Psychopaths are people with a very severe form of antisocial personality disorder. Their tendency towards violence, crime, and impulsivity coupled with their lack of concern for the feelings, needs, and rights of others is a dangerous combination.1,2,3 Learning to identify the signs of a psychopath can help you guard yourself against people with psychopath traits.
What Is a Psychopath?
Psychopaths are people with a severe form of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), a serious and chronic personality disorder. All personality disorders interfere with a person’s mood, thinking, decision-making, and behavior, as well as affect their ability to function, interact with others, and maintain close, healthy relationships.2 Both sociopaths and psychopaths describe individuals with more severe forms of APSD, but psychopaths represent the most severe and dangerous form of this personality disorder.1,3,4
Psychopaths often engage in criminal, cruel, or socially irresponsible behavior, including lying, stealing, or even being violent or abusive towards others. Because psychopaths have no empathy for the feelings, needs, or rights of others, they also feel no remorse—even when their actions harm others. Because of these combined traits and deficits, psychopaths are much more likely to engage in crime, violence, abusive behavior towards others, and other forms of cruel or dangerous behaviors.1,3,4,6
20 Signs of a Psychopath
Many psychopathic people are pathological liars and master manipulators, which can make it much more difficult to spot the signs of a psychopath. Psychopathic traits and characteristics often become more obvious when you have more frequent interactions with a person, at which point the symptoms of psychopathy may become more evident.
Here are 20 signs of a psychopath to look out for:
1. Superficial Charm & Charisma
Psychopaths can be very charming, charismatic, and persuasive people. This can be especially so with female psychopaths, who area more social and emotional than their male counterparts. While they lack true empathy, they are often very skilled at “faking” prosocial behaviors like flattery, kindness, and false sympathy. They may use these skills to get things that they want from people, but eventually they are unable to keep up the act. Over time, the charm and charisma will probably wear off, unmasking an underlying coldness or cruelty.1,6
2. Unnecessary Cruelty or a Mean Streak
Once the superficial charm and charisma wears off, a psychopath will often demonstrate moments of cruelty or meanness. These may include gossip, biting comments, lashing out aggressively at others, or laughing or being entertained when they hurt or embarrass someone. Cruelty and meanness are hallmark signs of a psychopath, and often lead to a pattern of violating the rights of others.1,3,6
3. Lies, Exaggerations, & Dishonesty
Many psychopaths are prone to pathological lying. They may exaggerate the truth to get their way, inflate their ego, or get others to think, feel or do what they want them to. Most normal people feel guilty or at least a little worried about being caught in a lie, but a psychopath’s lack of conscience makes lying a guilt-free activity. In fact, deception is even a listed symptom of ASPD, and can even show up as a person ‘faking’ remorse, empathy, or care and concern for other people.2,6,7
4. Lack of Accountability & Playing the Blame Game
Psychopaths commit some of the most cruel, violent, and heinous acts in society, but they rarely take responsibility for their actions. Instead, they are more likely to blame other people, make excuses, and try to justify their actions, no matter how bad they are. This sign of a psychopath is indicative of their lack of morals, conscience, and empathy, meaning they do not have the same sense of ‘right and wrong’ that most people do.6,7
5. Need for Power, Control, & Dominance
Many psychopaths seek out positions of power and authority because they enjoy domination and control of other people. According to some research, psychopaths are slightly more likely to seek out and secure positions of leadership in the corporate world, suggesting there is a grain of truth in the stereotype of the psychopathic CEO.8 There is also a known overlap between psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism (immoral and exploitative tendencies), which can lead to a hunger for power and control.7,9
6. Sadistic Enjoyment of Pain & Suffering
Sadism is a word that describes a sick sense of pleasure from the pain and suffering of other people. In some psychopathic people, the pain of others is sexually arousing and in others, the pleasure is non-sexual and has more to do with excitement, power, or the ‘rush’ of the experience.3,6,7 Not all psychopaths are sadistic, but this quality is not an uncommon trait in a psychopath, which may explain why psychopathic traits predict violent and sexually violent crimes with 80% accuracy.1
7. Boredom & Thrill-Seeking Behaviors
Because psychopaths lack some of the normal emotional wiring that most people have, it takes a lot more to excite them, make them happy, or give them a thrill. Psychopaths are overall less impulsive than sociopaths because they aren’t driven by strong emotions, but their dulled emotional response may cause them to seek out thrills. This may be why psychopaths are more likely to engage in crime, violence, sexual promiscuity, and drug and alcohol use.1,3,6
8. Disregard for Rules, Laws, & Norms
Psychopaths do not follow the same code of ethics as most people in society, which is why they often behave in immoral or even illegal ways. These may include minor offenses like inappropriate comments or profanity or more serious offenses like crime and violence. While not all psychopaths are violent criminals, a very high percentage of people who commit crimes (especially violent crimes) have psychopathic traits.1,5,6
9. Unaffected & Unafraid of Consequences
While most people who engage in criminal behaviors live in fear of being caught, psychopaths don’t always have this same fear. This may be partially explained by the fact that psychopaths are believed to have abnormalities in areas of the brain that create normal fear responses, and also in the parts of the brain linked to impulse control and good long-term decision making.3,4
10. Detached, Cold & Callous Demeanor
Researchers believe that psychopaths do not have the same emotional wiring as normal people, which is why they often display a cold, callous, and apathetic demeanor.1,6,7 The differences in the structure of their brains is believed to limit their ability to experience a normal range of human emotions, making them less likely to experience strong emotions.3,4 In situations when others are sad, upset, anxious, or excited, a psychopath may seem oddly detached or apathetic.7
11. A History of Childhood Behavior Problems
Antisocial personality disorder can be diagnosed only after the age of 18, but the signs and symptoms of ASPD usually begin in childhood or early adolescence.2 Most psychopaths show signs of conduct disorder before the age of 15, and the most severe psychopaths may be able to trace their behavioral issues to before the age of 10.5 Some common signs of a psychopath in childhood include frequent fights, lying, stealing, cruelty to animals or other children, and a disregard for rules or authority.2,5
12. A Trail of Short, Broken Relationships
Psychopaths lack the ability to empathize with other people, so it makes sense that they have trouble forming and maintaining close relationships with people. While they may be able to use their charm or powers of persuasion to fool people into liking them, they usually lack the ability to maintain these relationships over time.7 This is why most psychopaths have very short, shallow relationships with people, as well as many people who they’ve betrayed, hurt, or turned into enemies.
13. Exploitation of Others for Personal Gain
A psychopath will use, abuse, and exploit other people, especially when it means getting something they want. In their pursuit of power, wealth, fame, and so forth, there are no lengths they won’t go to in order to get what they want. This is bound to leave many casualties in their path, and a psychopath will have no remorse when they need to throw someone under the bus in order to get ahead, even when this is someone who has helped them along the way.1,3,5,6,8
14. Calculated & Strategic Planning
While sociopaths are more driven by emotions, a psychopath is more cool-headed and calculated in their decision-making.1,3,6 This can make them more dangerous because it’s not as easy to predict what they will do or when they will make their move. Some psychopaths devise detailed plans on how to con, exploit, or take advantage of people who are naturally generous, kind, and trusting. While psychopaths are not generally patient individuals, they are generally less impulsive than sociopaths.3,6
15. A Lack of Conscience
Even when they harm another person, a psychopath will not feel genuine remorse for their actions, and they may not even be phased by the consequences of their actions when they get in trouble. This also makes them especially dangerous because they are less likely to limit their behavior based on fears of getting caught, feeling guilty after, and are also less likely to learn from their mistakes.
16. Abnormal Ways of Thinking
Abnormal thoughts are common in psychopaths because their brains are wired differently. This could cause them to make strange, odd, or off-putting comments or observations during normal conversations. Also, a psychopath may occasionally provide a disturbing view into their twisted minds when talking about strange things they like, mean comments about others, or statements that make it clear they don’t care about other people.
17. Poor Attention Span & Loss of Interest
One of the less commonly known signs of a psychopath is a poor attention span, which can show up in similar ways as symptoms of ADD or ADHD. A psychopath becomes easily bored with activities, tasks, and people, and is always looking for something more exciting or entertaining to do or see. This can also lead them to quickly lose interest in goals, projects, or relationships that seemed very important to them. This may also be linked to a pattern of irresponsible decision-making, or abandoning obligations or projects before finishing them.6,7
18. Violent Tendencies, Abuse, or Aggression
One of the most dangerous signs of a psychopath is a tendency towards violence, aggression and abuse. Psychopathy is one of the strongest predictors of violent behavior, including violent crimes and sexual violence. Unfortunately, many violent psychopaths will re-offend, even after receiving treatment, rehabilitation, or serving prison time or having other legal consequences.1,3,4,6
19. Hostile & Oppositional by Nature
Another one of the psychopath traits that is less commonly known is a hostile and oppositional demeanor. While psychopaths can pretend to be friendly, kind, and charming for a short time, their true nature is much more aggressive. Psychopaths are more likely to hold racist, sexist, or misogynistic views towards others, and also more likely to treat people in hostile or unkind ways.1,6 They may also be more argumentative and combative, seeking out conflict and confrontation (while most people try to avoid it).
20. Masters of Deception
A final warning sign of a psychopath is a person who seems to be especially skilled at the art of deception. Psychopaths are masters of deception, and use lies, distortions of truth, gaslighting, and other dishonest tactics to emotionally manipulate other people and falsely represent the truth. Unfortunately, psychopaths in treatment may use these deceptive tactics to fool counselors and treatment providers into thinking they have improved. One study found that psychopaths with the highest treatment success scores were most likely to reoffend.9
Is There a Psychopath Test?
The most commonly used psychopathy test is the Psychopathy Checklist, or PCL-R, which is a 20 question survey that is used to identify the traits, characteristics, and signs of a psychopath.6 Technically, psychopathy is not a diagnosable condition listed in the DSM 5, but is instead a more severe form of APSD.2
Psychopaths display the symptoms of APSD and also a range of other traits, characteristics, and behaviors, including those listed in this article. The only way to formally be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder is to set up an appointment with a licensed health or mental health provider. During this appointment, the clinician will ask questions to determine whether or not a person reports the symptoms of APSD, and can verify whether or not a person has the disorder.
Psychopath v.s Sociopath
The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, but experts believe that they represent different forms of APSD. It is generally believed that sociopathy is a more severe form of APSD, but that psychopathy is the most severe form of the disorder.1,3 Some experts also believe that sociopathy is a learned pattern of behavior, while psychopathy is caused by biological or neurological abnormalities in the brain.1,3,4
According to researchers, psychopaths and sociopaths differ in the following ways:1,3
|Believed to be caused by neurology/biology||Believed to be caused by environment|
|Affects about 30% of those with APSD||Affects between 3-15% of those with APSD|
|Able to establish some relationships||Unable to develop close bonds|
|Limited/stunted empathy for others||Unable to empathize with others|
|Minimal remorse for actions||No remorse for actions|
|More emotional and impulsive||More calculated, detached, and unemotional|
|Higher rates of violence and crime||Higher rates of conflict/exploitation|
Treatment of Psychopathy
Antisocial personality disorder is the underlying condition that drives psychopathy, and is among the most difficult mental health issues to treat. Research suggests that psychopaths rarely seek treatment on their own, and that when they are forced into treatment, it usually does not lead to long-term improvements or changes.5 In fact, some research comparing treated psychopaths to untreated psychopaths found that treatment increases the likelihood of crime and violence in those who have a history of these behaviors.9
Still, there is always hope for a person who has a sincere desire to change and improve themselves, no matter what their diagnosis is. Therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (sometimes in addition to medication) may help people with ASPD manage their symptoms and improve their relationships, decision making, and behavior.5
Final Thoughts on Psychopath Traits
Psychopathology is a severe form of antisocial personality disorder, an uncommon personality disorder that affects approximately 1% of women and 3% of men in the US. A small percentage of people with APSD are psychopathic, and are more prone to committing crimes, violence, and other harmful acts.1,2,3
Because of the severity of psychopathy and the poor response to treatment, most people are advised to limit their contact with psychopathic people in order to avoid becoming their victims. Knowing the signs and symptoms of a psychopath can help you identify a person with these dangerous traits, and finding a therapist who has experience and knowledge of ASPD can help you learn ways to cope and heal from these interactions.
For Further Reading
- Psychopath Free Website with more articles, information, resources, and tools like an online journal and support forums and chats
- Psychopath Victims Website has many articles and resources on psychopathy
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Health