Are They a Psychopath

Are They a Psychopath

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Are they a Psychopath?

The term psychopath gets thrown around often, but its common usage to describe certain people has allowed the word to lose much of its meaning. The word “psychopath” is used by mental health care professionals to describe a person who is unemotional, callous, and morally corrupt1

Psychopath is not an official diagnosis in the mental health care community. The term is most often used in legal and clinical settings. You may be familiar with the term “psychopath” from television, films, and books bout true-life crime, where it is often misused.

Defining “Psychopath” as a term

Originally, the word “psychopath” was used to describe a person who is manipulative, deceitful, and uncaring. The term to describe those three traits was later changed to “sociopath”. This was done as sociopath encompasses the fact that these persons are out to harm society. Over the years, researchers have begun to use the term “psychopath” once more.

Many times, “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used interchangeably. It should be noted that “sociopath” describes a person with antisocial tendencies, and is affected by social or environmental factors. Psychopathic traits are believed to be more innate in people. In the end, both non-genetic and genetic issues likely play a part to shape a person’s antisocial traits.

Today, many people who are labeled as a psychopath would most likely be diagnosed as suffering from antisocial personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder is a broader mental health issue and it is used to describe a person who routinely acts out and breaks defined rules. However, just a small number of people suffering from antisocial personality disorder are actually considered psychopaths.

A person exhibiting psychopathic behavior varies from one individual to the next. Some psychopaths are sex offenders and/or murderers. Other psychopaths may actually be successful business people or leaders.

Narcissist vs Psychopath

Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others2 Narcissist are often labelled as Psycopaths and it is true that at the far end of the scale a narcissist, sociopath and psychopath are very similar.

The traits of a Narcissist are:

  • Grandiosity. Exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Excessive need for admiration
  • Superficial and exploitative relationships
  • Lack of empathy
  • Identity disturbance
  • Difficulty with attachment and dependency
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom
  • Vulnerability to life transitions
  • Dangerous when you try to leave

What are the traits of a psychopath?

It may be difficult to distinguish between people who are psychopaths and individuals possessing psychopathic traits. A distinction between the two must be done. You may exhibit a number of psychopathic traits, but not actual be a psychopath.

A person with psychopathic traits may not engage in psychopathic behavior. Only a person with psychopathic traits and antisocial behavior is considered a psychopath by modern mental health care professionals.

The traits exhibited by a psychopath include:

  • Antisocial behavior
  • Narcissism
  • Superficial charm
  • Impulsivity
  • Callous, unemotional feelings
  • A lack of guilt
  • A lack of empathy

If you exhibit any of these traits, do not fear. Research has found that over 25% of the population possess one or more psychopathic traits. However, less than 1.0% of the population fits into the definition of psychopath.

What are the signs a person is a psychopath?

By using the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a mental health care practitioner can determine if a person is a psychopath. The checklist features a spectrum of traits that a person is weighed against. Each trait is scored on a three-point scale of whether it applies or does not apply to the individual.

  • Does not apply (0)
  • Applies to a certain extent (1)
  • Fully applies to the individual (2)

If an individual scores 30 or more, they are considered a clinical psychopath. For example, serial killer Ted Bundy scored 39 on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. Canadian researcher Robert Hare developed the checklist in the 1970s. An individual should be tested by a mental health care professional for a true examination.

The checklist includes the following psychopathic characteristics:

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Need for stimulation and proneness to boredom
  • Pathological lying
  • Conning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse and/or guilt
  • Reduced emotional responses
  • Callous and having a lack of empathy
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavioral controls
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior
  • Early behavioral problems
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Failure to accept responsibility for their own actions
  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release from prison
  • Commits diverse types of crimes

What causes a person to become a psychopath?

Psychopathic traits are basically influenced by an individual’s genetics. However, according to research, there are non-genetic factors at play as well. Scientists have discovered signs of atypical functioning in particular areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, in individuals demonstrating psychopathic traits. There is still much to learn about psychopathy and the brain.

A person may begin showing early psychopathy characteristics, which are called “callous-unemotional traits”, before the age of 10. Individuals may receive a formal diagnosis from a mental health care provider such as conduct disorder. Just because a person shows psychopathic traits in childhood, it does not mean that the individual will grow up to become a psychopath as an adult.

A high score on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist establishes the measure of psychopathy traits that may pose a serious of issues to successful therapy. There is evidence that associated antisocial behaviors and psychopathic traits may wane during a person’s life. At the moment, it is not known just how well therapy can alter the traits of psychopathy in an individual.

Is violence a result of psychopathic behavior?

Psychopaths and psychopathic behavior are synonymous with murderers and serial killers. Modern television, movies, and books have generously used the terms to describe the killers in their stories.

Despite psychopaths being uses as the bad guy or girl in media, it doesn’t mean that all individuals diagnosed as a psychopath is a murderer. In fact, it doesn’t mean that these people are dangerous at all.

There is literature that claims psychopaths could be more violent than the general population. However, the truth is that not all psychopaths are violent or exhibit a violent nature.

Studies haves shown that some people who are diagnosed as psychopaths are actually successful in their roles in business and in other areas. These people are less likely to break the law and more likely to hold high positions of leadership. Known as “successful psychopaths”, these individuals may test higher in certain areas like conscientious traits rather than the antisocial traits.

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References & Citations: What is a Narcissist

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  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. []
  3. Anderson C., Kilduff G. J. (2009. b). Why do dominant personalities attain influence in face-to-face groups? The competence-signaling effects of trait dominance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 491–503. doi:10.1037/a0014201 []
  4. Barrick M. R., Mount M. K., Li N. (2013). The theory of purposeful work behavior: The role of personality, higher-order goals, and job characteristics. Academy of Management Review, 38, 132–153. doi:10.5465/amr.2010.0479[]
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  6. Brummelman E., Gürel Ç., Thomaes S., Sedikides C. (2018). What separates narcissism from self-esteem? A social-cognitive perspective. In Hermann A. D., Brunell A., Foster J. (Eds.), Handbook of trait narcissism: Key advances, research methods, and controversies (pp. 47–55). New York, NY: Springer. []
  7. Campbell W. K., Brunell A. B., Finkel E. J. (2006). Narcissism, interpersonal self-regulation, and romantic relationships: An agency model approach. In Vohs K. D., Finkel E. J. (Eds.), Self and relationships (pp. 57–83). New York, NY: Guilford Press. []
  8. Carver C. S., Scheier M. F. (1982). Control theory: A useful conceptual framework for personality-social, clinical, and health psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 92, 111–135. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.92.1.111 []
  9. Denissen J. J. A., van Aken M. A. G., Penke L., Wood D. (2013). Self-regulation underlies temperament and personality: An integrative developmental framework. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 255–260. doi:10.1111/cdep.12050 []
  10. Foster J. D., Campbell W. K., Twenge J. M. (2003). Individual differences in narcissism: Inflated self-views across the lifespan and around the world. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 469–486. doi:10.1016/S0092-6566(03)00026-6 []
  11. Grubbs J. B., Exline J. J. (2016). Trait entitlement: A cognitive-personality source of vulnerability to psychological distress. Psychological Bulletin, 142, 1204–1226. doi:10.1037/bul0000063 []
  12. Moshagen M., Hilbig B. E., Zettler I. (2018). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review, 125, 656–688. doi:10.1037/rev0000111 []

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What is a Psychopath?
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What is a Psychopath?
By using the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a mental health care practitioner can determine if a person is a psychopath. The checklist features a spectrum of traits that a person is weighed against. Each trait is scored on a three-point scale of whether it applies or does not apply to the individual.
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