There are in reality lots of different traits you can look out for to try and spot psychopathy in a person, some contained in more official lists and some not.
However, in this post we’ll seek to cover some less obvious and less mentioned traits that can indicate psychopathy; the ones that aren’t so obviously drawn out from diagnostic lists such as the Psychopathy Checklist.
We’ll also try to include some really broad overarching markers that will enable you to see through a psychopath’s glib facade, no matter how well they think they’ve refined it to try and take people in. Psychopaths are very capable of upgrading the act of deception and creating a more convincing facade for the next person they con, so it’s important to really step back and ask some bigger picture questions to expose the more cleverly concealed psychopaths.
Here are some more subtle and less obvious indicators of psychopathy:
- Provocative and reaction seeking behavior
- A fixation on power and control over others
- Abnormal and inappropriate reactions to emotional events.
- Extreme denial and projection
- Relentless pushing of boundaries
- No vocational traits whatsoever
- Extreme hedonism and shallowness
- Lack of ability to grow, change or evolve.
Some of these traits overlap a little, but we’ll go over each of them in much more detail below, after first quickly listing the more conventional psychopathic traits.
Psychopathy Traits Checklist Recap (More Obvious Traits)
We’ll briefly list the main traits of the Psychopathy Checklist, which sum up the main characteristics common in evaluated psychopaths in the criminal justice system.
- 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
See our full length article on the Psychopathy Traits Checklist for a detailed overview of all these traits, including examples for every one.
However, we won’t dwell on this as they are now pretty well known. What readers are looking for is some more subtle and less obvious signs of psychopathy, so let’s dive into some less known signs below.
1. Provocative & Reaction Seeking
This is a huge one to look out for, and in a sense it will be very obvious when you come across it, but isn’t really contained within the Psychopathy Checklist, so needs mentioning.
It’s more an insight which has come from the toxic relationship community from people’s experiences with non violent psychopaths. It’s an overarching theme for all the Cluster B disorders (to which psychopathy belongs), and so is important to step back from all the nonsense and gas-lighting they engage in to see the truth:
Psychopaths are always looking to provoke reactions from the people they abuse. They are looking to generate an emotional reaction from you as a sense of gaining control, since all attention (even negative attention) from someone is a sign they have power and control over them in their minds.
Personality disorder expert Richard Grannon sums it it like this:
“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’”.
Here are some ways this can manifest with psychopaths:
- After the initial honeymoon (idealize) period with a psychopath, they’ll start to provoke and pick fights with you to generate a negative emotional reaction. They can suddenly start this randomly, or when they are (justifiably) confronted on something they did or said that was wrong.
- The victim often falls into the trap of trying to debate and reason with the psychopath, growing ever more exacerbated as the psychopath ramps up the unpleasant behavior and seemingly takes pleasure in the distress they are causing.
- Psychopaths can turn any conversation into an argument, even when you were seeking cordiality. They will manufacture indignation to turn any conversation toxic even when that was never your intention.
- Psychopath bosses are constantly trying to provoke subordinates to generate a bad reaction, which they then sneak around gossiping about to others (the classical workplace smear campaign).
- More generally the Cluster B disorders in general are marked by a need to make others feel bad to make themselves feel good. When they provoke a negative emotional reaction in others, psychopaths and narcissists feel “full” again.
- More generally, as a relationship with a psychopath turns more toxic and the provocation ramps up, you will notice more negative traits like anger, anxiety and rumination starting to creep into your life when they weren’t there before. Their behavior gets you more and more agitated and distressed. You start to think about them more and more in a bad way.
2. Fixated on Power and Control
This is actually a very common psychopathic traits, but it isn’t well covered or defined by the standard psychopathy checklist, but it is so applicable that it needs covering here.
Psychopaths are power and control obsessed individuals, who need control over others and/or their immediate environment to shore up their own psychological state. Their craving for power and control comes from a lack of order within their own psyche, no matter how confident they present themselves on the surface. The term “personality disorder” is used for good reason.
Here are some ways the controlling nature of the psychopath can reveal itself:
- Some less well concealed psychopaths will physically control their family members or spouses, preventing them from going out or engaging in physical abuse as a way of controlling and dominating them.
- More intelligent psychopaths understand that physical violence is frowned upon, and instead seek to control people psychologically instead (eroding boundaries, invasive/intrusive questioning, gas-lighting and so on).
- Workplace managers with psychopathic traits will be extremely controlling and power obsessed, demanding everyone submit 100% to their authority at all times and brutally attacking anyone that doesn’t. Psychopathic bosses can be a nightmare to work for for this reason – they will massively over-manage and micro-manage to shore up their own fragile state.
- Romantic relationships with psychopaths might start off seeming fun loving and carefree, but they quickly turn into an oppressive nightmare as the psychopath ramps up the drama and provocation to get the victim obsessing about them. To the psychopath, this is a victory, because if you are thinking about them (even negatively), they have control over you.
- Psychopath killers sometimes keep trophies of their victims as a sick form of power control.
- Serial killers such as Ian Brady sometimes even revisit the sites where they buried victims as a sick way (in their minds) of still exercising control over them. Psychologists who interview full blown psychopathic killers often describe their experience with them as a constant battle for power and control, with the psychopath doing all they can to manipulate and control the interviewer at every chance.
See our article on psychopaths as control freaks for some of these characteristics fleshed out in more detail.
3. Lack of Appropriate Reactions To Things
This is another huge one to look out for – by being observant, you can spot this abnormality in the psychopath and it will make them stick out like a sore thumb.
The Psychopath Checklist does cover the shallowness of the psychopath’s emotions, but here we are expanding the concept a bit to hone in on emotional reactions – displaying (or not displaying) appropriate reactions to things that a normal person would.
A psychopath will not display the appropriate emotional reactions to distressing or upsetting events that a normal person with empathy and a conscience would. There will be a general disinterest and cold detachment from such things, and even a desire to joke and make light of them.
Michael from the Unslaved Podcast on Psychopathy puts it like this:
“When you mention about some tragedy or obvious injustice, although they may feign some remorse or come out with the odd comment, you’ll notice that emotionally, they don’t give a f**k, they couldn’t care less”
And then on another of his websites regarding the psychopath/energy vampire type who pretends to be your “friend”:
“Imagine them standing at your own graveside while you’re laid to rest. They are the one looking for the coffee dispenser, inquiring when the party starts, impatiently checking their watch as every minute passes”.
These two quotes brilliantly capture the inappropriateness of the psychopathic personality, in that they don’t possess the same emotional brake-checks such as empathy, decency, conscience and remorse that normal people.
Therefore, regardless of how glib and superficially charming they can be, when circumstances demand more compassion and sober reflection, you will find them bizarrely absent from the psychopath in ways that will leave you unsettled by them.
In my experience, they are the ones who, when revelations about a (seemingly) harmless work colleague’s horrific abusive past come to light, instead of reflecting with compassion on the people harmed by this abuse, instead spends the rest of the day grinning, smirking and cracking jokes about it. See our article on duping delight for more on this trait of grinning or smirking at inappropriate times from psychopaths.
Whilst normal people are shocked and saddened at learning these things about someone they thought they knew, and feel for the people affected, the psychopath’s mood improves, as they inflate themselves on the suffering of others and take pleasure in spreading the news as far and wide as possible.
There’s just an inappropriateness there that those with more critical thinking and an observant eye will be able to spot – the psychopath’s abnormal personality means they can’t react to distressing things in a normal, compassionate way.
Note – As we move into late 2021/early 2022, and disturbing revelations about well known people start to be revealed, this perceptual skill may indeed become very useful. As horrifying things are revealed, notice how people react (or don’t react). Notice what they say (and don’t say). Check for their emotional reactions, and see what people reveal about themselves.
4. Extreme Projection & Lack of Ownership
This is another trait that isn’t covered in the official checklist, but is very important as it is built into the psychopathic mindset to an extreme degree.
Psychologically, projection is when you attribute to someone else something that is actually attributable to you, such as a trait, characteristic or action. An example would be accusing someone of doing or being something when you are in fact doing or being that.
We all project to some degree, but psychopaths engage in projection to an extreme and outrageous extent, refusing to accept any ownership for toxic behavior and instead blaming others even in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.
Here are some ways this can manifest with psychopaths:
- Nothing is ever their fault even when it clearly is. They will never accept wrongdoing, even when presented with clear, undeniable evidence. Zero ownership taken for mistakes or bad behavior.
- In relationships, will accuse partners or cheating/lying/stealing, when they are the one cheating/lying/stealing.
- Other cases of attributing to you things which are actually true to them (eg. moody, crazy, abusive, not taking criticism, lazy etc).
- A constant sense of an inverted reality, where you are seen as the bad person while they walk off scot-free.
- Regular situations where you find yourself apologizing or making up for something when it was their fault in the first place.
- Over time, repeated projection in relationships starts to have a more insidious effect on the victim, who starts to believe they are the ones who are toxic and disordered, when it’s really the psychopath projecting this onto them. They come out of these relationships feeling they have lost their mind.
- The psychopath boss will see themselves as perfect, never making mistakes, and always blaming others for their mistakes.
- Projection is so woven into their psyche that you can confront them with clear evidence of their guilt or wrongdoing, and they’ll smile or laugh at you. Denial of reality is easy for them.
- See our full article on psychopaths and projection for more on this.
In this sense, projection crosses over closely with gas-lighting and in fact the two are often interchangeable – when a psychopath is projecting responsibility for something onto you, they are gas-lighting you.
5. Boundary Pushing Behaviors
This is another one to look out for in everyday psychopaths you meet in the real world – not just incarcerated criminal psychopaths.
Psychopaths have a constant desire to push the boundaries of acceptability in their behavior, attempting to get away with more and more unacceptable things either for their own benefit, or to erode the moral standards and boundaries of those they are abusing.
In other words, they just can’t help themselves. Their grip on morality and rules and decency is pretty much nonexistent to begin with, so it’s never too much of a struggle to start “testing the waters“, pushing the norms that they at least intellectually know other people abide by, seeing what they can get away with.
Here are some ways this boundary pushing tendency can show itself with psychopaths:
- Ramping up abuse in intimate relationships, turning up the dial in subtle increments with increasingly unacceptable behavior, getting the victim accustomed to being treated more and more poorly but seeing this as “normal”. Getting people in a place where they are “grateful for the mediocre“, as one writer puts it.
- In workplaces, a continual pushing of the boundaries of acceptability, breaking rules, exploiting grey areas and eroding the self esteem of targets/scapegoats. Lower level psychopaths also constantly pushing for more power and influence, often by manipulating and playing on the egos of those above them.
- More generally psychopaths erode the morals and standards of those they are around, “toxifying” the environment around them and creating a situation where the abnormal is normalized, and poor treatment is seen as acceptable.
In general terms, psychopaths are also very good at manipulating and influencing people for their own ends. I’ve observed numerous times where workplace psychopaths seem to have management wrapped round their finger and control them in a way that others find unimaginable. “How do they get away with that?”, you’ll find yourself wondering as they swagger around seemingly untouchable, appearing to manage the people who are meant to be managing them!
This boundary pushing trait is worsened when there are apathetic, easily influenced people around the psychopath who shrug their shoulders and don’t call out unacceptable behavior for what it is. See the sociopath-empath-apath dynamic for a good model of how they exploit this apathy and passivity for their own ends.
6. No Vocational Traits Whatsoever
This is another broad, overarching trait that you can look for again by stepping back a bit from all the smooth talk, and just looking at them as a person in general. Do they have any vocational traits? Do they have any “bigger picture” insights or goals? Do they live for anyone other than themselves?
With a psychopath, you’ll find the answer to all these questions is no.
Psychopaths do not have any vocational traits or higher purposes, and instead spend their entire lives fixated on power, control and manipulating others for their own ends. This does not change even as they age and will therefore stand out over time.
So look out for this once a person starts to hit mid 30s and beyond. Most people are a bit rough around the edges and narcissistic in their teens and twenties, when it’s all about partying and having fun. But most normal people start to mature emotionally at some point; to develop some kind of depth and substance as they move through life and overcome difficulties. They start to have kids, and other things start to matter.
With the psychopath, this doesn’t happen. They don’t grow or mature as they move through life, but instead stay stuck in a power and control obsessed mindset, where they are a) looking to exploit others before they themselves are exploited (paranoid mindset), and; b) constantly seeking power and control over others, sometimes physically but usually psychologically.
There are no “higher purposes” or “vocations” with the psychopath. Ask them about this and they’ll look at you with a blank expression. They are strictly about power and control, along with hedonism (see next section). Psychopaths do have kids but often abandon them, since they lack any real sense of responsibility or control.
7. Extreme Hedonism & Moral Cowardice
This aspect is tangentially covered in some of the Psychopathy Checklist traits, and also crosses over with some of the other traits in this post about growth and vocation, but it really needs drawing out because it is a very good way to spot them.
Psychopaths live their entire lives with an extreme hedonistic mindset, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain to an extreme degree. A consequence of this is that they refuse to tolerate any prolonged hardship or suffering, and run from any kind of difficulty in their lives.
In other words, psychopaths can’t tolerate any downsides to life. It’s got to be all good and fun, or power and control, and never anything bad for them. As soon as things do turn bad, they flee from any kind of real suffering or difficulties.
Here are some ways this can manifest:
- A relentless need to party, drink and do recreational drugs or engage in other risky activities for a high.
- 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.
- Psychopaths often live irresponsible lives, running into financial difficulties, but cannot display any discipline to correct these issues and instead run further from the problem.
- 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.
- Psychopaths will also drop any supposed “friends” they had if the good times stop rolling and instead that person is suffering and needs some kind of real help or support in difficult times.
- Psychopaths are also self-serving and will never stand up for what is right if it negatively affects them. No sense of values or principles and very cowardly when push comes to shove.
See our article on psychopaths and hedonism for more on this trait.
If for whatever reason you are met with some legitimate suffering in your life, something in your family, or something is bringing you down…..you will definitely not be met with any sense of care or support from a psychopathic character.
In fact you’ll be met with the sound of bags being packed and taxis pulling up outside and ‘adios amigo’……..They don’t value you; they value the feelings that are awakened in them when they are in your presence…….You’ll find they’ll be gone from your life faster than the Roadrunner, the moment (these positive feelings they are getting off you) starts to head south.
8. Lack Of Ability To Grow Or Change
This is sort of linked to the last point on hedonism, and follows on from it, but again is a great rule of thumb to use to pull back from the the smoke and mirrors and glib charm psychopaths use and just look at them from a higher vantage point and see through them.
You will find in psychopaths a complete lack of ability to ever grow, change or evolve. They remain shallow, one dimensional and emotionally stunted right through their lives. This will start to stand out more once they reach middle age and beyond.
Because they refuse to suffer any legitimate hardships or downsides that normal people must eventually face (and grow and mature from), psychopaths never absorb the lessons gained from hard times to grow and mature as a person.
They just stay stuck on pathetic, low level stuff like manipulating and deceiving others for their own benefit, controlling others and causing trouble at every opportunity. Think about the workplace psychopath who in his 40’s or 50’s still devotes all his time and energy to petty politics, sniping, smear campaigns and backbiting. “You’re in middle age and you still haven’t grown out of that?“, you might think as you step back and take a broad look at them.
When someone is young, they can get away with this to some extent, but once a psychopath reaches their 30s, 40s and beyond, and still has no traits beyond power seeking, manipulation and deception, it starts to stand out. You can pull back from all their BS and smooth talking and just ask yourself “Is there anything there beyond that? Are there any positive traits there? Is there any sign of growth and change at all?” The answers will be damning to them.