Hannibal Lecter: fact or fiction?

The myths and science behind the portrayal of psychopathy in popular culture

Hannibal Lecter

When we think of the impact that the character of Hannibal «the Cannibal» Lecter has had on popular culture and our understanding of psychopathy, it is hard to believe, at least since Anthony Hopkins played him in the film The silence of the lambs (1991). Since that character, psychopaths have been portrayed as highly intelligent, calm, arrogant, manipulative, and ruthless. The most common idea is that people with psychopathy are highly intelligent. However, science does not seem to support this idea. In fact, two meta-analyses (Michels, 2021; Sánchez de Ribera et al., 2019) conclude that psychopathy is inversely related to both general intelligence and emotional intelligence. Hannibal would therefore be a unique case, rather than the norm, when it comes to portraying psychopathy.

Although we owe the creation of the character of Hannibal to the American writer Thomas Harris, and the first film adaptation to Michael Mann – with Hunter in 1986 – it was Jonathan Demme’s second version that crossed frontiers and indelibly shaped popular culture’s conception of psychopathy. In fact, Hannibal created the image of the perfect villain, the nemesis of the protagonist in any series or film. In this sense, the villain, especially the psychopath, is conceived as an exquisite character, characterised by high intelligence, as mentioned above, but also by great composure, arrogance, manipulation, callousness, and lack of remorse (DeLisi et al., 2010; Sundt-Gullhaugen & Aage-Nøttestad, 2011).

This image has been distorted in subsequent creations inspired by, or essentially copied from, this character. Examples include John Doe, the villain in David Fincher’s 1995 film Seven, or John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, in James Wan’s Saw (2004). Moreover, the concept of psychopathy has become so popular in true crime programmes that it is usually the first term we see when someone has committed murder or some other heinous crime. In this sense, it seems that the concept of psychopathy has become associated with other ideas such as coldness and, more importantly, premeditation, cunning and, above all, a high intellect. However, we will see below whether science really supports the close relationship between psychopathy and intelligence, or whether this is just another popular culture idea that lacks any kind of scientific support.

anibal lecter

Orion Pictures – Lauren Films

What is psychopathy?

In order to define psychopathy, we have to refer to different authors, because the concept is quite broad. Specifically, this construct (a theoretical idea broad enough to help us understand a problem as complex as human behaviour) refers to a set of often maladaptive personality traits. The most classical model (Cleckley, 1941/1976) stated that psychopathy is characterised by a lack of empathy towards others, the use of unethical behaviour (such as manipulation, deception, lying, etc.) and maladaptive behaviour (e.g., criminality, parasitic lifestyle, lack of responsibility for the consequences of their actions, etc.). Later, the psychologist Robert D. Hare (2003) emphasised the importance of antisocial behaviour and criminal versatility as an important criterion for the diagnosis of psychopathy.

Although we owe to Hare the emphasis on antisocial behaviour in the diagnosis of psychopathy, other studies have been interested in other facets that should not be underestimated. In this regard, the concept of psychopathy has been extended to include high audacity (e.g., immunity to fear and stress), Machiavellian egocentrism, impulsive non-conformity, externalising blame or blaming others for one’s decisions, and a lack of planning or poor ability to anticipate the consequences of actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Lilienfeld et al., 2005; Patrick et al., 2009). In summary, all these symptoms can be divided into two blocks or factors: factor 1 would group affective symptoms (superficial charm, manipulation, lack of empathy, etc.), and factor 2 would include antisocial behaviour (Salvador et al., 2017).

ryoki iwata

A recent study estimated the prevalence of psychopathy in the adult population to be around 1.2%. / Ryoji Iwata

A recent study (Sanz-García et al., 2021) estimated the prevalence of psychopathy in the adult population to be around 1.2%. This figure is derived from the most widely used instrument for assessing psychopathy: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) (Hare, 2003). Using other, less widely used instruments would increase the prevalence in the general population to 4.5% (Sanz-García et al., 2021), so it is preferable to use the prevalence obtained from the most widely used instrument.

As we have seen, there is no specific criterion that identifies intelligence as an essential variable for the diagnosis of psychopathy. In fact, one might have assumed high intelligence, given that psychopathy is often associated with premeditated or instrumental violence – characterised by low emotionality (Glenn & Raine, 2009) – for which, in theory, a high ability to plan for gain is required. In practice, however, this would be in direct conflict with one of the diagnostic criteria, since disinterest in the consequences of current decisions would interfere with the ability to anticipate future consequences. However, we need not conclude that everyone diagnosed with psychopathy must meet all of the above criteria. This is true of any mental disorder, so two people diagnosed with depression may not have exactly the same symptoms.

Meta-analysis studies

To try to clarify whether there is a significant relationship between psychopathy and intelligence, we could turn to empirical research. However, this approach may be biased because each study has specific data and methodological limitations that may affect the interpretation of the results. Therefore, the most logical approach is to turn to the papers that have summarised all the scientific literature analysing the relationship in question. In particular, it would be more appropriate to focus on meta-analyses, as this type of study provides a summary of the entire empirical literature to date and also allows experts to calculate the total effect of the relationship between two variables (e.g., psychopathy and intelligence).

So far, two meta-analyses have examined the relationship between psychopathy traits and general intelligence. In this framework, the conclusion seems to be the opposite of what the character of Hannibal Lecter represents. That is, there is an inverse relationship between psychopathy traits and general intelligence (Michels, 2021; Sánchez de Ribera et al., 2019). The more psychopathy traits, the lower the general intelligence.

Meta-analyses not only allow us to calculate the magnitude of this relationship, but also to find out whether the conclusions reached in these reviews are homogeneous, i.e., whether the included studies point in the same direction or, on the contrary, there are significant discrepancies between them (Hutton et al., 2015). In this respect, both studies – Michels (2021) and Sánchez de Ribera et al. (2019) – conclude that there is considerable heterogeneity in the research considered and, consequently, significant discrepancies between studies. This great heterogeneity in the research could be explained by some variables that, to a certain extent, act as moderators in the relationship between psychopathy and intelligence (such as gender or the dimension of psychopathy assessed, among others). Therefore, we will now describe the variables that help to explain the heterogeneity described above.

Mediators in the relationship between psychopathy and intelligence

First, we need to clarify the concepts of psychopathy and intelligence. Bearing in mind that both are psychological constructs and therefore very broad concepts, we should focus our attention on which aspects of each concept explain the inverse relationship between psychopathy and intelligence. In the case of psychopathy, we should focus on Factor 2 variables. That is, those related to antisocial behaviour (such as juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, etc.) and lifestyle (impulsivity, lack of long-term goals, etc.). These are precisely the variables that would imply or be associated with lower intelligence, especially verbal intelligence. Therefore, criminality and delinquency would be associated with the ineffective use of language, whether oral or written (Michels, 2021; Sánchez de Ribera et al., 2019).

sivani bandaru

The most classic model suggests that psychopathy is characterised by a lack of empathy towards others, the use of unethical behaviour (such as manipulation, deception, lying, etc.) and maladaptive behaviour. / Sivani Bandaru

Interestingly, these are not the only intervening factors when analysing the relationship between psychopathy and intelligence. That is to say, those variables that would mediate the relationship of interest and, of course, can help us to understand the heterogeneity of the results. In fact, it seems that the relationship between psychopathy and intelligence is clearer when the sample analysed is female; when the relationship is analysed in males, psychopathy is not related to intelligence. Similarly, the relationship between psychopathy and intelligence does not seem to be evident across the life cycle and is only significant in studies of adults. When the relationship is analysed in children or adolescents, the variables do not show a significant relationship (Michels, 2021; Sánchez de Ribera et al., 2019).

Therefore, we can only conclude that if Hannibal Lecter were to exist, he would be the exception rather than the rule. At this point we should move on from the relationship between psychopathy and intelligence and look at emotions.

What about emotional intelligence?

The American psychologist David Goleman popularised the concept of multiple intelligences, focusing in particular on emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995, 1998). At the time, it seemed that a person’s success or failure depended solely on their academic intelligence. This new concept arose from the need for a symbiosis between intelligence and emotions, i.e., our ability to be aware of, manage and express emotions. Not only that, but how we deal with them effectively in interpersonal relationships. This concept of intelligence could explain why certain people are successful because they are in their element in social relationships, not just because they have a brilliant academic brain that allows them to accumulate credentials.


Orion Pictures – Lauren Films

A recent meta-analysis study allows us to conclude that the relationship between psychopathy traits and emotional intelligence is not only inverse, but also more significant than that of general intelligence (Megías et al., 2018). Nevertheless, it seems that the relationship between psychopathy and intelligence also shows discrepancies between the studies considered. This could be explained by the different methods used to assess psychopathy. Thus, narrowing down the studies that assessed psychopathy with the same instrument reduces the heterogeneity between studies. However, the inverse relationship between these two variables seems logical, as humans have evolved through our ability to cooperate with others and overcome adversity. In other words, if we have managed to survive, it has been by engaging in prosocial rather than antisocial behaviour (Hare, 2017).

Consequently, we cannot conclude that Hannibal Lecter is the model that best describes psychopathy, since psychopathy tends to imply lower general and emotional intelligence. As we have seen, confrontation with our fellow humans is not good for the species, at least in the long term. In fact, according to the tenets of evolutionary psychology, it is in our best interests as a species to cooperate rather than to turn against each other from an individualistic and selfish perspective. Therefore, characters like this and others like it are an exception, not an example of a psychopathic person. Research can help us to debunk the image created by certain myths, which can be harmful to some extent.


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© Mètode 2024 - 120. Science anywhere and anyhow - Volume 1 (2024)
Postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Psychobiology. University of Valencia (Spain).