Monday, July 28, 2008

Can the Joker Be a Psychopath and Have Antisocial Personality Disorder?

In a brief review in Creative Loafing, I discussed whether the Joker was antisocial—whether he had antisocial personality disorder. The answer was "yes." In a previous blog entry, I discussed whether he was a psychopath. The answer was "yes." Are the two terms the same? No. What the difference between the two, and can he be both a psychopath and antisocial?

Antisocial personality disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM, fourth edition). The DSM includes 10 different personality disorders, each of which involves a different set of maladapative behavior patterns. The criteria for antisocial personality disorder require a pattern of at least three types of criminal behaviors (e.g., repeatedly breaking the law, even in small ways, such as disturbing the peace) or somewhat related behaviors, such as being impulsive, irresponsible, aggressive, or lying. To see the complete set of diagnostic criteria, click here. Note that when I said that the Joker had antisocial personality disorder in my 300-word review (!) I was was addressing criteria A1-A7 but not criteria B-D, as Jared's comment, below, rightly points out (thanks, Jared!).

People can engage in these behaviors for any number of reasons: hanging out with the "wrong crowd"; going through a period of being angry at "society" and not caring about the future; being temperamentally driven to seek out stimulating activities, some of which are illegal; or finding the suffering of others to be amusing. The diagnostic criteria are limited to the behaviors themselves, not the underlying reasons for the behaviors.

In studies, about 50-80% of American male prisoners meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder. (I'm limiting this discussion to males because males are three times more likely to have this disorder and there is much more research on them than females with the disorder.)

In contrast, psychopathy (the "disorder" of psychopaths, although it is not listed in the DSM; the term sociopath is used interchangeably with psychopath) focuses less on behavior than on underlying traits that contribute to antisocial behavior patterns. These traits and behaviors can be categorized into two broad factors, and in brackets I note whether each characteristic seems true of the Joker:

Interpersonal/emotional, characterized by:
• Superficial charm [true]
• A grandiose sense of self-worth [no, because his sense of what he can do—what he's worth—seems accurate]
• Pathological lying [true]
• Tendency to manipulate others [true]
• Doesn’t feel guilt or remorse [true]
• Shallow feelings [hard to say for sure]
• Lack of empathy [true]
• Doesn't accept responsibility for his or her actions [true—although he "claims" responsibility, he seeks to evade any negative repercussions of his actions]

Social deviance, characterized by:
• Getting easily bored and needing frequent stimulation [Hard to say—he was able to plan and carryout capers and murders that would be difficult for someone who got bored easily. However, his escalating crimes suggest that he does "need" increasingly outrageous crimes]
• No realistic long-term goals [no; his long-term goal was to get the Batman, and he planned out a series of crimes in order to do so]
• Impulsive behavior [no]
• Having difficulty controlling behavior [doesn’t seem to be the case]
• Irresponsibility [true]
• Behavioral problems that arose at an early age, possibly with juvenile delinquency [unknown at this time]
• Engaging in different types of criminal behavior [true]

So the Joker has almost all the interpersonal and emotional qualities of a psychopath, but fewer of the socially deviant qualities. It would be interesting to know which of the Joker's various origins stories Nolan had in mind when developing the script and directing Heath Ledger, or perhaps Nolan created a new origin story. As a viewer I wanted to know more about how Joker came into being, when and how he crossed the line from being a criminal or mob boss (as in the Jack Nicholson/Tim Burton incarnation of the Joker) to the wildly sick and sadistic individual in The Dark Knight.

Back to the relationship between antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy: Only a minority of people (less than 40%) of men with antisocial personality disorder are also considered to be psychopaths. But over 80% of men with psychopathy also have antisocial personality disorder. And lest you think that prisons are overrun with psychopaths, that's not the case—only 15% of males in prison meet the criteria for psychopathy.

[The psychopathy factors are based on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, developed by psychologist Robert Hare, who has studied psychopathy extensively. Two of his books on the subject are Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work and Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us.]


  1. I really enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work!

  2. Actually, your diagnosis of ASPD is incorrect unless you can prove that he had a history of conduct disorder before the age of 15. :) Sorry.

    1. Well we can assume that he grew up in a broken home, because he keeps saying that he hates his dad. From that you can guess that from an early age a lot of these symptoms were present.

  3. Right you are Jared. They only gave me 300 words for my review, so I was talking about the diagnostic criteria in "A." We don't know whether the Joker showed any evidence of conduct disorder. Thanks for that clarification!

  4. That's good to know. My DSM teacher drilled that into my skull this last year. :)

  5. Did I post this on the wrong blog? Cause this same blog was on another site.
    I’d say by the way Health Ledger portrayed the character that the change (in the character) happened after The Joker was treated medically for his psychological problems. It appears, through the motor tics that Health portrays that The Joker was previously on anti-psychotic medications and has discontinued them abruptly. His character is not psychotic, but does have delusions of self grandeur.

    As for the Sociopath vs. ASPD argument. Yes you can have both. As you said, there is no DSM-IV TR criteria for a sociopath. As far as I am aware there is also no successful treatment for this DO and it typically stems out of their experiences with close interpersonal relationships, often beginning with their mother and father. Typically they are emotionally neglected or manipulated.

    I’d also like to argue that you stated he doesn’t have a grandiose sense of self. I think the scene where he walks into the Mob boss meeting and asserts himself as better than all of them is a perfect example of grandiosity, as well as burning all of the cash in the end. This type of flagrant behavior in addition to the grandiosity and sheer energy of his character could tilt us in the direction of looking at whether or not he has Bipolar Mood DO and is in a manic state. I would need to know more about The Joker’s habits to be able to fully rule this out.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and thought Heath’s portrayal was ingenious.

  6. I also agree that the Joker can be diagnosed with Bipolar I and is in the Manic state. He goes above and beyond meeting the criteria for Mania, which is really the only requirement for Bipolar I diagnosis according to my Abnormal Psychology book.

    Here are some excerpts from my book about Bipolar I and Mania.

    Bipolar I
    -Major Depressive Episodes can occur but are not necessary for diagnosis.
    -Episodes meeting full criteria for mania are necessary for diagnosis.
    -Hypomanic episodes can occur between episodes of severe mania or major depression but are not necessary for diagnosis.

    Symptoms of Mania
    -A diagnosis of mania requires that a person show an elevated, expansive, or irritable mood for at least one week, plus at least 3 or more of the following symptoms.
    -elevated, expansive, or irritable mood (check)
    -Inflated self esteem or grandiosity (check)
    -Decreased need for sleep (unknown)
    -More talkative than usual, a pressure to keep talking (don't know what is usual)
    -Flight of ideas or sense that your thoughts are racing (unknown)
    -Distractibility (I think the Joker is rather focused)
    -Increase in activity directed at achieving goals (check)
    -Excessive involvement in potentially dangerous activities (check)

    “People who experience manic episodes meeting these criteria are said to have bipolar I disorder.”

    So even though we don’t see the depression associated with bipolar I, the book says this is not necessary for diagnosing someone with Bipolar I… So, what do you think?

  7. Blake:
    Thanks for your post. See my responses in CAPS, below:

    -A diagnosis of mania requires that a person show an elevated, expansive, or irritable mood for at least one week, plus at least 3 or more of the following symptoms.
    -elevated, expansive, or irritable mood (check) (I AGREED WITH YOU THERE)
    -Decreased need for sleep (unknown)
    -More talkative than usual, a pressure to keep talking (don't know what is usual)
    -Flight of ideas or sense that your thoughts are racing (unknown)
    -Distractibility (I think the Joker is rather focused)
    -Increase in activity directed at achieving goals (check)(WE DON'T KNOW WHAT HIS BASELINE IS SO WE DON'T KNOW WHETHER THIS IS AN "INCREASE")
    -Excessive involvement in potentially dangerous activities (check)


  8. Thanks for the response!

  9. Thanks for posting has been the most useful one I have found so far. I have to diagnos a celebrity or charcter for my psychology class and I chose him! Thanks again!

  10. I'm writing a script about psychopathy, and I really like the way you analyzed the Joker, using Robert Hare's list. It really gave me more insight in my favourite character in film.

  11. It seems to me that you are all forgetting that the joker time after time gives signes that he is aware of all these diorders. I my opinion he is much more complex to be put in any of these categories that are mentioned here.
    The best description of him would be that he has reached a level of consciousness where he is comfortable and indifferent no matter what happens to the world around him or to him.
    He moves where the boundary is just to see whats on the other side. I think that is the only thing that gives him purpose.

  12. Dear Ms Rosenberg,

    This post of yours made me become interested in the Joker's mind and the psychopathy tendencies of him which were shown in the film, but which I didn't really thought about that much before ( - and your blog of course).

    After reading your simple yet tellingly analysis of the Heath Ledger's Joker I kept thinking and hoping you might be overthinking my request of analysing the Joker and Harley Quinn of Batman: The Animated Series and their relationship. ...? *awkwardly smile*

    I read various entries of other people about the Joker, his mind and relationship with Harley Quinn. But their "analysis" weren't too deep going and enough detailed for me (or atleast not that based on a psychologist's point of view, if you understand what I mean).

    And it kept frustrating me not to find anything useful about Harley's condition. Which disorders she may have etc. I somewhere read that she some time ago found out herself (->self-diagnosis) that she'd has bipolar disorder, dependent personality disorder and borderline personality disorder (and probably forgot it later in the Joker's company *) but in which way? I found this actually on this site, which gives you many basic (and detailed) information about Harleen Quinzel, but they aren't just focused on her appearance and/or behaviour in The Animated Series, but rather everything that appeared to "belong" to her in some way after several years:

    (* Did she "got" any more disorders (if that's possible) after becoming Harley Quinn? Or did the previous ones "change"?)

    To come back to her relationship with the "Clown of Crime", I recently found a website dealing with psychopaths in general and their behaviour in having a relationship with other, non-psychpathy people. (

    They (the psychopaths) tend to be "passionate" with their "lovers" first, but quickly lose interest in them. They don't feel any genuine affection to their "victims", only "satisfaction" (I just call it like that because I don't know any other word to describe it properly) from turturing and slowly "breaking" them.
    If they got what they wanted, the relationship often breaks down. That's why they're never really long-lasting.

    Some things told above suit the Joker's and Harley's relationship, just that their's is, in fact, long-lasting. Even when he gets sick of her at times and punches her in the face (poor example, but you get the idea), he always keeps interest in her in a certain way (and she keeps thinking he is her "Puddin'" and "Sweetheart" who just had a bad time).

    My question is- why? What makes their unhealthy and unbalanced seeming relationship so long-lasting and even functional (for them, in a way)?

    The last thing I just have to ask you- do you think psychopaths are evil?
    This website keeps telling us that psychopaths are evil, disgusting people who you shouldn't be fascinated of and you have to avoid at any cost. I don't disagree with the last point, but "evil"?
    Is this your take on psychopaths too?

    Wow, that was a hell of a comment. Haha, I apologise for taking your time, I hope I didn't waste it.

    I would really appreciate it if you would take some more of your time and answer some of my questions or even write a full post about my request.
    It would help someone with a growing interest for psychology very much (and I'm sure others would be interested in more "Joker stuff" too).

    Yours sincerely,

  13. I noticed you were interested in knowing more about the jokers orgin. I don't know if this will help but there is a comic called Killing the Joke that kinda shows how he became the joker and started his rampage.

  14. Actually the Joker was strictly driven by impulse. He did what he did just to see what would happen. It was all a game to him. This becomes quite obvious when in the middle of the movie he abruptly changes his plan (if it can even be called that) to not kill the Batman, but to involve him in his game as the main player. This is further evidenced when he put a loaded pistol in the hand of a man who he knew full well had a strong desire to kill him, put the gun to his own forehead and allowed his fate to be judged by the flip of a coin. His "plans" also provide no consideration to his own safety. It doesn't get much more impulsive than that. It's just that his impulses are of a grander scope, showing a high degree of intelligence that you typically see in sociopaths.

    The comic further adds the possibility of an extreme and unhealthy one sided co-dependent relationship. He considers the Batman to not only be his friend after a fashion, he goes out of his way to save Batman's life on several occasions. The Joker's crime sprees are the only way he really knows of interacting with him. Without Batman at this point, it's very possible that the Joker could even enter into an existential crisis: what would he be without Batman's intervention and attention? You can't really analyze the psychology of the Joker without looking at the relationship between him and Batman.

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  16. According to Walsh Research Institute, 95% of people with antisocial personality disorder are undermethylated (and also most cases of OCD, anorexia, seasonal depression, schizoaffective disorder, etc.):