Psychopaths have a lot of behavior abnormalities such as glibness, deceptiveness, lack of empathy and remorse, and insincerity, but where do they stand in relation to impulse control? Can psychopaths effectively control their impulses and behaviors? Can they stop themselves from doing things?
A defining characteristic of psychopaths as defined by the Psychopathy Checklist is impulsivity or poor impulse and behavioral controls. Psychopaths struggle to control their behavior and often do things without properly thinking of the consequences. They have very poor impulse control and tend to act first and think later.
This can manifest in a number of different ways, such as having a short temper, getting into fights easily, getting themselves into trouble by doing silly things without thinking beforehand, and regularly breaking the law or codes of conduct just because “they felt like it” at the time.
This is indicative of the psychopath’s episodic and moment to moment existence, as well as their sense of entitlement and arrogance, feeling they can get from A to B in whichever way they see fit, without feeling the need to consider others or follow the rules others do.
“There’s gotta be a psychological problem with me…I just don’t feel things the way normal people do. Whatever it is that makes you think about not doing something, it’s screwed up. It may never have worked (for me)”
Earl Mitchell Forrest – Death Row interview – see here.
Impulse Control in Psychopaths vs Normal People
The best way of illustrating a psychopath’s poor impulse control is to compare their typical mindset and behavior to that of normal people.
Non psychopathic people tend to have some kind of rationality, composure and restraint to their behavior. We tend to not do rash things, think before we act, consider the needs and feelings of others and be willing to delay gratification sometimes to wait for a reward.
The psychopath is the complete opposite of all these things. They can act rationally sometimes, but they also in large part lack any real self control and restraint on their behavior. They just do things, either because they feel like it, or to get something they want right away, without taking into account how their behavior may affect others.
They don’t have the same inhibitions normal people do. They act on the spur of the moment without thinking about consequences. If they want something, they often do whatever is necessary to get it, in a way that normal people will find bizarrely inconsiderate of the needs and feelings of others.
Dr Robert Hare gives a good example of this in his book Without Conscience (see our Books Section for a link). He describes a psychopathic inmate who recounted a story of how he was walking to a party and wanted to buy some beer, but realized he had forgotten his wallet and didn’t want to go back.
Most normal people would have either carried on to the party anyway, or gone back and got the wallet even though it may have taken some time. The psychopath simply grabbed a heavy piece of wood and held up the attendant at the nearest gas station, stealing the beer and severely injuring them.
This is a good example of the brutalness and self centredness of the psychopathic mindset – they can often literally achieve their goals and move from A to B in this kind of callous and inconsiderate way. Their needs are all that matter, and they usually want those needs met right away without any difficulty, obstruction or requirement to wait or sacrifice.
Some Generic Examples of Poor Impulse Control in Psychopaths
Here are some different ways of looking at a psychopath’s poor impulse control, through some examples and different contexts it may show up in.
- Psychopaths tend to act impulsively; in other words, they act without thinking of consequences. They act first and think later.
- Psychopaths are focused on achieving immediate satisfaction in the easiest way possible. They do not have much self control and are not usually able to delay gratification.
- Similarly, they act without fear of punishment. They’ll do something just to see what happens.
- For this reason, psychopaths can be very dangerous in high level business and finance, making impulsive decisions involving large amounts of money and affecting lots of people without a second thought.
- Many rapists and serial killers tend to be psychopaths as well. They just do things, even horrendous things, without a second thought.
- Some violent psychopaths go on insane shooting and stabbing binges, with the goal to simply keep going until police or someone else stops them
- Psychopaths also tend to have a “short fuse”, reacting angrily and violently without much need for provocation. They can very quickly “lose it” over even small slights or comments.
- Psychopaths and sociopaths often get into fights in bars and other places for this same reason – it doesn’t tend to take much to get them to react violently and they don’t think about consequences before they do it.
- The psychopathic personality is characterized by a sense of superiority and entitlement. They feel they can take whatever they want from whomever they want, whenever they want.
- In this sense, the mentality is often “If he won’t give it to me, I’ll steal it”, or “If she doesn’t want sex, I’ll just rape her”.
Psychopaths may have some intellectual understanding of what is considered right and wrong by society, but they struggle to follow these norms consistently. It is very easy for them to break these rules and they struggle to stay within them for any length of time.
As an example, many psychopathic serial killers report feeling an urge to kill which they tried to suppress, but ultimately which grew stronger and they could not keep under control.
Similarly, in relationships, they may keep the “mask of sanity” up for a while, but eventually it starts to drop and their real character starts to leak out.
Psychopaths are also hedonistic and constantly seeking new thrills or highs, hence they often do silly or extreme things for excitement or stimulation.
“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
Some Real Life Examples of Psychopaths & Poor Impulse Control
Let’s follow up these more generic and broad examples of psychopaths and poor impulse control with some specific examples of how this can play out in real life.
In personal and work relationships, this trait can often manifest in them presenting an initially bright and friendly, normal exterior, but they can’t keep this up and over time their behavior starts to slide progressively more downhill and become more outrageous and inappropriate.
“The wheels fall off” very quickly in metaphorical terms – the threat of punishment or being asked can make them behave for a short while, but it never takes much for this sense of self control to fall apart and for them to revert to their default of simply doing whatever they want, whenever they want, with no restraint or concern for others.
Here are a couple of accounts of this I have personally witnessed in my own life dealing with psychopathic people.
Example 1 – The psychopathic boss – When I first met one of my managers, he initially presented himself as very warm, charming and friendly. It is natural for us to take people at face value when we first meet them. I initially got all the rotas I wanted, he seemed very friendly and I had no issues.
However, a couple of months in, I started to notice his behavior turn toxic. He started nitpicking, micro-managing, making my life difficult, provoking reactions from me whilst sneaking around gossiping about those reactions in an attempt to smear me – a typical ploy of the psychopath.
When I spoke to others who observed the same pattern in him – a short initial “honeymoon period” following by increasingly toxic behavior, we see the psychopath forcing themselves to put “the mask” up initially, but slowly getting bored and irritated by this and moving to toxic behaviors instead.
Example 2 – Psychopathic boss 2 – Another psychopathic boss I had had a bad reputation for pestering women, with many complaints put in against him for invasiveness and inappropriate comments around female colleagues.
Upper management were well aware of this aspect of his behavior, and he was initially demoted and withheld from any further management positions until he was later given a second chance, but very sternly warned that his behavior around women must improve if he was to retain his position.
It was spelled out to him very clearly that he must always respect their space and never come out with inappropriate jokes and comments around them. Initially, he heeded this advice and behaved himself for the first few months of his second management stint.
Then, he began to clash a little with one female colleague who sometimes snapped at him in a way that irritated him. This did not help as he already had problems in his personality with women, as well as a naturally toxic and psychopathic personality which sought control over women especially.
As soon as the “back and forth” conflict began to escalate even slightly, the wheels came off any semblance of self control he had forced himself to keep for the first few months, and he reverted straight back to pestering, invasiveness, excessive and inappropriate texting and other toxic behaviors towards the female member of staff in question, causing her significant distress.
The matter was dealt with through disciplinary procedures but again emphasizes how fragile any sense of self control a psychopath displays is, and how quickly it can disintegrate at the slightest difficulty or confrontation.
Behaving well and following the rules is only ever conditional on their ego being constantly stroked and propped up and on no confrontation of their fundamental character deficits.
Example 3 – Psychopathic Housemate – This same general pattern can be observed with psychopathic housemates – they may behave themselves initially but soon enough the brakes start to come off and their behavior starts getting more and more inappropriate.
A housemate of mine once had a very cushy deal – living in his brother’s house, party boy lifestyle, often able to get behind on and skip paying the rent because it was his brother it was going to and not a complete stranger. My article on the hedonistic psychopath is based on him.
In spite of this, his mother and brother gave him strict instructions to behave himself and not drive anyone out with an inconsiderate party boy lifestyle. They were well aware of his hedonistic and immature lifestyle despite his age at 42 and didn’t want him screwing things up for them even more by driving out other tenants, costing them more rent money as well as getting behind on his own rent.
He kept this up for the first few months, behaving well and not partying into the early hours keeping me or the other tenants awake. This is the psychopath forcing themself to try and behave and follow the rules of common courtesy and considerateness they know other people consider important.
However, this slowly started to fade, especially as I started to confront him on some of his other childish and immature behavior, and resist his efforts to control through invasive questioning, nosiness and constant snooping on my behavior (where I was going, what I was doing etc). Psychopaths are naturally invasive and intrusive characters.
It only took a little bit of “pushback” on my part to his controlling behavior for all sense on control to come off his behavior. He started having girls (and parties in general) back in the early hours, playing music, chatting and sometimes having sex noisily in the next room while I was trying to sleep in the early hours. The drugs started to come out as well, despite him not doing this at first.
The mind games and other boundary violations also started to creep up, as he sought to create an increasingly oppressive and uncomfortable atmosphere to try and drive me out. Psychopaths do not like anyone standing up to them in the least; they need to stay in control otherwise the toxic behavior starts to ramp up as they seek to re-establish control.
The behaviour and the early hours noise started to become more and more commonplace and blatantly inconsiderate, as the psychopath has now lost any semblance of “self control” and “behaving themself”. Once the wheels come off, their behavior very quickly deteriorates.
He forced himself to behave for a short while, but there is very little resistance to this facade coming down at the slightest sign of trouble or confrontation. Behaving appropriately does not come naturally to the psychopath and is a real challenge day to day. Behaving inappropriately comes far more naturally to them.