We can’t help but be fascinated by psychopaths, probably because when we think of psychopaths we think of serial killers and crime series. But psychopaths can be ordinary people, with ‘ordinary’ lives, with hidden psychopathic tendencies who walk around among us. This article will help you to recognize if you might be a psychopath, or if a psychopath forms part of your family, friendship, or work circle.
Yes, I have met a few psychopaths.
When I was training to be a clinical psychologist, I did a stint in the maximum-security unit of a psychiatric hospital. This unit housed the most dangerous in-patients and we had the opportunity to interview them and even be their case-managers, under strict supervision of course.
The first time I met a maximum-security patient was unnerving. I had to sit closest to the exit, in case I needed to make a quick escape. There was a security guard standing at the door, pointing a large firearm at the patient the whole time. If this seems like overkill, consider that long-term patients incarcerated in a psychiatric institution have been clinically assessed as dangerous and may have little to lose.
In-patients generally didn’t have anyone coming to visit them, and unlike ordinary prisoners, there is no end to the “sentence” imposed. The only way out of the institution is to convince a panel of psychiatrists and psychologists that you’re not dangerous to society anymore. This is impossible for most of the maximum-security unit’s population.
We had one formally identified psychopath in this group. He had raped, killed, and injured people over the years. He had to be watched constantly, because if he was left alone with another person for even a short time, he might rape or injure them. He used his manipulative skills to get other patients to give him their medication or stole what he could. He then crushed it, snorted it and/or smoked it to get high. Interestingly, he wasn’t necessarily on medication himself, because his psychiatric diagnosis was to do with his personality.
But his aberrant behaviour isn’t what made him a psychopath.
What do all psychopaths have in common?
What made this patient a psychopath was his inability to feel empathy for others. He literally saw people as objects to be manipulated, rather than as people. And this is the distinguishing characteristic of psychopathy.
Psychopaths are usually highly insecure and empty under the surface, but often present as highly accomplished, or at least somewhat accomplished. A common psychopathic tendency is the craving for power and status, as a way to ‘feel’ and to gain some kind of self-esteem.
Psychopaths can be productive members of society
Most psychopaths aren’t serial killers and in fact, from an evolutionary perspective, psychopathy has a useful survival function – even today. Psychopaths can be found in the military, where they perform extremely useful military tasks because they don’t become emotionally attached. They can complete an objective without any of the moral and ethical inhibitions that an ordinary soldier might have. In industry, psychopathic leaders can become successful by using their psychopathic traits to ruthlessly obtain their business objectives. Psychopaths are also found in the fields of law, media, sales, medicine, journalism, police and even the clergy.
Psychopaths know how to turn on the charm
Psychopaths often have superficial charm, which they use to manipulate others. They are pathologically egocentric with a grandiose sense of self-worth, and an incapacity for true emotional attachment. They can’t demonstrate genuine remorse or shame, but may pretend to have these feelings as a way of manipulating a situation. They are often impulsive, promiscuous and show poor self-control because they need excessive stimulation. They generally don’t learn from experience, and they are often pathological liars.
For many years, psychopaths were believed to be incapable of love, but many psychopaths actually do care, in their own warped way. They can care about close family and pets (not cats though! cats are too wilful and uncontrollable). However, they see the outside world as threatening, unreal and filled with objects that need to be manipulated or removed, rather than with real people.
Psychopaths have to be careful not to let their mask slip
In the last couple of decades, research has revealed that psychopaths usually suffer deeply, and are aware at least some of the time of how badly their behaviour affects others, yet they’re unable to control themselves. Most psychopaths fully understand that their true nature will never be acceptable to others and must be hidden, so they expend a lot of energy on trying to always keep their mask intact.
If you want to know more, read:
American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis
Martens, WHJ (MD, PHD). The hidden suffering of the psychopath, (Oct 7, 2014) Psychiatric Times, volume 31 , Issue 10
Blue-Footed Booby Formula: How to tell if you’re (actually) a psychopath.
- When reading through the description of a psychopath, does any of it resonate with you? Is this how people around you describe you, or are you able to see this in anyone close to you?
- Take an online “Am I a psychopath quiz”
The interactive Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy scale
The layperson’s version of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist
- If you have reason to think you might be a psychopath, or if there is someone with psychopathic traits in your life, you could probably do with some support. Before you resign yourself to a life of emptiness, seek the opinion of a registered psychologist/psychiatrist!
Note: You’re probably NOT a psychopath, even if you score highly on one of these tests. Psychopathy is a rare personality disorder. While any of the above tests are fun to do, they are highly unlikely to be a reliable indicator of psychopathy! Any psychological test must be interpreted by a trained professional in the context of a whole battery of tests and a bunch of in-depth interviews.
You or someone you know may well have some psychopathic tendencies, but that does not mean that you are the next Jeffrey Dahmer.
Q) Can I be cured?
A) Psychotherapy and medication can and do help in almost every case.
Q) How can I find a registered clinical psychologist?
A) Consult credible websites which only list registered psychologists with current and confirmed credentials. Such as www.goodtherapy.org or www.psychologytoday.com Or ask your local doctor, who should be able to refer you.
Q) What if there is no registered psychologist in my area?
A) Post-covid, many mental health professionals now work online so don’t give up!
Q) Will I now try to murder my hamster?
A) Please don’t, see above recommendations.