Online Resource for Victims of Psychopaths and Narcissists

Profile of the Psychopath

by Dr Robert Hare

The Psychopathy Checklist lets us discuss psychopaths with little risk that we are describing simple social deviance or criminality, or that we are mislabeling people who have nothing more in common than that they have broken the law. But it also provides a detailed picture of the disordered personalities of the psychopaths among us. In this chapter and the next, I bring that picture into focus by describing the more salient features one by one. This chapter looks at the emotional and interpersonal traits of this complex personality disorder; chapter 4 examines the unstable, characteristically antisocial lifestyle of the psychopath.

A cautionary note: The Psychopathy Checklist is a complex clinical tool for professional use.[1] What follows is a general summary of the key traits and behaviors of psychopaths. Do not use these symptoms to diagnose yourself or others. A diagnosis requires explicit training and access to the formal scoring manual. If you suspect that someone you know conforms to the profile described here and in the next chapter, and if it is important to you to obtain an expert opinion, seek the services of a qualified (registered) forensic psychologist or psychiatrist.

Also, be aware that people who are not psychopaths may have some of the symptoms described here. Many people are impulsive, or glib, or cold and unfeeling, or antisocial, but this does not mean they are psychopaths. Psychopathy is a syndrome--a cluster of related symptoms.

Glib and Superficial

Psychopaths are often witty and articulate. They can be amusing and entertaining conversationalists, ready with a quick and clever comeback, and can tell unlikely but convincing stories that cast themselves in a good light. They can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likable and charming. To some people, however, they seem too slick and smooth, too obviously insincere and superficial. Astute observers often get the impression that psychopaths are play-acting, mechanically "reading their lines."

One of my raters described an interview she did with a prisoner: "I sat down and took out my clipboard, and the first thing this guy told me was what beautiful eyes I had. He managed to work quite a few compliments on my appearance into the interview -- couldn't get over my hair. So by the time I wrapped things up I was feeling unusually...well, pretty. I'm a wary person, especially on the job, and can usually spot a phony. When I got back outside, I couldn't believe I'd fallen for a line like that."

Psychopaths may ramble and tell stories that seem unlikely in light of what is known about them. Typically, they attempt to appear familiar with sociology, psychiatry, medicine, psychology, philosophy, poetry, literature, art, or law. A signpost to this trait is often a smooth lack of concern at being found out. One of our prison files describes a psychopathic inmate claiming to have advanced degrees in sociology and psychology, when in fact he did not even complete high school. He maintained the fiction during an interview with one of my students, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology; she commented that the inmate was so confident in his use of technical jargon and concepts that those not familiar with the field of psychology might well have been impressed. Variations on this sort of "expert" theme are common among psychopaths....

Egocentric and Grandiose

Psychopaths have a narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the center of the universe, as superior beings who are justified in living according to their own rules. "It's not that I don't follow the law," said one of our subjects. "I follow my own laws. I never violate my own rules." She then described these rules in terms of "looking out for number one."

When another psychopath, in prison for a variety of crimes including robbery, rape, and fraud, was asked if he had any weaknesses, he replied, "I don't have any weaknesses, except maybe I'm too caring." On a 10-point scale he rated himself "an all-round 10. I would have said 12, but that would be bragging. If I had a better education I'd be brilliant."

The grandiosity and pomposity of some psychopaths often emerges in dramatic fashion in the courtroom. For example, it is not unusual for them to criticize or fire their lawyers and to take over their own defense, usually with disastrous results. "My partner got a year. I got two because of a shithead lawyer," said one of our subjects. He later handled his own appeal and saw his sentence increased to three years.

Psychopaths often come across as arrogant, shameless braggarts -- self-assured, opinionated, domineering, and cocky. They love to have power and control over others and seem unable to believe that other people have valid opinions different from theirs. They appear charismatic or "electrifying" to some people.

Psychopaths are seldom embarrassed about their legal, financial, or personal problems. Rather, they see them as temporary setbacks, the results of bad luck, unfaithful friends, or an unfair and incompetent system.

Although psychopaths often claim to have specific goals, they show little understanding of the qualifications required -- they have no idea how to achieve their goals and little or no chance of attaining them, given their track record and lack of sustained interest in education. The psychopathic inmate thinking about parole might outline vague plans to become a property tycoon or a lawyer for the poor. One inmate, not particularly literate, managed to copyright the title of a book he was planning to write about himself and was already counting the fortune his bestseller would bring....

Lack of Remorse or Guilt

Psychopaths show a stunning lack of concern for the devastating effects their actions have on others. Often they are completely forthright about the matter, calmly stating that they have no sense of guilt, are not sorry for the pain and destruction they have caused, and that there is no reason for them to be concerned.

When asked if he had any regrets about stabbing a robbery victim who subsequently spent three months in the hospital as a result of his wounds, one of our subjects replied, "Get real! He spends a few months in a hospital and I rot here. I cut him up a bit, but if I wanted to kill him I would have slit his throat. That's the kind of guy I am; I gave him a break." Asked if he regretted any of his crimes, he said, "I don't regret nothing. What's done is done. There must have been a reason why I did it at the time, and that is why it was done...."

On the other hand, psychopaths sometimes verbalize remorse but then contradict themselves in words or actions. Criminals in prison quickly learn that remorse is an important word. When asked if he experienced remorse over a murder he'd committed, one young inmate told us, "Yeah, sure, I feel remorse." Pressed further, he said that he didn't "feel bad inside about it."

I was once dumbfounded by the logic of an inmate who described his murder victim as having benefited from the crime by learning "a hard lesson about life."

"The guy only had himself to blame," another inmate said of the man he'd murdered in an argument about paying a bar tab. "Anybody could have seen I was in a rotten mood that night. What did he want to go and bother me for?" He continued, "Anyway, the guy never suffered. Knife wounds to an artery are the easiest way to go."

Psychopaths' lack of remorse or guilt is associated with a remarkable ability to rationalize their behavior and to shrug off personal responsibility for actions that cause shock and disappointment to family, friends, associates, and others who have played by the rules. Usually they have handy excuses for their behavior, and in some cases they deny that it happened at all....

Lack of Empathy

Many of the characteristics displayed by psychopaths -- especially their egocentricity, lack of remorse, shallow emotions, and deceitfulness are closely associated with a profound lack of empathy (an inability to construct a mental and emotional "facsimile" of another person). They seem unable to "get into the skin" or to "walk in the shoes" of others, except in a purely intellectual sense. The feelings of other people are of no concern to psychopaths.

In some respects they are like the emotionless androids depicted in science fiction, unable to imagine what real humans experience. One rapist, high on the Psychopathy Checklist, commented that he found it hard to empathize with his victims. "They are frightened, right? But, you see, I don't really understand it. I've been scared myself, and it wasn't unpleasant."

Psychopaths view people as little more than objects to be used for their own gratification. The weak and the vulnerable -- whom they mock, rather than pity--are favorite targets. "There is no such thing, in the psychopathic universe, as the merely weak," wrote psychologist Robert Rieber. "Whoever is weak is also a sucker; that is, someone who demands to be exploited...."[2]

Deceitful and Manipulative

Lying, deceiving, and manipulation are natural talents for psychopaths.

With their powers of imagination in gear and focused on themselves, psychopaths appear amazingly unfazed by the possibility -- or even by the certainty -- of being found out. When caught in a lie or challenged with the truth, they are seldom perplexed or embarrassed -- they simply change their stories or attempt to rework the facts so that they appear to be consistent with the lie. The results are a series of contradictory statements and a thoroughly confused listener. Much of the lying seems to have no motivation other than what psychologist Paul Ekman refers to as a "duping delight...."[3]

Psychopaths seem proud of their ability to lie. When asked if she lied easily, one woman with a high score on the Psychopathy Checklist laughed and replied, "I'm the best. I'm really good at it, I think because I sometimes admit to something bad about myself. They'd think, well, if she's admitting to that she must be telling the truth about the rest." She also said that she sometimes "salts the mine" with a nugget of truth." If they think some of what you say is true, they usually think it's all true."

Many observers get the impression that psychopaths sometimes are unaware that they're lying; it is as if the words take on a life of their own, unfettered by the speaker's knowledge that the observer is aware of the facts. The psychopath's indifference to being identified as a liar is truly extraordinary; it causes the listener to wonder about the speaker's sanity. More often, though, the listener is taken in....

Shallow Emotions

"I'm the most cold-blooded son of a bitch that you'll ever meet.''[4] So Ted Bundy described himself to the police following his final arrest.

Psychopaths seem to suffer a kind of emotional poverty that limits the range and depth of their feelings. While at times they appear cold and unemotional, they are prone to dramatic, shallow, and short-lived displays of feeling. Careful observers are left with the impression that they are play-acting and that little is going on below the surface.

Sometimes they claim to experience strong emotions but are unable to describe the subtleties of various affective states. For example, they equate love with sexual arousal, sadness with frustration, and anger with irritability. "I believe in emotions: hate, anger, lust, and greed," said Richard Ramirez, the "Night Stalker...."[5]

The apparent lack of normal affect and emotional depth led psychologists J. H. Johns and H. C. Quay to say that the psychopath "knows the words but not the music."[6] For example, in a rambling book about hate, violence, and rationalizations for his behavior, Jack Abbott made this revealing comment: "There are emotions -- a whole spectrum of them -- that I know only through words, through reading and in my immature imagination. I can imagine I feel these emotions (know, therefore, what they are), but I do not. At age thirty-seven I am barely a precocious child. My passions are those of a boy...."[7]


[1] The Psychopathy Checklist is published by Multi-Health Systems (908 Niagra Falls Blvd, North Tonawanda, NY 14120-2060; in Canada, 65 Overlea Blvd, Toronto, Ontario, M4H1P1) and is available to qualified users. The items in the Psychotherapy Checklist are scored by combining interview, case-history, and archival data. However, some investigators have obtained valid scores solely from extensive, good quality file and archival information (e.g., G.T. Harris, M.E. Rice, & C.A. Cormier. Psychotherapy and violent recidivism. Law and Human Behavior, 1991, 15, 625-637).

[2] Robert Rieber (in press). The Psychotherapy of Everyday Life amd the Institutionalization of Distress. New York: Basic Books.

>[3] Paul Ekman (1985). Telling Lies. New York: Norton.

[4] Michaud and Aynesworth (1989). p. 3.

[5] From the television program A Current Affair, October 10, 1991.

[6] J. H. Johns and H. C. Quay (1962). The effect of social reward on verbal conditioning in psychopathic and neurotic military offenders. Journal of Consulting Psychology 36, 217-20.

[7] Jack Abbott (1981). In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison. New York: Random House. p. 13.



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