This is an interesting question. Psychopaths are often seen of as violent criminals, and some of them are, but are they actually smart or intelligent? Can they be considered clever people who are well educated and have high IQs, or do they tend to be lower IQ people?
The answer varies between different psychopaths and depends on how intelligence or “smartness” is measured – formally or in a more informal sense.
However, here is a summary answer:
Incarcerated criminal psychopaths can have lower than average IQ, but corporate psychopaths often have higher than average IQs. Many psychopaths also lie somewhere in the middle. However, all psychopaths are instinctively “smart” in terms of their ability to manipulate and deceive others, regardless of their formal IQ score.
In this sense, psychopaths are almost always smart in the psychological sense that they can instinctively sense other people’s strengths, weaknesses etc very quickly after first meeting them, and store this information away for use later on if necessary.
As with so many things, there isn’t a straightforward yes/no answer the the question of whether psychopaths are smart, since their outer facing persona will differ in every case, but on closer inspection, the psychopathic personality does display some consistent traits which eventually give them away over time.
As we hinted at above, it also depends on what exactly we mean by “smart”. In intellectual, academic intelligence, it is fair to say that many psychopaths are not very “smart”. However, almost all psychopaths are supremely “smart” in a streetwise sense of being able to read other people and manipulate them to their own ends.
This is why it is so often the case that psychopaths are not “found out” right away, but are only exposed over time in any setting, as their lies and deception become more apparent as people start collating and cross referencing, and start to see the lies the psychopath has told which begin to contradict each other.
In this sense, psychopath can be brilliant at “hiding in plain sight“, presenting a very charming persona that only unravels over time as more observant people start to see that this person is not all they seem.
Let’s look at the question of psychopaths and “smartness” in more detail, examining the different ways we can measure intelligence and cunning, and seeing how they can be clever and not clever at the same time, depending on the context.
Some Studies on Psychopaths & Intelligence
There are some studies which have examined the intelligence level of psychopaths, but there results have been pretty unremarkable, and don’t really tease out the nuances of the issue of intelligence.
See for example a 2013 study from O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, & Story, which examined the correlation between dark traid traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism) and intelligence, and found no correlation between the two.
In other words, they found no evidence that either highly intelligent people display more of these traits, or that lower intelligence people display more of these traits in an effort to “get ahead” and compensate for their intellectual deficiences.
Another 2013 study by Edens, Clark, Smith, Cox, & Kelley created a mock jury and correlated their prevalence of psychopathic traits with a number of factors, including intelligence. A weak correlation was found between certain psychopathic traits and intelligence, but not really enough to draw a definitive conclusion from. Also, this study only tangientially studied intelligence as one of several factors, and wasn’t really honed in on this specific issue.
So the formal research literature on this is quite weak and non specific. It is better perhaps to turn to the differing experiences of people who have made the study of psychopaths and psychopathy a major part of their careers over a much longer period of time, as opposed to isolated studies.
Low vs High IQ Psychopaths
The interesting thing here is that you will find that accounts differ between experts on psychopaths as to their intelligence, and it depends greatly on the context in which psychopaths are found how “intelligent” they are in the formal sense.
In this particular subset of psychopaths, you will find accounts of criminal psychopaths doing things which are pretty “dumb” and unintelligent. This is often how these people got caught in the first place.
They’ll often attack people in broad daylight or commit other impulsive, “in the moment” crimes in way that will always lead back to them, because they did not apply any sort of intelligence to cover their tracks, or did not even think about what they were doing before they did it.
Here we are dealing with the more low end, unsophisticated, low IQ type of psychopath, often very impulsive in their behavior. These psychopaths often have low impulse control and will just do things “off the cuff” without thinking of consequences, in a way that is not particularly smart or rational.
These psychopaths cannot really be considered “smart”, otherwise they wouldn’t be in prison in the first place! More generally, the internet is replete with accounts of criminals who did pretty dumb things which led to them being caught.
However, if you look in a totally different context of the corporate world, you will find a different type of psychopath who is far more controlled and “intelligent” in the formal sense, yet still possesses the same underlying traits as any other psychopaths in terms of a tendency towards the manipulation and exploitation of others for their own ends.
Here you will find psychopaths that are very well educated and “smart” in the formal sense of the world, with higher than average IQs.
See the video from psychologist Paul Babiak, where he discusses the above average intelligence he has found in the corporate/industrial psychopaths he has encountered over his career.
“Every psychopath that I’ve met has had a college degree and a couple have had PhDs, so there’s greater education, an ability to look corporate, to look like a business person, as opposed to what one thinks of as a serial killer.
And.. a psychopath can put on the costume, talk the language, and have the certificate on the wall, and easily convince someone who owns an organization or is hiring for an organization that they are the perfect employee”
Paul Babiak – see here
So we see that another expert who works with psychopaths in a totally different environment finds that high IQs are the norm for psychopaths in this context. Here you see the more “refined” and controlled psychopath, who has learned to curb their aggressive instincts and instead meets their needs more through conning and manipulation than impulsive violence.
The main takeaway from these two comparisons is there simply isn’t a “one size fits all” answer regarding the intelligence of psychopaths, since they exist in all sectors of society and all walks of life, and can have both low and high IQs depending on their background and environment.
Psychopaths and Psychological Intelligence
Having said all the above about IQ intelligence, that does not mean that the everyday psychopaths one will deal with in the workplace or in personal relationships is somehow “dumb” in every sense of the word. They are most definitely not.
IQ is only one measure of intelligence, and low IQ people can still do very well for themselves in the world by learning to deceive and manipulate others.
Psychopaths are supremely intelligent at psychologically manipulating others, spotting their strengths, weaknesses, vanities and so on and playing on these aspects of a person’s ego for their own ends.
They seem instinctively able to do this, even within the first several minutes of meeting someone. They are able to hone in on what makes a person “tick” psychologically with a precision that many people with a much higher IQ would not be able to do.
It’s like their psychological radar in instinctively “tuned” to scan new people they meet for weaknesses and opportunities to manipulate, and store this information away for later use.
This relates to the power-fixated nature of the psychopathic personality, where they are constantly viewing life and interactions as a power struggle, where they need to “gain the upper hand” right away when meeting someone, out of fear that they themselves will be dominated and controlled if they don’t dominate and control others.
They are very paranoid, fear ridden and suspicious characters. In many cases, this probably comes from cruel, invalidating upbringing where they themselves we forced to submit, and from that point on see life as a power game where they must be in control of others psychologically to avoid being forced to submit themselves.
I have seen this myself. They are very clever at manipulating and influencing others, and co-opting them into political and other games for their own ends. They can launch smear campaigns and set up situations weeks or months in advance that are very intricate and calculating in the way they play out.
Psychopaths Have A Calculating Mindset
Therefore, rather than think only in terms of intelligence in the formal sense of IQ, it is best to think of psychopaths as instinctively manipulative and calculating individuals whose entire psychological mindset is tuned towards the manipulation, control and dominance of others, regardless of their formal education or “intelligence”.
In this sense, all psychopaths are “smart” in the sense that they are very calculating in the way they interact with others, constantly scanning for weaknesses and opportunities to exploit and deceive.
They are often able to plan several steps ahead and anticipate people’s reactions and counter reactions, and this is why they often get away with scams and cons in the outside world for so long before being detected.
Although many psychopaths do eventually get “found out”, they can go on for a long time deceiving others before this happens, because of their instinctive ability to create the perfect “persona” or image for each individual person they need to manipulate in each moment.
Perhaps the most nuanced summary of this can be offered by Richard Grannon, an expert in Cluster B disorders including psychopathy, who offered this overview of how psychopaths/narcissists can be very “smart” even with low IQ:
These are not stupid people; these are propoganda masters. These are psychological operations masters.
Even if they are not very bright, even if they have a very low IQ, they know very well at an instinctual level how to promote a certain image, and how to manage that image”
Richard Grannon, Spartan Life Coach – see here.