There are a few things we take for granted in social interactions with people. We presume that we see the world in roughly the same way, that we all know certain basic facts, that words mean the same things to you as they do to me. And we assume that we have pretty similar ideas of right and wrong.
But for a small – but not that small – subset of the population, things are very different. These people lack remorse and empathy and feel emotion only shallowly. In extreme cases, they might not care whether you live or die. These people are called psychopaths. Some of them are violent criminals, murderers. But by no means all.
Professor Robert Hare is a criminal psychologist, and the creator of the PCL-R, a psychological assessment used to determine whether someone is a psychopath. For decades, he has studied people with psychopathy, and worked with them, in prisons and elsewhere. “It stuns me, as much as it did when I started 40 years ago, that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern,” he says.
Our understanding of the brain is still in its infancy, and it’s not so many decades since psychological disorders were seen as character failings. Slowly we are learning to think of mental illnesses as illnesses, like kidney disease or liver failure, and developmental disorders, such as autism, in a similar way. Psychopathy challenges this view. “A high-scoring psychopath views the world in a very different way,” says Hare. “It’s like colour-blind people trying to understand the colour red, but in this case ‘red’ is other people’s emotions.”
At heart, Hare’s test is simple: a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 (if it doesn’t apply to the person), 1 (if it partially applies) or 2 (if it fully applies). The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (ie broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy. Hare says: “A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, once said: ‘Bob, when I meet someone who scores 35 or 36, I know these people really are different.’ The ones we consider to be alien are the ones at the upper end.”
But is psychopathy a disorder – or a different way of being? Anyone reading the list above will spot a few criteria familiar from people they know. On average, someone with no criminal convictions scores 5. “It’s dimensional,” says Hare. “There are people who are part-way up the scale, high enough to warrant an assessment for psychopathy, but not high enough up to cause problems. Often they’re our friends, they’re fun to be around. They might take advantage of us now and then, but usually it’s subtle and they’re able to talk their way around it.” Like autism, a condition which we think of as a spectrum, “psychopathy”, the diagnosis, bleeds into normalcy.
We think of psychopaths as killers, criminals, outside society. People such as Joanna Dennehy, a 31-year-old British woman who killed three men in 2013 and who the year before had been diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder, or Ted Bundy, the American serial killer who is believed to have murdered at least 30 people and who said of himself: “I’m the most cold-blooded son of a bitch you’ll ever meet. I just liked to kill.” But many psychopathic traits aren’t necessarily disadvantages – and might, in certain circumstances, be an advantage. For their co-authored book, “Snakes in suits: When Psychopaths go to work”, Hare and another researcher, Paul Babiak, looked at 203 corporate professionals and found about four per cent scored sufficiently highly on the PCL-R to be evaluated for psychopathy. Hare says that this wasn’t a proper random sample (claims that “10 per cent of financial executives” are psychopaths are certainly false) but it’s easy to see how a lack of moral scruples and indifference to other people’s suffering could be beneficial if you want to get ahead in business.
The American serial killer Ted Bundy, who is believed to have murdered at least 30 people
“There are two kinds of empathy,” says James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California and author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. “Cognitive empathy is the ability to know what other people are feeling, and emotional empathy is the kind where you feel what they’re feeling.” Autistic people can be very empathetic – they feel other people’s pain – but are less able to recognise the cues we read easily, the smiles and frowns that tell us what someone is thinking. Psychopaths are often the opposite: they know what you’re feeling, but don’t feel it themselves. “This all gives certain psychopaths a great advantage, because they can understand what you’re thinking, it’s just that they don’t care, so they can use you against yourself.” (Chillingly, psychopaths are particularly adept at detecting vulnerability. A 2008 study that asked participants to remember virtual characters found that those who scored highly for psychopathy had a near perfect recognition for sad, unsuccessful females, but impaired memory for other characters.)
Fallon himself is a case in point. In 2005, he was looking at brain scans of psychopathic murderers, while on another study, of Alzheimer’s, he was using scans of his own family’s brains as controls. In the latter pile, he found something strange. “You can’t tell just from a brain scan whether someone’s a psychopath,” he says, “but you can make a good guess at the personality traits they’ll have.” He describes a great loop that starts in the front of the brain including the parahippocampal gyrus and the amygdala and other regions tied to emotion and impulse control and empathy. Under certain circumstances they would light up dramatically on a normal person’s MRI scan, but would be darker on a psychopath’s.
“I saw one that was extremely abnormal, and I thought this is someone who’s way off. It looked like the murderers I’d been looking at,” he says. He broke the anonymisation code in case it had been put into the wrong pile. When he did, he discovered it was his own brain. “I kind of blew it off,” he says. “But later, some psychiatrist friends of mine went through my behaviours, and they said, actually, you’re probably a borderline psychopath.”
READ: WHAT HAPPENED WHEN A PRISON THERAPIST BROUGHT VIOLENT OFFENDERS TOGETHER TO 'TALK'?
Speaking to him is a strange experience; he barely draws breath in an hour, in which I ask perhaps three questions. He explains how he has frequently put his family in danger, exposing his brother to the deadly Marburg virus and taking his son trout-fishing in the African countryside knowing there were lions around. And in his youth, “if I was confronted by authority – if I stole a car, made pipe bombs, started fires – when we got caught by the police I showed no emotion, no anxiety”. Yet he is highly successful, driven to win. He tells me things most people would be uncomfortable saying: that his wife says she’s married to a “fun-loving, happy-go-lucky nice guy” on the one hand, and a “very dark character who she does not like” on the other. He’s pleasant, and funny, if self-absorbed, but I can’t help but think about the criteria in Hare’s PCL-R: superficial charm, lack of emotional depth, grandiose sense of self-worth. “I look like hell now, Tom,” he says – he’s 66 – “but growing up I was good-looking, six foot, 180lb, athletic, smart, funny, popular.” (Hare warns against non-professionals trying to diagnose people using his test, by the way.)
“Psychopaths do think they’re more rational than other people, that this isn’t a deficit,” says Hare. “I met one offender who was certainly a psychopath who said ‘My problem is that according to psychiatrists I think more with my head than my heart. What am I supposed to do about that? Am I supposed to get all teary-eyed?’ ” Another, asked if he had any regrets about stabbing a robbery victim, replied: “Get real! He spends a few months in hospital and I rot here. If I wanted to kill him I would have slit his throat. That’s the kind of guy I am; I gave him a break.”
And yet, as Hare points out, when you’re talking about people who aren’t criminals, who might be successful in life, it’s difficult to categorise it as a disorder. “It’d be pretty hard for me to go into high-level political or economic or academic context and pick out all the most successful people and say, ‘Look, I think you’ve got some brain deficit.’ One of my inmates said that his problem was that he’s a cat in a world of mice. If you compare the brainwave activity of a cat and a mouse, you’d find they were quite different.”
It would, says Hare, probably have been an evolutionarily successful strategy for many of our ancestors, and can be successful today; adept at manipulating people, a psychopath can enter a community, “like a church or a cultural organisation, saying, ‘I believe the same things you do’, but of course what we have is really a cat pretending to be a mouse, and suddenly all the money’s gone”. At this point he floats the name Bernie Madoff.
Columbine High School killers Dylan Klebold (right) and Eric Harris captured on CCTV on the day of the massacre (Reuters/Gary Caskey)
This brings up the issue of treatment. “Psychopathy is probably the most pleasant-feeling of all the mental disorders,” says the journalist Jon Ronson, whose book, The Psychopath Test, explored the concept of psychopathy and the mental health industry in general. “All of the things that keep you good, morally good, are painful things: guilt, remorse, empathy.” Fallon agrees: “Psychopaths can work very quickly, and can have an apparent IQ higher than it really is, because they’re not inhibited by moral concerns.”
So psychopaths often welcome their condition, and “treating” them becomes complicated. “How many psychopaths go to a psychiatrist for mental distress, unless they’re in prison? It doesn’t happen,” says Hare. The ones in prison, of course, are often required to go to “talk therapy, empathy training, or talk to the family of the victims” – but since psychopaths don’t have any empathy, it doesn’t work. “What you want to do is say, ‘Look, it’s in your own self-interest to change your behaviour, otherwise you’ll stay in prison for quite a while.’ ”
It seems Hare’s message has got through to the UK Department of Justice: in its guidelines for working with personality-disordered inmates, it advises that while “highly psychopathic individuals” are likely to be “highly treatment resistant”, the “interventions most likely to be effective are those which focus on ‘self-interest’ – what the offender wants out of life – and work with them to develop the skills to get those things in a pro-social rather than anti-social way.”
If someone’s brain lacks the moral niceties the rest of us take for granted, they obviously can’t do anything about that, any more than a colour-blind person can start seeing colour. So where does this leave the concept of moral responsibility? “The legal system traditionally asserts that all people standing in front of the judge’s bench are equal. That’s demonstrably false,” says the neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He suggests that instead of thinking in terms of blameworthiness, the law should deal with the likelihood that someone will reoffend, and issue sentences accordingly, with rehabilitation for those likely to benefit and long sentences for those likely to be long-term dangers. The PCL-R is already used as part of algorithms which categorise people in terms of their recidivism risk. “Life insurance companies do exactly this sort of thing, in actuarial tables, where they ask: ‘What age do we think he’s going to die?’ No one’s pretending they know exactly when we’re going to die. But they can make rough guesses which make for an enormously more efficient system.”
What this doesn’t mean, he says, is a situation like the sci-fi film Minority Report, in which people who are likely to commit crimes are locked up before they actually do. “Here's why,” he says. “It's because many people in the population have high levels of psychopathy - about 1 per cent. But not all of them become criminals. In fact many of them, because of their glibness and charm and willingness to ride roughshod over the people in their way, become quite successful. They become CEOs, professional athletes, soldiers. These people are revered for their courage and their straight talk and their willingness to crush obstacles in their way. Merely having psychopathy doesn't tell us that a person will go off and commit a crime.” It is central to the justice system, both in Britain and America, that you can’t pre-emptively punish someone. And that won’t ever change, says Eagleman, not just for moral, philosophical reasons, but for practical ones. The Minority Report scenario is a fantasy, because “it's impossible to predict what somebody will do, even given their personality type and everything, because life is complicated and crime is contextual. Once someone has committed a crime, once someone has stepped over a societal boundary, then there's a lot more statistical power about what they're likely to do in future. But until that's happened, you can't ever know.”
Speaking to all these experts, I notice they all talk about psychopaths as “them”, almost as a different species, although they make conscious efforts not to. There’s something uniquely troubling about a person who lacks emotion and empathy; it’s the stuff of changeling stories, the Midwich Cuckoos, Hannibal Lecter. “You know kids who use a magnifying glass to burn ants, thinking, this is interesting,” says Hare. “Translate that to an adult psychopath who treats a person that way. It is chilling.” At one stage Ronson suggests I speak to another well-known self-described psychopath, a woman, but I can’t bring myself to. I find the idea unsettling, as if he’d suggested I commune with the dead.
• This article originally stated that autism was a "personality disorder". It is in fact a neurodevelopmental disorder. This has been corrected; apologies for the error. Tom
Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work (RRP £10.99) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £10.99 + £1.35p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
READ: THE SCIENCE BEHIND OUR MOST MYSTERIOUS ACTIVITY: SLEEP
The various suggested characteristics of “psychopath eyes” seem to echo the general belief that people with ASPD have no emotions to show. These descriptions include: dead, flat, or reptilian-like eyes. very dark irises, or eyes that appear black. pupils that don't dilate.What questions can reveal a psychopath? ›
- Do you have “excess glibness” or superficial charm?
- Do you have a grandiose sense of self-worth?
- Are you a pathological liar?
- Are you conning or manipulative?
- Do you display a lack of remorse or guilt?
- Do you have “shallow affect”?
- Are you callous, or do you lack empathy?
- Do you have a “parasitic lifestyle”?
The PCL-R and related tests are sometimes referred to as “psychopath tests.” A score above a 30 on the PCL-R has sometimes been used to determine that someone is “a psychopath.” However, psychopathy is a spectrum trait, no matter what scale is used to measure it.What is one of the weaknesses of psychopaths? ›
lack of empathy, guilt, conscience, or remorse. shallow experiences of feelings or emotions. impulsivity, and a weak ability to defer gratification and control behavior. superficial charm and glibness.What makes a psychopath cry? ›
In response to death of a person with whom there is a bond, some psychopaths can experience sadness and this may even bring about feelings of guilt which are otherwise impossible to feel. Crying may be a part of this. Exposure to trauma may also bring about emotions that would normally be suppressed in a psychopath.Do psychopaths like eye contact? ›
Preliminary evidence from static facial stimuli suggests that psychopathy is indeed linked to reduced eye gaze.How can you tell a psychopath fast? ›
- A disregard for others and societal values. A disregard for others is one of the most prominent signs of ASPD, says Patterson. ...
- Lying and manipulation. ...
- Aggressiveness. ...
- Impulsiveness. ...
- A lack of remorse.
The most recent version of the DSM has a disorder in it called “antisocial personality disorder,” which is sometimes confused with psychopathy.What do psychopaths talk about? ›
They talk about life in terms of cause and effect.
Psychopaths--especially those who commit crimes--talk about their behavior in terms of cause and effect. For example, one might say, "I had to teach him a lesson." Rather than show remorse, a psychopath is likely to justify his actions.
Psychopaths are at least periodically aware of the effects of their behavior on others and can be genuinely saddened by their inability to control it. The lives of most psychopaths are devoid of a stable social network or warm, close bonds.
Someone with this kind of personality disorder typically experiences four (4) or more of the following symptoms: failure to conform to social norms; deceitfulness; impulsivity; irritability and aggressiveness; a reckless disregard for other people's safety; consistent irresponsibility; and a lack of remorse.Can you hurt a psychopaths feelings? ›
Of course, they can also get angry, especially in response to provocation, or get frustrated when their goals are thwarted. So Villanelle is right, to some extent. You can hurt a psychopath's feelings, but probably different feelings and for different reasons.What do psychopaths have a lack of? ›
A personality structure often marked by a lack of empathy is psychopathic personality. Thus, clinical psychology is also concerned with the process of empathy and how this ability influences antisocial personality (including psychopathy) and behavior.What are the 7 symptoms of a psychopath? ›
- Superficial Charm. ...
- Puffed-Up Self-Esteem. ...
- Deceitfulness. ...
- Shallow Emotions. ...
- Boredom and a Need for Stimulation. ...
- A History of Shady Conduct. ...
- A Riddle of Contradictions.
Instead, psychopathy is characterised by an extreme lack of empathy. Psychopaths may also be manipulative, charming and exploitative, and behave in an impulsive and risky manner. They may lack conscience or guilt, and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.Can a psychopath be a good person? ›
Yes, research shows there are “good” psychopaths. Many people in positively heroic professions have strong psychopathic traits.Can a psychopath be obsessed with someone? ›
Relationships with psychopaths are never smooth sailing. If they are particularly narcissistic, they're not happy unless they're the center of attention all the time, meaning they can be obsessive and controlling.What are psychopaths attracted to? ›
According to a study published in the Journal of Personality in April, it was found that psychopaths tend to be attracted to others who have psychopathic tendencies. The study titled “Do Psychopathic Birds of a Feather Flock Together?” used 696 men and women of many different backgrounds and ethnicities.Are psychopaths talkative? ›
Psychopathy positively correlates with talkativeness and dominance (Manson et al., 2014; Rimé et al., 1978). Psychopaths tend to excessively use jargon and poorly integrated phrases; they also have troubles adhering to one train of thought (Gillstrom & Hare, 1988).Do psychopaths care about other people's feelings? ›
“In other words, psychopaths, Machiavellians, and narcissists in the common population (i.e. non-clinical) don't care much about other people's feelings, but still have the ability to empathize.”
Some of the red flags that someone is a psychopath include a lack of empathy, a charming personality to fool others, disorganisation, a tendency to blame others, a lack of fear, and being cold-hearted. “Making a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy is rather hard, actually,” Erikson said.
Psychopathy is a personality construct characterized by superficial charm, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, lack of guilt or remorse, irresponsibility, impulsivity, deceitfulness, and persistent antisocial behaviors (Hare, 2006).How psychopaths sleep? ›
They Have Unusual Sleep Patterns
But when it comes to nighttime habits, psychologist, Dr. Kathryn Smerling tells Bustle that psychopaths typically have an inability to sleep. "A psychopath tends to have unusual sleeping patterns and is generally nocturnal," Smerling says.
Thanks to Hollywood, we tend to think of psychopaths as knife-wielding criminals, but science shows some high-functioning psychopaths can actually be hard to spot. So hard, in fact, that some psychopaths don't know they meet the definition for the condition.Can a psychopath be bipolar? ›
Psychopathy seems quite frequent among patients with BD. The association of psychopathy with BD results in higher impulsivity and manic symptoms. In light of this, psychopathy should be investigated when assessing patients with BD, regardless of the comorbidity of BD with other personality disorders.What phrases do psychopaths use? ›
- You're crazy/you have mental health issues/you need help. ...
- You're just insecure and jealous. ...
- You're too sensitive/you're overreacting. ...
- It was just a joke. ...
- You need to let it go. ...
- You're the problem here, not me.
Psychopaths use words related to food, sex and money twice as often as non-psychopaths, a study finds. Psychopaths are also less likely to use words related to family, religion and social needs. The trends in word use reflect how psychopaths display excessive selfishness, detachment and emotional flatness.What are psychopaths thinking? ›
A psychopath has an inflated view of themselves. They see themselves as important and entitled. Psychopaths often feel justified to live according to their own rules, and they think that the laws don't apply to them.Do psychopaths get angry easily? ›
The only clinical condition associated with an increased risk for instrumental aggression, psychopathy, is also at elevated risk for reactive aggression [12,13]. Notably, the clinical description of psychopathy emphasizes an individual with reduced empathy but intact or possibly exaggerated anger .What is borderline psychopath? ›
Impulsive and risky behavior, including gambling, reckless driving, unsafe sex, spending sprees, binge eating, drug abuse or self-destructive behaviors such as quitting a good job or relationship. Suicidal threats or behavior or self-injurious actions in fear of separation or rejection.
Although sociopathy and psychopathy cannot be diagnosed until someone is 18, one of the hallmarks of both conditions is that they usually begin in childhood or early adolescence. Usually, the symptoms appear before the age of 15, and sometimes they are present early in childhood.Do psychopaths get lonely? ›
That said, psychopaths do appreciate their relationships in their own way. They do suffer pain, feel loneliness, have desires and feel sadness if they do not receive affection.How do psychopaths manipulate? ›
First, they assess the value of individuals to their needs, and identify their psychological strengths and weaknesses. Second, they manipulate the individuals (now potential victims) by feeding them carefully crafted messages, while constantly using feedback from them to build and maintain control.How to treat a psychopath? ›
The most successful approaches to treating psychopathy are multimodal. This means they include multiple approaches at once, including psychotherapy, behavioral skills training, and recognition of the important roles of family, school, peers, and the community. They may also incorporate medication.What is a mild psychopath? ›
• Mild psychopaths are less aggressive and more anxious and. guilt-ridden than severe ones. • Mild psychopathy has more benign course and better prognosis.What is the best test for psychopath? ›
To do that, the psychologist administers a test — the PCL-R, or Psychopathy Checklist-Revised — designed to measure whether that inmate is a psychopath. This test has incredible power in the American criminal justice system.What are the 4 types of psychopaths? ›
Clinical observations at ASH have suggested 4 possible subtypes of psychopathy: narcissistic, borderline, sadistic, and antisocial.How do you fight a psychopath and win? ›
- Keep Your Emotions in Check. No matter how frustrated or upset you feel, keep your emotions in check. ...
- Don't Show That You're Intimidated. ...
- Don't Buy Into Their Stories. ...
- Turn the Conversation Back on Them. ...
- Opt for Online Communication Whenever You Can.
The psychopaths exhibited significantly higher Guilt scores than the normal subjects and had very poor self-image which was reflected in a constant feeling of guilt, regardless of whether or not they were rating transgression.Do psychopaths get scared? ›
Psychopathy is a fascinating disorder which has been a source of inspiration for several books, television series and movies. In popular media and in science, the idea exists that individuals with psychopathy do not know what it is to feel fear.
The Brain of a Psychopath: The Prefrontal Cortex
A section of the prefrontal cortex – the orbitofrontal cortex – shows reduced grey matter in volume and thickness. Again, the more severe the psychopathy, the greater this deficiency seems to be.
Psychopathic personality traits are transmitted from father-to-offspring due to genetic reasons.What games do psychopaths play? ›
- Gaslighting. This is perhaps the most common form of manipulation done by psychopaths. ...
- Threatening. This is not just a mind game, but mentally and emotionally abusive. ...
- Lying. Psychopaths are beautiful liars. ...
- Flattery. ...
Psychopathy: personality traits associated with psychopathy include a lack of empathy or remorse, antisocial behavior, and being manipulative and volatile.What do psychopaths do when they're bored? ›
They have a low threshold for boredom.
"[Psychopaths] tend to act immediately rather than just sitting around thinking about acting," say Blinkist. "That's because they have a low tolerance for boredom, among other things, and always need to keep themselves busy. Every activity is rewarding for them."
Sanpaku refers to eyes that have more scleral visibility. This can mean that more white is visible above or below the iris. The term “sanpaku eyes” has roots in Japanese face reading.Why do psychopaths have big pupils? ›
Dan Burley, lead author of the study offered this simple assessment: The pupil usually dilates when an image shocks or scares us. The fact that this normal physiological response to threat is reduced in psychopathic offenders provides us with an obvious physical marker for this condition.What does soulless eyes mean? ›
showing no emotions such as sympathy, happiness, or excitement. soulless eyes. Synonyms and related words. Showing no emotions and unaffected by emotions.What is the white eye theory? ›
According to Chinese/Japanese medical face reading, when the white part of the eye, known as the sclera, is visible beneath the iris, it represents physical imbalance in the body and is claimed to be present in alcoholics, drug addicts, and people who over-consume sugar or grain.What does white under eyes mean? ›
White spots under the eyes are caused when there is a build up of dead skin cells or keratin. Keratin is a protein that makes up your skin, hair and nails and can also be found in your organs and glands. This can get trapped under the surface of the skin forming a raised 'pinhead' bump.
Yellow whites of the eyes
The white portion of the eye is known as the sclera. Healthy eye tissue should be white. Yellowing of the eyes is known as jaundice and can be a sign of serious liver disease. Jaundice is a sign of high levels of bilirubin, which the liver makes when it's inflamed or damaged.
For the psychopath, by definition, gestures are severed from their natural underlying meaning. The psychopath doesn't smile to convey emotion, but merely to further his agenda.Do psychopaths have social anxiety? ›
Specifically, the defining features of social anxiety and psychopathy tend to oppose one another: Whereas individuals with social anxiety are overly concerned about violating social norms and being negatively evaluated by others, people with psychopathic attributes typically do not fear violating social norms and show ...Do psychopaths seem charming? ›
Psychopaths are often highly engaging, witty, charming, and fun to be around, but they are also deceitful and exploit others. They lack empathy, have no regard for the rights of others and act to serve their own purposes.What are lifeless eyes? ›
Having eyes that lack emotion or seem vacant.What is spiritual eyes? ›
The spiritual eye is a reflection of the cosmic energy entering the body and sustaining it. When, through concentration, you see and penetrate through the spiritual eye, you will enter the Spirit beyond creation. Focus on the spiritual eye while going about daily life helps keep your mind uplifted.What are haunting eyes? ›
1 (of memories) poignant or persistent. 2 poignantly sentimental; enchantingly or eerily evocative.