Shining a Light on Dark Personalities | Part Four: Pinpointing the Psychopath

Miriam King is currently a Lecturer in Psychology in Carlow College, St Patrick’s. Miriam’s research interests include dark personality traits, defence mechanisms, criminal psychology and clinical psychology. This four-part series introduces the reader to the distinct yet overlapping traits of the Dark Tetrad: 1) Spotting the Sadist; 2) Noticing the Narcissist; 3) Meeting the Machiavellian; 4) Pinpointing the Psychopath

Pinpointing the Psychopath

What is Psychopathy?

The term “psychopath” has its origins in the Greek words psyche (mind) and pathos (suffering). Individuals with psychopathy have a personality style that can be characterised by superficial charm, glibness, a grandiose sense of self, pathological lying, and manipulation (Hooley et al., 2017; Verschuere et al., 2018).

Psychopaths can be considered intra-species predators (Hare, 1996) who lack empathy, remorse or guilt, and fail to take responsibility for their behaviour (Hooley et al., 2017). Psychopaths are parasitic and consider only their own interests, manipulating others for their own selfish purposes (Kiehl &  Hoffman, 2011).

All the dark traits- including psychopathy- are in normal populations at sub-clinical levels. The clinical version of the trait of psychopathy is Antisocial Personality Disorder (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013).

It is estimated that psychopathy amounts to 1% in the general population (González Moraga et al., 2019), however, the real figure may be higher. It can be difficult to recognise psychopathy as individuals high in this trait tend to be skilled liars and manipulators. As Robert Hare, the leading expert on psychopaths warns: “All the reading in the world cannot immunize you from the devastating effects of psychopaths. Everyone, including the experts, can be taken in, conned, and left bewildered by them. A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heartstrings.”

Misconceptions and Manifestations

When one thinks of a psychopath, the image of a murderer, such as serial killer, kidnapper and rapist Ted Bundy may come to mind. However, not all psychopaths are violent. That being said, the psychopath can still wreak havoc and cause immense psychological and emotional distress.

Psychopaths manipulate, plagiarise, gaslight, take on a target’s identity and wear it like a mask: they are  “quintessential social chameleons and social deceivers” (Lilienfeld 2013, p. 86). A target can often be made to feel like they have a connection with the psychopath due to the psychopath mirroring the target: by purporting to have similar traits, experiences, likes etc. These manipulation tactics enable to psychopath to disable a target’s defences.

Motivated by a need to control others, psychopaths try to pull other people’s strings for their own gain or amusement. They may callously use and coerce others into romantic and sexual relationships, and manipulate for mate poaching (Jonason et al., 2009; Kastner & Sellbom, 2012). In relationships, psychopaths tend to lack relationship exclusivity, keeping short-term partners, whom they manipulate to maintain control (Jonason et al., 2009; Khan et al., 2017).

Psychopaths are aided in their manipulation by their ability to lie and have a personality style characterised by superficial charm (Hooley et al., 2017; Verschuere et al., 2018). They are pathological and skilled liars, frequently lying for no reason- just because they can or for their own amusement (Furnham et al., 2009; Hare & Neumann, 2009; Jonason et al., 2014).

Researchers have stated that psychopathy is more prevalent among males (Furnham et al., 2013). However, Forouzan and Cooke (2005) indicated this may be because psychopathic traits manifest differently in women than in men.

Male psychopaths tend to engage in proactive physical aggression whereas female psychopaths tend to engage in reactive, covert, passive-aggressive acts (Smith et al., 2018; 2021). Male psychopaths may present with a narcissistic bravado and an insincere, glib and superficial charm (Smith  et al., 2021). Female psychopaths may present in a coy, coquettish and seductive fashion in order to garner sympathy or present themselves as a helpless victim in need of protection (Smith  et al., 2021).

Motivations and Psychological Factors

There is a lack of consensus on how environmental and biological factors influence psychopathy (Fraizer et al., 2019). There can be a history of behavioural problems and an inability to control behaviour which can, but not always, lead to criminality (Hooley et al., 2017).

Psychopathy is marked by a general deficit in responding to fearful stimuli, reduced levels of anxiety, and reduced startle reflex, which makes it difficult to tell when psychopaths are being deceitful (Lykken, 1995; Patrick 1994). Psychopaths don’t show the same levels of fear as other people do, even when being questioned by police, or as a defendant at trial.

Gender stereotypes and societal norms can influence perception of psychopathic traits. For example, psychopathy has been associated with a tendency to engage in a parasitic lifestyle (Hooley et al., 2017; Verschuere et al., 2018), which may go undetected in women. This is because a dependency on another for material means is often socially acceptable for a woman, however, if a man engages in such behaviour, he may more readily be viewed as parasitic (Forouzan & Cooke, 2005).

Psychopathy has been linked to low agreeableness, low levels of conscientiousness, low dutifulness, low levels of positive emotions with particularly low scores for  self-discipline and deliberation (Derefinko & Lynam, 2013). Psychopaths tend to be impulsive, and can have explosive tempers, with high hostility (Derefinko & Lynam, 2013).

Psychopaths can become bored very easily (Hooley et al., 2017). Often they need constant stimulation and can rarely sit still (Kiehl & Hoffman, 2011). Psychopaths are high in excitement-seeking and this low threshold for boredom and need for stimulation may be factors in the psychopaths continued need to manipulate, control and cause chaos.

References and Further Reading:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Chabrol, H., Melioli, T., Van Leeuwen, N., Rodgers, R., & Goutaudier, N. (2015). The Dark Tetrad: Identifying personality profiles in high-school students. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 97–101.

Derefinko, K., & Lynam, D. R. (2013). Psychopathy from the perspective of the five-factor model of personality. In Personality disorders and the five-factor model of personality., 3rd ed. (pp. 103–117). American Psychological Association.

Forouzan, E., & Cooke, D. J. (2005). Figuring out la femme fatale: conceptual and assessment issues concerning psychopathy in females. Behavioral sciences & the law, 23(6), 765–778.

Frazier, A., Ferreira, P. A., & Gonzales, J. E. (2019). Born this way? A review of neurobiological and environmental evidence for the etiology of psychopathy. Personality neuroscience, 2, e8.

Furnham, A., Daoud, Y., & Swami, V. (2009). “How to spot a psychopath”. Lay theories of psychopathy. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 44(6), 464–472.

Furnham, A., Richards, S.C., & Paulhus, D. (2013). The Dark Triad of Personality: A 10 Year Review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 199-216.

González Moraga, F. R., Garcia, D., Billstedt, E., & Wallinius, M. (2019). Facets of psychopathy, intelligence, and aggressive antisocial behaviors in young violent offenders. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 984.

Hare, R. D. (1996). Psychopathy: A clinical construct whose time has come. Criminal Justice and Behavior. 23 (25–54).

Hare, R. D., & Neumann, C. S. (2008). Psychopathy as a clinical and empirical construct. Annual review of clinical psychology, 4, 217–246.

Hooley, J. M., Butcher, J. N., Nock, M., & Mineka, S. (2017). Abnormal Psychology, Global Edition (17th ed.). Pearson.

Jonason, P., K., Li, N., Webster, G., & Schmitt, D. (2009). The Dark Triad: Traits That Facilitate Short-Term Mating in Men. European Journal of Personality. 23. 5 – 18.

Jonason, P. K., Lyons, M., Baughman, H. M., & Vernon, P. A. (2014). What a tangled web we weave: The Dark Triad traits and deception. Personality and Individual Differences, 70, 117–119.

Kastner, R. M., & Sellbom, M. (2012). Hypersexuality in college students: The role of psychopathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(5), 644–649.

Khan, R., Brewer, G., & Kim, S., & Centifanti, L. (2017). Students, sex, and psychopathy: Borderline and psychopathy personality traits are differently related to women and men’s use of sexual coercion, partner poaching, and promiscuity. Personality and Individual Differences. 107. 72-77. 10.1016/j.paid.2016.11.027

Kiehl, K. A., & Hoffman, M. B. (2011). The Criminal Psychopath: History Neuroscience, Treatment and Economics. Jurimetrics, 51, 355–397.

Lilienfeld S. O. (2013). Is psychopathy a syndrome? Commentary on Marcus, Fulton, and Edens. Personality disorders, 4(1), 85–86.

Lykken, D. T. (1995). The antisocial personalities. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Moshagen, M., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2018). The dark core of personality. Psychological Review, 125(5), 656–688.

Nietzsche, F. (1886/1998). Beyond good and evil. Dover Publications.

Pajevic, M., Vukosavljević-Gvozden, T.,  Stevanovic, N., & Neumann, C. (2018). The relationship between the Dark Tetrad and a two-dimensional view of empathy. Personality and Individual Differences. 123. 125-130. 10.1016/j.paid.2017.11.009.

Patrick C. J. (1994). Emotion and psychopathy: startling new insights. Psychophysiology, 31(4), 319–330.

Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Toward a Taxonomy of Dark Personalities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(6), 421–426.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556–563.

Smith, J. M., Gacono, C. B., & Cunliffe, T. B. (2021). Understanding female offenders: Psychopathy, criminal behavior, assessment, and treatment. Elsevier Academic Press.

Verschuere, B., van Ghesel Grothe, S., Waldorp, L., Watts, A. L., Lilienfeld, S. O., Edens, J. F., Skeem, J. L., & Noordhof, A. (2018). What features of psychopathy might be central? A network analysis of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) in three large samples. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127(1), 51–65.

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