Psychopathy 101

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True psychopaths are neither as common nor as easy to identify as the popular media would have you believe. But many do go unnoticed or are totally misperceived. Avoid victimization by those devoid of empathy, remorse, and conscience by understanding more about this personality type.

Because of the recent rash of books and media exposés on the topic, many are familiar with the term psychopathy. But just exactly what is a psychopath? Is a psychopath the same thing as a sociopath or an antisocial personality? Are psychopaths insane? How do you go about telling if someone is a psychopath? And why is it important to know if someone you’re dealing with is a psychopath? Hopefully, this article will serve not only as a sort of primer on the topic, but also as a fairly straightforward and relatively easy to understand reference.

Many terms have been coined over the years to describe the kind of person capable of the most unspeakable and socially problematic behaviors. The term “psychopath” was introduced by Cleckley in his 1941 book, The Mask of Sanity. Because some of the key characteristics of the psychopathic individual — unnecessary, pathological lying, superficial charm masking a capacity for heartless victimization of others, etc. — seemed so irrational, it was tempting to think of psychopathy as a form of insanity, even though psychopaths typically don’t suffer from any true delusions or disturbance of rational thought process. Perhaps the aforementioned facts are partly to blame for the fact that the term psychopath (which bears a small resemblance to the term “psychotic”) has been mistakenly understood by some to mean that a person is not in their right mind.

The terms “antisocial” and “sociopathic” are also often poorly understood and bear some relationship to psychopathy. While it is not uncommon for lay persons to apply the antisocial label to folks they believe prefer to avoid socializing, professionals use the term to describe personalities whose style of relating interpersonally puts them at odds with the social order. (I.e., “anti”: against, “social”: society).) Similarly, the term “sociopathic” is meant to convey a pathologically extreme level of antisociality. While all professionals distinguish between garden-variety criminals and other social misfits and malcontents who frequently violate major social norms (i.e., antisocial personalities), some still debate whether the most appropriate term for the most pathological variation of this personality should be primarily identified by its disturbing mind-set (psychopathy) or its penchant for social victimization (sociopathy).

While some of the most notorious criminals, serial killers, sexual deviants, etc. are thought to be psychopaths, not all criminals are psychopaths, and not all psychopaths are criminals. Some psychopaths don’t even display the typical pattern of antisocial conduct common to most criminals. As Robert Hare, the preeminent researcher in this area has noted, the most important single factor at play in this disturbing personality type is the capacity for senseless, remorseless use and abuse of others stemming from an innate lack of ability to bond with others or to have empathy for the potential impact of their behavior on others. For this reason, despite their capacity for superficial charm, psychopaths are capable of the most cold, cruel victimization. Also, for this reason, some professionals (e.g., Hare, R.I. Simon, G.K. Simon) have also characterized psychopaths as intra-species predators who don’t feel an inherent connection to other humans and who feel entitled to prey upon them.

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In my book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], I not only define the core attributes of the psychopathic personality, but I also place this personality type within the context of other problematic, disturbed characters. I place this personality type within a group of personalities I call the “Aggressive Personalities.” These are personalities who actively seek dominance over others and who take what they want with little or no compunction about who might be getting hurt in the process. I’ve written about some of these in my series on aggressive personalities:

I also contrast all the aggressive personalities with the “Narcissistic Personality,” characterized by a sense of superiority and entitlement. I then argue that not only does the label “predatory aggressive” best fit the defining characteristic of the psychopath, but also that in the framework I advance it’s relatively easier to understand the additional features that commonly accompany psychopathy (malignantly inflated self-worth and entitlement, extreme manipulativeness, etc.).

Despite the plethora of popular books today suggesting there’s a psychopath lurking around every corner, true psychopathy is a relatively rare condition. However, it’s a fairly reliable predictor of many of the most problematic kinds of behavior. And, as some of the popular books suggest, because of their great capacity for superficial charm, many psychopaths go unnoticed or are totally misperceived, rising to great heights and achieving much success in corporations, public office, and other mainstream social institutions (they can truly be the “snake in a suit” or predator “next door”), until one heartless misstep precipitates a downfall. But although these characters often make headlines when their dastardly deeds come to light, they are, very fortunately, not a common personality type. Still, the damage they can inflict can be substantial because of how devoid of empathy, remorse, and conscience they are.

How easy is it to detect a psychopath? Well, there’s a reliable inventory checklist used by professionals, but contrary to assertions made in some popular publications, it takes a good deal of sophisticated training and some reliable corroborating data to use it accurately. Also, it’s not always true (as one author has suggested) that all humans have a natural sort of hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-raising “radar detector” to which they should pay attention and run for their lives when they find themselves in the presence of a predator. Still there are resources for folks to learn more and to help inoculate themselves. In addition to my book, and Hare’s masterpiece Without Conscience [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], there are several articles available on this blog that can help you understand the phenomenon of psychopathy and possibly avoid victimization by this archetypal human predator.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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