What makes a psychopath tick?
The idea of the psychopath has long held a dark allure for the general public. From Hannibal Lector to Norman Bates, Charles Manson to Jack the Ripper, these men (and by and large they are usually men) fascinate and frighten in equal measure.
When I started researching psychopathy (for “The Psychopath Within”), I started with the most basic question of all: what exactly is a psychopath?
It turns out that it isn’t a simple question.
In 1941 Hervey Cleckley wrote “The Mask of Sanity”, a work which described psychopathy as “a deep-rooted emotional pathology concealed by the outward appearance of good health”. That’s the first part: psychopaths aren’t obviously ill. They walk among us, unseen and unnoticed. They’re often highly successful socially and in business as we’ll come onto later on.
But what is it that lies underneath that outward appearance and corrupts their otherwise normal behaviour?
Early research (Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist) described psychopathy as “callousness”. Today’s definition (courtesy of Lynam and Widiger’s 2007 Psychopathy Resemblance Index) prefers the term “coldheartedness”.
It’s still pretty vague, isn’t it? And therein lies the problem. While there are tests to screen for psychopathy, it’s dicey. The label is inherently dangerous to apply. What if we get it wrong?
It gets even *more* complicated across national boundaries. In the UK, a score of 25 points out of 40 on the Psychopathy Checklist Revised Edition (abbreviated to “PCL-R”) is indicative of psychopathy. In the USA, on the same test, it takes a score of 30 to be considered a psychopath. It’s all muddied further by differing assessment methods which means a psychopath in one country isn’t necessarily a psychopath on the other side of a border. Add in misuse of the term (which is often confused with sociopathy) and we’ve got some serious confusing going on. Madness.
So here’s my own 20-point checklist. It’s based on the science (but for the love of God, don’t cite me if you’re writing about psychopathy for university – I don’t want anyone failing an assessment!):
- They’re uncaring. This isn’t just the aforementioned “coldheatedness” or “callousness”. It’s literally that they don’t care as much as the rest of us. Some research indicates there could be a biological component to this as emotional clusters in the brain aren’t as well-connected as they ought to be.
- They’re shallow. It’s not that they don’t feel anything, it’s that their highs aren’t as high as ours and their lows aren’t as lows. Think hills and plains not mountains and valleys.
- They’re unempathetic. They can’t read expressions on other people’s faces so can’t react as they ought to. This goes double for fear, an emotion which psychopaths are uniquely unfamiliar with.
- They’re fearless. They literally don’t feel fear. When neurotypical people anticipate getting hurt, they start to sweat. Psychopaths don’t exhibit this response at all.
- They’re remorseless. They don’t feel shame.
- They’re extreme when it comes to suicide. Weirdly, they either at an exceedingly high risk of killing themselves or at none at all.
- They don’t feel disgust. When we see horrible things – bodily fluids, insects, and the like – we might retch and react. Psychopaths don’t.
- It’s never their fault. Psychopaths can’t accept blame. They externalise it and blame anyone and anything for their failings. As a result, it’s nigh-on impossible for them to grow emotionally as they can’t learn from their mistakes.
- They’re arrogant and have a grandiose sense of self-worth.
- They’re deceitful. Lies are second nature to a psychopath.
- They’re impulsive. Pure hedonists at heart, they do what they want to do.
- They can’t plan for the long run. Because they don’t feel emotions fully, they fail to anticipate future harm – including harm to themselves. That weakens their ability to plan and renders their approach short-termist.
- They’re irresponsible. They’re often sexually promiscuous which ties in with their hedonism and their superficial charm.
- They break the law. Most psychopaths have a criminal record by their teens. Psychopaths who don’t have a criminal record are too intelligent to get caught and they make the most interesting characters in fiction. Many start with arson or cruelty to animals.
- They’re not violent. Well, not always. Predation isn’t necessarily violent. Psychopaths often prey on people socially: they manipulate, lie and cajole their way to success.
- They can focus on one task. Most of us can’t ‘zone in’ on one thing. Psychopaths are very capable of honing in on stimuli and ignoring others. They ace the “Stroop Test” which asks those tested to read a list of colour names which are printed in other colours (so the word “blue” would be printed in, e.g., pink). Because of their ability to hone in on one detail at a time, psychopaths have no trouble ignoring the colour of the ink and simply reading the word. For the rest of us, the conflicting information confuses the brain so we often say the colour of the ink instead.
- They often lack realistic life goals. Because they can’t plan, they rarely rise to the level required by their excessive sense of self-worth. This chafes.
- They have a low threshold for aggression. While this can manifest in violence, it isn’t always the case. Psychopaths tend to lash out verbally when they’re annoyed.
- They’re self-interested. Because they don’t care how their actions impact others because nobody else matters. There are two exceptions to this: they care what others think (because they have enormous egos) and they can pretend to care if those people can do something for them. Psychopaths are experts at mimicking the emotional responses required of them. They don’t feel it but they can fake it (often very well).
- Context matters. Psychopathy manifests within the context of the rest of their personality. A fearless pro-social personality gives you Cassanova or James Bond. In an anti-social person, the same fearlessness gives you Ted Bundy.
Reading this, you might be thinking “I know someone like that!”. And you might well be right. Up to 1 in 50 people could be psychopaths (Neumann & Hare, 2008). Psychopathic traits are especially common in some professions: lawyers, senior managers, surgeons, chefs, policeman, civil servants, and even among the clergy.
But many of us can exhibit some of these traits some of the time. Psychopaths exhibit most of them most of the time.
Still curious about what a psychopath *really* looks like?