What comes to mind when you hear “psychopath?” The term is often used to describe anyone from serial killers to problematic exes. In reality, psychopaths make up only 1% of the general population, about the same percentage as redheads (Freeman et. al., 2011).
How Do We Define Psychopathy?
Psychopathy is not an official diagnosis but refers to a combination of behavioral traits including: antisocial behavior, “callousness,” and low levels of empathy and interpersonal emotions (Drayton, 2018). People whose behavior mostly falls under antisocial tendencies are instead diagnosed with sociopathy — officially antisocial personality disorder.
Factors like family history of personality disorders and childhood abuse, trauma, or neglect can increase the risk of developing psychopathic traits (Mayo Clinic, n.d.). This article focuses on signs of psychopathy in adults and is intended for education purposes only, not to diagnosis or treat any conditions. Here are 8 signs you’re dealing with a psychopath:
1: They Lack Empathy
One sign of a psychopath is a lack of empathy. According to research at Duke University, cognitive deficits prevent psychopaths from experiencing automatic empathy — the ability to interpret other people’s perspectives subconsciously, even when there is no personal need to do so.
However, psychopaths still experience controlled empathy, the ability to understand how someone is feeling by consciously considering that person’s actions and reactions and reasoning through their thoughts and feelings (Drayton, 2018). So if someone never reacts to others’ tears, joy or fear unless it directly effects their goals, they might be a psychopath (Blair, 2013).
2: They Don’t Feel Guilty
Lack of remorse is one of the tell-tale signs of psychopathy. Due to their decreased automatic empathy, psychopaths don’t process “care-based transgressions,” where one person harms another, as morally wrong (Blair, 2013).
This lack of guilt often correlates to violent, illegal, or unethical behavior. For example, a psychopath might be a co-worker who embezzles clients’ hard-earned savings without remorse (Babiak, 2010). On average, psychopaths commit two to three more crimes and are three times more likely to reoffend than people who are not psychopathic (Blair, 2013 and Drayton, 2018).
3: They Are Charismatic
Psychopaths often mimic others’ behaviors in order to get what they want, sometimes adopting completely different personalities. This process is called reverse learning because instead of reacting to external stimuli, psychopaths learn how to react based on people’s reactions to their behavior (Blair, 2013). So if you catch someone acting instead of reacting, it could be a sign of a psychopath.
4: They Are Fake or Manipulative
Another sign you’re dealing with a psychopath is if they suddenly undergo shifts in personality and behavior — turning from charming and outgoing to threatening or violent, for example. This is known as extinction, and it happens when people are no longer rewarding one of the psychopath’s behaviors (Blair, 2013). They will then try a different tactic to try and manipulate you into giving them what they want.
5: They Lie Constantly
Psychopaths use lies to get what they want. Since they don’t naturally experience empathy or guilt, people on the psychopathic spectrum are more likely to view lying as a tool than a moral exception. Additionally, research suggests that psychopaths may be better able to detect lies, although this trait appeared in psychopathic men more than women (Lyons, 2013).
6: They Are Irresponsible
Another sign of a psychopathy is irresponsibility. Their cognitive deficits in empathy mean that psychopaths are almost always centered around their personal goals, and will sometimes do whatever it takes to achieve them, including breaking their promises (Blair, 2013). Coupled with their lack of guilt and moral responsibility to others, it is unsurprising that psychopaths are not the most reliable.
7: They Blame You For Their Mistakes
Although psychopaths lack remorse, when confronted with things they’ve done wrong, they may blame you. Why? Because psychopaths lack automatic empathy, they probably won’t take time to think through how placing the blame on you will make you feel the same way they do in the moment. Instead, they see using you as a scapegoat as a way to relieve the discomfort and anger they are experiencing.
8: They Are Impulsive
The last sign that someone may be a psychopath is impulsivity or high levels of risk-taking. Repeatedly breaking laws for fun or because they don’t feel compelled to uphold society’s moral standards or engaging in reckless driving or drug use without fear are examples of behaviors that could be psychopathy (Tsang, 2019). Because impulsivity is also a sign of other personality disorders, bipolar disorder, or ADHD, it’s important to consider this sign’s presence alongside other signs on this list.
Looking at these signs, it’s understandable how people who rank highly on the psychopathic spectrum could pose an increased risk to society. But it’s also important to keep in mind that psychopathy is a spectrum and, like other mental disorders, highly stigmatized and misused in the media.
Have you ever seen or experienced these signs in your daily life? Know of any signs we missed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
- Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 28(2), 174–193. doi.org/10.1002/bsl.925.
- Blair R. J. (2013). Psychopathy: cognitive and neural dysfunction. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 15(2), 181–190. doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2013.15.2/rblair.
- Drayton, A.L., Santos, R.L., & Baskin-Sommers, A. (2018). Psychopaths fail to automatically take the perspective of others. PNAS, (13). 3302-3307. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1721903115.
- Freeman, James E., Samson, Freya, & Palk, Gavan R. (2011). Identifying the presence of psychopathy in the community. In APS Forensic Psychology National Conference, (Unpublished). Retrieved 1 January 2021 from eprints.qut.edu.au/37263/.
- Lyons, M., Healy, N., & Bruno, D. (2013). It takes one to know one: Relationship between lie detection and psychopathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(6), 676–679. doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.05.018.
- Mayo Clinic (n.d.). Antisocial Personality Disorder. Retrieved 1 January 2021 from mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/antisocial-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353928.
- Tsang, S., & Salekin, R. T. (2019). The network of psychopathic personality traits: A network analysis of four self-report measures of psychopathy. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 10(3), 246–256. doi.org/10.1037/per0000319.