Psychopathy: Characteristics and Curiosities

23 July, 2020
Psychopathic individuals are calculating, cold, manipulative, but overall very charming. Believe it or not, many of them are among us.

Not all psychopaths are criminals or in prison. They’re not hooded murderers or sinister-looking individuals, either. However, movies and literature have painted that exact picture for most people. According to Robert Hare, a doctor in psychology and an expert in psychopathy, most of them are among us in politics or business. Interesting, isn’t it?

Psychopaths are neither disoriented nor delusional or hallucinating. In fact, they don’t really experience great discomfort. Believe it or not, they’re quite rational people. They’re aware of what they do and why they do it. In other words, they make use of their free will. Now, what’s behind that charismatic and attractive facade that usually characterizes them? What are their mechanisms of action? Does the mind of a psychopath work differently from that of an empathetic person? Let’s see.

A historical perspective of psychopathy

The term psychopathy literally means mental illness (it comes from psyche, ‘mind’ and pathos, ‘disease’). However, the media often uses it improperly, as they often use it as a synonym for “crazy”. The point is that psychopathy shouldn’t be understood like the rest of mental illnesses. As we mentioned above, psychopaths are rational, meaning they choose how to behave. They don’t experience discomfort.

At the beginning of the 20th century, French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel wrote about psychopaths. Actually, he was one of the first authors to ever write about this topic. He used the term mental illness without delirium to describe individuals with behaviors characterized by relentlessness and a lack of restrictions. In addition, he considered that they were morally neutral. This is something most authors don’t agree with, as most believe psychopaths are morally ill.

Two men.

In 1941, American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley made the first detailed description of psychopathy in his book The Mask of Sanity. This book became a reference among researchers of the time.

Later, many psychiatrists and researchers dedicated themselves to the study of psychopathy. However, if there’s someone we must highlight for its advances, data, and results, it’s Robert Hare. This psychiatrist has dedicated more than three decades to psychopathy. Actually, he conducted the most widely used scales to assess this dimension: the PCL and the PCLR.

Moreover, Kent Kiehl, professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, and Kevin Dutton, psychologist at the University of Oxford, are also well-known authors in the study of psychopathy.

Here’s a curious fact. There’s an excerpt from an interview Dutton conducted with a psycho in prison. In this interview, one can clearly see the psychopath’s ability to question Dutton and create confusion. At one point, the psychopath hints that, if a girl refuses to have sex with him, he’d still be able to get her to have sex with him. Dutton starts getting ready to leave and expresses to him that, with the interview, he learned that the two of them were wired differently, and for that reason, the psychopath was in jail and he wasn’t. Then, the interviewee replied:

“Don’t let your brain fool you, Kev. All those tests don’t let you see reality. There’s only one difference between you and me: I want it so I go for it, you want it and you don’t go for it. You’re scared Kev, you’re afraid. You’re afraid of everything, I see it in your eyes. Afraid of the consequences, of being caught, of what people will think. You’re scared of what they’ll do to you when they come knocking on your door. You’re afraid of me. Look at you; you’re right, you’re outside and I’m inside. But who’s free, Kev? Free indeed, I mean… You or I? Think about it tonight. Where are the real bars, Kev? Out there? (points to the window) or in here? (touches his temple).”

Without a doubt, this conversation is striking.

The main characteristics of psychopaths

Most psychopaths have a number of common traits and characteristics. However, not everyone who presents some of them is necessarily a psychopath. For this reason, it’s important to remember that psychopathy is a syndrome. In other words, it involves a set of related symptoms and can only be diagnosed by a specialized professional.

Below, we’ll briefly describe the most representative characteristics according to Robert Hare:

  • A simple and superficial mind. Although they often seem resourceful and express themselves well, they often tell unlikely stories. However, they’re able to make them seem realistic thanks to the great interpretation they give to them.
  • Self-centered and presumptuous personality. Psychopaths view life in a narcissistic way. They don’t see why one should live life according to other people’s standards. In fact, they’re usually not ashamed of their personal, financial, or legal problems. Instead, they see them as temporary bumps on the road. Additionally, they think their skills will allow them to achieve any goal they set.
  • Lack of remorse or guilt. These types of people show great carelessness about the consequences of their actions on others, no matter how devastating they may be. Basically, they don’t regret the pain or destruction they cause and openly admit that they have no guilt. Occasionally, however, they may speak of some remorse but later carry out contradictory acts.

The lack of remorse in psychopaths is related to their great ability to rationalize. This way, they’re able to escape responsibility for their actions.

The shadow of a man talking on the phone.

  • Lack of empathy. They’re only able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes if it’s on an intellectual level. Otherwise, they have no emotions and see others as objects that can give them rewards. In other words, they use people in any way they think it’s convenient. Their lack of empathy goes to everyone, both towards acquaintances and strangers. If they maintain ties with their relatives it’s simply because they see them as possessions.
  • Manipulation and lying skills. These come as natural talents for them. If they ever get caught redhanded, they have the ability to change the story. They rearrange facts without showing shame or perplexity, they’re just indifferent. Furthermore, their incredible ability to lie makes them proud.
  • Full of superficial emotions. Psychopaths often manifest certain emotional poverty; you could say there’s no depth to their feelings. They’re cold, although sometimes they can show sincere but very dull emotions. Now, there’s something we must mention. The language they use does carry emotional content. However, it’s quite difficult for them to differentiate affective states. For example, they equate love with sexual desire and arousal, sadness with frustration, or anger with irritability.

The lifestyle of a psychopath

Usually, psychopaths lead a chronically unstable lifestyle. For one, they don’t seem to have a set direction, and they also violate social norms every single day. “I did it because I felt like it” is usually one of their most frequent responses whenever someone questions their actions.

Oftentimes, they have a great impulse to satisfy their main motivation no matter what. They have to satisfy any need immediately. According to psychologists William and Joan McCord, psychopaths are just like children. They’re focused on their needs and demand that they be satiated immediately.

Another characteristic feature is that their degree of control tends to drop when they feel that someone attacks them or compromises their interests. They tend to be very reactive when this happens. Sometimes they may have control over themselves, however, this isn’t the norm. They act in reaction and rarely ever forget about the purpose of what they do. Everything they do is cold and calculated.

Another strong point here is their need for excitement. They have a desire to live on the edge because that’s where they find the action, the intensity, or that rush they sometimes need. In fact, they tend to indulge in situations of emotional debauchery and can’t stand routine.

A man with psychopathy looking to the side.

Other interesting facts about psychopathy

Psychopaths know the meaning of words but don’t seem to understand their emotional value. In other words, they lack the emotional dimension of language.

Basically, they fill this gap using phrases that they’ve seen others use successfully in similar situations. For them, it’s completely fine to use them because they’re disconnected from their emotional state. Also, they like to go out of their way in their explanations but fail to connect sentences appropriately. However, since they’re so good at lying, they’re able to dodge questions without giving this feeling.

They show a fragmented discourse full of inconsistencies and contradictions. For example, a psychopath in an interview claimed that he’d never been violent, but later confessed that he’d killed someone before. Here’s a fun fact: various pieces of research suggest that psychopaths move their hands a lot, especially while talking about emotional aspects.

On the other hand, their definition of consciousness is highly intellectual. They consider that it comes from other people’s norms and, just like guilt, it serves as a mechanism of social control. Like love and compassion, it doesn’t have much value to them.

As you can see, the spectrum of psychopathy is as mysterious as it is interesting. For this reason, it’s very important to continue to do research on the matter. Every day that goes by, it becomes more and more important to continue advancing in the knowledge of the psychopathic personality.

“Psychopaths view any social exchange as a ‘feeding opportunity,’ a contest or a test of wills in which there can be only one winner. Their motives are to manipulate and take, ruthlessly and without remorse.”

-Robert D. Hare-

  • Hare, Robert D. (2003). Sin conciencia. El inquietante mundo de los psicópatas que nos rodean. Madrid: Editorial Paidós.