Manipulative and deceitful are two of the traits applied to psychopaths in the updated Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) – see here for our own analysis of the PCL. Sometimes they’re kept separate as pathological lying and conning/manipulative behavioral traits but sometimes they’re bundled together, and that’s what we’re going to do in this post, because they overlap so much.
Pretty much all of a psychopath’s manipulation of others also involves deception of some kind, so the two traits intersect so much they might as well be classed as one much of the time.
We’ve pretty much all lied about some things in our life and manipulated others, and encountered others who are manipulative and dishonest at times, but what’s different about a psychopath is these traits are permanent and pervasive – they embody them all the time, in all interactions.
Psychopaths are relentlessly manipulative and deceitful individuals, with toxic character traits such as lying and insincerity firmly ingrained into their psyche. They see any and all interactions with others as a potential opportunity for the manipulation, deception and abuse of others.
This is one more reason, if you needed one, why psychopathic individuals are very dangerous people to be around, and why they should be removed from your life as soon as you identify them.
Let’s look at these traits in more detail to explain why.
Psychopaths As Deceitful (Compulsive Liars)
This trait usually doesn’t take very long to spot if you are dealing with a psychopath regularly. If you apply any kind of critical thinking and verification of what they say, you’ll quickly find they constantly lie about anything and everything.
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
However, even more bizarrely with psychopathic personalities, it appears that lying is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. They lie even when they don’t need to lie; they appear to enjoy lying just for the sake of lying. Compulsive liar or pathological liar are two terms often used to describe this relentless tendency to lie.
The late psychiatrist M Scott Peck also noticed this pathological tendency to lie even in some people who came to see him. He attached the terms “evil” or “malignancy” to these people, which are pretty much equivalent to psychopath most of the time.
Here is an excellent quote taken from his book People Of The Lie where he describes this tendency in a couple he saw, Mr and Mrs R:
If the reader reviewed my account of the interactions that Mr and Mrs R had with me, she or he would find somewhere between one and two dozen lies. Here again we see this striking consistency. It is not a matter of one lie or two. Roger’s parents lied to me repeatedly and routinely. They were people of the lie. The lies were not gross. There was not one they could have been taken to court on. Yet the process was pervasive. Indeed, even their coming to see me at all was a lie (People of the Lie, p. 118)
Another great concise quote on this toxic tendency of psychopaths to lie comes from Jackson Mackenzie:
“Another clear clue that your partner might be a psychopath is constant lying. There is always an excuse for everything, even things that don’t require excusing. They make up lies faster than you can question them. They constantly blame others—it is never their fault. They spend more time rationalizing their behavior than improving it. Even when caught in a lie, they express no remorse or embarrassment. Oftentimes, it almost seems as if they wanted you to catch them.”
Anyone that’s dealt with a psychopath long term up close will relate to this – there’s a relentless barrage of lies not just about “big” things (past history, cheating etc), but even small things that don’t even need to be lied about, like where they were this morning, or what they had for lunch. It seems like it’s almost a game to them sometimes, like they’re waiting for you to catch to them to start and confrontation, where they can lie and gas-light you even more, messing with your head even further.
Again, it’s the force and conviction that psychopaths can come at you with the opposing reality that makes it feel so “crazy-making”, and is indicative that these pathological traits are firmly ingrained into their personality to the point they are automatic and instinctual (more on this below).
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.
Psychopaths As Manipulative
This trait crosses over so much with the deceitfulness/lying trait, since manipulation is almost always by definition carried out through deceit much of the time, but we’ll add some separate points on it here.
The main point to emphasize is the pervasiveness of manipulative behaviors from psychopaths, to the extent that there are no agenda free, innocent interactions with them. There’s always an agenda with them, an “angle”. They probing for information, weakness, bits of information they can use against you or others. “Any and all communication is an opportunity for abuse, deceit and manipulation” is an excellent rule of thumb to go by when dealing with these people.
Here are some more aspects and contexts regarding the manipulative and exploitative nature of psychopaths:
- Psychopaths view others not as people with separate feelings, needs and wants, but as objects to be manipulated and used for their own ends.
- Moreover, psychopaths are often very glib, charismatic and charming, to the point where they can very effectively manipulate and influence others, both to do things for them and to be “on their side” when playing workplace politics. They can also malinger and play the victim very convincingly when needing to elicit sympathy, and also turn bystanders against targets by making them look like the “bad guy”.
- They can put on a terrific performance for people they’ve just met, both socially and also at job interviews, being everything someone wants them to be in the moment.
- While some psychopaths do stay within the confines of the law, many don’t and have a criminal mindset. They’re often engaging and financial and other scams, manipulating gullible people to use for their own ends. Psychopaths often commit fraud, steal money, borrow money that’s never repaid, con pensioners/investors out of savings, deal with stolen/counterfeit goods, and so on.
- As a rule of thumb, any time a psychopath is immersed into any kind of group environment, they will in very short order start “working” that environment (manipulating/deceiving others, playing people off against each other, seeking favors and privilege, launching smear campaigns, playing politics etc).
- This is why psychopaths are especially damaging in workplaces, often using their charm to co-opt apathetic bystanders (“useful idiots”) into smear campaigns against targets and scapegoats. They’re very good at manipulating the perception of others and turning groups of people against one target or scapegoat.
- Workplace psychopaths are also very adept at “schmoozing” and wrangling their way in with higher ups, playing politics, charming and manipulating others to “climb the greasy pole” and work their way into positions of increasing power. Psychopaths often move up the ladder very quickly in companies where there is a lack of professional integrity and strong boundaries with upper management.
- In romantic relationships, psychopaths will manipulate others into giving away their trust, allowing them to move in, leeching money and other resources off lovers, and so on, often combining deception and manipulative charm to use partners for their own benefit while concealing ugly things from their past, fabricating a mythical image to lovers which bears no resemblance to who they really are.
Moreover, as psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare points out, a psychopath’s manipulation of others is not done unconsciously, but fully consciously, with full awareness of what they’re doing and why:
“(Psychopaths) are individuals who are extremely egotistical, self centered, lacking remorse for what they have done, knowing exactly what they are doing. And what they’re doing is manipulating and deceiving other people for their own ends”
Dr Robert Hare
One good piece of news is that a psychopath’s manipulative behavior doesn’t go unnoticed by everyone in the immediate environment. There will usually be one or two more observant people who can see how manipulative this person is, and stand back in amazement at how they’re seemingly able to pull the wool over the eyes of others and manipulate and control them so easily.
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It can be frustrating to be the observant person who spots this while others don’t. Depending on the context, you’ll often find yourself saying things like:
- “Why is she even with him? It’s baffling. Can’t she see he’s just using her for money/sex/prestige/contacts? It obvious from the outside. She’s in complete denial.”
- “Why is James doing those “runs” or “trips” for that Steve guy? He’s just being used. Can he not see those goods are clearly counterfeit? He’s gonna get in serious trouble soon, and that Steve guy will just scarper and leave him to take the rap”.
- “How has that idiot managed to get himself into the area manager position? All the higher ups seem to think he’s great, but I see him day to day and he’s completely toxic. He’s not even very good at the job, he just feeds off the efforts of others. He’s also constantly in conflict with people lower down, provoking and goading them”
- “This person “chits the chat” and says all the right things to the right people, but he has no credibility or competency beyond that. He’s just a slimy manipulator, a political player, but nothing else”.
- “Why has this person even been tolerated in this job for so long as a manager? He’s clearly toxic and acts in grossly inappropriate and unprofessional ways. He should have been got rid of ages ago but he’s been here for years. What’s going on?” (hint – you’re in a toxic company – get out as soon as possible. Any company that tolerates these people long term has a toxic culture and needs to be avoided).
- “This manager seems to get away with anything and everything. Other people wouldn’t. He just does what he wants. He’s got the management above him wrapped around his little finger, and seems to be managing and controlling them, not the other way around.”
- “He’s always got his group of sycophants around who clap like seals and think he’s brilliant, but they’re all just mindless idiots who don’t know any better. He doesn’t even like them either, but he’s just using them for attention and adulation”.
- “Why do they always seem to be able to manipulate other people to be on their side, when they behave in toxic ways that are clear for anyone with eyes to see? Why can’t these other people he uses see it?”.
- “That guy is a complete idiot, and he seems to get others around him acting like idiots as well. People, who should know better as well. How does he influence people so easily?”.
There’s loads of other contexts this can play out in, but hopefully readers get the idea. It’s frustrating to be the person who can see who the psychopath really is, while others are completely “taken in” by them and think they’re amazing.
Such is the effectiveness of psychopaths at manipulating and influencing others for their own benefit, plus the denial loops that victims with poor boundaries and lack of discernment often get trapped in when caught up with these people.
Psychopaths As Instinctively Manipulative & Deceitful
This is an important clarifying point that needs adding to this psychopathic trait, that emphasizes just how toxic and dangerous to be around these individuals are.
Psychopaths are not just manipulative and deceitful individuals in a fleeting or superficial (every now and then) way, but they instinctively and automatically embody these traits. They do it as automatically as normal people breathe or digest food. Manipulation and deceit are built into their psyches as a crucial cornerstone of their psychological makeup.
This is one more aspect of sick and inverted nature of the psychopathic personality, whereby normal, healthy traits that are positive for society are inverted, flipped on their head. Therefore, whereas a normal person’s general baseline is truth and honesty more or less (no one is perfect, but you know what you’re getting most of the time with a normal person), a psychopath’s baseline, default state has become the manipulation and deception of others.
Whereas most normal people have to force themselves to systematically lie and manipulate others, a psychopath does this naturally as their “default” setting, and instead would have to really force themselves to tell the truth and NOT manipulate others!
When you realize this, you see how sick and inverted these people’s mindsets are, and this is why it’s such a “crazy-making” experience being around them long term – when someone’s entire psyche is an inversion of what’s normal, natural and sane, you can’t help but “soak up” or introject some of that madness yourself (one more reason if you needed one to get away from these people as soon as possible once you spot them).
It’s pretty much an axiom that whatever we practice a lot, we become really good at. Psychopaths are really good at lying and manipulating others, because they’re been practicing it a really long time. It’s firmly ingrained into their personality, along with the twin defense mechanisms of denial and projection. This is why therapy doesn’t work with these individuals, nor does pleading with them in clear simple, rational terms to change. You’re wasting your time; stop engaging with these people and move on.