What Is a Psychopath?

traits of a psychopath

Verywell / Laura Porter

What Is a Psychopath?

The term "psychopath" is used to describe someone who is callous, unemotional, and morally depraved. While the term isn’t an official mental health diagnosis, it is often used in clinical and legal settings.

While psychopathy is not a diagnosis in and of itself, many of the characteristics of psychopathy overlap with symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, a broader mental health condition that is used to describe people who chronically act out and break rules. But only a small number of individuals with antisocial personality disorder are considered to be psychopaths.

This article discusses psychopath characteristics, the history of the term, and how to recognize if someone might be a psychopath. It also covers available treatments and things you can do to cope.

Common Psychopathic Traits

Psychopathic behavior varies greatly from one individual to another. Some are sex offenders and murderers. But others may be successful leaders. It all depends on their traits.

It’s important to distinguish between psychopaths and people with psychopathic traits. It’s possible to exhibit several psychopathic traits without being an actual psychopath.

People with psychopathic traits don’t necessarily engage in psychopathic behavior. Only individuals with psychopathic traits who also exhibit antisocial behavior are considered to be psychopaths.

Psychopathic traits commonly include:

  • Antisocial behavior
  • Narcissism
  • Superficial charm
  • Impulsivity
  • Callous, unemotional traits
  • Lack of guilt
  • Lack of empathy

One study found that about 29% of the general population exhibit one or more psychopathic traits. But just 0.6% of the population is likely to fit the definition of a psychopath.

Recap

Psychopathic traits include antisocial behaviors, lack of empathy, disregard for others, and narcissism. While such traits might indicate that someone is high in psychopathy, this does not necessarily mean that they are a psychopath.

Is There a Psychopath Test?

While there may be plenty of free "psychopath tests" floating around on the internet, two tests that are most often used are the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) and the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPL).

  • Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R): The PCL-R is a 20-item inventory most commonly used to assess whether an individual exhibits certain traits and behaviors that could indicate psychopathy. It’s intended to be completed along with a semi-structured interview and a review of available records, such as police reports or medical information. It is often used to predict the likelihood that a criminal may re-offend and their capacity for rehabilitation.
  • Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPL): The PPL is an alternative test that was introduced in 1996. This test is used to assess psychopathic traits in non-criminal populations. It may still be used with incarcerated individuals, but it is more often applied to other populations, such as university students.

Signs of a Psychopath

Psychopathic traits may emerge during childhood and grow worse over time. The following are some of the most common signs of a psychopath.

Superficial Charm

Psychopaths are often likable on the surface. They’re usually good conversationalists, and they share stories that make them look good. They may be funny and charismatic as well.

Need for Stimulation

Psychopaths love excitement. They like to have constant action in their lives, and they frequently want to live in the "fast lane."

Quite often, their need for stimulation involves breaking rules. They may enjoy the thrill of getting away with something, or they might even like the fact that they could "get caught" at any moment. Consequently, they often struggle to stay engaged in dull or repetitive tasks, and they may be intolerant of routines.

Pathological Lying

Psychopaths tell lies to look good and get out of trouble. But they also tell lies to cover up their previous lies. They have difficulty keeping their stories straight sometimes as they forget what they’ve said. If challenged by anyone, they simply change their story again or rework the facts to fit the situation.

Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth

Psychopaths have an inflated view of themselves. They see themselves as important and entitled. They often feel justified to live according to their own rules, and they think that the laws don’t apply to them.

Manipulative

Psychopaths are really good at getting other people to do what they want. They may play on a person’s guilt while lying to get someone else to do their work for them.

Lack of Remorse

Psychopaths don’t care how their behavior affects other people. They may forget about something that hurts someone, or they may insist that others are overreacting when their feelings are hurt. Ultimately, they don’t experience any guilt for causing people pain. In fact, they often rationalize their behavior and blame other people.

Shallow Affect

Psychopaths don’t show many emotions—at least not genuine ones. They may appear cold and unemotional much of the time. But when it serves them well, they might exhibit a dramatic display of feelings. These are usually short-lived and quite shallow.

For example, they may show anger if they can intimidate someone, or they might show sadness to manipulate someone. But they don’t really experience these emotions.

Lack of Empathy

Psychopaths struggle to understand how someone else might feel afraid, sad, or anxious. It just doesn’t make sense to them as they’re not able to read people. They’re completely indifferent to people who are suffering—even when it’s a close friend or family member.

Parasitic Lifestyle

Psychopaths may have sob stories about why they can’t earn money, or they might often report being victimized by others. Then, they take advantage of the kindness of others by depending on them financially. They use people to get whatever they can with no regard for how a person may feel.

Poor Behavioral Controls

Psychopaths struggle to follow rules, laws, and policies much of the time. Even if they set out to follow the rules, they usually don’t stick to them for long.

Promiscuous Sexual Behavior

Since they don’t care about the people around them, psychopaths are likely to cheat on their partners. They may engage in unprotected sex with strangers. Or they may use sex as a way to get what they want. Sex is not an emotional or loving act for them.

Early Behavioral Problems

Most psychopaths exhibit behavioral problems at an early age. They may cheat, skip school, vandalize property, misuse substances, or become violent. Their misbehaviors tend to escalate over time and are more serious than their peer’s misbehaviors.

Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals

A psychopath’s goal might be to become rich or be famous. But quite often, they have little idea about how to make these things happen. Instead, they insist that somehow they’ll get what they want without putting in the effort to get there.

Impulsivity

Psychopaths respond to things according to the way they feel. They don’t spend time thinking about the potential risks and benefits of their choices. Instead, they want immediate gratification. So they may quit a job, end a relationship, move to a new city, or buy a new car on a whim.

Irresponsibility

Promises don’t mean anything to psychopaths. Whether they promise to repay a loan or sign a contract, they aren’t trustworthy. They may shrug off child support payments, get deeply in debt, or forget about obligations and commitments.

Psychopaths don’t accept responsibility for the problems in their lives. They see their issues as always being someone else’s fault. They frequently play the role of the victim and enjoy sharing stories about how others have taken advantage of them.

Many Marital Relationships

Psychopaths may get married because it serves them well. For example, they may want to spend a partner’s income or share their debt with someone else. But their behavior often leads to frequent divorces as their partners eventually see them in a more accurate light.

Criminal Versatility

Psychopaths tend to view rules as suggestions—and they usually view laws as restrictions that hold them back. Their criminal behaviors can be quite varied. Driving infractions, financial violations, and acts of violence are just a few examples of the array of crimes one might commit. Of course, not all of them get incarcerated. Some may operate under shady businesses or engage in unethical practices that don’t lead to an arrest.

Revocation of Conditional Release

Most psychopaths don’t adhere to the rules of conditional release when they are released from prison. They may think they won’t get caught again. Or they may find ways to excuse their behavior. They might even blame "getting caught" on other people.

Recap

A person who is manipulative, dishonest, narcissistic, unremorseful, non-empathetic, and exploitive may be a psychopath. Criminality, promiscuity, and lack of responsibility are also common traits associated with psychopathy.

Psychopath vs. Sociopath

While "psychopath" and "sociopath" are sometimes used synonymously, they have different meanings and different patterns of traits and behaviors. 

  • Psychopaths lack a conscience and don't feel empathy for others. They may pretend to care, but often maintain a normal facade to cover up cold-hearted or even criminal behaviors.
  • Sociopaths may experience some limited empathy and remorse for their actions. They struggle to maintain normal behaviors and routines and can be impulsive and overly emotional. They may recognize that their actions are wrong, but find ways to rationalize their impulsive and harmful behaviors.
1:58

Learn More About the Difference Between Psychopaths and Sociopaths

This video has been medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS.

Causes of Psychopathy

Early research on psychopathy suggested the disorder often stems from issues related to parent-child attachment. Emotional deprivation, parental rejection, and a lack of affection were thought to increase the risk that a child would become a psychopath.

Studies have found a link between maltreatment, abuse, insecure attachments, and frequent separations from caregivers. Some researchers believe that these childhood issues can cause psychopathic traits.

But other researchers suggest it may be the other way around. Kids with serious behavioral problems may end up with attachment issues because of their behavior. Their misconduct might push adults away from them.

It’s likely that psychopathic traits stem from several factors, such as genetics, neurological alterations, adverse parenting, and maternal prenatal risks (such as exposure to toxins in utero).

Psychopathy and Violence

Some literature suggests that psychopaths may be more likely to be violent than the general population. Many studies have linked psychopathic traits to violence. Court systems may evaluate criminals’ psychopathic tendencies as a way to predict the likelihood that they will commit further violent acts.

But not all psychopaths are violent. Some studies have found there are "successful psychopaths" who are more likely to get promoted to leadership positions and less likely to serve time behind bars.

Successful psychopaths may rank higher in certain traits, such as conscientious traits, and this may help them manage their antisocial impulses better than those who end up convicted of serious crimes.

Recap

Psychopaths are often portrayed as violent criminals, but this is not necessarily true. While psychopathic traits are associated with an increased risk for violent behavior, not all psychopaths are violent.

Treatment

Whether psychopaths are able to be treated is a widely debated issue. Some researchers report that treatment doesn’t help. Others argue that specific treatments can reduce certain behaviors, such as violence.

A 2018 review of the literature found that many of the studies conducted on treatment effectiveness only applied to specific populations, such as sex offenders. So the treatments that work with that population may not work for other psychopaths.

Similarly, female psychopaths may require a different approach. In general, they tend to be less violent than men, so their treatment might be slightly different.

The same literature review found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be effective in some cases. But further research is needed to identify which cognitive restructuring strategies work best and how to use them with specific populations.

Coping

Most psychopaths don’t want to change because they don’t see any need to. They remain convinced that other people are wrong instead of them. As a result, it’s usually those around them who are searching for coping strategies. After all, being around a callous, unemotional person is tough.

Whether you think your friend, boss, or relative might be a psychopath, their behavior can take a serious toll on your psychological well-being if you’re not careful. It’s important to establish healthy boundaries and to recognize when you’re at risk of being manipulated.

If it’s causing you a fair amount of distress, get professional help. A mental health professional can help you establish healthy boundaries so you can take care of yourself.

Summary

Psychopaths often display traits and behaviors that are cold, manipulative, antisocial, and narcissistic. These tendencies have been liked to early childhood experiences including maltreatment, rejection, and lack of parental affection, however, the exact causes are not well-understood. People with psychopath traits may have an increased risk for violence and criminal behavior, but not all psychopaths are violent criminals. Treatments such as CBT may help reduce certain psychopathic behaviors and traits.

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