murder or assassinates someones reputation? those who gained vast wealth honestly without commiting immoral acts is uncommon.

    • Sandro Casagrande

      “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. H. Balzac
      Try any biography of the Kennedys, or Clintons…
      Lady Macbeth is “not” fiction.
      Literature is about Real life, that’s why we read it. Papers movies and psychologists deal with fiction and cheap fodder for the lumpen.

  • Uncle Al

    A psychopath is a sociopath with goals. A sociopath is a businessman in an unjust society. The just and proper solution is to make all society insane so that there is no goal to be gained by deviant behavior.

    • BlueBoomPony

      Um… wait until I set up the lunar colony before you go that route, ok?

    • 5JimBob

      Wow. We’re almost there.

      Probity is now a sign of mental illness?

  • Billie Mudry Spaight

    Bullfeathers. You gotta be a psychopath to CAUSE and FOSTER drug addiction in people. And to kill people just like that!

    • Uncle Al

      Cigarettes, alcohol, opiates (the War on Drugs missing hundreds of square miles of poppy fields during the War on Afghanistan), Paxil. Why don’t you love your government?

      • Winston Cardillo

        American Hypocrisy – perfectly okay to kill steal and destroy as long as you make it legal to do so.

  • BlueBoomPony

    OK, so maybe we just need a new name. We could apply it to politicians, too.

    I still use sociopath for the self interested, but politicians do seem to sometimes do things for Party cohesion. Tribeopaths? They help the tribe (using tribe here in a very generic sense) because it helps themselves. Well, then it just comes back to self interest, doesn’t it? Yeah, I don’t envy you brain folks your jobs. 😉

    • Winston Cardillo

      Politicians don’t help the tribe – they help their masters. The tribe suffers.

  • Jetstar99999

    SOCIOPATHS (President Obama a textbook example)are masters at creating the pretense of normality, it’s always about THEM.
    Sociopaths have no conscience, no empathy, no remorse, no regret, no shame, no
    guilt, combined with relentless pathological lying, (e.g. covering old lies
    with new lies), known to lie in serial fashion on same issue until a target
    eventually believes one of the lies, and if challenged often will accuse their
    targets of being mentally unstable, unreasonable, or not understanding what
    they were previously told. Repeated devious and deceitful behavior along with
    narcissistic self-adoration and grandiosity, seeing themselves as superior to
    everyone else, continually seeking power over others, masters at shifting blame,
    finding scapegoats, and portraying themselves as misunderstood victims.
    Particularly skilled at manipulating and controlling and (at times) humiliating
    and shaming their targets – whom they consider fools who deserve to be conned
    and scammed . See other humans as marks to be used and discarded, especially
    the gullible. Often leaving a trail of debris with the people and entities they
    interact with. Emotionally detached, self-absorbed, smug, uncaring,
    unsympathetic, viewing the world as centered around themselves, with a huge
    sense of entitlement, easily bored especially when the subject is not about
    themselves, combined with haughty and arrogant body language such as a swagger
    while projecting an air of supreme self-confidence, often responding to
    criticisms or perceived slights with petulant child-like rages, when confronted with their deceptions will
    attack the messenger, repeated refusal to accept responsibility for their own
    actions, experts at fake “apologies,” taking credit for the work of
    others while belittling and devaluing what others do,…. generally charming,
    charismatic, smooth, and verbally capable, able to talk their way out of most
    situations, experts at maintaining eye contact with their targets – from which
    they use to judge whether their lies and new (covering) lies are being
    believed. Skilled actors, masters of deception, often able to shed tears on
    command, and who generally learn from their late teen years how to mimic and
    fake emotions to blend in with normal persons, and eventually realize having no
    conscience is a huge advantage allowing them to exploit, scam, and con

    • Odin Matanguihan

      you copy-pasted that post from somewhere else.

      • Jetstar99999

        correct- myself

        • Neuroskeptic

          They are? You have my sympathy. You must be devastated.

          • Sandro Casagrande

            “you must be” the most deprived quack on the block delivering cheap diagnosis to the lumpen. Don’t need to guess why! “you must” seek some medical attention… how about reading some good stuff for a change… maybe just some Tavor would do .get real , shut up.

        • Sandro Casagrande

          on the money. 100% with you. You sure do not buy the nonchalant b.s. “author’s” diagnosis.

  • SolidBro

    Psychopaths: Ted Bundy, Bill Clinton, the BTK Killer, Richard Ramirez, Barack 0bama, Anthony Weiner, Adolf Hitler, Bernie Madoff, Hillary Clinton, Lee Harvey Oswald, Saddam Hussein, Charles Manson, Harry Reid, and Jack the Ripper.

    • adam dickes

      Wow. Look at all the democratic politicians in that list. I had no idea! Why aren’t more people aware of this incredible fact?

    • Neuroskeptic

      Well, no-one could accuse the author of a comment like this of being a psychopath.

      Because that would imply that he has a mind (psyche).

  • SolidBro

    How to Spot Psychopaths: Speech Patterns Give Them Away

    (sounds like 0bama)

    Psychopaths make up about 1 percent of the general population
    and as much as 25 percent of male offenders in federal correctional
    settings, according to the researchers. Psychopaths are typically
    profoundly selfish and lack emotion. “In lay terms, psychopaths seem to have little or no ‘conscience,'” write the researchers in a study
    published online in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology.

    Psychopaths are also known for being cunning and manipulative, and they make for perilous interview subjects, according to Michael Woodworth, one of the authors and a psychologist who studies psychopathy at the University of British Columbia, who joined the discussion by phone.

    “It is unbelievable,” Woodworth said. “You can spend two or three hours and come out feeling like you are hypnotized.”

    While there are reasons to suspect that psychopaths’ speech patterns
    might have distinctive characteristics, there has been little study of
    it, the team writes.

    How words give them away

    To examine the emotional content of the murderers’ speech, Hancock and his colleagues looked at a number of factors, including how frequently they described their crimes using the past tense. The use of the past tense can be an indicator of psychological detachment, and the researchers found that the psychopaths used it more than the present tense when compared with the nonpsychopaths. They also found more dysfluencies — the “uhs” and “ums” that interrupt speech — among psychopaths. Nearly universal in speech, dysfluencies indicate that the speaker needs some time to think about what they are saying.

    With regard to psychopaths, “We think the ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ are about putting the mask of sanity on,” Hancock told LiveScience.

    Psychopaths appear to view the world and others instrumentally, as
    theirs for the taking, the team, which also included Stephen Porter from
    the University of British Columbia, wrote.

    As they expected, the psychopaths’ language contained more words known as subordinating conjunctions. These words, including “because” and “so that,” are associated with cause-and-effect statements.

    “This pattern suggested that psychopaths were more likely to view the crime as the logical outcome of a plan (something that ‘had’ to be done to achieve a goal),” the authors write.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Psychopaths say “um” and use “because” more? I do both of those things, I’m not a psychopath, I just… think before speaking. Or typing. It’s a good approach to life.

      • Sandro Casagrande

        ” I’m not a psychopath, I just… think before speaking”
        I beg to differ. All psychopaths say they are not psychos and believe they think before speaking , like you do.
        you -and everybody who got to know you in the flesh or in reading – are perfectly aware you are a poor psycho-impostor. Little fool you can’t hide your soul.

  • DireMouse

    In looking at their heads, the researchers are looking at the wrong end; Mafiosi brains are in their recti.

  • polistra24

    Not news. Professional criminals, whether Italian Mafia or Hispanic Mafia or unaffiliated, are perfectly sane. They have strict and consistent moral standards which disagree at some points with the loose and inconsistent moral standards of average citizens. Professional criminals are VASTLY more sane than governmental officials or corporate executives.

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  • Tim Smith

    could they have outsmarted the test?

  • Winston Cardillo

    The American Government and the corporatocracy that owns them – when are they doing a study on those two groups? Oh, no need. Got it.

    • Sandro Casagrande

      on the money

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  • ohwilleke

    I am inclined to think that the effect may be real. The Mafia is not merely organized crime, but stable, long term organized crime on a scale in numbers and time much larger than a street gang. Most criminals, in contrast, are loners or operate in small groups that do not endure for long periods of time.

    Also, studies of psychopathy in street gangs have shown wide variations in psychopathy within gangs with enforcers scoring high, and others not scoring high. If the most serious mafia members include the psychopaths, it seems likely that people who play well with others over long periods of time in stable organizations are likely not to be psychopaths. Psychopaths can be manipulative and operate in a social context, but generally they sow the seeds of the group’s own destruction within a relatively short time period.

  • Thomas Murphy

    The best that many of them can be are Inverse Brain Imprints and therefore psychopathic because they cannot form their own realities based on a integrated hippo campus brain function.

    Inverse Brain Imprintation is the Cause of Schizophrenia 04 11 2014

    Some of our leniency in laws amount to the demoniac applying
    principles of demoniac self to human beings.
    And that too is part of the war against men.

    I will define a demoniac as someone that would participate
    in the displacement of a human beings soul from that human being until the
    point whereby they could see out of their eyes as if they re that same person.
    (I have given it the term Inverse Brain Imprintation. And it is the opposite of the father son
    human love brain imprint with is a fact in science and psychology. A father and his son’s brain wave become one
    as the son loves the father and working with him. Now this brings up an entirely different
    issue of the demoniac sensing a human being thinking from the loving imprint of
    his father and seeking him out in livid jealousy for this! As if he is stealing his work skills. One represents true family values and the other
    is the way of the devil.

    In Inverse Brain Imprintation the Demoniac has the same mind
    as the human person. Because they have the
    same mind as that person, to the degree that they can see out of their eyes, it
    means that they do not have their own mind!
    I don’t believe that I could ever become such a part of another person
    and that less of myself that I could see out of their eyes. That isn’t how brain imprintation in human
    beings is meant to work. Why? Because human brain imprintation is meant to
    lead to the creation of independent and therefore responsible human beings whereby
    Inverse Imprintation leads to just the exact opposite.


    Inverse Brain Imprintation is achieved through torture and truama.


    Also the victims of Inverse Brain Imprintation are labeled schizophrenics today it literally means split mind.


    Inverse Brain Imprintation it would not matter if you had children that
    were born with fetal alcohol syndrome (And all the mentally defective)
    because you could imprint them with a human beings mind through
    torture. You wouldn’t want to put your life in their hands and they
    create the largest waste the world has ever known but it is being done
    and the victims of it are healthy human beings who were not previously
    disabled. And this is why, even thought Fetal Alcohol syndrome is the
    leading cause of mental retardation in the Western Hemisphere, little
    has been done to prevent it from happening! Why bother if you can just
    victimize a human being for their minds?


    technology to torture a human beings brain/mind from a distance sight
    unseen has been around since before WWII. England invented the
    Magnetron Generator! And then someone figured out that all you had to
    do to use it to disrupt the electrical signals in a Human Beings brain
    is to have its amplitude modulated by a microphone switch! And after
    awhile of that those who benefit from it learn how to emulate the beast
    like electromagnetic pulse with their brains. Much like a Beluga whale


    is a crime against humanity and all those who participated in the use
    of systems that actively deny a human being the ability to use their own
    mind should be quarantined in FEMA natural disaster camps.

    Thomas Paul Murphy

    Originally published on 04 11 2014 at:

    Copyright 2014 Thomas Paul Murphy

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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