One thing that many people want to know is how easy it is to spot a psychopath? Is it possible for instance to spot them almost as soon as you meet them? This would certainly save a lot of trouble for those that end up getting tangled up in work or personal relationships with them, but is it possible?
The reality is that in most cases it is very difficult or impossible to spot a psychopath when you first meet them. Most of them are very adept and clever at concealing their true nature and can even come across as the most charming and likeable people at first. They are also inherently manipulative and deceptive and therefore even vastly experienced researchers and profilers can still struggle to spot them at first.
It is therefore only over time that we begin to spot a psychopath, since it is impossible for them to keep up the act or pretense they are putting on all the time. Every now and then it will drop and you well see them do or say things which are at odds with the person they have been presenting themselves to you as.
For sure, some psychopaths have a better developed mask or facade than others. There are some who will immediately come across as “not right” and have a strange aura or feel to them that immediately puts you on edge.
They may talk or act in strange ways and straight away come across as “weird”. See our review of the Aidan Gillen character in Blitz for a good example of this in a film.
These are often the more unhinged, violent types of psychopath, and are the easier ones to spot. This is more rare though and most of them learn, to a greater or lesser extent, that they must present a persona of being a normal person to the world.
Many of them also learn that violent behaviour is not accepted by society and so move their destructiveness underground to more psychological manipulation and abuse of others. This takes longer to spot and diagnose.
Spotting a psychopath involves looking out carefully for signs of this mask slipping and glimpses of their true toxic nature leaking out. You are looking for contradictions between their professed persona or image and their actual behaviour as you see more of them over time.
It also involves looking for certain consistent character traits, or conversely the lack of certain other traits, as there are aspects to a psychopath’s moral character which will always give them away over time, no matter how much initial charm and charisma they are able to bombard people with to conceal their true nature. Let’s look at the issue in more detail below.
Spotting a Psychopath – When The Mask Drops
Psychopaths & The Mask of Sanity
Psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley wrote a superb book called The Mask of Sanity, which is available here online. In it he describes this mask or facade that all psychopaths must put up to conceal the completely toxic, disordered psyche which is actually lying underneath. Click here for our full article on psychopaths and the mask of sanity.
Basically, psychopaths need to put a lot of marsipan on top of their underlying character and mindset to throw others off the scent and conceal who they truly are.
Most of them realize in some sense that they are not normal people but need to try and come across as normal as best they can. They need to project out the image that they are a normal person just like you.
Some are better at putting on this act than others. The more clever and cunning psychopaths can actually come across as very charming, funny, witty, entertaining, the life and soul of the party. They can appear to be the perfect friend or partner when you first meet them, seemingly able to walk and talk in step with you and mirroring your every word and move.
See Jackson Mackenzie’s Psychopath Free online for a detailed description of this manufactured soulmate that more intelligent psychopaths are able to create for their victims, as well as the familiar idealize-devalue-discard routine they tend to go through in all their relationships with others.
All of us have a persona or act we sometimes put on for others in our work or personal lives, and there is nothing necessaily wrong with this. We sometimes have to perform for others and we would not want to open ourselves up to people we don’t know or trust. Most people however are also able to let their guard down and reveal who they really are to the people close to them who they do know and trust.
A psychopath cannot do this because to reveal who they truly are would reveal a completely toxic, immoral person incapable of empathy or true emotional connection with others. They must keep the act up 24 hours and day, 7 days a week.
It is when we realize this that we see the frightful, exhausting existence the psychopath leads, having to keep up this pretense or mask of sanity to every single person they deal with in their lives.
This act takes so much energy and effort on the part of the psychopath that every now and then it drops, and there are glimmers of their real personality that leak out despite their best efforts to keep them concealed. It is these signs over time that you are looking for to spot psychopaths in your life. You will likely not spot them when you first meet them because they are very good at acting and hiding.
Psychopaths and sociopaths must constant present a face of normalcy or a mask of sanity to the world to conceal who they truly are from others
Even The Experts Find it Difficult To Spot Psychopaths
You may be surprised to discover that even the experts who have spent their entire careers studying, interviewing and profiling psychopaths still struggle to spot them at first. Even the world’s most renowned expert on psychopathy, Dr Robert Hare, admitted this, see the video and quote just below:
Dr Robert Hare on Spotting Psychopaths
“People might assume that because I’ve been working on this concept of psychopathy for so long, that I can spot them from 100 paces and the answer is that I can’t. I’m no better at it than most other people. You cannot determine to what extent someone might be psychopathic simply by looking at them, even talking with this person for 5, 10 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it may take 6 months or a year. The problem……. is that we continue to evaluate people the way they appear to us”
Dr Robert Hare
This is precisely because so many of them have expertly crafted this mask or persona to come across as a normal person to others and this mask can be very difficult to see past on first impressions.
It takes longer for the inconsistencies to emerge and this is why all experts on the subject, whether lay people or academics, will likely agree that psychopaths can only be properly identified and diagnosed over time and not on a whim.
How To Spot a Psychopath Over Time
Given this is generally the case then with psychopaths, then what things should we be watching out for? We have put together a list below of some key things to watch out for; the list is not exhaustive and be sure to check out out Resources page for more videos and books which are full of additional advice on spotting psychopaths over time.
Here are some of the characteristics we consider most important (links lead to other articles we have written breaking down each trait in more detail):
- A glib superficiality or charm that can easily take people in. An ability to “chit the chat” and say the right things at the right time.
- A self centred, arrogant, entitled and egotistical personality will reveal itself over time despite the initial barrage of charm they may have put up to take you in with. You’ll often see signs of poor treatment of others first even if they’re still keeping up the charm with you.
- A lack of care or emotion for the suffering of others and the world. Despite a superificial air of charm and perhaps an occasional feigning of sympathy or compassion you will see they don’t give a damn about others. A lack of heart or conscience is an important trait to watch out for.
- A lack of remorse or ability to empathize. Unable to put themselves in the emotional shoes of another or feel sorry for their actions.
- A manipulative and deceitful personality. This can often start to reveal itself when you start noticing after a while that things they have been telling you don’t add up, especially things from their past. Watch out for red flags and signs of increasing dishonesty over time.
- In work settings their manipulative personality can become apparent when people cross reference and realize they have been played off against each other by the psychopath lying, smearing and spreading malicious gossip to set workers against one another.
- Patterns of emotional abuse start to become apparent, the most major one being “gas-lighting”, where they start to claim things were said or done when they weren’t or vice versa. You start to question your own sanity and think you might be losing it.
- Over time you will see an inconsistency between their projected image or mask they have presented to you and their moral behaviour. You will see them do or say things which are at odds with this image. Stefan Verstappen gives the example of the psychopath who professes to love animals, who you then see kicking the cat one day. When you confront them the mask will come right back up with excuses and rationalizations, but look for these contradictions happening with more frequency.
- Also pay attention to your own internal life if you are a close relationship with someone you suspect. Have you lost a centredness or groundedness you used to have since a person entered your life? Has your self esteem gone down? Are you second guessing yourself in a way you never used to? These are all signs to watch out for and act on.
- See also the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) and our own Checklist page for more psychopathic characteristics and traits to watch out for.
Again it is important not to rush to hasty diagnoses on this since people can display one or more of these traits and NOT be a psychopath. Rather you are looking for multiple markers and signs of psychopathy displayed in a person repeatedly and consistently over time before you make a diagnosis.
Psychopaths should be identified through observing a consistent pattern of certain character and behaviour traits over an extended period of time.
What To Do If You Identify a Psychopath In Your Life
Once you have taken the time to spot for red flags and have seen enough of them to be confident that you are dealing with a psychopath, the question then becomes what to do about it. Do you confront or expose them or get away from them?
The standard advice most lay experts give on this question is to escape and evade psychopaths and get away from them as quickly as possible.
This means ending a relationship if you in one or finding a new job or department if it is in a work setting. Confronting and exposing them as a psychopath is almost universally not recommended by experts on the topic.
The reason for this is simply that psychopaths by their very nature have a ruthlessness and immorality which makes them very hard to go up against. They have no conscience, morals or remorse and so they will go to lengths normal people will not to “win” any battle you may choose to enter into with them.
This means that in most cases it simply isn’t worth it going up against them. Psychopaths are very adept at manipulating and can turn others against you in a work setting. Sadly many people are easily influenced and will go along with this game which makes it even harder to successfully confront them. See our articles on psychopaths and the crowd and the sociopath-empath-apath triad.
In a personal relationship and work setting it means detaching yourself from them as quickly and quietly as possible. Some psychopaths are cleverer than others and can sense when the game is up and someone is onto them.
Some may leave of their own accord; others may step up their emotional abuse tactics to try and further traumatize their victim. Either way it is best to be discreet about it and once free of them break off all contact permanently with no exceptions.
When children and financial committments are involved then the situation can be more difficult. In these cases it is about developing support systems and coming up with a strategy to gradually “unhook” from the psychopath’s control, limit any contact required to a bare minimum and set firm boundaries on how, where and when this contact occurs.
See our Resources page for links to books and videos which contain excellent strategies for spotting and escaping from psychopaths.