Characteristics of the Psychopathic Personality

Recognizing Psychopathic Traits and Behavior

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

What is a Psychopath?

The study of the psychopath reveals an individual who is incapable of feeling guilt, remorse, or empathy for their actions. They are generally cunning, manipulative and know the difference between right and wrong, but dismiss it as applying to them.

First Encounter With a Psychopath

On the first impression, psychopaths generally appear charming, engaged, caring and friendly. Outwardly, they seem to be logical, reasonable, and with well thought-out goals and give the impression that they can accurately reason and that there are consequences for antisocial and unlawful behavior and will react with the appropriate responses.

They also appear capable of self-examination and will openly criticize themselves for past mistakes.

Under clinical evaluation, psychopaths do not show the common symptoms associated with neurotic behavior. This includes nervousness, high anxiety, hysteria, ​ mood swings, extreme fatigue, and headaches. On the contrary, when in situations that most normal people would find upsetting, psychopaths appear unnerved, and emotionally void of fear and anxiety.

An About Face

Initially, psychopaths are highly reliable, devoted and trustworthy, then suddenly and without provocation, they become extremely unreliable and show no regard or interest to how their actions affect the situation, regardless of its importance. Where they were once viewed as being honest and with sincere intentions, they will do a sudden about face and begin lying without concerns. This holds true even in small matters when there is no benefit in lying, yet the psychopath will choose to be untruthful.

Because psychopaths have mastered the art of deception by presenting such positive behavior at first, those around them are slow to accept the abrupt change and total disregard for the relationship that was built. When psychopaths are finally 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.

Unable to Accept Responsibility for Failures

Psychopaths turn into performers when they need to mimic normal human emotions that they have never felt. This holds true when they are faced with failure. When 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 do not have to.

If the ploy fails to work and they are blamed, they will emphatically deny any responsibility and, without feeling any shame, turn to lies, manipulation and point their fingers at the "true" culprits. When psychopaths are unable to convince those in superior positions that they have not erred, they fume, and obsess over it, often murmuring sarcastic comments under their breath as they plot their revenge.

Risky Antisocial Behavior With No Gain

Antisocial behavior like cheating, lying, robbing, stealing, agitating, fighting, adultery and killing, appeals to psychopaths, with or without reaping any hefty rewards. They appear drawn to antisocial behavior that is high risk and has no apparent goal. Some theorize that psychopaths like to put themselves into dangerous situations or where there is a high risk of being arrested, because of the adrenalin rush that they experience.

Since psychopaths generally do not feel many of the emotions that normal people feel, any extreme sensation feels good. Others believe that they do it in order to reinforce their sense of superiority and to prove that they are smarter than everyone, including the police.

Exhibits Horrible Judgment

Despite the fact that psychopaths are logical thinkers and enjoy viewing themselves as being highly intelligent, they consistently exhibit astonishingly horrible judgment. When they are faced with two paths, one that is clearly a path to gold and the other that is clearly a path to ashes, the psychopath will take the path to ashes. And, because psychopaths are unable to learn from their own experiences, they will be prone to taking the same path again and again.

Egocentric and Unable to Love

Psychopaths are highly egomaniacal to the point that it is hard for a normal person to comprehend it as being real.

Their self-centeredness is so deeply rooted and unchangeable that it renders them completely 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 or facilitate some personal plan or goal. For example,  a psychopathic father who is still loved by his children despite the deep suffering he has caused them may put on a show of appreciation only so that they continue to put money into his prison account or pay his legal fees.  

Conventional Treatment Empowers the Psychopath

There are different degrees of psychopathic behavior and different types including the sexual psychopaths and the work psychopaths. Most studies indicate that there are no conventional methods available which cure psychopathic behavior. On the contrary, when conventional methods have been used, the psychopath becomes empowered and reacts by improving their cunning, manipulative methods and their ability to conceal their true personality, even from trained eyes.

The Difference Between Psychopaths and Sociopaths

Psychopathy and sociopathy share the same diagnosis as having antisocial personality disorder and while they share other similar traits, there are also significant differences.

Psychopaths are more deceptive and manipulative and maintain more control over their outward persona. They are able to lead what appears to be a normal life sometimes throughout their lifetime.

When psychopaths become criminals they are cunning and believe they are smarter than the average person and invincible.

Sociopaths often let their inner rage surface with violent episodes both verbally and physically. They become reckless and spontaneous and have little control over their what they say or how they act out. 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 down jobs, turn to crime, and end up in prison.end up in prison.

Which One is More Dangerous?

Sociopaths have a difficult time hiding their disorder whereas psychopaths pride themselves on their manipulative abilities. Psychopaths are masters of disassociation and are 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 potentially more dangerous than sociopaths.

The above characteristics of a psychopath are based on studies by Hervey M. Cleckley and published in his book "Mask of Sanity".

Books About the Study of Psychopathic Behavior