Would you recognize a psychopath if faced with one?
The classic psychopath isn’t normally deranged or psychotic. And it’s difficult to spot him if he’s hiding in the upper echelons of the professional world, as a doctor, attorney, or CEO.
A Natural Conman
Deceiving other people comes naturally for psychopaths.
The classic psychopath is a natural salesman (Dutton, 2011). In fact, if you happened to make idle talk with one, you’d likely perceive him or her as interesting, intelligent and confident. He is socially adept and charming if it suits him (or her) but has a major deficit: he doesn’t give a damn about you (or anyone)…except for what he can get out of you. This quality also makes the psychopath a gifted conman.
Psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley (1988) first defined the psychopath in his book, The Mask of Sanity (published in 1941). For Cleckley, the psychopath was a mimic of normality despite being devoid of emotion.
The psychopath’s mask allows him to appear normal, but for a purpose: so he can get what he wants. Psychopaths are adept at crying when it’s expected of them, then rolling their eyes when they think no one is looking.
A psychopath wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Trust me,” while having every intention to defraud. And a psychopath is also capable of faking romance and affection, if that’s what it takes to achieve his or her goal.
Psychopaths represent a wide range of people and dispositions. Certain types of psychopaths are somewhat easier to spot: those with violent tendencies, low intelligence, or a criminal bent, for example.
The greater a psychopath’s intelligence, and the more they fit into mainstream culture and higher socioeconomic status, the harder they are to identify.
If, as some claim, there are psychopaths who’ve managed to work themselves to the top echelons of society—representing elected officials, corporate executives, high-level managers, academics, doctors, lawyers, military officers, and law enforcement (Dutton, 2012; Ronson, 2011)—they will most likely find it very easy to hide.
It’s these “white-collar psychopaths” who are capable of doing the most widespread damage. Indeed, some scholars and authors blame white-collar crime and even the economic subprime mortgage crises on corporate psychopaths (Boddy, 2013).
Identifying such psychopaths before they make a mess of things isn’t easy. One reason is that some psychopathic traits are considered admirable, and are rewarded by society.
Such traits include:
According to Cleckley’s 1941 book, The Mask of Sanity, lack of anxiety has long characterized psychopaths. Two different models of psychopathy—both based on three personality factors—make either fearlessness or boldness a central factor of psychopathy (the Psychopathic Personality Inventory and the Triarchic Model of Psychopathy).
The most common clinical tool for diagnosing psychopathy, Robert Hare’s Psychopathic Checklist Revised (PCL-R), doesn’t specifically mention fearlessness as a symptom of psychopathy. However, studies using the PCL-R show that people who score high in psychopathy demonstrate reduced reactions to anxiety-provoking stimuli (Kiehl & Buckholtz, 2010).
According to modern neuroscience, psychopathy is characterized by reduced activity in the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex regions of the brain—areas that are central to the regulation of emotion (Blair, 2003; Fowles, 2011; Gao, Glenn, Schug, Yang, & Raine, 2009). Fear is specifically processed by the amygdala.
Psychopaths also have high androgen levels and low cortisol levels. High levels of androgen hormones are correlated to aggressive and dominating behaviors, while high levels of cortisol are correlated to stress. Note: psychopaths tend to exhibit LOW levels of cortisol. Thus, psychopaths experience reduced stress despite their high-risk behaviors.
Psychopaths experience reduced stress despite their high-risk behaviors.
Experiments with both humans and other primates show that high levels of androgens and low levels of cortisol are associated with high status (Cummins, 2005). Low-status individuals have lower levels of androgens and higher levels of cortisol. It doesn’t matter if the psychopath lives in a trailer park, an inner-city neighborhood, or a prison; he likely has the—hormonal-endocrinal—disposition of a CEO.
Note: Fearlessness belongs to the classic conceptualization of the psychopath. But many researchers believe that some psychopathic personalities lack conscience but suffer high levels of anxiety. This condition is called secondary psychopathy.
Secondary psychopathy may have evolved from other mental conditions or from socialization problems, while primary psychopathy is thought to be innate and neurological in origin (Skeem, Johansson, Andershed, & Louden, 2007). The terms sociopath and psychopath are generally interchangeable but sometimes differentiated in a way that is similar to secondary and primary psychopathy, with the former indicating social origins and the latter indicating psychological origins.
Manipulative behavior is a diagnostic criterion for psychopathy in Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist. Cleckley didn’t specify manipulative behavior in his classic book, but he did list chronic lying as a psychopathic trait. Another measure, the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, lists Machiavellianism as a psychopathic trait. A trio of psychologists even made the case that Machiavellianism is a less clinical form of psychopathy (Worzel, McHoskey, & Szyarto, 1998).
A certain dose of Machiavellianism is sometimes considered healthy or necessary in certain professions. If cunning is an admirable quality, conning and lying are its dark side. These qualities are enabled by the psychopath’s lack of fear or boldness.
Because classic psychopaths don’t show significant reactions to anxiety-provoking stimuli, they are physiologically enabled as liars. Most research on detecting deception relies on the theory that anxiety (or emotional linkage) betrays the liar. But if a liar doesn’t feel anxiety, he isn’t going to be betrayed by physiological responses (hesitation, voice tremors, or sweating).
Anxiety and the resulting physiological indicators can not only betray liars; they can also serve as a disincentive to lie. Thus, a racing pulse while considering a lie serves as a conscience. (Psychopaths are said to lack conscience.)
Interestingly, neuroscientists believe that emotional areas of the brain play a significant role in making moral judgments. Thus, the psychopath doesn’t only do harm because he lacks fear, but because he doesn’t feel the same moral quandaries as a normal person. He may even take pleasure in the wrongdoing. Robert Hare identifies duping delight—satisfaction in conning another person—as a symptom of psychopathy in his Self Report Psychopathy Scale.
3. Social Adeptness
Cleckley listed “superficial charm” as one characteristic trait of psychopathy; Robert Hare includes superficial charm and glibness as indicative of psychopathy in the PCL-R. On top of their charm, psychopaths may also have a higher than average intelligence, though this is disputed in current psychological research (DeLisi, Vaughn, Beaver, & Wright, 2010). The appearance, however, of above-average intelligence is likely the result of the psychopath’s lack of inhibition, which makes them quick acting and quick talking.
The Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI) lists social influence as a psychopathic trait. In psychology, social influence is the ability to persuade other people (Cialdini et al., 2006; Wood, 2000). While serial killers are often equated with psychopathy in the popular imagination, the con artist is the psychopath’s true nature.
Don’t assume, however, that a rude person can’t be a psychopath. Charm is simply a tool for the psychopath’s objectives and is not a product of deep emotion, passion, or consideration. In other words, if you have nothing to offer the sociopath, he may have no reason to charm you.
For the psychopath, the world is truly a stage.
Callousness is also a psychopathic trait according to the PCL-R, and cold-heartedness is a defining personality dimension for psychopathy, according to the PPI.
These latter traits are the psychopath’s true character. Emotions play a significant role in learning; but because psychopaths are handicapped in that arena, they have learned to interpret other people’s behavior in a more cerebral way and to mimic emotional behavior in order to get what they want.
In essence, the world is truly a stage for the psychopath.
The Benevolent Psychopath?
Fearlessness, cunning, and social intelligence are qualities with admirable and useful dimensions. Cleckley treated psychopathic delinquency as a byproduct of emotional deficits. Thus, the psychopath wasn’t innately evil, according to Cleckley.
Some authors have raised the possibility of benevolent psychopathy, claiming that psychopathic characteristics are beneficial to some disciplines (Dutton, 2012). A psychopathic surgeon, for instance, is unlikely to develop a nervous hand tremor. A psychopathic Special Forces operative is unlikely to hesitate during an assault. A psychopathic undercover narcotics detective is unlikely to betray himself with anxiety.
Psychopathic characteristics are beneficial to some disciplines...a psychopathic undercover narcotics detective is unlikely to betray himself with anxiety.
Neuroscientist James Fallon has even described himself as a “pro social psychopath.” Fallon discovered that his MRI/PET brain scans matched the patterns of the psychopathic killers that he was researching. After the discovery, Fallon realized that it made sense to him: Although he wasn’t a killer, he didn’t feel much empathy for people and could actually be rather callous (Worldsciencefestival.com, 2011).
Yet, Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, in their book Snakes in Suits (2006), seem skeptical of the idea of a benevolent psychopath. Boldness might be a good trait in certain situations, but lack of conscience and empathy make moral ineptitude likely. Thus, when psychopaths are in positions of trust, the risk for fraud and other damaging behavior becomes significantly greater.
A competent manager may be bold, cunning, and charming and not be a psychopath. So how do we distinguish psychopaths from the seemingly positive traits they exhibit?
Identifying Psychopaths: Emotional Deficits and Anti-Social Traits
To meet criteria for psychopathy, fearlessness must be part of a larger emotional deficit, and cunning must be part of an anti-social element—qualities that the psychopath generally tries to mask.
This emotional deficit and anti-social quality can be identified from the following traits:
|Emotional Deficits||Anti-social traits|
|Callousness 1 2 3 4||Manipulative 1 4|
|Without empathy 1 2||Conning 1|
|Lack of remorse 1 2||Compulsive lying 1 2|
|Lack of anxiety 2 3||Impulsive and prone to boredom 1 2 4|
|Promiscuous / impersonal sex 1 2||Poor behavioral controls 1 2 3 4|
|Glib 1 2||Criminal versatility 1|
|Overly narcissistic 1 2 3 4||Delinquency 1 2 3|
|Blaming others for own actions 1 3||Substance abuse 2|
1. (PCL-R) Psychopathy Checklist-Revised
2. Cleckley’s Diagnostic Criteria
3. (PPI-R) The Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised
4. The Triarchic Model of Pyschopathic Personality
Psychopaths are at risk for violent behavior because of their emotional deficits as well as their tendency to act on impulse.
Callousness and a general lack of empathy towards others are the two most central emotional deficits indicative of psychopathy. Manipulative and impulsive behaviors are probably the two most prevalent anti-social traits associated with psychopathy. While Hare doesn’t list violence as a diagnostic criterion, psychopaths are at risk for violent behavior because of their emotional deficits as well as their tendency to act on impulse.
As previously mentioned, psychopaths are excellent mimics. They know they are different, and they know that they have to act “normal” in order to gain others’ trust.
The disparity between who they are and how they present themselves essentially means that the psychopath has two faces. If he or she has managed to create a respectable persona, it may be shadowed by a depravity that results from his or her emotional deficits and need for stimulation.
A good way to identify a white-collar psychopath is to look for an alter ego marked by interpersonal disregard, impulsivity, and hidden indulgences such as substance abuse—often of a binge nature—and extramarital affairs, especially of a superficial nature.
Recommended Videos About Psychopaths on YouTube:
About the author:
Kevin Goodman is a freelance researcher and writer. He has a master’s degree from Skidmore College with a focus in cognition, culture, and communication. He also has a graduate certificate in criminology from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
His primary academic interest is the psychology of belief and its interrelationship with deception. Kevin enjoys making wine, being outdoors and exploring whatever he finds curious. He lives near Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife and two daughters.
Blair, James R. (2003). Neurobiological basis of psychopathy. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 182, 5-7.
Boddy, Clive. The corporate psychopaths theory of the global financial crisis. Journal of Business Ethics, 102(2), 255-259.
Boddy, Clive. (2013). Turning point: Corporate psychopaths: Uncaring citizens, irresponsiblelLeaders. Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 2013(49), 8-16.
Cialdini, Robert B., Demaine, Linda J., Sagarin, Brad J., Barrett, Daniel W., Rhoads, Kelton, & Winter, Patricia L. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact. Social Influence, 1(1), 3-15.
Cleckley, Hervey. (1988). The mask of sanity (5 ed.). St. Louis: C.V. Mosby Company.
Cummins, Denise. (2005). Dominance, status, and social hierarchies. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The handbook of evolutionary psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
DeLisi, Matt, Vaughn, Michael G., Beaver, Kevin M., & Wright, John Paul. (2010). The Hannibal Lecter myth: Psychopathy and verbal intelligence in the MacArthur violence risk assessment study. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assesment, 32(2), 169-177.
Dutton, Kevin. (2011). Split-second persuasion: The ancient art and new science of changing minds. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Dutton, Kevin. (2012). The wisdom of psychopaths: what saints, spies, and serial killers can teach us about success. New York, NY: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Fowles, Don C. (2011). Current scientific views of psychopathy. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(3).
Gao, Yu, Glenn, Andrea L., Schug, Robert A., Yang, Yaling, & Raine, Adrian. (2009). The neurobiology of psychopathy: A neurodevelopmental perspective. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54(12), 813-823.
Hare, Robert, & Babiak, Paul. (2006). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Kiehl, Kent A., & Buckholtz, Joshua W. (2010). The mind of a psychopath. Scientific American Mind.
Ronson, Jon. (2011). The psychopath test: A journey through the madness industry. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Skeem, Jennifer, Johansson, Peter, Andershed, Henrik, & Louden, Margaret KerrJennifer Eno. (2007). Two subtypes of psychopathic violent offenders that parallel primary and secondary variants. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116(2), 395–409.
Wood, Wendy. (2000). Attitude change: Persuasion and social influence. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 539-570.
Worldsciencefestival.com (Producer). (2011). Confessions of a pro social psychopath. Retrieved from http://worldsciencefestival.com/videos/moth_confessions_of_a_pro_social_psychopath
Worzel, William, McHoskey, John W., & Szyarto, Christopher. (1998). Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 74(1), 192-210.