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How to spot a psychopath … and what to do if you know one

The Independent logo The Independent 8/31/2015 Xanthe Mallett
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The word ‘psychopath’ strikes fear into the hearts of many, largely as a result of fictitious caricatures in pop culture – think Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s 1960’s classic ‘Psycho’ – and as a forensic criminologist, I am often asked how you can spot a psychopath and what to do if you know one.

Well, the statistics indicate you do know one, at least one, as anywhere between 1%-4% of the population would fall somewhere on the psychopathic scale.

But that does not mean you should be scared.  People fear psychopaths largely because the old adage holds true that we fear what we don’t understand. People suffering from the psychological disorder of psychopathy aren’t generally violent and certainly aren’t evil.

I’ve even wondered if I’m a psychopath; I have some of the traits – I can take tough decisions, even switching off emotions if they don’t suit my purpose.  Some of my closest friends and family have asked if I even have tear ducts, and people have described me as cold, which I can certainly be.  I’m bold, fearless, I certainly know what I want, and won’t let much stop me getting it – including turning on the charm if I think it will help. 

But everything is on a continuum, and whilst I can be cold, callous, and calculating, and my self-confidence can border on arrogance, I also feel empathy.  There’s nothing I hate more than bullies, and I would sacrifice my own safety to defend a complete stranger without thinking twice.  If you are someone I care about there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you.

So, whilst I am not an all-out psychopath, I have some traits, but my empathy and compassion set me apart from those suffering from the personality disorder, as the over-riding feature that distinguishes sufferers of psychopathy is that they cannot feel empathy.

What is a true psychopath?

Very few people are at the most extreme end of the psychopathic spectrum; what you could call a ‘true psychopath’.

True psychopaths have a disregard for rules, poor impulse control, are often risk takers, and show a total disregard for the feelings and needs of others.

They can also be very charming, at least superficially, and are very good at mimicking emotions – so they can often fool you into thinking they are showing pity, remorse, guilt, or empathy, when in fact they are not capable of feeling any of these emotions.

This is not a choice.  Their brains work differently from everyone else’s, meaning that they do not have the capacity to feel these emotions (see an interesting article on how suffers of various levels of psychopathy assess emotions in others).

I’ve met my fair share of people on the psychopathic spectrum whilst interviewing witnesses and family members in murder investigations and disappearances, and if you’re looking, there are signs that you’re talking to someone suffering from psychopathy.

My top 5 signs that I’m interviewing a psychopath:

1) They can’t learn to express true empathy, but they are good at mimicking emotions

If you dig a little deeper and ask questions like “how did it feel when you found out she’d been murdered?” a true psychopath will struggle to give detailed descriptions of how they felt, they’ll answer with something like “it was really distressing” but won’t describe any physical response like “it felt like my heart had been ripped out”, as they have never experienced that feeling themselves.  If you push them on the point, they’ll may get angry as they fear being exposed.

2) Their verbal and physical cues don’t match up 

Many sufferers of psychopathy are very skilled actors, and under normal circumstances can hide their inability to feel emotions well.  But it’s hard for psychopaths to be convincing all the time.  They know what emotion to tell you they’re feeling, saying something like “it was very distressing”, but their eyes might be clear and they will give you prolonged (sometimes almost challenging) eye contact, and their body language might be just a little too confidant, too measured.

3) They like getting in your face, up close and personal

Whilst it’s well-recognised that the distance we like to be from strangers is largely culturally determined, sufferers of psychopathy will breach those boundaries.  A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2014 demonstrated that interpersonal distance preferences were reduced in individuals with high levels of ‘cold-heartedness’ (one psychopathic trait tested for) preferred shorter interpersonal distances.  The authors concluded that again this was linked to variations in the structure of the brains of psychopaths, specifically dysfunction of the amygdala region, which plays a key role in regulating emotions.

4) They exude a confidence that can be intriguing, even beguiling

The one thing I’ve noticed amongst those I’ve interviewed for violent crimes as witnesses (when I’ve actually wondered if I’m interviewing the perpetrator) is an almost haughty indifference to the process, as if they are playing with me.  It's all a game of cat and mouse they are sure to win (in their minds), as everyone else, including me and the police, are beneath them.  I’ve seen it described as ‘amused indifference’, which has been exactly my experience when I think I’m dealing with a true psychopath.

5) They like alluding to their true natures

I remember speaking with a young man about a gang-related murder in Melbourne, Australia, and he showed all the characteristics listed in 1-4; off camera he said things like “if I’d have killed him I wouldn’t have dumped him there”, and “you’re lucky you’re not talking to some of my old friends, they wouldn’t like to talk about this”.  I felt like I was talking at a snake, a cold-blooded individual who was trying to exude power over me with vague threats hidden behind a charismatic smile.

Even though I know I’ve interviewed a number of predatory psychopaths and can recognise some of the signs, I can still be fooled.  A true psychopath can be very cunning, and match that with excellent mimicking skills and the most experienced forensic psychologist or police investigator can still be duped; especially in short interactions.  But the more time you spend with one the more signals they will give off. 

Hint: After meeting someone you may just get the feeling that something is slightly off, even if you can’t put your finger on what.  I’ve had that experience, and when it’s happened I keep my distance in future.

We still don’t really understand the causes of this antisocial personality disorder, and whilst psychiatrists say psychopathy can be managed or treated, it cannot be cured (for an interesting discussion of treatments and outcomes see ‘The Criminal Psychopath: History, neuroscience, treatment, and economics’ by Kiehl and Hoffman).

So if you think you’re involved with a true psychopath (not simply someone on the continuum like the vast majority of those suffering some level of psychopathy) my advice is to get away from them.  As in the end if you need to be sacrificed for them to get what they want they won’t think twice.

Xanthe Mallett is a forensic anthropologist, criminologist and lecturer at the University of New England, Armidale and Sydney


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