BY KIM BUSSING
The word psychopath might evoke the image of a serial killer or fictionalized villain, but knowing these psychopathic signs can help you notice if you’re dealing with one on a daily basis.
What is a psychopath, exactly?
In his leading book on psychopaths—Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us—Robert Hare, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, says a conservative estimate of the number of psychopaths in the United States is 2 million. While it’s easy to label an unpleasant coworker or an adulterous ex a psychopath, how can you tell the difference between someone truly psychopathic and someone who’s just a jerk? Keep reading for key psychopath symptoms, but remember that a few signs does not a psychopath make. A proper diagnosis can only be given by a medical professional. “Anything else is speculation,” warns Robert Schug, PhD, a neurocriminologist and clinical psychologist specializing in the biology and psychology of the criminal mind.
Psychopaths get bored easily
A psychopath is not just under-stimulated because of an uneventful day at work or a weekend night stuck at home, but he or she faces chronic boredom across all facets of their lives. One common hypothesis is that psychopaths are hardwired to be more under-aroused than other people. “A psychopath’s nervous system is wired so they need to keep doing exciting things to feel normal and reach normal levels of arousal,” says Schug. According to psychologist Randall Salekin, PhD, this means that they’re also the ones in a group most likely to initiate fun-oriented activities, such as suggest post-work drinks.
Psychopaths are VERY charming
Perhaps one of the most disarming aspects of interacting with psychopaths is their ability to conceal their true selves in order to appear as likeable as possible. “He or she easily picks out topics that are important to us and reflects sympathetic points of view, sometimes complete with enthusiasm or ‘emotion’ to reinforce the spoken words,” say Paul Babiak and Robert Hare in their book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. This is not just directed at individuals, but can manifest in groups. Salekin says that they use their storytelling abilities to draw others to them, whether that’s at work or in jail. “They’re able to gather a crowd around them at the water cooler,” he says. However, while a psychopath’s stories might be interesting, that doesn’t mean they’re true.
Psychopaths lie a lot
Unlike pathological liars, who lie without motivation and sometimes without need, a psychopath’s lies are more goal-directed. They typically use conning and manipulation for their own gain. “It’s more about getting something from somebody else,” says Schug. “Tricking somebody out of their stuff or into an emotional connection.” This could be used to get a promotion at work, build a relationship, or control a romantic partner. Here are clues you can use to spot when someone’s lying.
Psychopaths lack realistic, long-term goals
While psychopaths are goal-driven, many take a carpe diem approach to long-term planning. They believe they need to live in the moment instead of planning for the future, although what goals they do have often are disconnected from any probably future. They have an inability to ground their understanding of their lives in reality. “If you speak with them in in jail, they might say they want to be an astronaut, a ninja, or an FBI agent,” says Schug. “Their goals are totally out of line with the situation.”
Psychopaths think they’re superior
Psychopaths consider themselves better than the people around them, which might help account for why they aren’t concerned by the negative impacts of their actions. In the workplace, this can manifest as someone who is “not concerned about the team and is reluctant to take advice from others until it immediately helps him or her,” says Salekin. This could look like overly confident, dominant behavior, or it could be masked around those the psychopath believes are beneficial to his or her success, such as someone capable of offering advice. “They hide their true motivations and project carefully formed personas to capitalize on the needs, expectations, and naiveté of individuals useful to them,” write Babiak and Hare.
Psychopaths can switch their empathy on and off
A psychopath is not concerned with his or her impact on others, whether that be financial, social, or personal, primarily because a psychopath is incapable of feeling emotion, either for themselves or others. “Psychopaths lack… possibly even the most basic understanding of human feelings,” write Babiak and Hare. While it was previously believed that psychopaths are incapable of empathy, a 2013 study described by Psychology Today studied the brain activity of various violent psychopathic offenders and discovered that the regions of the brain associated with sharing suffering with others can be activated and deactivated. While they normally do lack empathy, they can voluntarily turn it on in order to seduce, charm, and manipulate someone else. These exercises can increase your empathy.
Psychopaths have a bad temper
A real psychopath is someone who models excessive anger no matter who they’re with or what they’re doing. “In terms of domestic violence, you’ll see physical or verbal aggression over and over again,” says Schug. “Outside of a relationship, they might have road rage or be constantly getting into arguments.” Noticing this sign might be harder than it sounds: a psychopath’s charm usually covers his or her anger tendencies. “They can turn mean, but only if challenged or someone gets in the way of their goal,” says Salekin. “Otherwise, it’s all charm.”
Psychopaths are sexually promiscuous
With their ability to charm unsuspecting victims, psychopaths can lure unsuspecting people into bed, but aren’t interested in commitment, or anything beyond the immediate thrill. A study done at the University of London showed that psychopaths were more associated with promiscuity and not with commitment. Sex for the psychopath is not about the other person, but more about the power play or stroking his or her own ego.
Psychopaths are impulsive or irresponsible
This impulsivity or irresponsibility, whether it’s risking a relationship by cheating, being reckless with their finances, or even breaking the law. “Psychopaths are more likely to get DUIs or not pay child support,” says Schug.
Psychopaths were problematic as children
Since psychopathy is a personality disorder and personality is largely unchanging, these traits need to be observed in childhood. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that hyperactivity and conduct disorders were strong predictors of psychopathic behaviors in adulthood. “These are the kids that really stand out in terms of getting kicked out of school or coming into contact with law enforcement,” says Schug.
Psychopaths engage in criminal behavior
Watching movies like American Psycho or reading about the likes of John Wayne Gacy might suggest that all psychopaths have a few literal skeletons in their closet. However, some might partake in white-collar crime as opposed to more violent acts, meaning you’re more likely to be swindled by them than physically hurt. Many criminals commit crime because of a drug addiction or as a result of a violent childhood, but for psychopaths, the impulse largely stems from a disconnection from society. Hare writes: “Crime is less the result of adverse social conditions than of a character structure that operates with no reference to the rules and regulations of society.”
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Psychopaths are unpredictable
“They like a lot of change in their atmosphere, which might include changing team members and jobs,” says Salekin. Beware also of people who are flighty in their relationships and opinions, as a psychopath can seem to change their entire personality depending on the situation. There can be a “dramatic shift from friendly coworker to cold, dispassionate stranger,” write Babiak and Hare. A psychopath can alter who they seemingly are and what they seemingly want given on how well they believe that specific mask will benefit them at the time.
Psychopath behavior is a pattern
At one point or another, everyone has been swept up in a moment of road rage or fantasizing about becoming a famous actor or app inventor. What differentiates most of us from being psychopaths is that these only occur once in a while. “[With a psychopath], these are things happening over and over again,” Schug says. “It’s a personality disorder. The personality manifests at work, at school, with family, with friends, when they’re young, when they’re a teenager, when they’re an adult.” Even if the office jerk might have you donning your psychoanalyst’s cap, by not observing a person in other aspects of their life, it’s impossible to see if their attitude might be evidence of a darker issue, or just ill temper at having to come to work.