How to Spot a Psychopath.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: How to spot a psychopath.

I love finding–or inventing–ways to categorize people. I agree with philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who observed, “Every classification throws light on something.”

I’ve devised several of these, and of the ones I’ve come up with myself, my favorites are the Abstainer/Moderator distinction and the four Rubin Tendencies.

Because of this interest, I was intrigued to come across the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, a personality test for traits  associated with psychopathy.

I think that we can all agree that one thing that does not contribute to a happy life is a relationship with a psychopath. But what traits are associated with psychopaths?

The test seeks to measure:

Social influence — a tendency to seem charming, persuasive

Fearlessness — a tendency to embrace risk without fear or anxiety

Stress immunity — stays cool in difficult circumstances

Machiavellian egocentricity — a tendency to consider only personal needs

Rebellious nonconformity — a tendency to neglect of social conventions and regulations

Blame externalization — a tendency to assign blame for problems or obstacles to other people

Carefree lack of planning — limited willingness to make future plans

Cold-heartedness — no guilt or remorse

People throw around the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” quite frequently, but these are technical terms with very specific meanings. That said, if there’s someone in your life who seems to show many of the above traits, it might be useful to reflect on that.

Do you know anyone who fits these traits? To my great relief, I realize, I don’t.

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  • peninith1

    Oh boy. I have had my horrible experiences with some of these types before I learned to recognize them. Although M. Scott Peck derails and gets weird before the end of his book, “People of the Lie” it still gives one of the best descriptions of people who are in this category. Peck’s book afforded me many ‘light bulb’ moments about people I knew or worked with.

    If you know such a person, and it is possible for you to make very good boundaries, my suggestion is never get closer to him or her than what it takes to exchange chit chat about the weather. Seriously.

    If you have a family member with this or another of the ‘personality disorder’ illnesses, heaven help you. One wise therapist I heard in a training session said this: People who have addictions, depression, and bipolar disorder have very painful lives; people who have personality disorders (psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissistic personalities, dependent personalities and the like) make life very painful for EVERYONE ELSE. You may need professional counseling to help you figure out how to draw the line and protect yourself. Don’t be afraid to do it!

  • BKF

    We recently read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson for our book club. It was fascinating initially but chilling by the time I was done with it. Afterwards I read this by Jon Ronson in an interview, ” It’s a story about psychopath-spotting in high places, then, but also about how becoming a psychopath-spotter can turn you a bit psychopathic because it compels you to start reducing people to items on a checklist — to their maddest edges.” I realized that while reading the book I had been trying to classify one or two people I know ( and dislike) as, at least, having psychopathic tendencies!

  • sailormac

    My prof, in answer to my question, stated: “an alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks more than you do !” I suspect the same concept wrt with the layman analysing for psychopathy

    • b

      An alcoholic is someone whose behavior changes after drinking a small or large amount. If you are involved with anyone whose drinking bothers you, a visit to AlAnon can help your own sanity and stop you being an enabler e.g. covering up his abuse or cleaning up his vomit. Alcohol can put holes in the drinker’s memory so he remembers nothing of what he did/ said. To have an alcoholic parent is among the worst things a child can undergo. It is vital to leave and care for yourself and any kids. Yes, start saving and preparing silently to leave. Yes, you may have to write off many things, a home, money, etc. to take the way out. But, please believe it SOON feels so wonderful to be away from a drinker, especially for an affected child. Never ever delude yourself that you can ‘help’ the drinker. Also, he is a terrible role model for a child, so leave and begin again. Life is wonderful without that drinker!

  • anon

    Am I missing the link to the actual test?

  • ShazziB

    wow!! This cam at the right time for me…the experiences i have had – sheesh!!

  • MimiManderly

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from the series Sherlock: “I’m not a psychopath. I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.”

    A good quote, to me, is happiness inducing, and I collect them.

  • Nan

    I have had to do some reading about sociopaths after meeting one. Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door was helpful. Sociopaths want you to feel sorry for them. Because if you do, you will let them get away with a lot. And the best way to deal with one is to cut them out of your life.

    • Ann

      I read Stout’s book after an experience with a sociopath (stranger) that cost me emotional stress, loss of freedom, and money. The sociopath wanted my sympathy (and money) after he tried to run over me and my dog while we were on an afternoon walk and crossing a small, narrow bridge. He was physically going to run right into my dog’s leash! Startled, by his sudden appearance, I screamed and my dog defended me.
      Immediately, he wanted sympathy which I gave to him. But when he announced (within seconds), “This is only 5% my fault.” My “spidey senses” went wild. This type of to distortion is an attempt to cause the victim to question reality, but it is also the beginning of a calculated negotiation in which the only winner will be the emotional zombie. It is called “gas-lighting,” and is a tell-tale sign of you are dealing with a sociopath (or psychopath, too.) In retrospect, my error was in giving sympathy to him instead of screaming and screaming until I had a witness to the fact I had been frightened of him. Yes, we were where no witnesses were near. Gee, did he plan that?
      One final point: I had taken a walk that day because I was feeling very sad over my father’s recent death. Well-established research indicates these emotional zombies can detect vulnerability by observing exterior details of potential victims. For example, they can detect postures of movements consistent with sadness, or other preoccupying emotions, so be extra careful when walking alone. And don’t forget to scream loud and long if weird things happen and you need witnesses!

      • b

        You are completely right: they use your sorrow to upset you further. And get sympathy for themselves instead!

  • Shannon

    I was in a friend relationship with a narcissist (sounds harmless, but seriously, look up narcissistic personality disorder. Quite possibly worse than a relationship with a sociopath). When I decided that I didn’t like how he treated me and broke off the friendship, it was a far more dramatic break-up than any romantic break-up I’ve ever been through. He had clearly saved up every weak spot I had ever revealed to him so that he could attack them. Apparently this is a thing narcissists do, when they lose control over a relationship. It was scary. Even though he didn’t make any threats, his response was so furious that I was actually afraid that he would attempt to vandalize my home or car afterwards.
    So it was handy for a while afterwards to recognize that narcissists have a certain pattern of behavior that I could now recognize – particularly, a need to feel superior, a lack of empathy, and often I’ve seen that these traits cause them to want to control others. But as time went on, I couldn’t remember what I was getting out of this friendship that ever made it worth putting up with a self-important, unsympathetic, controlling jerk. All of this coincided with me being in therapy and some serious increases in my self-esteem.
    So sure, it can be handy to have a scary word like “psychopath” or “sociopath” or “narcissist” when reminding yourself not to be in a relationship with a certain type of person. But if someone meets some of the traits above – like if someone is cold-hearted and blames others for their problems – why be in a relationship with them in the first place? What do you get out of it? Ultimately, I think it’s more useful to care about yourself enough to only have companions that are worthy of your trust, than it is to wonder if that charming, fearless friend of yours is a psychopath.

  • GG

    Years ago, a very dear relative of mine sat down with me and mentioned psychopathy, which I was not aware of, and suggested that my husband of ten years had this personality disorder. That one conversation, and my subsequent research into the subject turned my world upside down. It shook me to the core when I fully realized that I had naively invested so much love, emotion, money, and hopes into my husband, who was unable to keep a job, was unable to plan short-term or long-term, who lied repeatedly about big and insignificant things, who always blamed others for his problems, who was financially irresponsible, who had gradually isolated me from most of my friends and family, who was amused at others’ discomfort that he often intentionally caused himself, but who was never embarrassed himself, who never once cried but would be temporarily angry if I cried. The list goes on, and although I was well-educated and the sole breadwinner during our marriage, I was always suckered by my husband into believing that he would change and that things would get better.

    That relative of mine recommended two books. The first, “Without Conscience” by Robert D. Hare, is maybe the best book on psychopathy that I have come across. My one reservation is that Hare hooks the reader in the beginning with sensationalistic examples of violent murderers, when actually, as Hare himself notes later in the book, most psychopaths are not violent. The second book is Hervey Cleckley’s “The Mask of Sanity”. I love the title: psychopaths do wear a mask of emotions, and they learn to appear sad or happy, when they are, in fact, not. Is that insanity? Not technically, but it is a condition or disorder that is, at the least, unsettling, to those of us who have real emotions and a conscience.

    I take full responsibility for letting myself remain in such a draining relationship for so long. I was always the “giver” and my husband always, always took. Although I don’t like to think of myself as a victim, Hare’s book also helped me by addressing the need for victims of psychopaths not to feel guilty for having been repeatedly manipulated.

    Hare and other professionals warn against laypeople identifying others as psychopaths, but I truly think that most laypeople can read and educate themselves sufficiently on psychopathy to at least help them avoid getting involved, either personally or professionally, with people with strong psychopathic traits. Or help them cut their ties with psychopaths. There is, surprisingly, a dearth of information and material on psychopathy, considering that perhaps 10 percent of the male population, is psychopathic, according to Hare’s book.
    With my eyes now wide open, it troubles me that many people are (a) not aware that they are being manipulated and taken advantage of by someone and/or (b) not aware that that someone is often a psychopath. I am troubled, but I understand: it can turn your world upside down to admit that someone you loved or liked a lot is this “being” who appears on the outside normal, but who in fact has no conscience, who lacks the emotions that most humans have. Not to sound trite, but it’s kind of freaky when you really think about it. It can be a big step for someone to admit this. And I believe it brings up other troubling questions in people’s minds: are psychopaths evil? Are they somehow less human? It can take a great deal of courage for a kind and loving person to admit to himself or herself that someone they cared about or loved may be a psychopath or at least have psychopathic tendencies.

  • Veronique

    It’s funny I’m the opposite…I hate categorizing people and don’t like it when people try to do it to me however after growing up in a home with three, yes count them three narcissists putting that label on them actually enabled me to deal with them in a loving compassionate way but to no longer allow them to control my life. So, sometimes a category is most helpful.

  • GG

    Years ago, a very dear relative of mine sat down with me and mentioned psychopathy, which I was not aware of, and suggested that my husband of ten years had this personality disorder. That one conversation, and my subsequent research into the subject turned my world upside down. It shook me to the core when I fully realized that I had naively invested so much love, emotion, money, and hopes into my husband, who was unable to keep a job, was unable to plan short-term or long-term, who lied repeatedly about big and insignificant things, who always blamed others for his problems, who was financially irresponsible, who had gradually isolated me from most of my friends and family, who was amused at others’ discomfort that he often intentionally caused himself, but who was never embarrassed himself, who never once cried but would be temporarily angry if I cried. The list goes on, and although I was well-educated and the sole breadwinner during our marriage, I was always suckered by my husband into believing that he would change and that things would get better.

    That relative of mine recommended two books. The first, “Without Conscience” by Robert D. Hare, is maybe the best book on psychopathy that I have come across. My one reservation is that Hare hooks the reader in the beginning with sensationalistic examples of violent murderers, when actually, as Hare himself notes later in the book, most psychopaths are not violent. The second book is Hervey Cleckley’s “The Mask of Sanity”. I love the title: psychopaths do wear a mask of emotions, and they learn to appear sad or happy, when they are, in fact, not. Is that insanity? Not technically, but it is a condition or disorder that is, at the least, unsettling, to those of us who have real emotions and a conscience.

    I take full responsibility for letting myself remain in such a draining relationship for so long. I was always the “giver” and my husband always, always took. Although I don’t like to think of myself as a victim, Hare’s book also helped me by addressing the need for victims of psychopaths not to feel guilty for having been repeatedly manipulated.

    Hare and other professionals warn against laypeople identifying others as psychopaths, but I truly think that most laypeople can read and educate themselves sufficiently on psychopathy to at least help them avoid getting involved, either personally or professionally, with people with strong psychopathic traits. Or help them cut their ties with psychopaths. There is, surprisingly, a dearth of information and material on psychopathy, considering that perhaps 10 percent of the male population, is psychopathic, according to Hare’s book.

    With my eyes now wide open, it troubles me that many people are (a) not aware that they are being manipulated and taken advantage of by someone and/or (b) not aware that that someone is often a psychopath. I am troubled, but I understand: it can turn your world upside down to admit that someone you loved or liked a lot is this “being” who appears on the outside normal, but who in fact has no conscience, who lacks the emotions that most humans have. Not to sound trite, but it’s kind of freaky when you really think about it. It can be a big step for someone to admit this. And I believe it brings up other troubling questions in people’s minds: are psychopaths evil? Are they somehow less human? It can take a great deal of courage for a kind and loving person to admit to himself or herself that someone they cared about or loved may be a psychopath or at least have psychopathic tendencies.

    • mebelle

      That was a great insight. I have experienced an ex’s stepson who I believe is a psychopath, and it has been scary. You are so right about “the mask” because he has some fooled, but that is so hard to believe that others don’t see it. Although I try not to think of him at all, he definitely has those traits and it ended my relationship with his stepfather. He would steal, lie do drugs with no remorse, it was never his fault. They are together now, hate to be bitter so think of it as karma. How do therapists spot this disorder, if patients lie and manipulate?

    • Catherine

      The books that you recommend are enlightening – I read these as I attempted to figure out the constant lies, egocentricity, lack of planning / remorse, etc. that were everyday struggles in our marriage. It took a doctor saying gently that perhaps the various injuries and illnesses I’d had over several years were because I was “in a relationship with a charismatic.” As I tried to figure out what what was meant by that, I made a discovery about his secret (and unsavory) life. When asked, our marriage counselor provided me with a diagnosis “he’s a psychopath with a touch of narcissism” as he explained why my best option was divorce.

      Since our divorce, former husband has spiraled downward professionally because of the effect of his behaviors in every job that he held. What is tough is trying to compassionately explain to my son that his father is fundamentally “broken”, because he has no empathy and commits harmful and inexplicable acts. His dad really can’t help the way that he is, and my son needs to learn how to protect himself from the hurt without becoming damaged himself.

      Once I realized that to a psychopath, I was simply a tool (to be used or discarded if I no longer worked) it was easier to move on. Psychopaths are indeed charming and will tell you ANYTHING that you need to hear in order to stay in their orbit, even if it’s a patent falsehood. I never did figure out if he meant these lies in the moment. These types are masterful at figuring out what makes you tick so that they know what to promise. It’s still hard for me to comprehend….

  • Bette

    I honestly don’t understand why anyone would rebel at the idea of labeling a cold-blooded, glib, conscience-less person a psychopath. We warn our children about all types of dangers — why not educate them (and ourselves) about people who wouldn’t hesitate to cause them (and us) harm? Sometimes people who are afraid of being “rude” or hurting someone’s feelings end up dead because of this!

    • peninith1

      I could not agree more. I remember telling my son that if he always seemed to get hurt playing with a particular friend, maybe that was not an accident, and it was ok if he did not want to go play with that child any more. It was relief to us both. Also I told both my kids that if they felt uncomfortable around someone, adult or child, they should pay attention to that feeling and stay away. It is important to tell kids that a ‘bad feeling’ about someone is something you should not ignore or explain away. This is one situation in which you may ‘find explanations in charity,’ yet wisely keep your distance.

      • Ann

        You are so right! It is that uncomfortable feeling that is our only defense. These zombies count on your good will to make their plans work. The argument about “mental illness” doesn’t work here, either. Brain scans indicate these people are innately unable to feel compassion toward others. The ability just doesn’t exist, so the best they can do is emulate those with real emotions. We’re not talking about something that can be cured with meds here. Mental health practitioners dread having to work with these people, because it seems only to give the emotional zombies more info about how to manipulate people, including their therapists. It is time to be very honest about the threat presented by people who have no conscience, no insight, no compassion, and reproduce at an extraordinary rate because they don’t have the normal inhibitions to behaviors. And they are likely passing on these traits in high numbers. The Inuit used to push them off the ice, apparently. We can’t do that, so the only option is to forewarn and forearm others around us. Thanks Gretchen!

      • b

        Right! Ignoring signs and that feeling of things being wrong is what gets even adults into sad situations.

  • Theresa

    I’m trying to figure out what your point was with this post. I’m extremely disappointed in the lack of credible sources on such an important topic. The link to the Psychopathic Personality Inventory takes me to Wikipedia. Really Gretchen? You couldn’t find a more credible site than Wikipedia for such an important topic? A more useful site would have been a link to the actual test or a website of a psychologist who specializes in such personality disorders. As the entry is now, it only serves to widen the misunderstanding and stigmas of this particular mental disorder. Next time please do more research and site more credible sources. Mental health disorders and the stigmas associated with them are an extremely important and sensitive topic for me as I have quite a few family members who have been diagnosed with clinical depression. We’ve come up against some pretty extreme opinions and judgement due to lack of public education and understanding of mental illnesses.

    • Bette

      I agree. This was a shocking post. I’m guessing that, b/c Gretchen has not [yet] met any psychopaths, she has not researched this devastating personality disorder enough to know that those of us who’ve been scarred by one (or more) psychopaths might take offense at a breezy blog post that casually mentions it as a way of categorizing people. Psychopaths rape, murder, torture, manipulate, deceive, and often charm their way through life with few consequences until they’re caught. Many go to jail. Some kill themselves. But a surprising number live among us, doing their damage.

      • Theresa

        Thank you for seeing my point! My sister had a ‘friend’ in high-school that we were pretty sure was a psychopath. It didn’t take long for this girl to turn on her and be pretty strange towards her. It was pretty hard to get her to leave my sister alone. The breeziness of this post is very offensive. Labeling someone a psychopath is not merely a way of categorizing people. Psychopaths are scary people.

    • mebelle

      Actually I found it informative and have been affected recently by people that exhibit these traits. Wikipedia is actually a very good source.

    • Integrity4life

      Google is available for more research, if the short list raises concerns. And when it comes to psychopaths – I think the stigma is warranted. People with depression often seek help, I have, BUT psychopaths do not. In their world view, others are the problem. Having studied counseling as part of a graduate degree, the more you learn about Psychopaths, the more you realize they are NOT in the same category as many mental illnesses. There is no fix or med for a lack of empathy.

    • Catherine

      I found this post to be very thoughtful and the sources that Gretchen cites are indeed valid. Wikipedia is an approachable layman’s resource, which may be why it was used. Having been in an 18 year relationship with a psychopath, I can say that her post does not “widen the misunderstanding” of this disorder. I’m sorry that you feel that you suffer from stigmas associated with mental health disorders in your family. Try focusing on your own healing – attacking others online won’t do that for you. It will only make you feel worse. Take a deep breath and get away from the keyboard for a nice walk. Best wishes.

  • sister

    I will pray for you, and I will ask my mother to pray, too. After my dad divorced her, she had to live alone for the first time in her life, at the age of 53. It was frightening at first, and she grieved the loss of a 35 year marriage, to which she had honestly given her best, but she asked God to give her strength. She found a verse in the Bible that says God will be a father to the fatherless and a husband to the husbandless. She took that to mean that she had another Protector who would always be there to comfort and love her. She bought a gold ring to wear, as a reminder of God’s promises to be there for her (even when people failed), and now she says that time was precious for how she learned to trust. I’m so sorry to read about all the pain you’ve been through. It’s crazy-making for a sincere, good-hearted person to deal with someone who is wickedly manipulative, as has been shown by your trauma. Here is something that’s helped me in past times of depression. If you are feeling like you’re not worth taking care of, try thinking of yourself in the third person. There have been times I would be physically weak and so sad and think, ‘How can I make it through today? I just can’t.’ I would tell myself that I needed to take care of my mother’s daughter and my sister’s sister, because they loved ‘her’ very much and needed her to be kept well. I would eat for them and take good care of myself for them. It also reminded me that, although I was miserable on the inside, I still mattered to others. Part of your great pain is the agony of knowing you had a good heart and really tried, but having your children feel distant, or even believe lies, about you. Being misunderstood in such ways by those you love with your whole heart brings a strange and powerful grief, especially when you feel powerless to reveal the truth. I will pray that, as you keep going ahead, you will begin to heal from this pain, that the twisted miseries you have endured will recede into the past, and that you will find new peace. Also that, as you heal, you will find clarity and strength as to what steps you will take in your life, and that somehow, over time, your relationship with your children will heal. Your note is just heart-breaking, and you have lived through great pain. What you need now is to heal, and to be freed to find joy again. Thank you for reading my note.

    • sister

      P.S. It might be best to edit your post so as to delete his name. It’s presence here makes it possible to bring up your comments in a Google search. By erasing it, your note will be safer.

    • Another sister

      I read you post, and understand that writing about what you’ve endured is cathartic. I feel for you. Agree with Sister that you should edit your post to remove his name. Googled him and can see that he’s a bad guy who has been charged for drug and sex crimes recently. Forgive yourself for all the years with him and move on as best you can.

  • Pamela Valemont
  • Pamela Valemont
  • Lacy

    A former boss of mine fits this to a tee! Explains a lot, actually.