What does it mean when we call someone a psychopath? Most people have heard the term bantered about, but what exactly is all the fuss and foreboding about when the specter of psychopathy rears its head?
Though fetching and charismatic on the surface, the psychopathic individual narcissistic in style and without moral scruples. As such, he’s without self-restraint, as long as he gets what he wants. Though he might appear charming at first, he can easily flip and, without warning or obvious provocation, become cunning, cruel or even dangerous. Unlike the typical self-centered type, he’s not just transitional in his relations (tit for tat approach), but instrumental in nature: people are used for what they can do for him. And yes, the lion’s share of psychopaths are of the male gender.
So how does one spot such an unpredictable and possibly dangerous sort from those who are truly charming and engaging? Here in the nutshell are seven characteristics that should alert you that a psychopathic personality might be in your sights.
- Superficial Charm. Bob, the new guy at work, seems talkative and interested in getting to know you and others at work. He seemed to be a likable guy, at first. Soon you begin to get the feeling that he’s just a little too slick and artificial. For instance, he talks about his wife as though he’s the loving husband, yet his focus is always on her looks, and you notice his unfailing flirtations with the young women around the office. And you notice his annoying tendency to make not-to-subtle and insensitive subtle sexual innuendos. On reflection, it begins to dawn on you that Bob is a guy who style is to seduce and beguile, befriend.
- A puffed Up Self-Esteem: He’s the guy who always takes the credit, whether he deserve it or not. Not only is he a grandiose blow-heard, but – and this is important – he devalues others who he perceives an s a competitor. His desire is not just to win, but to dominate, even if it means that he must be destructive. He might even get sadistic pleasure form it all. If the degree of psychopathy is extreme, this means the psychopath will be willing to be violent, if necessary. One psychopath I interviewed told me when he committing a robbery, his gold is to get what he wants, usually money. He carries a gun to intimidate. But if someone got in his way, he’d shoot to kill.
- Deceitfulness: this trait is related to a distorted self-esteem, an impaired ability to bond with other people and a need to always be on top. To get there or perceive himself as such, the psychopath will lie, cheat, manipulate, corrode the truth and rationalize to the point that reality is so assaulted that it’s on life support. Bob, that new guy at the office, will undermine colleagues, claim credit for a project to which he “talked the talk” but actually contributed little when it came to putting in some time to complete, leaving it to others to do the heavy lifting. Skilled in the art of manipulation, he’ll do it in a way that’s difficult to confront. For instance, he already had sized up the power hierarchy at work and smooched the supervisors and decision-makers, thus making it risky to confront him directly.
- Shallow Emotions: What makes his trait so jarring is that, as I already said, the psychopath is superficially engaging and seems so expressively “present.” The depth of his emotions is belied by a callous indifference. You might be jarred when you realize this seemingly interested guy abruptly changes the topic of conversation as you were telling him about your friend’s automobile accident or your son’s scary bout with a high fever last weekend. It begins to dawn that he sees others as instruments to be self-servingly employed. Although Bob, our psychopathic exemplar, puckers up to the powers that be, he uses his relationships with them to gain special favors at work, yet never misses an opportunity to undermine those above him, especially when it might serve his professional aspirations.
- Boredom: This is related to a strong stimulation-seeking urge, together with an emotional shallowness. Without much of a true connection to other people and with a temperament that is always searching for thrills and excitement, the psychopath is quick to take changes and engage in risky behaviors. Bob, though his behavior has caused others at work to be leery of him, he is also admired for his aggressive behavior and willingness to “go out on a limp” to get new contracts and make money for his employer.
- A History of Shady Conduct: Since the psychopath has no moral center, his thrill-seeking behavior has no bounds, which over time might catche up with him. But usually too late for his victims. In my book, Decoding Madness, I explore the case of Randall, a malignant psychopath who, though admired by his supervisors at work for his salesmanship prowess. Until it came to light after, in a fit of rage, killed his wife and then his young daughter to cover it all up. It was later found to have been committed fraud at work for years.
- A Riddle of Contradictions: As a result of their skill at manipulation and deception, psychopaths could be difficult to decipher, due in large part to their skill in presenting themselves as a likable and even sensitive guy. Ted Bundy, the well-known serial killer, is a tragic example. Good looking and smooth, he lured his women to a violent death by easily convincing them that he was a kind, gentle, and nonthreatening law student. After gaining their trust he would abduct them and brutally kill his victims after which he would have sex with the victim’s corpse. The memory psychologist Elizabeth Loftus who interviewed Bundy, found him to be “a charming man.” Until he wasn’t.