I’ve spent a lot of time looking at people who show psychopathic traits, normally from a criminological perspective, as that’s my job—to figure out the motivations of criminals.
What I’ve learned can be applied more broadly across the population, however, to look at how psychopaths and sociopaths act in ‘normal’ life.
Contrary to what the movies might have depicted, they are not the knife-wielding demons of movies like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
Many are walking among us, leading completely normal lives, and are even some of the most successful members of society, precisely because of their psychopathy. These are the ruthless business people who do whatever needs to be done, regardless of the human cost.
What makes a psychopath?
Psychopaths are callous and can be superficially charming, but most importantly they do not feel empathy for others. Their only concern is themselves.
These are known as ‘successful’ psychopaths; master manipulators of other people’s feelings.
And they are not rare—research suggests somewhere between 0.2-3.3% of people have psychopathic tendencies.
If you’re interested in your own psychopathic tendencies, there is a test you can take, based on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
Do I know one?
If you’re wondering if you’ve come across a psychopath, there are signs you can look for. Some people say they have two faces, but actually, they just have one, which they keep hidden behind a mask of superficial charm and charisma.
To spot them, look out for someone who is working hard to get you onside, but it feels a little fake. Another sign is that they are always playing power games—they get close to people with authority and status, because it raises their own, but will trample on anyone who has nothing to offer them.
If you don’t show them the respect they think they deserve, you may see that mask slip. They will show flashes of anger as if they want to go for you until they can get their frustration in check and their mask back in place. It’s in those moments that you see the cold-blooded animal within.
The everyday psychopath
Now, I normally look at the most violent and dangerous psychopaths—the ones right at the extreme end of the scale—the serial sexual and violent offenders who cause serious harm.
When I talk to their victims, certain patterns emerge. True psychopaths see everyone as competition or prey. You are either someone to get rid of, or someone they can get something they want from.
They seek out people they control, sometimes through coercion or manipulation, sometimes through threats, sometimes through violence. They spot weaknesses as if they have radar for it, so they are able to single out potential victims who are emotionally or psychologically vulnerable, and they play on those weaknesses remorselessly to get what they want.
Everyday psychopaths can be more subtle. They may not have any violent tendencies and are not a physical danger to anyone, but don’t think that makes them harmless.
At work, ‘successful’ psychopaths make the tough calls and make it to the highest echelons of power as they are willing to do whatever is necessary to get what they want—and whatever is necessary to stay there.
Don’t get narcissists confused with psychopaths, however. Narcissism is a personality disorder, characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement. Narcissists think others exist only to serve their needs or wants while requiring constant, excessive admiration. They also lack empathy for others. A narcissist will exhibit extreme levels of confidence, but behind that hides an exceptionally delicate ego that’s fragile to even the smallest perceived slight.
Narcissism isn’t an unusual condition in successful leaders, surgeons, academics, high-ranking police, engineers or IT experts. In fact, the true belief in your own greatness and abilities to do anything has led to advances that simply would not have been possible if people weren’t narcissistic.
But this type of person becomes dangerous when people present extreme and malignant symptoms of narcissism and have a lot of power.
Psychopaths enjoy the power they feel knowing so many lives and people’s futures are in their hands. It’s the God complex—a psychological fantasy when someone perceives themselves as superior in every way to everyone else, and rules are for mere mortals.