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7 Elements of the Psychopathic Personality

5. A constant need for stimulation.

Key points

  • Individuals who are high in psychopathy may appear charming and confident at first.
  • However, they are prone to behaving deceitfully, immorally, and in some cases violently.
  • Knowing the basic features of psychopathy could help stop victims from being manipulated.

What does it mean when we call someone a psychopath? Most people have heard the term, 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 is 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 transactional 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 a nutshell, are seven characteristics that should alert you that a psychopathic personality might be in your sights.

1. 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 his annoying tendencies to make not-to-subtle and insensitive subtle sexual innuendos. On reflection, you realize Bob is a guy whose style is to seduce and beguile, not to befriend and bond with others.

2. Puffed-Up Self-Esteem. He’s the guy who always takes the credit, whether he deserves it or not. Not only is he a grandiose blow-heard, but—and this is important—he devalues others who he perceives as a competitor. His desire is not just to win, but to dominate, even if it means that he must be destructive. If the degree of psychopathy is extreme, this may mean that the psychopath will be willing to be violent, if necessary.

One psychopath I interviewed told me when he's committing a robbery, his goal 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.

3. Deceitfulness. This trait is related to 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, may undermine colleagues or claim credit for a project on which he “talked the talk” but actually contributed little when it came to putting in the time to complete. He had no problem 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 spent time schmoozing with the supervisors, thus making it risky to confront him directly.

4. Shallow Emotions. What can make this particular trait so jarring is that, as previously noted, the psychopath is superficially engaging and can seem expressively “present.” The depth of emotions is belied by a callous indifference.

You might be jarred, for example, when you realize that the seemingly interested guy you're talking to abruptly changes the topic of conversation, just 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 on you that he sees others as instruments to be self-servingly employed.

Although Bob, our psychopathic exemplar, puckers up to the powers that be, his goal is to use his relationships with them to gain special favors at work. Yet he never misses an opportunity to undermine those above him, especially when it might serve his professional aspirations.

5. Boredom and a Need for Stimulation. A propensity to experience boredom 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 chances and engage in risky behaviors. Bob, though his behavior has caused others at work to be leery of him, may also be admired for his aggressive behavior and willingness to “go out on a limb” to get new contracts and make money for his employer.

6. A History of Shady Conduct. Since the psychopath has little to no moral center, his thrill-seeking behavior has no bounds, which over time might catch up with him. It's usually too late for his victims, however.

In my book, Decoding Madness, I explore the case of Randall, a malignant psychopath who was admired by his supervisors at work for his salesmanship prowess—until it came to light that, in a fit of rage, he killed his wife and then his young daughter to cover it all up. It was then discovered that he had been committing fraud at work for years.

7. A Riddle of Contradictions. As a result of their skill at manipulation and deception, psychopaths can be difficult to decipher, due in large part to their skill in presenting themselves as likable and even sensitive guys.

Ted Bundy, the well-known serial killer, is a tragic example. Good-looking and smooth, he lured 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.

Facebook image: Friends Stock/Shutterstock


Lettieri, R (2021). Decoding Madness: A forensic psychologist explores the criminal mind. Prometheus Press. Chapters 6 and 11

Workman, Lance. “Interview: The memory worrior.” The psychologist; The British Psychological Society 25. (2012): 526-529.

Kiehl, K (2014). Psychopath Whisperer: The science of those without conscience. Broadway Books.

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