Many of us still tend to be stuck in the stereotype of the psychopath as the violent serial killer, but psychopathy is actually most often measured in terms of a series of personality traits or characteristics that many more people than just murderers in prison possess.
There are actually several diagnostic criteria for psychopathy, but probably the most popular and long standing one is the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), developed several decades ago by psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare.
Let’s first list the traits that make up the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), that define the psychopathic personality and distinguish it from other personality traits.
You are looking for a clustering of these traits – in other words, most or all of them hanging together within one person, and not just or two, to diagnose psychopathy. We will go into more on this below.
Here are the basic Psychopathy Checklist Traits:
- Glib & Superficial
- Egocentric & Grandiose
- Lack of Remorse or Guilt
- Deceitful & Manipulative
- Lack of Empathy
- Shallow Emotions
- Poor behavior controls
- Need for excitement
- Lack of Responsibility
- Early Behavior Problems
- Adult Anti-Social Behavior
We will run through each of these individual traits in more detail further below, providing some specific examples of how each trait can manifest in the real world psychopaths.
The Psychopathy Checklist was initially developed by Canadian psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare
How the Psychopathy Checklist Works
According to the Hare PCL-R model, prison inmates are scored for each of these traits using a specific questionnaire, with a maximum potential score of 40/40. Different countries use different thresholds, but an individual scoring past a score of either 25 or 30 out of 40 qualifies them to be diagnosed with a psychopathic personality.
Some of the most notorious serial killers in history have scored very high (39 or 40 out of 40) on the Psychopathy Checklist. See Robert Hare’s Without Conscience in our Books section for some examples of this.
But we don’t just want to make this a dry academic article – we want to try and bring the psychopathy checklist to life a bit more by giving some real world examples of how these traits can manifest in psychopaths you meet in the world every day.
Remember, not all psychopaths are violent serial killers – in fact most of them aren’t. This site has tried to dispel that myth. The serial killer psychopath is the exception rather than the rule for this personality type.
In fact, most psychopaths have the same basic personality characteristics of these violent killers, but through a combination of education, punishment and self serving purposes, most psychopaths have learnt to curb and more cleverly conceal their destructive behavior, instead causing trouble in more sneaky, covert ways that we cannot so easily detect and punish by law.
Put differently, most psychopaths have learnt that open violence towards others is frowned upon and punished by society, and so instead they seek an outlet for their internal destructiveness by causing psychological and emotional harm to others in the outside world.
With this in mind, let’s run through each trait in the psychopathy checklist in more detail, giving specific real life examples of how these traits can manifest in both violent and non violent psychopaths we may come across in daily life.
1. Glib & Superficial
This is a crucial one to look out for – most psychopaths learn that they must put up a front or a facade to conceal their real personality from others – a so called facade of normalcy or “mask of sanity“. Many psychopaths manage to construct a very convincing facade indeed.
For this reason, many psychopaths will actually come across as very charming and friendly at first, seemingly very personable and easy to get along with.
This can manifest in a number of ways:
- A superficial warmth, charm or charisma that can easily reel people in. The air can seem to buzz around them sometimes. Psychopaths can be charismatic.
- An ability to make it seem you have known them for years, even if they have only just met you.
- An ability to seem engaged and engaging, to seem interested and interesting.
- A smooth talking disposition. Psychopaths can hold court and be great story tellers. Many of these stories will seem outlandish and they will always paint them in a good light.
- Seemingly having great in depth knowledge on every single topic you can mention (Dig into this further though and you see they only ever have a great two sentence intro to any topic, and never any more than that).
- A brazen kind of confidence and brashness.
- A desire to constantly speak and be the center of attention (never shuts up).
- A lack of reflectiveness or introspection. Their life is a constant search for entertainment and stimulation with no deeper reflection.
- Extreme hedonism and aversion to suffering. See further below.
All this front act from the psychopath though is always glib and superficial when you dig deeper. There is no depth and substance there. It’s all smoke and mirrors to reel people in and throw them off the scent.
This is why critical thinking and emotional intelligence are two crucial traits that are useful in spotting psychopaths. You need that critical mind that can step out of situations and look past superficial charm and say “Does this person really seem credible? Do their stories add up? Do they really mean what they say?” And ask other pertinent questions that more easily influenced people will not ask.
A psychopath’s front game will be the best in town – smooth, glib, charming, often well dressed. But it’s all a facade
See our article on dissecting the superficial charm of a psychopath for more on this trait.
2. Egocentric & Grandiose
This is something which will often come out later on in psychopaths you meet. The glib, superficial charm we just mentioned can easily reel people in, but before long it will become clear that the psychopath is only really interested in themselves, and considers themselves superior to others.
In this sense the psychopath is a deeply egotistical personality type – in the extreme sense that they will never do anything for someone unless it also benefits them. Kindness for it’s own sake is anathema to the psychopath. Everything they do, even if it may appear altruistic, is actually in some way benefiting them.
Psychopaths also look down on the world with a cool, superior detachment, considering themselves above others and above the normal rules of morality and ethics that the rest of humanity tends to follow.
The psychopathic personality is arrogant and entitled. A good way of summing up the psychopath’s mindset relating to the world and others would be this:
“Other people may consider these things called “morals” and “rules” important, but I don’t. No one controls me or tells me what to do. I do whatever I want”.
Here are some other ways this egocentricity and grandiosity may show itself in real world psychopaths:
- An obsession with status and importance in the workplace or wider life. An exaggerated sense of importance regarding their own life, history and status.
- A general sense that the world revolves around them and that the needs of others do not matter.
- A general pattern of looking out for number one, happily screwing over others to advance their own position in life.
- A rageful reaction whenever their status in questioned, challenged or undermined in any way. “How dare you!” would be the general catch-all way of describing their response.
- A dissatisfaction with being in the lower ranks in the workplace. A desire to smooch their way up the ladder by any means necessary and get more status and more power over more people.
- You may find this leaking out in comments here and there – “I was hoping for a bigger office than that” – before the psychopath catches themself, and puts the charming mask back up. The ego and entitlement will show up more often once they have some power and influence.
3. Lack of Remorse or Guilt
This is a huge one, and why Dr Robert Hare titled his book Without Conscience. Psychopaths do terrible things to others, but they don’t feel bad about it.
Of course, the more severe psychopaths cause physical harm to others – sexual assaults, murders and so on, feeling no guilt or remorse for their actions. They report doing it because they “liked it” or “felt like it”.
But as we’ve pointed out, most psychopaths are actually not violent, and instead seek to cause harm to others in more covert, psychological ways, again without feeling remorse for their actions.
Here are some ways this can manifest:
- Using and manipulating human emotions like love and trust to build powerful but fake bonds and relationships with people, which they walk out of in an instant when they get bored, with no remorse for the damage this causes to the people who they leave.
- Emotionally manipulating and abusing people in relationships, causing damage that can take years for victims to fully recover from, purely for their own entertainment.
- Destroying the reputation and careers of others in the workplace, smearing and scheming against others all to advance their own position. See our article on the smear tactics they often use.
- Psychopathic managers can also often be brought in to “restructure” a company, firing people left, right and center without a second thought for the damage to their lives or families. Psychopaths are often brought in to do this precisely because they don’t have the same emotional hangups other people do.
- Constantly rationalizing and justifying all this behavior with any number of excuses: “I felt like it”, “Collateral damage”, “It’s just business”, “I got bored with them”, and so on.
For psychopaths, all of this poor treatment of others mean nothing to them emotionally. It’s just about getting from A to B for them in the easiest possible way. The feelings or needs of others literally do not matter to them. It’s all about them – hence the egocentricity trait we covered above.
4. Deceitful & Manipulative
This is another huge trait to watch out for in everyday psychopaths we may meet, and not paying heed to that “inner voice” that usually senses when something is wrong – when a person’s stories and history do no add up, when claims that are made are shown to be false – often costs people dearly when they get tangled up in relationships with psychopaths.
Psychopaths are relentlessly dishonest and manipulative individuals, who are constantly lying, misleading, distorting the truth and manipulating others for their own ends.
A very good marker for knowing you’re dealing with a psychopaths is this: “If their lips are moving, they’re probably lying”.
Here are just a few of endless different ways this can manifest:
- Lying in relationships about all details, small and large, from what they had for breakfast to where they were this afternoon, to their current or past finances, to whether they cheated on someone.
- Lying to law enforcement to get out of trouble.
- Lying on job applications and in interviews (often brazenly so, not just little white lies).
- Lying in the workplace to avoid punishment, or to smear others.
- A brazen two-facedness in the workplace – able to be warm and charming to person’s face and smear them behind their back literally seconds later.
- Lying about their past, either to cover up wrongdoing or to make themselves seem more important and successful than they are.
- Committing fraud in any context (financial, identity fraud, lying on forms etc).
- Lying by omission – a huge one in relationships and the workplace, where the psychopath misleads and deceives, not by what they say, but by what they don’t say, what they leave out. See our article on omission lying for more on this.
Most bizarrely though, a psychopath will lie even when they don’t need to lie, even when they don’t benefit from it in that moment. They will often lie simply for the sake of lying.
There is a compulsion towards dishonesty and deception with the psychopathic personality. They enjoy duping and deceiving others just for the sake of it – see our article on Duping Delight for the pleasure psychopaths often get from deceiving others.
Most importantly though, psychopaths can lie very convincingly – looking someone straight in the eye whilst telling them a complete fiction, promising them they are telling the truth. It can be very hard to see through their act, such is the smoothness and brazenness with which they can do this.
This is why it is so important to verify what a suspected psychopath is telling you from another source. If all these grandiose stories don’t add up, seek out someone from their past who may tell you a very different story.
See our full article for more on this trait of relentless manipulation and deceitfulness.
A psychopath can lie to you very convincingly and with a completely straight face
5. Lack of Empathy
This is another trademark feature of the psychopath – a complete lack of ability to put themselves in the emotional shoes of another person, to see their point of view, to see them as a separate person with their own needs, wants and boundaries that should be respected.
This character deficiency is often more easy to detect in relationships, since to anyone who has empathy, butting up against someone who doesn’t will start to feel very “off”, even if we don’t quite have the words to articulate what we are feeling.
Empathy is a natural emotional brake-check that puts a limit on the behavior of most people. We don’t do horrendous things to others because we can empathize that this would hurt them physically or emotionally. We realize we wouldn’t like this, so we don’t do it to others. Very simple.
A psychopath simply doesn’t get this. They can intellectually understand the impact of their actions on others, but with them there is no emotional connection with how their behavior affects others, which is what really defines empathy.
Here are some ways this lack of empathy can manifest in psychopaths:
- The more obvious examples of the serial killers who talk about their crimes as though it’s a simple everyday thing to do. They have no emotional understanding of the suffering they have caused others.
- In the later stages of a relationships, a psychopath or narcissist may seem strangely “tuned out” to the needs of other people. They will seem self centered and inconsiderate, though they often try to mask this early on.
- Psychopaths often ramp up their abuse in toxic relationships, destroying a person’s boundaries more and more, without stopping, because they cannot empathize with the person they are abusing.
- Psychopaths can scheme, connive and push others out of jobs for their own ends, without any remorse or feeling for the suffering caused by this.
- Some soldiers can become “psychopathized” by having to kill so often – they have been shut off from their own empathy, and no longer respect the humanity of others.
- A good way of putting this general traits is “They have feelings, but they have no feelings for your feelings” – See the Unslaved Podcast.
- See our article on psychopaths and empathy for more on this.
Psychopaths lack the ability to put themselves in the emotional shoes of another and so it is open season for them in terms of what they think they can do others to get their needs met
6. Shallow Emotions
Psychopaths tend to have a very limited or even absent emotional range, characterized by relentless boredom and envy, with not so much in between. They cannot feel very much or very deeply, if at all.
Again, this is probably most recognized in the serial killer category, where experts have actually done brain scans on inmates diagnosed as psychopaths, and found they do not work the same way as normal people when it comes to processing emotions and disturbing events.
Psychopaths, Emotions & Brain Function
“Something is wrong upstairs”, as the old saying goes. Something that a normal person would find horrifying is just another everyday event to a psychopath. This seems to be why so many psychopathic killers can talk about their crimes in a very cold and matter of fact way, as though nothing is wrong with what they did.
Psychopaths also seem to lack the “fight or flight” response to external events that others would find threatening. They can remain cool under pressure, which can make them fantastic liars and evaders of the law.
See our article on psychopaths and emotions for more on this, including links to studies that have been done on psychopath’s complex relationship with emotions and brain function.
Psychopaths are extremely impulsive in that they tend to do things on a whim and “because they feel like it”. They appear to never have learnt to control their impulses and delay gratification. If a psychopath wants something, they’ll just go for it using whatever means they think is necessary.
The results of this impulsivity can be damaging to others and sometimes very bizarre. Here are some examples:
- They’ll sleep with someone on a whim, without using protection.
- They’ll steal whatever they like, from wherever they like, using violence if necessary.
- They’ll lie to get what they want.
- They’ll conduct transactions involving lots of money (think high level banking and trading) without thinking of consequences.
- Violent psychopaths will mention how they go on “sprees”, killing and injuring others without thinking about it.
- Non violent psychopaths still cheat on their partners on a whim, without thinking about consequences or being caught.
- More generally, psychopaths tend to live a chaotic, day to day existence, not able to plan ahead in their lives and lying and manipulating their way out of any problems that do come up.
- They’ll often rationalize this impulsive lifestyle with cliches like “Live for the moment”, “Seize the day” etc etc.
It can be very hectic for those caught up in the cross-fire of this impulsive lifestyle, with the psychopath living a very episodic and uncontrolled life, pursuing whatever they want in the moment without the same ethical restraints that normal people have.
“Most businesses are risk averse or at least try to manage risk. A psychopath will do something risky just to see what happens, making a decision that others would have taken a long time and a lot of data to come to, they’ll do it on a whim. And because they are fearless, it could even hurt them, but it doesn’t bother them”
Paul Babiak – psychologist
See our article on psychopaths and poor impulse control for more on this trait, plus the closely related one below of poor behavior controls.
8. Poor Behavior Controls
This is closely tied to the above point on impulsivity. Psychopaths are known to have a hair trigger reactivity to any perceived (or real) slights, insults or provocations.
Most normal people can keep a lid on our reactions, restraining our emotions when appropriate even though we many want to express anger or something else. We recognize there is a time and a place.
The psychopath struggles to control their behavior in this way. Here are some common consequences of this:
- Psychopaths often get into bar fights and other scuffles, because they cannot control themselves in the face of any conflict or provocation.
- They can be extremely confrontational and aggressive characters, seemingly turning on a dime.
- They can be hyper-sensitive, and suddenly fly off the handle with little or no provocation.
- Some psychopaths can brutally assault other people, and then very quickly return to normal as though nothing has happened.
- In the case of non violent psychopaths, this lack of control is often shifted into sexual impulsivity, or to the emotional abuse of others (they can’t help causing trouble).
- They also create conflict very easily. As well as being easily provoked, they also very often provoke others in order to get themselves “fired up” and deliver some excitement to their day.
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright’”.
Psychopaths often struggle to control their behavior and get into physical confrontations as a result. Not all psychopaths are violent though
9. Need For Excitement
Psychopaths are almost always characterized by an extreme hedonism to their lifestyle – they are constantly looking to seek pleasure and excitement and avoid pain to an extreme degree.
This means they are constantly looking for stimulation and excitement in their lives, to counteract the relentless boredom and typically low physiological arousal they experience in day to day life. The “buzz” needs to keep going constantly for them to feel alive.
Here are some ways this relentless need for excitement can manifest in psychopaths:
- A relentless need to party, drink and do recreational drugs.
- A need to remain immersed in the “crowd”, in shallow human interactions, with no introspective or reflective abilities at all. A need for constant external stimulation.
- A relentless need for sex.
- Some psychopaths are drawn to dangerous sports to feel alive.
- Others are drawn to risky crime, again to get that “high” or rush.
- Psychopaths will often get bored quickly in relationships and cheat on their partners, again needing constantly new excitement and novelty. They drop people cold once they get bored with them.
- Non violent psychopaths are also driven to constantly provoke others and create conflict and drama in relationships in order to relieve their boredom and feel alive.
- See our article on psychopaths and hedonism for more on this trait.
On the flip side though, you can be sure that the psychopaths will flee at the first sign of any legitimate suffering or difficulty in their lives. They are ultra-hedonists in that they refuse to face any kind of legitimate hardship that most adults eventually learn to face in their lives.
The result is that the psychopathic personality in the outside world is characterized by a complete lack of ability to grow, change or evolve. They stay stuck in the same shallow, one dimensional hedonistic lifestyle right through their lives. This will start to stand out if you have known the psychopath over a number of years.
The psychopath always needs to keep the fun times rolling and can never face any suffering or hard times.
10. Lack of Responsibility
This has some crossover with the point we mentioned above about hedonism – psychopaths tend not to be very dependable or reliable characters who can be counted on to do what is asked or expected of them. They tend to be very reckless and irresponsible characters right through their lives.
Here are some ways this trait can manifest in psychopaths:
- A total lack of interest in fulfilling reasonable commitments or obligations.
- For example, collecting child support from psychopath fathers can be almost impossible.
- They will cheat on partners and abandon children without a second thought.
- Some psychopaths will readily neglect and abuse their children without any remorse or guilt, refusing to properly care for them or leaving them on their own for extended periods.
- Frequent unreliability, absences and breaking of rules at work. Often commit fraud and misuse company resources.
- When caught breaking rules or being irresponsible, will often produce seemingly heartfelt apologies of how they’ll “never do it again”, which are routinely broken.
- Psychopaths often run away from debts and/or have declared bankruptcy multiple times in their lives, which they often keep from their future partners.
- Will often knowingly infect those they sleep with with STIs.
- Will often use the resources of friends and family to get them out of trouble, borrowing money which is seldom paid back.
- When any financial problems do arise, instead of displaying some discipline to correct the problem, they will instead increase their irresponsible lifestyle and run from the problem even more, worsening it (extreme hedonism).
- Again see our article on the hedonistic nature of most psychopaths for more on this trait of irresponsibility and immaturity.
11. Early Behavior Problems
Many psychopaths often had signs of bad behavior even in their early years – childhood and adolescence. This has now been labelled Conduct Disorder, and is now considered a common precursor of psychopathy in adulthood.
Put simply, there is often something clearly wrong with the behavior of children who later grow up to be psychopaths. Here are some things commonly found with Conduct Disorder in youngsters:
- Misbehavior and truancy at school.
- Lying even in childhood.
- Vandalism & starting fires.
- Violence towards other children early on.
- Violence and cruelty towards animals – this is a common one.
Very commonly, with Conduct Disorder, this behavior is exhibited in a very matter-of-fact way, even early on in childhood, without any signs of empathy.
This can be very disturbing for the parents of these children who feel they raised their children well, but adds strong weight to the argument that at least some psychopaths seem to be genetically born that way. The “nature vs nurture” argument regarding how psychopaths come to be the way they are still remains a hugely contentious issue.
See our own article which covers some views on how psychopaths are made.
12. Adult Antisocial Behavior
Moreover, when these children become adult psychopaths, they continue to break rules, whether legal, procedural, or simple ethical common sense codes of how to treat others that most people understand, but which the psychopath doesn’t.
Some psychopaths do end up in prison because of the rules they break; others abide by the laws but still lie, con, deceive others and break lower level rules without any sense of guilt or remorse, if it serves their immediate interests.
This behavior is labelled “antisocial” in this context because for the psychopath, every interaction with other human beings is seen as an opportunity for abuse, deceit and exploitation. In this sense, it is against the normal rules of humanity which are meant to hold society together.
This is why psychopathy has been effectively re-categorized under the Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD) definition, though this more often covers the term sociopath (we’ll consider them equivalent here).
Here are just some of many examples of how the psychopath displays these anti-social traits:
- Stealing and other forms of crime
- Assaulting others
- Breaking work rules
- A “win at all costs” mentality, trampling over others to get what they want in workplaces especially.
- Frequent abuse and cheating in relationships.
- Engaging in pyramid/ponzi schemes, stock scams, and other financial frauds, exploiting vulnerable people out of their savings.
- Politicians misappropriating public funds.
- Other forms of fraud and cheating in the financial, banking and business worlds.
In short, psychopaths view the world with a cool, detached, exploitative approach, seeing others not as people, but as objects to be manipulated and used for their own ends. Anything goes for them – nothing is forbidden, and everything is permitted, which explains so much of their destructive behavior once we realize they don’t have the same moral and ethical brake-checks the rest of us do.
As such, psychopaths are probably the most dangerous and predatory of all the personality types, and we need to be aware of their characteristics if we are to have any hope of spotting them and avoiding being exploited by them.
Remember also though that to be diagnosed as a psychopath, someone must tick off most or all of these traits we have detailed above, not just one or two. There is a big difference between someone having some psychopathic traits, versus being a full blown psychopath.
See our own Traits Checklist page for some more common traits of psychopaths that complement those found in the Psychopathy Checklist.