Psychopaths don't carry gleaming knives.

They won't stalk you in a trench-coat down a shadowy street.

The truth, says Professor Devon Polaschek, and "sorry to disappoint", is far more ordinary.

"Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) really captures people's imaginations, but it's only partially related to real life psychopathy. Psychopathy is more interesting and more ordinary than we think it is."

Advertisement

Polaschek, an academic at The University of Waikato, works as a forensic clinical psychologist in prisons and was the first speaker to kick off the university's new public lecture series in Tauranga, where she spoke on psychopathy.

"People quite like the idea of being frightened of things. There's this whole kind of boogeyman under the bed idea."

A storyteller of dark tales, she has a low, soft voice. At times, it's a whisper.

We meet on a wild afternoon in Tauranga, with squalls of driving rain bounding into waves from our view at Trinity Wharf Hotel. It's a fitting backdrop for a chat about wickedness.

People who behave outside the norm or get away with outrageous things, intrigue Polaschek and she's not alone in the world for lunacy. She reckons most of us fantasise: "What would I do if I had a day when I could get away with things, or I didn't have to be nice to people?"

She hates violence, despite counselling recidivist criminals with more convictions than credits in a horror movie.

She sees them in prison, alone, with only a panic button for protection.

So, how does she spot a psychopath?

They're usually male, bright, and superficially charming. They lack conscience and empathy, making them manipulative, volatile and often (but by no means always) criminal.

They share three key characteristics: Disinhibition, boldness and meanness.

Disinhibition is found in people who drink too much, have reckless sex, don't manage their money well, are impulsive, get angry and upset easily.

She uses singer Amy Winehouse, as a "perfect example". She died at 27 from alcohol poisoning. "Her life was just chaos."

Winehouse wasn't a psychopath, but you need disinhibition as a baseline to be one.

"If you take that, add in meanness or boldness, that's psychopathy. The boldness alone is cool, but if you have disinhibition as well, it's not so cool."

Boldness is a good quality in a president, but Polaschek argues that based on American research, it was disinhibition that unravelled politician and adulterer, Bill Clinton.

"In my view, there's never a type of psychopathy that's good. It's a personality disorder."

Twisted characters like cult super criminals Hannibal Lecter, American Psycho's Patrick Bateman - and Norman Bates (Psycho) and Michael Myers (Halloween) - have come to shape our atypical perception of psychopathy, as well as famous serial killers Charles Manson, Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard Trenton Chase.

But some of these serial killers are nuts, they're not psychopathic at all.

"You take someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, he was crazy, he wasn't a psychopath. He suffered from a psychotic disorder, with hideous delusions."

There's continued debate among scientists to come to a clear definition on psychopathy.

American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley said psychopaths weren't especially violent or cruel at all. They're just careless about themselves and other people. His way of putting it: "They carry disaster lightly in each hand."

She can't say how many Kiwis are psychopathic, as the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders excludes it, and there's never been a community prevalence study.

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist helps diagnose it, but it's really only usable in prisons because it's constructed to capture psychopathy criminal behaviour.

It'd be easy to assume it's scary spending time with people bad to the bone, but few things rattle Polaschek.

Her own tough exterior - short spiked hair, leather jacket and row of sleeper earrings - belies an internal softness.

Brought up in Whanganui in a Christian household (she's now an atheist), she was a classical musician who played the French horn, cello, violin and viola.

Her parents had a penchant for social issues and took seriously to donating to charity.

Her old school is now a decile one school, and she grew up on a street with a cross-section of residents. She says: "You don't get so much of that mixed neighbourhood anymore. People are more stratified into expensive [and not]."

She started school and, a few weeks in, got school sores. "That's a great leveller, isn't it? Ha, ha."

Some of that ethos that "we're all the same", helps her connect.

She completed a BSc in psychology (Honours) and a diploma in clinical psychology at Canterbury University, before getting a job at the now-closed Sunnyside Hospital in the late 1980s.

She moved to Hamilton and worked for the Department of Corrections in a rehabilitation programme for violent offenders, before going to correctional psychology at Victoria University, a position then half-funded by Department of Corrections.

She was there until February this year, and got her PhD on rapists along the way. She quips: "It was a bit of a party conversation killer at the time, actually."

Forty per cent of her job at Waikato University is doing research. She was headhunted to help launch their new New Zealand Institute of Security and Crime Science.

These days she's inside prisons much less, but when she does go, she enjoys it.

"The people I meet, on the one hand look very ordinary, but on the other hand, think really differently from me ... A lot of what I do is an intellectual puzzle, so I'm trying to put together all the information I get about a person into what we call a 'formulation'."

She walks a "tightrope" between the puzzle and her emotions.

Feeling compassion towards lawbreakers happens.

"Because first, they're human beings. They are often likeable and it's fairly easy to understand how they got to where they are today when you get to know them. A lot of students I take [into prisons] will say: 'Gosh, I'm amazed how ordinary they are', because they are. You can get drawn into how tough life's been for them ... But you have to remember that there's another side."

What drives her is children and the next generation.

"We're very aware of where they came from and how we as a society let them down because, usually, we did."

Some clients are "creepily" matter-of-fact and tolerant about their childhood exposure to violence and drugs. "Others are still traumatised by what they've been through, and can be quite tearful."

It's often multigenerational, and successive governments have shown how difficult it is to step in and fix it. With a burgeoning 10,300 in prison and four times that on community sentences, it's not work for the fainthearted.

She's survived in their world because she's figured out how to have balance in her life.

She's a "gym rat", she cycles, kayaks, tramps and spends time with her life-partner; American and Waikato University Professor of Psychology, and expert on memory, Maryanne Garry.

She has willed herself to still see good in a society that spits hate daily.

"Junior co-workers can become sort of hyper-aware of how cruel the world is ... They're altered by it. Some people burn out and leave. Others figure out how to balance the challenges."

She says she doesn't work with people who have a few convictions. She works with the worst of the worst, people boasting 50 to 100 convictions. "So things are entrenched."

What works is comparable with how parents interact with kids. Building a strong bond first, which can influence and commit them into behaving and responding well to her.

"It's called the Therapeutic Alliance and it's really important. You've got to be able to make that investment, but not over-bake it."

Mutual commitment is needed for counselling, but more resources are needed in integrating them back into the community.

She's optimistic there's hope for crims, and even psychopaths.

Historically, little research has been done on treating psychopaths other than the bizarre LSD therapy experiment in the 1960s by Dr Elliott Barker, a Canadian psychiatrist.

Male offenders were locked in a room, naked, for 10 days at a time and given LSD and other mind-altering drugs by other prisoners. The only food available had to be sucked through straws in the wall.

Follow-up research showed residents were one-third more likely to commit violent crime after release than those that didn't receive the "treatment".

Rightly so, Polaschek says: "That regime would make anyone worse."

She's done her own research on psychopaths in the high-risk special treatment unit at Rimutaka Prison, Te Whare Manaakitanga.

"We showed that the treatment in that unit was associated with a reduction in recidivism, which is cool. Having psychopathy did make it harder for the therapist to develop a good bond, but they changed just as much as people with less psychopathy."

Psychological therapies can change the risk of reoffending, but clinicians still don't know if they can change personalities because it isn't usually measured.

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study shows many offenders have had a difficult temperament from birth and then parented by parents who were equally difficult.

She says by the time those kids are 18, they're showing some characteristics of psychopathy.

"Enjoying hurting others, and feeling like the world has mistreated you, because it has. They're starting to be quite reckless. So it suggests that psychopathy may be partly preventable."

This expert on lost souls is unapologetic in dishing out home truths. From a clinical point of view: Good parenting, while not a 100 per cent guarantee, is a start if you want your child to avoid trouble and treachery.

"If [parents] don't have a lot of influence, it's often because they're not parenting. They're off doing other things. They're off working two jobs to put food on the table, or they're drunk, or they just don't know what to do. The kids are bringing themselves up, which is also a disaster.

"If you invest in actually getting people to parent their children well, that can make a big difference, we think. But it's hard to do."