It’s a high-impact word. So as you’re reading this you may be already having some feelings: a bit of intrigue, anxiety or anger, or something else entirely.
It all depends on your own personal experience. Which leads us to these questions:
* Do you know anyone who’s a psychopath?
* How would you know whether you do or not?
First, lets talk about what a psychopath actually is. It can be confusing because mental health professionals use the term Antisocial Personality Disorder, and the media often use the word Sociopath. Sometimes distinctions are drawn between these 3 terms based on factors like genetic vs. environmental causes. But since those distinctions vary depending on who’s talking, I think they essentially serve only to confuse people who really need to understand the general concept of the psychopath.
So lets cut through the confusion of terms. Here’s a general idea of how mental health professionals identify Antisocial Personality:
They look for any 4 of these traits in a person over 18:
- Failure to obey laws and norms
- Lying and manipulation to profit or amuse themselves
- Impulsive behavior
- Irritability and aggression
- Disregard of the safety of self and others
- A pattern of irresponsibility
- Lack of guilt or remorse
Official estimates of the true number of antisocial personalities vary from 1% (NIMH) to 4% (Dr. Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, 2005). Regardless of which of these figures is correct, we must accept that if you have known more than 100 people, you probably have known a psychopath.
I’ve met numerous psychopaths in my life, and I’ve watched many, many people struggle ineffectively with one because they have no idea who they’re dealing with.
6 Reasons It’s Hard to Identify a Psychopath
- We have false ideas about what a psychopath looks like. We have a “picture” of who a psychopath is. He violates the law and may even go to jail. He attacks people physically. Neither is a requirement to be a psychopath, and in fact research shows that most psychopaths do neither. Many psychopaths are women.
- We dismiss our gut sense about a person who’s attractive or successful. Researcher Katie Payne (2010) studied 129 people as they went through speed dating. They found that participants’ gut sense was a dislike of the psychopathic types they met. Despite that, if the psychopath was attractive, they also indicated that they would like to go on a date with him/her. I have seen that it is also easier to override our gut sense of people when they are highly successful or wealthy. It’s not because we’re shallow; it’s because money and power automatically establish credibility that’s difficult for us to override.
- People are infinitely complex. People behave inconsistently, so most of us are hesitant to put too much weight on any one behavior. We excuse it, thinking the person didn’t mean it, for example. It’s hard to see how the pieces of a person fit together into a common whole. Even mental health professionals struggle to do this.
- We interpret others people’s behaviors through our own lens. In fact our lens may not apply at all. An example of this might be interpreting the behavior of someone who steals a loaf of bread. I would have to be desperate to do that, so I assume that person must have done it out of desperation. In this way, we miss the true intention of the psychopath, which in reality was to get away with something, hurt the store, and have a story to brag about. This principle applies to much larger violations as well.
- We all want to believe the best about human nature. A kind or caring action tends to erase the opposing one(s) that came before. So if a person treats you in a manipulating, disregarding, attacking or insulting way, you will be hurt and angry. But when that person later apologizes or shows genuine caring toward you or others, you will naturally be prone to forgetting the prior offense as an aberration. It fades into the background, and you are unprepared when it happens again.
- Manipulation can be very hard to see. The nature of manipulation is that it happens behind the scenes, or under the surface. Two people (or groups of people) can be pitted against each other and have no idea that they’re being played. Someone can tear down your self-esteem by such small, subtle attacks that you barely notice. A psychopath can explain away or disavow past behavior by “packaging” it just for you, or by lying.
Four Ways to Identify a Psychopath
- Rely on the Professional Criteria: Read the APA’s criteria above, and apply them to the person in question. Try to do so with emotional distance so that the picture will be clear. Imagine yourself a doctor evaluating the person.
- Watch for Dr. Martha Stout’s Pattern: The author of The Sociopath Next Door identified the most telling sign of the sociopath: the person hurts you blatantly, and then acts like nothing happened. You’re expected to have no reaction and no feelings. You’re expected to simply act normal. Generally, non-sociopaths do not behave this way. If someone does this to you, start paying attention.
- The 3 Times Rule: Under duress, in a moment of pain or intense emotion, almost anyone can hurt others in some of the ways we’ve talked about here. In certain circumstances a non-psychopath may even do it twice. But if you observe or experience 3 such actions by a person, do not ignore the implications
- Watch for taking pleasure, amusement or personal gain in hurting others: Non-psychopaths are incapable of this. A glint in the eye while delivering an insult; taking joy in moving people about like chess pieces. These are the hallmarks of the psychopath.