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Psychopathic Personality


Explanations > Personality > Personality Disorders > Psychopathic Personality

Description | Discussion | See also



The psychopathic personality is a particularly antisocial and predatory one. Characteristics include:

  • A high need for control.
  • Arrogant and confident sense of superiority and entitlement.
  • Easily bored, seeking stimulation and lacking fear.
  • No loyalty, empathy or concern for other people.
  • Callous use of lies, manipulation and other abuse.
  • No conscience, lacking guilt or remorse for anything they do, no matter how bad.
  • Cunning image management and shifting of blame.

Intelligent psychopaths use this in their manipulation of others. They typically at first appear charismatic and empathetic, although it is really just an act. In practice they are emotionally shallow and are far less sensitive than others to signs of fear, distress or disgust (and may feel nothing at all around this).

Although they are often manipulative, they can also be impulsive and lacking in self-control. As children, they may have been classed as delinquent and shown significant signs of bed-wetting, animal abuse or fire-starting.

Psychopathy expert Robert Hare, defines psychopaths as:

…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.


Psychopaths are probably the scariest people on the planet, partly because they are often good at appearing normal and also because they seem to take pleasure in the discomfort of others. As they see others as 'things' and do not feel empathy, this pleasure is based on achieving control rather than an emotion-inverting masochism. Having said this (Meffert et al., 2013) used fMRI studies that showed psychopaths as being able to empathize, but having a conscious 'switch' whereby they can turn empathy off at will, hence allowing them to act in unethical ways.

Whilst they do not empathize like most of us, feeling what others feel, they are typically good at reading non-verbal signals and so appearing to be empathetic. This is sometimes called 'cold empathy'. Being low in empathy does not make a person psychopathic, but it is a defining characteristic of psychopaths.

Because they do not care what others think, they are seldom anxious. In consequence they seem confident and relaxed, which many of us would like to feel, and so we tend to like that person who appears as we wish to be, especially when they are acting in a friendly way (although their intent is likely far from this).

The psychopathic personality is closely related to the antisocial personality but is less emotional and so more controlled and controlling. They are also similar to narcissists in the way that they will manipulate people, although narcissists seek admiration whilst psychopaths seek only control. Deep inside, narcissists may well actually hate themselves, which is why they seek praise. Psychopaths are completely convinced they are superior. The portrayal of unfeeling robotic aliens in science fiction may well be based on the psychopathic personality.

As with other disorders, symptoms may appear with varying degree, though diagnosis is difficult and to be classified as a psychopath the scoring has to be high. At the extreme can be found cruel and cold killers, although (unlike many TV portrayals) few of these are sexually oriented.

It has been estimated that around 1% of the male population is psychopathic (there are far fewer female psychopaths). Around 15-25% of people in prison in North America are considered psychopathic. If a psychopath ends up in prison, they will continue manipulation of everyone around them, including any poor psychologists who seek cures in vain. Psychopathic prisoners have a far higher chance of being released early. In fact therapy just gives them more tools with which to control others (including the therapist). The problem is so severe, psychopathy is generally considered as untreatable.

Psychopaths often do well in aggressive businesses where they thrive in the cut-and-thrust of company politics. To implement their schemes, they are often very clever. At first they may seem ideal go-getting, dynamic employees. But they leave behind them a trail of shattered and disillusioned people. It has been estimated that around 25% of bullying is due to the 1% of people in companies who are psychopathic.

In the workplace they seek to develop a network of independent relationships with useful people, such as those with key information and those in power. They try to keep these relationships apart so when they betray or drop individuals the other relationships can be sustained. To sustain these multiple facades they often avoid meetings and create conflicts between people to stop them sharing information. When they close relationships they will neutralize anybody who tries to expose them, including using other relationships to get the person sacked.

Psychopaths who are successful in life are different from the less successful once in a single personality dimension: conscientiousness (which is also strongly related to self-control). Their ability to control themselves enables them to avoid impulsive acts (which are common in other psychopaths) which would give them away, hence allowing them to continue their manipulations with subtle care. 'Success' for psychopaths often means power and control (which means not being caught). Even if they are successful in these ways, they may suffer in other ways, in particular having poor long-term and trusting relationships.

Many confidence tricksters are psychopathic. The lack of concern for others and desire for control makes this an ideal career path. Individually they will befriend and then fleece vulnerable others. In business, they will work they way up and may even defraud the company of millions before disappearing into another alias.

See also

Antisocial Personality, Narcissistic Personality


Babiak, P. (1995). When Psychopaths go to Work: A Case Study of an Industrial Psychopath, Applied Psychology, 44, 2, 171-188

Babiak, P. and Hare, R.D. (2006). Snakes in Suits When Psychopaths Go To Work, HarperCollins, New York

Cleckly, H. C. (1941). The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. St. Louis, MO: Mosby

Hare, R.D. (1999). Without Conscience, The Guilford Press

Mullins-Sweatt et al. (2010).The Search for the Successful Psychopath, Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 4, 554-558.

Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., den Boer, J.A., Bartels, A.A.J. and Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy, Brain, 136, 8, 2550-2562


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