All the reading in the world cannot immunize you from the devastating effects of psychopaths. Everyone, including the experts, can be taken in, conned and left bewildered by them. A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heart strings”
Dr Robert Hare
One of the key things psychopaths are known for is a glib, superficial charm which allows them to smooth talk pretty much anyone they like, manipulate almost at will, and wriggle their way out of any situations where they may be about to be confronted or exposed.
They also draw unsuspecting people into toxic relationships with this smooth act of deception, often able to project an image of “coolness” and perfection that is very seductive to more easily influenced people.
Most psychopaths have spent a lifetime mastering this act of glib charm and have grown very brazen and confident using it on others. They see how often and how easily it can work so they have an often outrageous confidence in their ability to take in and manipulate others.
It works for them so often, they have it down to an art form and are confident in their ability to manipulate anyone, and turn others against anyone who does see through them.
In this article we will look to pick apart this surface act of glibness and charm, defining it as precisely and thoroughly as possible so interested people know what to look for. We will look at all the different ways it can manifest, explain this act in the context of a facade or “mask of sanity”, and also provide some simple advice and pointers to more easily spot this shallow charm and vet characters more thoroughly.
In this way, we hope to offer interested readers some immunity against this glib charm offensive so many psychopaths launch on new people they meet to try and take them in. Despite their very subtle and well practised manipulation skills, psychopaths can still be spotted and avoided if you have the right tools. Let’s look at the issue in more detail.
Psychopathic Glibness and Charm Defined
“A psychopath’s front game will be the best front game in town”
Dr Ramani Durvasula
Psychopaths can indeed present a very good “front game” or surface act when they first meet someone. The idea is to present an image of perfection and bliss, to make you think you have just met the most wonderful person ever, who “gets” you, understands you, moves in rhythm with you.
This is to ward you off the scent of who and what they really are. It’s smoke and mirrors to distract you into overlooking the red flags that will inevitably start to leak out.
This glib charm can be described in so many different ways. We want to offer a “rapid fire” resource of as many different ways of this psychopathic charm manifesting as we can, pulled together from some of the best resources on the topic. Here are some telltale characteristics of this glibness:
- A superifical warmth and charisma the psychopath appears to exude, at least when you first meet them. Designed to get you captivated by them.
- A “slickness” and “coolness” that can easily take in more materialistic and shallow people especially. A social ability to “chit the chat” and seemingly do and say all the right things at the right time. Will often appear to be very engaged and engaging socially.
- A sense of “perfection” and smoothness that is a little unusual for anyone with a realistic view of human imperfection. “Being with them can seem like you’re in some cool, slick movie”, as Dr Ramani Durvasula puts it in the excellent MedCircle podcast on psychopathy.
- Their charm is often characterized by a total lack of shyness, self consciousness, humility or self doubt. It is brazen and not afraid to approach or say anything.
- For Jobs/Tenancies etc. – They put up a front that can be so charming and engaging that we are easily taken in by them, to the point where we forgo common sense precautions and just let them into our lives (“ah, just give him the job, we don’t need to get references, he’s alright”, or “ah, he’s a good laugh, I’ll let him move in with me, I don’t need to check his past or get references”, stuff like that). Psychopaths are brilliant at charming their way in like that. (Reality check – you definitely DON’T want to let a psychopath move in with you, nor do you want these people in your companies).
- A superficial ability to appear interested in and attuned to other people, especially in romantic relationships. May show an initial interest in your hobbies, passions and pursuits. If you look more closely though, their interest or apparent empathy has no real signs of true empathy or interest in others. It is shallow and simulated.
- A mirroring effect, where the psychopath initially seems to walk and talk in rhythm with you, mimicking your every word and gesture. They are robotically creating a manufactured soulmate, in the words of Jackson Mackenzie. See also our article on psychopathic mirroring.
- A emphasis on fun and “good times” only, without any kind of deeper side or awareness of suffering. They often appear unsullied or untouched by the suffering of the world, which may appear attractive at first but is actually not a good thing if you look into it more carefully.
The Mask of Sanity
A great way of looking at this entire issue of charm is in terms of what psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley called “The Mask of Sanity” See our Books section for a link to the classic text on psychopathy. Cleckley observed pathological characters over many years and saw that with the psychopathic ones, they always had a facade of normalcy or mask of sanity which they always presented to the world.
This is basically a “mask” or front act which is designed to project the message to the world “Hey, I’m OK. I’m just like everyone else. I’m a normal, decent person with emotions and feelings, just like you. There’s no need to be frightened of me. Trust me”.
The purpose of this mask is to hide the reality of the toxic, disordered psyche which is actually hiding underneath. The real internal world of a psychopath is a toxic, scrambled mess, with a limited or absent emotional range and no ability for human qualities like empathy, genuine connection, compassion, remorse or conscience.
Psychopaths have to hide this reality from normal people at all costs, which is where the superficial front act or mask of sanity comes in. They have to try to appear to be the opposite of what they really are.
For sure some psychopaths have a better mask of sanity than others. There are some people we meet who immediately come across as “not right” and have an odd, sometimes unhinged feel to them.
Other psychopaths though have a masterfully crafted mask or facade that takes a lot longer to see through. At first they can appear to be the opposite of a psychopath – charming, warm, receptive, interested in you, composed, even graceful and so on. See Matthew Goode’s brilliant performance in the film Stoker for a perfect depiction of this facade.
They have often spent years refining and developing this surface act. Every relationship they enter offers a chance for them to better learn how to manipulate, the right things to say, how to wriggle out of being exposed, and upgrade their entire act of deception and manipulation. They get better at it each time.
Putting a psychopath through therapy or treatment programs often has a similar effect; as psychopathy expert Robert Hare puts it: “Many psychopaths describe the traditional treatment programs as finishing schools where they hone their skills. Where they find out that there are lots of techniques they had not thought about before”.
Therefore, with the more intelligent and composed psychopaths, it can take longer to see past their glib surface act, since they have become so clever at hiding. However, all psychopaths will sooner or later give themselves away by displaying a predictable pattern of character traits and manipulative tactics.
If you drill down deep enough into human behavior, there are some things which people simply wouldn’t do unless they were deeply toxic, and this is how you trap a psychopath eventually, regardless of all the smoke and mirrors they can put up to deceive others, or gaslight them into thinking something didn’t happen or wasn’t said.
Psychopathy and self defense expert Stefan Verstappen brilliantly sums up how to spot for subtle signs of this surface or mask slipping. See the video just below where he sums up the issue of the mask slipping with a psychopath or other disordered person:
“They use a lot of energy to put on this performance for you. They’re pretending to be human….They have this mask on them, and it takes a lot of effort to keep this mask up and every now and then it drops and they’ll do something or say something that is so immoral or so out of sync with what a normal feeling person would do that most people would go ‘what the hell was that? What did he just say?’
And it’s when you get those types of clues over time, when you find, he “loves animals” but suddenly the kitten runs in front of him and he gives it a kick and knocks it against the wall….It’s those kind of contradictions, and right away they’ll bring up the mask…Over time you see contradictions between their character and their moral behavior”
How to Properly Vet Someone’s Character
Psychopaths and other personality disordered people like borderlines often have an ability to project a charm and charisma which can very easily lure in unsuspecting people. It is very important to be aware of this. Here are some ways to vet a person’s character over time before making a decision on whether they deserve your trust or not:
- If someone seems to be projecting an extreme sense of charm and charisma, it is important to not be taken in immediately by this and slow down, watching their behavior more carefully over a long period of time. Too many people get sucked into toxic relationships because they are taken in by glib charm and dive straight in without vetting a person’s character over time.
- Do not be taken in by the idea of “perfection” and “flawlessness” in someone. It doesn’t exist; everyone has flaws and no one is perfect. Be very wary of anyone trying to project an image of perfection, of having it all and being able to do it all, without any downsides, weaknesses, or human frailties. You are likely being sold a lie.
- Watch carefully and over time for any discrepancies between what a person says and what they do. Watch for a divergence between actions and words.
- Also watch carefully how someone treats other people in their life, even if they may appear to be great with you at first. If you see them mistreating others, it is a red flag. Sooner or later it will be you that is the target.
- Look for signs of real empathy, conscience and vocation. A psychopath can simulate these things but lacks any kind of depth or substance to these acts. This will show up if you look carefully enough.
- Look for other qualities like clarity, maturity, stability, reliability, self control, solid finances. Honesty and integrity are also two key qualities to look out for, since psychopaths lack both. Can someone be trusted and relied on or is their life a train wreck, bumbling from one day to the next as they lie their way out of the latest mess they have got themselves into.
- Also if you start seeing red flags, watch out specifically for psychopathic traits as defined in our own checklist or in any of the excellent resources on the topic.
- As a counterbalance, we should also say that just because someone is charismatic and charming, it does not mean they are a bad person. Good people can be naturally charming as well. It just means you need to slow down and watch their character and behavior over time to see whether it’s just part of who they are or part of a front act to lure others in.