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I spy a psychopath

The word ‘psychopath’ is bandied about often these days. It has made its way into our everyday vernacular and many of us think that we know what a psychopath really is. The fact is, that the word is often misused and perceived as a synonym for ‘murderous’, ‘evil’ or ‘bloodthirsty’ when in reality, psychopathy is a very real and specific personality disorder. Although there certainly are psychopathic serial killers, the majority of them are free, live normal lives and are seemingly well-adjusted. They might have a family, a successful career and even attend church every Sunday. You might even have one living on your street. According to Robert Hare, psychopaths constitute approximately 1% of the human population, so for every one hundred of your Facebook friends, one of them is likely to be a (diagnosed or undiagnosed) psychopath. Despite the ‘darker’ side to their personalities, they are likely to be outwardly charming, effectively camouflaging their complete lack of remorse or empathy.

So how can you properly identify a Psychopath when they aren’t on a murderous rampage? How can you validate your firm beliefs that your boss is a cold-hearted psychopath? The clues might be subtle, but they are there. You should remember that what makes psychopaths dangerous is that they do not feel emotions in much the same way we do. This is problematic as it is our emotions that usually keep us in check. For example, if the average person desperately wanted a promotion at work, they would work hard to achieve it but would draw moral lines, over which they will not cross. They would not destroy the life or career of another in order to advance their own, because they have capacity for empathy and remorse. Psychopaths are different, in that when they have a goal in their sights, they are determined to obtain it, regardless of the potential consequences to others. If they need to throw someone under the metaphorical bus to get where they want to be, they will do so, because the other person and their emotions are simply irrelevant. This scenario perfectly illustrates a psychopath’s lack of empathy as well as their remorseless nature. These are the two major and defining characteristics of a psychopath.

Some people might simply regard the scenario above as a highly ambitious person determinedly climbing their way to the top of their chosen career. They might go a bit overboard, but ambition is something most of us can relate to. The thing to remember is that a psychopath most definitely knows right from wrong. They know that lying, cheating and actively destroying the life of another is the wrong thing to do, but this distinction may not matter. Ambition aside, psychopaths have been known to target innocent victims for no particular reason. M. E. Thomas, author of Confessions of a Sociopath, scored very high on the psychopathic checklist. In her book, she describes how, on occasion, she feels the need to select a random person and destroy their entire life without them even knowing. Having the ability to manipulate the life of another is highly attractive to a psychopath; it appeals to their grandiose ego, their manipulative skills and their need to be constantly entertained.

Lack of empathy and guilt aside, a good indicator of a psychopath is the presence of superficial charm, which can quickly be turned on and off. You might have seen evidence of this in someone; one minute they are raging, the next, they are sweetness and light. They wear this charm like a mask, to get others to see them as likable and trustworthy. They are chameleons, observant and skilled at being able to blend into society by mimicking or adjusting to those around them. The drive behind these actions is usually self-motivated. The end result will benefit them in some way.

A big indicator of psychopathic behaviour is the presence of a grandiose sense of self-worth. A psychopath is usually under the complete belief that they are the smartest and most capable person in the room. They also very rarely admit that they are wrong. A psychopath will never hold their hands up and accept responsibility for something going awry; they will always find something or someone else to blame. This can involve pathological lying, another indicator of psychopathy. A psychopath is a very convincing liar, and their untruths can range from the subtle and relatively innocent brand of white-lies to massive, life-affecting deceptions.

Certain career paths tend to attract psychopathic personalities. They very often go into finance, where they can satisfy their need to take risks, with the added benefit of being able to do it with someone else’s money. They are also common in the surgical field, as it requires little need for human empathy – in fact, it can be extremely beneficial for a surgeon to have a certain degree of detachment, as emotionally involved surgeons may find it too traumatising to operate. It can help to view patients as machines to be fixed rather than human beings.  Psychopaths have also been found prevalently in the legal system, where charm and manipulation are part and parcel of the job. They are common in sales, which might not be such a surprise, but what may shock you is that they are also drawn to the clergy.

The characteristics listed above might strike you as wholly negative. This is not the case. In fact, certain authorities believe that psychopaths are incredibly useful to society. There is a reason why a high proportion of psychopaths become CEOs. They are ruthless, charismatic, competitive and their confident, risk-taking nature means that they are able and willing to make difficult decisions which some of us might spend more time deliberating over. In his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, psychologist Kevin Dutton describes the benefit of psychopathic personalities in the army. When it comes to shooting someone point-blank, the ability to view the opposing side as mere obstacles to be knocked down is advantageous, but an impossible feat for many of us. When they are brought up in the right environment, by parents who help to instil a healthy respect for others and teach their children the appropriate ways to succeed in life, they might even be integral to our survival and evolution. So, as daunting as the idea might be, if you relate to all the characteristics mentioned above, don’t be overly concerned. We might all need you in the future.


  • Fascinating topic, Samantha! (I had a giggle when you referred to psychopaths in the legal system…I’ve met a slew of those attorneys!!)
    I’m curious, is the prevailing theory on causation nature or nurture? Is one genetically predisposed or can abuse/trauma/ familial dysfunction be where one points a finger? Hmm?
    In either case, I’ve watched too many thrillers and I find this interesting yet frightening.

    • Thank you Kathleen! There are a few theories, but one major one seems to be that psychopaths are ‘born’, and the part of the brain that feels empathy, etc, isn’t fully formed or doesn’t receive the same impulses that ours do. But most psychologists think that this is teamed with a traumatic childhood event. What I found really fascinating was one psychiatrist spoke about the ‘fourth trimester’, and said that the three months following birth is integral, and if they don’t receive enough human contact or love then it can really mess a baby up! Most psychologists think that sociopaths, which exhibit much the same behaviours, are ‘made’, so it is all nurture. But the psychologists argue amongst themselves 😛

      I know exactly how you feel, the area is so interesting! It really makes me wish I’d done psychology at university. I got to study psychopaths during my criminology master’s, but I’d like to go into it in more detail!

      Sorry, I do tend to rant about this! 😛

  • Fiona Ward Fiona Ward says:

    Eye opening article and I have worked with at least one of these over the years – if not more, if I delve to think. The spiritual side of me says that ok so this is what is wrong with the world today (so much hate, competition and ego) where as the business side of my mind agrees that yes sometimes you need a ruthless person to rule. A very informative and interesting article :-)

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