Characteristics of Psychopathic Personalities

They don't believe that the rules of appropriate behavior apply to them

David Berkowitz
Police mug shot showing the front view and profile of convicted New York City serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the 'Son of Sam'. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Psychopaths are incapable of feeling guilt, remorse, or empathy for their actions or the objects of their actions. They are generally cunning and manipulative. They know the difference between right and wrong but don't believe the rules apply to them.

First Encounter With a Psychopath

On first impression, psychopaths generally appear charming, engaged, caring, friendly, logical, and reasonable, with well thought-out goals.

They give the impression that they can reason, that they know the consequences for antisocial and unlawful behavior and will react appropriately. They appear capable of self-examination and will criticize themselves for mistakes.

Under clinical evaluation, psychopaths don't show common symptoms associated with neurotic behavior: nervousness, high anxiety, hysteria, mood swings, extreme fatigue, and headaches. In situations that most normal people would find upsetting, psychopaths appear calm and void of fear and anxiety.

An About-Face

Initially, psychopaths appear reliable, devoted, and trustworthy, but, suddenly and without provocation, become unreliable, with no regard for how their actions affect the situation, regardless of its importance. Once viewed as honest and sincere, they do a sudden about-face and begin lying without concern, even in small matters when there is no benefit in lying.

Because psychopaths have mastered the art of deception, those around them are slow to accept the abrupt change. When psychopaths are confronted with their lack of responsibility, honesty or loyalty, it generally has no impact on their attitude or future performance. They are unable to perceive that other people value truthfulness and integrity.

Can't Accept Responsibility for Failure

Psychopaths turn into performers who can mimic normal human emotions that they have never felt. This holds true when they're faced with failure. If they appear to be humble and own up to their mistakes, their true goal is to be perceived as the martyr or sacrificial lamb willing to accept blame so others don't have to.

If the ploy fails and they are blamed, they will emphatically deny any responsibility and, without feeling shame, turn to lies, manipulation, and finger-pointing. When psychopaths can't convince others that they are innocent, they fume and obsess over it, often murmuring sarcastic comments and plotting revenge.

Risky Behavior With No Gain

Antisocial behavior—cheating, lying, robbing, stealing, agitating, fighting, committing adultery, killing—appeals to psychopaths, whether or not they reap any rewards. They appear drawn to high-risk antisocial behavior that has no apparent goal. Some experts theorize that psychopaths like to put themselves into dangerous situations because of the adrenaline rush they experience. Because psychopaths generally don't feel many emotions that normal people do, any extreme sensation feels good. Others believe that they do it to reinforce their sense of superiority and to prove that they are smarter than everyone, including the police.

Horrible Judgment

Although psychopaths are logical thinkers and view themselves as highly intelligent, they consistently exhibit bad judgment. Faced with two paths, one to gold and the other to ashes, the psychopath will take the latter. Because psychopaths can't learn from their experiences, they are prone to taking the same path again and again.

Egocentric and Unable to Love

Psychopaths are highly egomaniacal, to the point that a normal person has difficulty comprehending it. Their self-centeredness is so deeply rooted that it renders them incapable of loving others, including parents, spouses, and their own children.

The only time psychopaths show an ordinary response to kindness or special treatment by others is when it can be used to their advantage. For example,  a psychopathic father still loved by his children despite the deep suffering he has caused them may put on a show of appreciation so that they continue to put money into his prison account or pay his legal fees.

Conventional Treatment Empowers Psychopaths

Most studies indicate that there are no conventional methods to cure psychopathic behavior. When conventional methods have been used, psychopaths become empowered and react by improving their cunning, manipulative methods and their ability to conceal their true personality, even from trained eyes.

Difference Between Psychopaths and Sociopaths

Psychopaths and sociopaths share a diagnosis as having antisocial personality disorder and similar traits, but there are significant differences. Psychopaths are more deceptive and manipulative and maintain more control over their outward personas. They are able to lead what appear to be normal lives, sometimes throughout their lifetime. When psychopaths become criminals they believe they are smarter than the average person and invincible.

Sociopaths often let their inner rage surface with violent episodes, verbally and physically. They become reckless and spontaneous and have little control over what they say or how they act. Because they are impulse driven, they rarely consider the consequences of their actions. It is difficult for sociopaths to live normal lives, and because of their imprudence many of them drop out of school, can't hold jobs, turn to crime, and end up in prison.

Which Is More Dangerous?

Sociopaths have a difficult time hiding their disorder, while psychopaths pride themselves on their manipulative abilities. Psychopaths are masters of disassociation and less likely to feel guilt or remorse for their actions or for the pain that they cause others.

Because of this, psychopaths are considered to be more dangerous than sociopaths.

Source: "The Mask of Sanity," by Hervey M. Cleckley