Much has been written about the many toxic and abnormal character traits of psychopaths, but where do they stand in terms of multiple personalities? Do psychopaths have separate personalities or multiple identities which they switch between in different circumstances?
Pretty much by definition, almost all psychopaths have at least two personalities – their facade of normalcy or “mask of sanity” they present to the world, plus their underlying toxic psychopathic personality. They can appear to be charming, normal, and funny to the outside world, yet be doing horrendous things to others in private.
In this sense, psychopaths most definitely have multiple personalities, and couldn’t get away which what they do without having them. They need to project their psychological toxicity out onto the world as a form of release, yet they also need to conceal their wrongdoing and appear normal and harmless to others.
To effectively do this, they need to easily be able to switch between separate identities and appear as different people in different contexts. In some cases, psychopaths may have multiple sub-personalities, particularly if their own upbringing was characterized by severe and prolonged abuse, which it so often is if you dig deep enough into it.
Psychopaths realize they need to compartmentalize their identity into separate parts, keeping their evil, cruel sadistic personality closed off from their “normal” identity which faces out to the wider world.
Let’s look at a conceptual framework developed by psychopathy expert Hervey Cleckley that explains how and why this split comes about, as well as some examples of these multiple facets of personality manifesting in the real world.
Psychopaths & The Mask of Sanity
The famous twentieth century psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley studied psychopathic personalities extensively and came up with the term “mask of sanity” to describe the persona or “front act” most psychopaths learn they must present to the world to appear normal, when in fact they are anything but.
See our Books Section for a link to Cleckley’s classic “The Mask of Sanity” text. At some point most psychopaths realize they are different from others, but also realize the need to create a persona that appears normal to everyone else, so they can move forward in the world without being seen as abnormal.
This is where the start of the so called multiple personalities begins with the psychopaths. At the base with them, you do have a character which is a disordered, chaotic mess, but they cover this up with this mask, this facade of normalcy, to appear as though they think, feel and empathize as others do. This is their “normal” respectable identity they create.
Some psychopaths do this more convincingly than others. The most intelligent psychopaths are the Ted Bundys and Dennis Raders of the world; the ones who present a personality so charming and seemingly “put together” to the outside world that their friends and family think they are the last person who would even be involved in anything illegal or cruel towards others.
It is also true however that some psychopaths never really learn to create this mask, and can immediately come across to others as “unstable” or “not right”. These are the unhinged “weirdos” that normal people instinctively veer away from and sense something “off” with.
These psychopaths however are in the minority. Most of them do learn at some point that they need to have another personality which conceals their true personality and allows them to move forward in the world while seeming normal to others, in such a way that they will not be suspected of wrongdoing.
Some psychopaths are brilliant at this, being seen as perfectly clean, respectable, trustworthy people, sometimes pillars of their local community. Lets look at two more famous examples of exactly this pattern playing out.
Example Number 1 – Dennis Rader (BTK Killer)
“I can live a normal life and flip my switch from one year to the next. I guess that’s why I survived over those 30 or 31 years. Very compartmentalized. I can wear many hats. I can switch gears very rapidly”.
Dennis Rader – 2005 phone interview
Dennis Rader is the first example of this, an apparently devoted husband and father living in the old fashioned and traditional town of Wichita in Kansas, the so called “Buckle of the Bible Belt”.
Rader lived a life of seemingly total normalcy, going to university, spending 4 years in the air force, before settling down and marrying in Kansas, holding down well paid jobs and bringing up two children in relative comfort.
His own children testify there was no seeming outer signs of personality disorder – to them he seemed perfectly normal and rarely even lost his temper. He was well respected and trusted within his community.
However, from the 1970s onwards, Rader was living a horrific double life, stalking, torturing and murdering 10 people over 17 years, taunting police about his crimes. His first crime was perhaps his worst, killing a wife, husband and two of their children all at once in the same house, also torturing some of them in the process.
His public image was so at odds with this hidden side of him that again he avoided suspicion for so long, despite Wichita being terrified of having a serial killer in it’s midst in the 1970s and 80s.
After his capture, Rader himself described this as Cubing, which is an excellent analogy for multiple personalities. See this video for an account of this. At any one point, only one side of a cube faces you if you look head on, but you can easily rotate the cube and see another side.
Such was the same with Rader’s identity. The forward facing identity was mostly of a clean, well respected, family man. However, there were other sides to the metaphorical “cube” of his total identity, including his sadistic, psychopathic killer side, which he could switch between very fluidly.
This explains why so many of these killers like Rader like can commit vile and sadistic acts of murder, yet very quickly switch back to a totally normal “self”, returning home as normal and watching TV, talking with family, going to bed just minutes or hours after torturing and murdering others.
Moreover, Rader himself reports he wasn’t even aware of these other sides to him while they weren’t in use; he was consciously aware only of the personality facing out to the world at that moment. When he was a family man, he wasn’t aware of his killer side, and when he was a killer, he wasn’t aware of his family man persona.
This is common among more serious and sadistic offenders with multiple personalities. When confronted with some of their vile acts towards others, they can produce a denial so convincing that it seems they really mean it.
In some cases, they really do believe it in one sense, because to their forward facing “normal”, respectable identity at that time, it literally can’t be true. They cannot “see” their other evil identity at that point; metaphorically it is on another side of the cube that is shut off from their awareness at that point.
Certain triggers or actions on their part seem to flip a switch in their identity and allow them to move between these different sub-personalities – sometimes they are conscious of these triggers whilst other times they may not be.
Rader appears self aware enough to realize this multi-faceted aspect to his total identity to the extent he was able to come up with the Cubing metaphor, indicating that with him at least, there was an element of choice and free will with the way he switched between his normal personality and his sadistic, psychopathic one.
Dennis Rader’s own metaphor cubing is a good way of describing multiple personalities in psychopaths, with each side of cube representing a compartmentalized identity they flick between in public and private.
Dennis Rader Summary:
Public image – A respectable, well mannered family man, father and husband, head of his local church, ran Cub Scouts trip, went hunting and fishing with his daughter. No reports of toxic behavior towards his wife and children. Life for them seemed to go on as normal while he was doing his killings in private.
Private reality – A horrendous sadist and killer, torturing and killing 10 people and bragging about it to law enforcement. Spoke completely coldly and matter of factly about his crimes when testifying on trial – no remorse or guilt. Craved attention and notoriety. No empathy for the victims.
Example Number 2 – John Wayne Gacy
Another example of this multiple personality pattern is serial killer John Wayne Gacy – “A sadistic serial killer that fooled even his closest friends and neighbors” as the documentary above introduces him.
Much like Rader, he lived on outwardly respectable and clean life, whilst also living out deeply perverse and sadistic fantasies in private that led to the death of at least several dozen young boys and men in 1970s America.
Again though we see this outward persona presented as the very opposite of a serial killer – clean, presentable, kind, charitable, hard working and so forth. To use the cliche, he was seen as a pillar of the local community.
Whilst growing up in sometimes difficult circumstances with an abusive and alcoholic father, Gacy grew up into a hard working and well respected young man, developing an ostensibly perfectly normal working life, marriage and family in Iowa.
Yet beneath the surface, there was a real nastiness and sadism there at odds with his straight laced image that started to show itself in sexually abusing young boys, for which he was initially caught and sentenced to prison.
However, whilst inside he was able to flip back to the respectable image so well and present himself so convincingly as a reformed inmate, that he only ended up serving 18 months of a 10 year sentence, and upon his release built himself another respectable life in Chicago, remarrying a divorcee and becoming respected in his local community.
We see the split identity again though, as behind the scenes he is again molesting and now murdering young men in the 1970s in Chicago, burying many of them in a crawl space under his house.
He used his charm, wealth and standing in the local community to lure young men into working for his company, a position from which he would exploit them for his own ends. He also tended to target homeless boys, all signs of the manipulativeness and opportunism that psychopaths are well known for.
When he was eventually caught, he showed, the respectable identity fell apart, admitting to the murders yet showing no remorse for his actions. As per usual with these killers, they are only sorry that they got caught, not that they did these things to others.
John Wayne Gacy summary:
The public image – Family man, popular with neighbors, entertaining, charismatic, a good salesman and “talker”, would host regular barbeques and parties, successful in business, active politically.
The private reality – a sadistic sexual rapist and serial killer, who killed dozens of young boys, later describing them as “human trash” – total lack of empathy and remorse for his actions. Able to escape capture so long because of the respectable public image he had formed. No one thought it could be him.
Rader and Gacy are just two of countless examples of serial killers who despite their crimes were able to on the one hand present themselves on the surface as perfectly normal and respectable people, some of them even having wives and kids and holding down well paid jobs as well.
See the Born To Kill series episodes on Youtube for detailed biographical accounts of psychopathic killers who often match this general pattern.
“People have the Hollywood image of a serial killer as being this rather scary man who’s going to jump out from behind a bush and attack, whereas serial killers by and large are very well socialized into their communities, often holding down very responsible jobs….often seen as being pillars of the community”
Prof David Wilson – Criminologist
How Multiple Personalities May Manifest in Non Violent Psychopaths
It is all very well talking about the more extreme examples of psychopathic serial killers, but they are such a miniscule portion of the total population, and even of the population of psychopaths.
The vast majority of psychopaths are not serial killers nor violent at all, and it is these psychopaths who are most prevalent in day to day life, not always breaking any laws, but still causing significant subjective distress to others.
How can multiple personalities manifest with these people? This is an important question, since this is the type of psychopath most people are likely to actually deal with – the serial killers are so much rarer.
In more general terms, psychopaths are master manipulators and can very quickly and seamlessly change their persona and front act to charm, convince and manipulate others, whilst also undermining and isolating someone specific they are targeting.
This is how their multiple personalities can often manifest with lower level psychopaths – they can be different things to different people in a way that totally charms and draws onlookers in, whilst leaving others totally isolated and lonely in their (correct) worldview that something is seriously wrong with this person, no matter the charming front game they present to others.
As we have covered elsewhere, psychopaths can use selective empathy to be seemingly warm, kind and generous to others, whilst selectively and deliberately withholding this charm from a very specific scapegoat or target, in a way that leaves that target feeling totally isolated and invalidated. They start to think they must be losing it.
This is a deliberate ploy the psychopath is using to chip away at the person psychologically, and they use their ability to seamlessly flick between different personas to pull this mind game off. They can be a saint to others, whilst being horrible to just one or two people.
This can also manifest in the example of a psychopathic CEO, who puts on a charming persona when they go to work, yet becomes a cruel, invalidating monster when they return home. This is the general saint-sinner split personality pattern that was reported by Bernie Madoff’s children for example.
Similarly, it can also play the other way. A psychopath can at least appear loving and warm to to his wife and children, yet become an invalidating and cruel monster when he puts his suit and tie on when he goes to work or commits his killings without their knowledge. Dennis Rader for example seemed to fit this pattern.
The more general point here is the psychopath needs someone to discharge all their internal poison on against. It needn’t be everyone who is targeted.
Indeed they often present themselves as exceptionally charming to some whilst doing the most horrific things to others, either to conceal themselves, or even in plain sight to increase the distress of their scapegoat or target (trying to send the message “I’m abusing you, and yet you’re all alone and no one else is going to stand up for you. I can even get away with it in plain sight”).
Moreover, they also “wear separate hats” and inhabit different identities between their “normal” life and when they are committing their psychological or physical abuse against others.
A whole different person seems to come out, hence the cliched shock response of the family and friends of the more cleverly concealed psychopaths when they are exposed – “I would never have thought he could do that”, or “The Dennis I know would never have done those things”.
This is because the more composed psychopaths have so managed to separate out their “normal” everyday identities and their psychopathic identities that they literally are like “night and day” personas that exist within the same human being. They can flip between the two whenever necessary to either conceal themselves or get their “kicks” through abusing others.
In this, sense, almost all psychopaths most definitely do have multiple personalities – at least two – and many do indeed live a double life. This is why they can be so difficult to spot at first, since they present themselves so well to others on the surface.
Spotting a more intelligent psychopath requires time and patience, and an observant nature in spotting occasional contradictions and inconsistencies between the presentable “mask” or facade they put out to others, versus they actual underlying toxic personality they are constantly trying to keep concealed.