Neuroscience says psychopaths are everywhere, and you could be one too
Psychopaths are everywhere. The thing is, there are varying degrees of psychopathy, and people with these neurological traits make up a sizable portion of the population. While we might not hold these traits to the same extent as some of the worst villains in history, we do possess them. So what exactly are these traits, and how do they manifest in the more normal people like you and me? Can you be a psychopath without the inclination to kill and/or eat people? Well, to find out you’ll just have to read on…
1. Sociopathy or psychopathy?
Before we embark on this journey down the dark, we need to make some distinctions. And these aren’t just any distinctions — they’re very important differences. One of the most key is the distinction between sociopathy and psychopathy. Generally, sociopathy is something learned, while psychopathy is something innate. This holds for most cases of each.
When you hear about the tragedies and other trauma that certain criminals have experienced in their past, you can assume sociopathy — not psychopathy. Psychopaths, on the other hand, often times come from normal backgrounds. Their parents are often normal folks with normal lives who treat their children normally. Still, their children develop psychopathic tendencies.
2. To be a psychopath
Psychopathy is a disposition that begins to show at an early age. Oftentimes, the telltale signs are that the youth shows a disregard for the feelings of others. Sometimes they’ll also show a proclivity to mistreat or abuse small animals. These morbid and unfavorable traits hint at something gone awry in the development of the brain.
Later traits of the psychopath are what you would expect: problems in school, problems with drug abuse, repeated trips to juvenile detention centers. While not everybody who undergoes such delinquency is a psychopath, these traits are definitely a hint. And if you’re trying to avoid the psychopath’s lure, these traits are a clear sign to stay away.
One of the stronger idiosyncrasies of the psychopath is a lack of empathy, that thing that enables us to feel what another is feeling. This manifests as an inability — at least in some capacity — to understand the plight, delight, or fright of another individual. But it’s not just an understanding that they lack — it’s a literal inability to feel what other people feel.
This difference between understanding and feeling is what releases psychopaths from the shackles of normalcy. Whereas you or I might feel inclined to be nice because someone else’s pain might literally bum us out, a psychopath will hold no such qualm. This unsavory disposition, while existing in a variety of flavors, is one of the cornerstones to a psychopath’s psyche.
4. Cognitive empathy
While psychopaths might not have the empathy that makes them feel what another feels, they do have a different type of empathy — cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what another is feeling without the underlying emotional baggage. You can see that another is sad, for instance, without feeling the actual sadness.
This ability is what affords the psychopath their ability to manipulate people to their whim. Since they understand how they’re feeling but are not befallen to their actual emotional state, they can press the person’s buttons such that they will bend to their will. This disturbing combination of empathies makes the psychopath an especially terrifying foe.
5. Normal empathy
Empathy is one of those traits that exists on a continuum. You could have a lot, a little, or anything in-between. And this empathy, in turn, is created by certain parts of the brain. When these parts are damaged (as they commonly are in psychopaths), these terrible dispositions can emerge.
The typical experiment psychologists and the like use to assess you and your brain’s ability to empathize involves the fMRI. What they usually do is situate you in the machine and then expose you to scenes of other people’s pain and anguish. The normal brain will show activity in areas associated with self-pain (places like the amygdala and anterior insula). The psychopathic brain will not.
6. The Hare checklist
The Hare checklist was one of the earliest ways in which psychologists tried to objectively measure psychopathy. The list was formulated by Robert Hare in the early 1990s. It consisted of 20 questions, each of which aimed to capture a different dimension of the psychopathic mind. In aggregate, it would show where different people landed on the psychopathic scale.
The Hare checklist (albeit with some slight modifications) has become a standard within the world of psychology. And since these initial beginnings it has been appropriated by police forces and worried employers everywhere to ensure the hire of non-psychopathic people. But not all employers use the test. So, if you’re worried, here are a few of the traits to look out for…
7. Traits of a psychopath
Hare’s questionnaire was structured such to capture the traits common to most the psychopath. Some of the more common of these traits are criminal versatility, promiscuity, impulsivity, a proneness to boredom, and an inability to accept responsibility for one’s actions. These traits are often found in the psychopathic mind, and so they are what Hare used to formulate his last.
The more of these traits you have, the higher you rate on the psychopathy scale. A max score is 40, while a low score is something like 20. To be a psychopath, you need a score of around 30. So let’s take a deeper look at some of these traits and how they reveal the subtleties of the psychopathic mind.
8. Criminal versatility
Criminal versatility is one trait common trait to the psychopath. The reasoning goes like this: psychopaths have a total disregard for the rules of society. They don’t, in other words, feel the rules apply to them. This perceived exceptionalism (what we can term psychopathic exceptionalism) pushes them to commit all sorts of weird crimes—from the innocuous to the horrifying.
What criminal diversity shows is a total disregard for the norms and conventions of society. To get what they want, then, they’ll break any rule that gets in their way. While other criminals might commit their deeds out of a felt necessity (and therefore avoid certain crimes because of a moral stance), a psychopath will have no such quarrel.
9. Superficial charm
Superficial charm is another of those more common psychopathic traits. What it shows is the psychopath’s cognitive empathy and ruthless desire to pursue their own desires and goals. Ted Bundy had this characteristic, as did John Wayne Gacy Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, and all the other terrible psychopaths of this past century.
So while you and I might have actual charm (or maybe the complete absence of it), psychopaths will have a ton. Often, however, this charm is merely a superficial tactic employed to help the psychopath get what they want. So while we might try to be charming to win the heart of someone we like, we don’t often do it for selfish purposes.
10. Failure to accept responsibility
Another terrible trait of the psychopath is a complete inability to accept responsibility for one’s actions. Often times, this will manifest as an extremely circuitous set of reasons employed to try and escape blame. The psychopath, because of their unabashed grandiosity, feels they deserve everything. Their actions, then, don’t merit the same consequences as ours.
This frustrating and disturbing trait shows something deeply troubling about the psychopathic mind — an inability to even understand how what they did was wrong. Normal people, when confronted with something bad they’ve done, will often concede and acquiesce to the consequences. This isn’t so with the psychopath. This trait aligns with another of the psychopathic brain: grandiose sense of self.
Most psychopaths tend to have a highly exaggerated sense of self-worth. This manifests in other traits like superficial charm and a failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions. Ultimately, what it means is that the psychopath thinks everything exists for them. In some sense, they are a solipsist, pathologically conforming the world to their whimsy.
This grandiosity is a part of the reason psychopaths have few brakes when it comes to things that get in the way of what they want. Because the world is theirs and rules of acceptable behavior do not apply to them, they feel they have free reign to do what they please. And, as we have all seen, this feeling can have drastic consequences.
12. Psychopath hangout spots
Disconcertingly, the traits of the psychopath tend to lend themselves favorably to some disciplines over others. You’re more likely to find a psychopath in public office, for instance, than in a garden shop. This is one reason you tend to find high rates of psychopathy among presidents and CEOs. These are disciplines that might favor the psychopathic attitude.
If you can set up a business next to another with the sole intent of shutting that competing business down, higher ups might feel inclined to keep you in power. And this is why the number of psychopaths in CEO positions is four times higher than in the general population.
13. Psychopaths in the workplace
The percentage of psychopaths in CEO positions around the world is around four percent. This is four times as many as you will find in the general population. What this suggests is that the business world might be especially keen on the psychopath lifestyle. If we get made at the psychopathic tendencies of the business world, then, it might be due to actual psychopaths.
It makes sense when you think about: if you need to downsize a part of your business or have to navigate some shady business practices, some psychopathy would definitely help. This is likely why there is such a high — albeit still low — percentage of psychopaths in the business world.
14. Experimental evidence
Many experiments (other than the one mentioned earlier) have been utilized in an attempt to capture the exact nature of psychopathy in the brain. In one experiment, for instance, prisoners—a population with an understandably high rate of psychopathy — were put into an fMRI machine and made to watch videos of other people getting their hand slammed in doors.
The normal response toward such terror is to flinch, recoil, and literally feel some version of that person’s pain. And the more highly these prisoners ranked on the psychopathy scale, the less they felt these normal feelings. This is in part responsible for their ability to callously treat other people.
15. Empathy control
Another odd finding about psychopaths is that they don’t necessarily lack the ability to feel another’s emotions, but instead they’re able to switch this ability on and off. It’s like a terribly indifferent mental light switch. What this means is the psychopath can turn on their empathy when they feel the need, and leave it silent when they don’t.
Scientists discovered this ability through a modification to the previous experiment. In essence, all they did was ask the psychopaths to empathize with the person as if they were themselves. When asked to do such empathizing, they showed the same type of cerebral activity as the normal participants. Psychopaths, then, have a sadistic sort of quasi-empathy.
16. The psychopath test
Now, to get a grip on how psychopathy might manifest in people like you and me, we’ll look to the actual psychopathy test. And here, we’ll see just what traits the psychopaths exhibit, and to what degree they show in us. Some of these traits — perhaps regrettably — show themselves in shades, guiding our behavior in subtle psychopathic ways.
What follows here is the bulk of the test with an explanation of how the statement in question relates to psychopathy. So even if you don’t have the temerity to approach the full examination, this summation should give you a rough estimate of how you rank on the psychopathy scale.
17. I never get tongue-tied
The first of our questions approaches the arrogance of the psychopath. But, in case you didn’t notice, the question is asked in statement form. What this normally entails is that the person answering the question answers in a scale-type fashion. So, for this statement, you’d be asked, say, to rate how well it describes you on a scale from one to four.
The purpose of this specific question is grandiosity. How grandiose is the psychopath? Quite grandiose indeed. They will not, for instance, think that they often find themselves tongue-tied. They are smooth talkers — and this is in part what they’re known for. The more psychopathic, then, the less likely you are to think you get tongue-tied.
18. In important ways, I am superior to most people
This question is similar to the first: you possess a staggering amount of grandiosity — and it shows. Most of us, however, don’t feel this way too strongly. We feel flawed (at least sometimes) in minor ways, and this forces us to creep in a bit of modesty. The psychopath has no such reservations.
The psychopath, then, will feel strongly that they are exceptional, important, and far superior to the normal plebs like you and I. And this will manifest in their response to this question. The next question, however, is a little more subtle and slightly more odd to explain. It has to due with boredom.
19. I am prone to boredom
Another feature of psychopathy is a proneness to boredom. But it’s not just a normal boredom — it’s something pathological. A psychopath, in other words, needs a near constant stream of entertainment. These people tend to be under-stimulated, and look for said stimulation in all the wrong places. When you pair boredom with an inability to empathize, the results aren’t favorable.
This is when you get people like Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman killing homeless people for the sheer thrill of it (to use one such fictional example). While it’s fair to say that most psychopaths don’t go out and kill people just for fun, some do. In fact, the majority of crime is committed by a small number of psychopaths.
20. I lie to make things go smoother
In line with their almost complete disregard for other people and their feelings, the psychopath will also lie about everything — from the trivial to the consequential. Want to get out of something at work? Lie. Want to evade a family member’s wedding? Lie. Each little lie is constructed such that the psychopath can get what they want.
You probably don’t rank too highly on this trait. Most of us feel like telling the truth in most situations is better than the opposite. So while maybe we’ll assuage the truth on occasion, we will not do so with the same generous capacity as the psychopath. Our ranking with this question, then, will probably be less than that of the psychopath.
21. I cheat people out of things
Cheaters never prosper. Well, in the case of psychopaths they do — at least sometimes. But most of us don’t like to cheat. It’s like lying: the more we do it, the more we feel all sticky and nasty inside. Instead, we like to live our lives justly, treating people fairly and without deceit.
Psychopaths do the opposite. Since they don’t care about what happens to others, they have no quarrel cheating people out of money, property, savings, and virtually anything else they could want. Most people like you and me, on the other hand, are held back by that nagging feeling called empathy.
22. I rarely feel guilty
Guilt is another feature that distinguishes the psychopath from the regular person. And, whether we like it or not, it’s a feature of everyday life — if you’re not a psychopath, that is. For the psychopath, guilt isn’t really possible. And if they do appear to feel guilt, that’s exactly what it is — an appearance. Crocodile tears and white lies, as the saying goes.
Okay, that’s not a saying. But most of us will feel guilty if we do something wrong, or if we think somebody even perceived us as doing something wrong. A psychopath will have no such feeling. When you accidentally cut someone off in traffic, then, and get a tinge of that sour guilty feeling, you can rest assured you’re not a psychopath.
23. I am an emotional person
It shouldn’t be difficult to see how this statement approaches the psychopath question. The more emotional a person you are, the less likely you are to be psychopathic. Psychopaths don’t experience emotions in the same way others do. And if they do experience emotions, they’re not the same ones you and I feel.
So while a psychopath may feel attachment to their families, material possessions, and other accoutrements, they don’t cry at sentimental romcoms or particularly gripping episodes of The Bachelor. Or, if they do, it’s likely only to appear that they’re emotional. You have to remember, in other words, that most things a psychopath does are calculated and calibrated to reach a certain aim.
24. I rarely connect emotionally with others
Each of us probably has a decent number of emotional connections with other people. We have friends, family, enemies, roommates, neighbors. Each of which we have — in some capacity — an emotional connection with. They could, in other words, induce either pain or pleasure, animosity or ease. These are emotional connections with others.
While a psychopath might not be entirely bereft of these, they will experience them in a different way. They won’t feel attached to these people in a reciprocal way. Instead, they’ll feel connected in a way that’s unilateral. It’s more what they can get out of you than what you guys can get out of each other.
25. I often get others to pay for things for me
While many of us enjoy getting others to buy us things, not all of us do so with the same capacity as psychopaths. A psychopath will encourage — nay, manipulate — those they mingle with to front the bill for everything. From meals to deals on wheels, then, the psychopath will tend to elude the check, whether their meal was more costly or not.
So if you get people to pay for some things — a date, say — you’re probably not a psychopath. But if you get others to pay for things at nearly every opportunity, you are likely closer to the psychopathy end of the spectrum than not. If you feel you’re in danger of this trap, then, it might be wise to treat some of your friends to lunch.
26. I am impatient
Yes, we can all lose our patience. But not all of us lose it — or, rather, never had it — like the psychopath. Psychopaths suffer the unfortunate disposition of being pathologically impatient. What’s worse is that this gets combined with the terrible inability not to empathize of feel for other people.
This impatience drives them to try and get what they want and get it immediately. Whereas you or I might deal with our patience in a more productive way, breathing and living with the mild discomfort, the psychopath will have no such luck. They will be compelled to seek out their immediate goals with as quick a resolve as a terrible, psychotic jet plane.
27. I am promiscuous
All of us are promiscuous to some degree or another, but psychopaths are promiscuous to the nth degree — i.e., they have lots of sexual encounters. This promiscuity, however, is not thought to be the result of failed romances or successive late-night hookups. Instead, it’s thought to come from a sort of power dynamic between the psychopath and the person with whom they are sleeping.
Power, then, is the currency of the psychopath. Power is what enables them to manipulate, cajole, and dragoon people into doing what they want. And once you get people to start doing what you want, you can get them to buy you pretty things, do your homework for you, and any other sort of thing you want.
28. I was a problem child
While some of us might of had problems in school or with our parents, our troubles likely pale in comparison to the psychopath. Everything from torturing small animals to spending time in juvenile detention centers, the psychopath will game, set, and match our troubles with far greater troubles of their own. More than that — the types of trouble they experience are far more egregious.
For the average psychopath, “problem child” might be a misnomer. You have to take this little bit of info along with the many others we have since gone through. With all these details working in concert, you can get a more coherent view of psychopathy and those it effects.
29. I try to evade responsibility
When most of us get into some sort of trouble, whether it be with the law or another person, we take responsibility for our actions. While this can vary — we don’t always take as much as we should, say — we most often concede. We understand, in other words, that we may have been in the wrong, admit it, and move on with our lives.
Psychopaths show no such disposition. Instead, they eschew responsibility, twisting reasons to justify their behavior. This is likely a consequence of their inability to see how normal social rules apply to them. If they had this understanding, they would see how they offended another and did something wrong.
30. The psychopath in all of us
Each of us bring some measure of these traits to the table in our daily lives. And while we may not be the most psychopathic, many of us will empathize with some of their traits — that is, of course, unless you’re a true psychopath. But if you’re going to take away anything from this piece, let it be that you’re likely less psychopathic than you thought….we hope.
If you felt that while reading this you empathized with many of the statements, you might want to consider getting an actual evaluation. However, if you do think you’re a psychopath, are you really likely to do this? Probably not. A better strategy, then, is to get someone you suspect is psychopathic to take it, tally up their responses, then cut ties with them if they’re too far gone.