For most of us the idea of a psychopath conjures up images from movies like “Silence of The Lambs” and characters with names like “Hannibal Lector.” Fortunately characters like Hannibal don’t really exist. Serial killers and people involved in ritual torture are rare, but psychopathic behavior is more common than you might think.
I have known several psychopaths in my life. The clearest case involved an older teen who had no sense of guilt. He could learn the rules, but he had no sense of conscience. The only thing that saved him was a mother who loved him, took him to counseling for years and spent a great deal of time patiently teaching him right from wrong. I remember a conversation where he told me, “People know when something is wrong because it feels wrong. I have to remember or be reminded that stealing from someone is wrong. I don’t feel bad if I take something.”
Meeting this young boy changed my opinion of a psychopathic personality. Why? Because children with this condition are “emotionally blind.” And while I do not excuse cruelty or criminal behavior, I have sympathy and appreciate how hard it is for some people to learn how to act responsibly. Without help, potentially psychopathic children will become adults who never remain attached to anyone or anything for long. They may end up living a “predatory” lifestyle, feeling little or no regret, and having little or no remorse – except when they are caught or about to be locked up. A psychopath is not necessarily a bad person. But they are prone to have problems with society, rules, expectations and relationships.
A psychopath will use people for excitement, entertainment, to build their self-esteem and they invariably value people in terms of their material value (e.g. money, property, comfort, etc..). They can involve and get other people into trouble quickly and they seem to have no regret for their actions. To date there is no checklist of behavior and symptoms that will tell you with certainty whether or not a person is a psychopath. But there are warning signs. The following warning signs are based on my experience but primarily research conducted by Robert Hare, Ph.D – the leading expert on the Psychopathic Personality.
Characteristics of a Psychopath
self-centered ; self-important
need for stimulation ; prone to boredom
deceptive behavior ; lying
conning ; manipulative
little remorse or guilt
shallow emotional response
callous with a lack of empathy
living off others or predatory attitude
promiscuous sexual behavior
early behavioral problems
lack of realistic long term goals
blaming others for their actions
short term relationships
breaking parole or probation
varied criminal activity
The idea that psychopaths eat people is a myth. In reality, a person with a psychopathic personality can lead what appears to be an ordinary life. They can have jobs, get married and they can break the law like anyone else. But their jobs and marriages usually don’t last and their life is usually on the verge of personal chaos. They are almost always in some kind of trouble or they are not far from it.
A psychopath is usually a subtle manipulator. They do this by playing to the emotions of others. They typically have high verbal intelligence, but they lack what is commonly referred to as “emotional intelligence”. There is always a shallow quality to the emotional aspect of their stories. In particular they have difficulty describing how they felt, why they felt that way, or how others may feel and why. In many cases you almost have to explain it to them. Close friends and parents will often end up explaining to the psychopath how they feel and how others feel who have been hurt by him or her. They can do this over and over with no significant change in the person’s choices and behavior. They don’t understand or appreciate the impact that their behavior has on others. They do appreciate what it means when they are caught breaking rules or the law even though they seem to end up in trouble again. They desperately avoid incarceration and loss of freedom but continue to act as if they can get away with breaking the rules. They don’t learn from these consequences. They seem to react with feelings and regret when they are caught. But their regret is not so much for other people as it is for the consequences that their behavior has had on them, their freedom, their resources and their so called “friends.” They can be very sad for their self. A psychopath is always in it for their self even when it seems like they are caring for and helping others. The definition of their “friends” are people who support the psychopath and protect them from the consequence of their own antisocial behavior. Shallow friendships, low emotional intelligence, using people, antisocial attitudes and failure to learn from the repeated consequences of their choices and actions help identify the psychopath.
Psychopaths with low intelligence or a poor education seem to end up in jail more than ones with a higher education. The lack of emotional insight is the first good sign you may be involved with a psychopath. The second best sign is a history of criminal behavior in which a person does not seem to learn from their experience, but merely thinks about ways to not get caught.
So what happens to these poor kids if they don’t learn right from wrong? Parents with a child like this usually end up angry and frustrated. They will often shield their child from the consequences of their decisions and take the role of continuously trying to educate their child as to right and wrong. The child is always in trouble and doesn’t seem to learn. Their parents may begin to excuse their child’s behavior believing their child will eventually “get it.” When they don’t, many parents resort to punishment. But what these children need is intensive guidance, instruction, training, choices, consequences and supervision. Severe and repeated punishment alone is the worst thing you can do. Letting a child like this run around unsupervised with violent and antisocial children is almost as bad. And child abuse is a sure way to create a social misfit or a monster.
There is a growing discussion among researchers to suggest there may be a genetic influence that creates a psychopathic personality. The psychopath may lack the ability to physically feel what others identify as the physical sensation of guilt. They can feel fear, anger, sadness in the moment but not guilt for what they did or what they are about to do. Some sociologists believe that a sexually promiscuous psychopath who can live off others is a survivor and may represent one of many genes for survival in the human species. Even more surprising has been the observation that many adult psychopaths do not seem to benefit from support, counseling or therapy and may in fact commit crimes again and sooner because of it. Research using brain scanning technology has revealed that the brain of a psychopath functions and processes information differently. One famous brain imaging study showed that psychopaths can remain calm looking photos of dead bodies in automobile accidents where as other people were clearly upset. They don’t use their brain they way others do. This suggests that they may be physically different from normal people.
Are you involved with a psychopath? You may not know because they can be very charming and friendly until you get close and disappoint them. Don’t assume anyone is a psychopath based on their behavior alone. It is the pattern of their life and many other factors. Please don’t go around assuming or calling someone a psychopath just because they may have some of the warning signs. Get a professional opinion from a qualified mental health professional if you think you are involved with a psychopath.