What Are the Traits of a Psychopath?

Mask
Mask, Taylor Liberato, Flickr

The psychopath is a social predator. He is ruthless, manipulative and often charming. Once referred to as “moral imbeciles,” psychopaths exhibit a marked lack of conscience. They are callous, remorseless and spectacularly self-centered, willing to use and abuse others to achieve their ends, and they are inclined to blame others, including their victims, for their problems and bad behaviour.

Is Psychotic the Same as Psychopathic?

Many people confuse the terms “psychotic” and “psychopathic,” but unlike psychotics, psychopaths are not crazy. They are fully aware of what they’re doing and the potential consequences. They make their decisions rationally, and exercise free choice. They don’t suffer from delusions or hallucinations, and they are not afflicted with the anxiety or anguish that the mentally ill usually suffer.

Is There a Difference Between Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder?

Psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder are similar but not identical. Antisocial personality disorder manifests as a constellation of antisocial and criminal behaviours that may arise in response to environmental stressors. Psychopathy, by contrast, refers to a cluster of innate deviant personality traits and behaviours that do not necessarily include criminal activity. Also, a psychopath may be raised in a loving, stable environment and still manifest these characteristics.

Psychopaths, while often dabbling on the border of criminality, may never actually commit crimes for which they could be arrested, and many people who commit crimes are not psychopaths (although the majority of extremely violent criminals are).

What’s the Difference Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath?

You’ll receive a different answer to this question depending on which expert you ask, and some experts assert that there is really no meaningful difference between the two terms. Both describe the same set of traits and behaviours, though they suggest different origins.

Those who favour the term sociopath tend to look for environmental or sociological causes to explain the phenomenon. The term psychopath, by contrast, is more often used by experts with an interest in the physiological (brain-based) and psychological differences that give rise to the disorder. Overall, psychopathy can be thought of as an innate, biologically-based personality disorder, whereas sociopathy is considered by many to be a product of environmental influences.

What Are the Traits of a Psychopath?

Superficial, Glib, Shallow Emotions

Psychopaths tend to be articulate, amusing and witty. Although they may tell stories that should be unbelievable, they have a knack for doing so in a way that causes intelligent people to believe them. However, some may peg them as overly slick or insincere, alerted by the psychopath’s use of excessive flattery to manipulate people.

The shallow emotions of the psychopath are evident in the fact that many claim to love the people they have abused or even murdered. Most abandon their spouses and children, or mistreat them if they stick around. Those that do stay part of a family unit tend to view their families as possessions, existing to create a favourable impression of the psychopath to the world, and to serve his or her needs.

The emotional capacity of the psychopath is extremely primitive, comprising “proto-emotions,” or reactions to immediate needs rather than the depth of feeling that others experience. When trying to manipulate others into feeling sympathy for them or guilt for questioning their motives, psychopaths can be quite dramatic and forceful, but this is a smoke-and-mirrors display, designed to obscure the lack of emotional depth the psychopath possesses.

Grandiose, Egocentric

Arrogant and shameless, psychopaths tend to brag. They are very self-assured, cocky and often domineering. They push their opinions onto others and can’t understand why anyone would disagree with them. Most have big plans for making money but these plans tend to be unrealistic and vague. Often they do not match the qualifications and experience the psychopath possesses. However, psychopaths are adept at encouraging others to give them money to support these plans.

The psychopath never feels that there is anything wrong with him or with his behaviour. It is everyone else who is in the wrong. He likes himself, and would not enter therapy voluntarily for any reason other than to impress a parole board or keep a human meal ticket from leaving.

Lack of Empathy, Remorse or Guilt

Psychopaths are incapable of feeling guilt or remorse for anything they’ve done because they can’t empathize with others. They tend to view guilt as a liability or weakness in other people, and feel that they are superior because they don’t experience it and can therefore be as ruthless as they like.

Interviewed after committing horrible crimes, many psychopaths insist that their victims deserved it or even that they did their victims a favour. They rationalize, justify or deny any wrongdoing, while perceiving themselves as victims of an unfair society.

Exaggerated Need for Excitement

Psychopaths often break laws and take serious risks because they have a greater need for excitement than most people. Driven by intense feelings of boredom and a craving for ever-increasing thrills, such risks may include abusing substances, driving dangerously, playing extreme sports and engaging in violent activities. Of course the majority of substance abusers and extreme athletes are not psychopaths, but the psychopathic personality is drawn to such activities.

The psychopath is a social predator. He is ruthless, manipulative and often charming. Once referred to as “moral imbeciles,” psychopaths exhibit a marked lack of conscience. They are callous, remorseless and spectacularly self-centered, willing to use and abuse others to achieve their ends, and they are inclined to blame others, including their victims, for their problems and bad behaviour.

Manipulative and Deceitful

Psychopaths lie easily and because they don’t feel anxious when doing so, many can pass lie detector tests. They manipulate those around them to get money, free places to stay, sexual favours and sympathy. Those who are jailed for crimes continue the pattern of manipulation and deceitfulness. Psychopaths often claim to have suffered from amnesia, temporary insanity, multiple personality disorder or blackouts to justify their crimes.

In addition to lying outright, psychopaths are inclined to evade, providing responses that do not answer the questions put to them. This is done as a smokescreen, an attempt to trick people into thinking they’ve received an answer. Most psychopaths are very proud of their ability to lie convincingly, and in addition to lying to evade consequences, they lie to get sympathy. When caught in a lie, they simply move on, leaving shattered lives in their wake. Or they promise to change, and in some cases do change for long enough to worm their way back into the lives of their targets, after which they inevitably revert to their old ways.

While psychopaths tend to engage in fewer criminal activities once they pass the age of 40, most continue to manipulate and deceive those around them. A common deception is obtaining phony credentials to pose as doctors, psychiatrists, real estate agents, lawyers or teachers. One psychopath posed as a doctor and performed surgeries, severely botching operations and leaving his patients emotionally and physically damaged. He disappeared when his credentials were questioned, and was found later in England posing as a psychiatrist.

Impulsive, Lacking Self-Restraint

Inability to delay gratification combined with a lack of fear and other constraints on behaviour leads to impulsivity. This, along with a lack of empathy, causes psychopaths to be selfish and irresponsible. They are like infants in adult bodies, demanding that others gratify their immediate needs while not understanding that they should offer anything in return. They take what they want when they want it through manipulation, threats or force.

Because they lack inhibition, psychopaths tend to be short-tempered, becoming emotionally abusive or even violent in response to minor frustrations, criticism and failure. Quick to take offense, they are inclined to blow up at people, but because their emotions are shallow, such outbursts are usually short-lived. Afterward, the psychopath will behave as though nothing has happened, leaving the victims of his tirade feeling hurt and bewildered.

Because they are impulsive and irresponsible, many psychopaths jump from job to job and relationship to relationship. They break their promises, fail to fulfill their financial obligations, leave their families behind without a backward glance and pursue their own interests at everyone else’s expense. The rules of society are considered inconvenient and unreasonable. A chilling example of this cold-hearted irresponsibility was the case of Diane Downs, who murdered her own children, whom she claimed to love, so that she could pursue a relationship with a man who didn’t want kids.

Risk Taking

Psychopaths take extreme physical and psychological risks due to their exaggerated need for excitement. These can range from driving too fast to substance abuse to crime. Of course there are many naturally brave or sensation seeking individuals who are not psychopaths. However, these can be distinguished by their ability to feel guilt, remorse, empathy and shame. A surplus of physical courage is only a marker of a personality disorder when there are many adverse symptoms present.

Bragging

Because psychopaths think very highly of themselves, most are prone to bragging. Many psychopaths talk obsessively in an attempt to convey their toughness and importance to others. Of course there are people who like themselves who are not psychopaths, and many others who brag because they actually have low self-esteem and are attempting to bolster themselves. However, bragging in conjunction with extreme risk taking, irresponsibility, lying, manipulation, impulsiveness and a lack of self-restraint indicate that there is something seriously wrong.

Childhood Behaviour Problems

Even if he comes from a good, nurturing family, the psychopathic child will usually steal, cut school, have sex, take drugs, start fires, vandalize and be cruel to animals and other children by the time he is just 12 years old. The psychopathic child is indifferent to the feelings of other people and animals. He lies continuously and appears unfazed when caught in a lie. Threats of punishment (and even actual punishment) don’t usually deter him from doing what he wants.

However, it’s not a good idea to assume that a child with behavioural problems is a psychopath. Some children have conduct disorder, which is characterized by many of the same behaviours, but does not include the egocentricity, inability to experience guilt and remorse, and the complete lack of empathy that characterizes the psychopath.

Ten Psychopathic Subtypes

There is not a single, simple formula for identifying psychopaths, though there are certainly ways to spot high-risk individuals. Theodore Millon, a personality theorist, has identified ten psychopathy subtypes: abrasive, covetous, disingenuous, explosive, malevolent, malignant, risk-taking, spineless, tyrannical and unprincipled. Each of these types will manifest a different set of traits. However, what they all have in common is the inability to feel guilt or empathy.

A Note of Caution

When reading about psychopathy, it’s tempting to diagnose difficult friends, family members, acquaintances and coworkers with the disorder, but only a trained professional can make an accurate diagnosis. Many people have one or two psychopathic traits without being psychopathic, and those under extreme stress, suffering from mental illness or abusing substances may manifest many of the symptoms without being psychopathic by nature.

 How Do Psychopathic Criminals Differ from Other Criminals?

While most people think of cold-blooded serial killers when they contemplate the psychopathic personality, not all psychopaths are motivated by bloodlust. Most psychopaths are uncaring users, clever scam artists, ruthless manipulators, or petty criminals. They live off the labour of others and play cruel games to satisfy a variety of desires for objects and power. You are far more likely to lose your money or have a disastrous relationship with a psychopath than to lose your life to one. Only 20-25% of those in prison are psychopaths.

Causes of Criminal Behaviour

There are many reasons why people become criminals, and psychopathic personality disorder is just one of them. Many non-psychopaths turn to crime because:

    • They have been raised in social environments where crime is the way in which most people make their living
    • They were severely abused or deprived in childhood
    • They have drug habits that make them desperate
    • They have responded rashly to traumatic events
    • They live in extreme poverty and have no skills with which to obtain gainful employment

Psychopaths, by contrast, usually commit crimes because they like to dominate or hurt people, they enjoy the thrill of getting away with things, and they prefer to live off the labour of others. Unlike regular criminals who almost invariably have suffered abuse or deprivation in childhood, psychopathic criminals are just as likely to have come from loving, supportive homes as abusive ones.

Guilt, Empathy, and Remorse

The primary difference between psychopaths and other criminals is that the psychopath is incapable of experiencing guilt, empathy, or remorse (though psychopaths may fake these feelings to look good to their parole boards). As a result, psychopaths commit far more acts of violence than other criminals.

Non-psychopathic criminals, when they commit violent acts, often do it in times of extreme emotional stress, whereas psychopaths usually do it as revenge, while drinking, or during the commission of other crimes. In contrast to regular criminals who do terrible things in the heat of the moment, psychopaths commit violent crimes in a callous and businesslike manner, and these actions are unaccompanied by psychological distress. They are also more inclined than other criminals to target strangers.

Because they feel no guilt about their crimes and have difficulty controlling their impulses, psychopaths have higher recidivism rates than regular criminals. Although psychopaths make up only 4% of the total population, they represent about 50% of serial rapists, as well as a significant proportion of persistent wife batterers. Overall, psychopaths are twice as likely to reoffend as other criminals, and three times as likely to commit violent acts again after being convicted. As such, they are bad parole risks.

Fear, Anxiety, and Low Self-Esteem

Many psychopaths claim that they turned to crime because of traumatic childhoods. However, these claims are often unsubstantiated, and even when proved true, it is notable that just as many psychopaths come from loving, supportive homes as abusive ones. Early experiences can worsen the expression of the disorder, but they don’t cause it.

Psychopaths differ from non-psychopathic criminals in both psychological distress and self-perception. Those who have become cold and violent due to severe childhood deprivation or abuse tend to suffer from intense emotional distress and low self-esteem. By contrast, psychopaths are free from anxiety, and think very highly of themselves.

A Code of Ethics

There is a code of ethics that the majority of prisoners adhere to. While it may not match the moral codes of non-criminal society, there is some overlap. For example, many prisoners will take revenge on those who have harmed children, whereas a true psychopath is unlikely to care either way, though he might participate in retaliatory actions due to an enjoyment of violence. Also, unlike psychopathic criminals, regular criminals usually have strong feelings of loyalty to their friends and families, and are capable of keeping their promises to them.

Another major difference between psychopaths and regular criminals is that most prisoners will not “snitch” on one another to obtain special privileges or escape punishment at someone else’s expense. Law enforcement authorities can make use of psychopaths because they lack the normal human loyalties that keep other prisoners silent. They are quick to betray their “friends” in order to secure better conditions for themselves.

More Extreme Criminal Activity

Psychopaths tend to commit a broader variety of crimes than most criminals, and their crimes tend to be more extreme and violent on average. Unlike regular criminals, psychopaths don’t necessarily have a specialty. They commit crimes either to fulfill various desires or for the thrill, whereas regular criminals tend to make a living out of a particular type of crime such as theft, forgery, or racketeering. Psychopaths are also more inclined to engage in shady behaviours that don’t quite put them into the running for a criminal conviction.

Age of Criminal Onset

Psychopaths, if they are going to become criminals, tend to get an early start regardless of family background. While regular criminals usually first appear in court at around the age of 24 (unless they have been raised in abusive or disadvantaged homes, in which case the average age is 15), psychopathic criminals begin making their rounds through the court system around the age of 14, regardless of family background. In contrast to regular criminals, a loving, supportive family does not usually decrease the likelihood of engaging in criminal activity, though it may decrease the likelihood that crimes will be violent.

For more psychology articles, see the main Psychology page.

References:

    • Barber, N. (2004). Kindness in a Cruel World: The Evolution of Altruism. Prometheus Books.
    • Hare, R.D. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. The Guilford Press.
    • Lilienfeld, S.O., & Arkowitz, H. (28 November 2007). “What ‘Psychopath’ Means.” Scientific American online.
    • Millon, T., & Davis, R. (2002). Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behaviour. The Guilford Press.
    • Stout, M., PhD. (2005). The Sociopath Next Door. Crown Archetype.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.