Fiction is enamored with psychopaths. The concept of an emotionless, calculating genius is a fascinating one, and one I’m always down to see – except it’s almost always wrong. Off the top of my head, I can think of one good example of a Hollywood psychopath, and it is Cillian Murphy’s character Jackson Rippner in the movie Red Eye. (I love that movie. If you haven’t seen it go watch it. I’ll wait.) But enough preamble, let’s dive into what a psychopath looks like in real life.
• Psychopaths are inherently manipulative. This is one point Hollywood usually gets right, at any rate. A psychopath, however, is far less likely to be a mastermind genius than they are to be the freeloader on your cousin’s couch who always has another grand scheme, another excuse, another seemingly good reason you should let him keep living off your good will. They don’t tend to be glamorous. They tend to be That Person You Can’t Stand.
• Psychopaths are charming. Most people who encounter psychopaths describe them as extremely charming, talkative, and interesting. They will keep you dazzled and entertained as long as they want, but you can’t trust anything they say. Interestingly, many of the people who described their psychopathic conversation partners as ‘charming’ indicated they felt the charm was insincere and more snake oil than truthful.
“What makes psychopaths different from all others is the remarkable ease with which they lie, the pervasiveness of their deception, and the callousness with which they carry it out.”
— Robert Hare, criminal psychologist and creator of the Psychopath Checklist
“Psychopaths have a narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the center of the universe, as superior beings who are justified in living according to their own rules.”
“Psychopaths show a stunning lack of concern for the devastating effects their actions have on others. Often they are completely forthright about the matter, calmly stating that they have no sense of guilt, are not sorry for the pain and destruction they have caused, and that there is no reason for them to be concerned.”
Psychologist Kelly McAleer says of the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, “
“The psychopath is callous, yet charming. He or she will con and manipulate others with charisma and intimidation and can effectively mimic feelings to present as “normal” to society. The psychopath is organized in their criminal thinking and behavior, and can maintain good emotional and physical control, displaying little to no emotional or autonomic arousal, even under situations that most would find threatening or horrifying. The psychopath is keenly aware that what he or she is doing is wrong, but does not care.
“Conversely, the sociopath is less organized in his or her demeanor; he or she might be nervous, easily agitated, and quick to display anger. A sociopath is more likely to spontaneously act out in inappropriate ways without thinking through the consequences. Compared to the psychopath, the sociopath will not be able to move through society committing callous crimes as easily, as they can form attachments and often have ‘normal temperaments.’ . . .”
When in doubt, align your fictional character with the PCL-R. This twenty-item ‘psychopath test’ is now used in the criminal justice system (and now anywhere this determination is needed) to determine whether or not someone is, in fact, a psychopath. It’s not a list of attractive traits, in case you were wondering. Here are the traits it measures – all of which are accurate to clinical psychopaths.
• grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
• need for stimulation
• pathological lying
• cunning and manipulativeness
• lack of remorse or guilt
• shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
• callousness and lack of empathy
• parasitic lifestyle
• poor behavioral controls
• sexual promiscuity
• early behavior problems
• lack of realistic long-term goals
• failure to accept responsibility for own actions
• many short-term marital relationships
• juvenile delinquency
• revocation of conditional release
• criminal versatility
RECOMMENDED READING LIST
Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert Hare m.d.
Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Paul Babiak m.d. and Robert Hare m.d.
The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, m.d.
The Mask of Sanity, by Dr. Harvey Cleckley
Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas
The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Kevin Dutton Ph.D
Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion by Kevin Dutton Ph.D
(A NOTE ABOUT KEVIN DUTTON: Much of what is contained in his books is pseudoscience and anecdotes. I highly recommend them for both entertainment and insight, but they can’t be wholly ingested as perfect truth.)
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Schriver (this book is fiction, yes, but provides an extremely accurate look at not only raising a psychopathic child, but dealing with the aftermath of that child’s horrific criminal actions.)
AND my personal favorite,
The Psychopath Whisperer by Dr. Kevin Kiehl (a protege of Robert Hare and longtime maximum-security prison psychologist)