Imagine you have just met the man of your dreams. He is tall, handsome, and clever. One night you go dancing, the next it is an expensive new restaurant. He seems to have limitless money – and limitless charm. Even your mother likes him! And yet, though you struggle to put it into words, something is wrong. When someone asks you what, you can only blurt out “he’s just too good to be true – it’s as if he’s wearing a mask.”
The term ‘psychopath’ is a relatively new one, dating from the start of the 20th century. But, though the term is new, people with psychopathic traits have always existed. Many of Shakespeare’s villains, for example, display psychopathic behavior: Edmund in King Lear and Iago in Othello are both manipulative and persuasive, using others for their own benefit and exhibiting very little empathy.
As human psychology became a subject for scientists and medics as well as dramatists and philosophers, descriptions became more precise, objective, and clinical. By the early 19th century, European specialists had begun to categorize a particular type of person, one who appeared normal, even “respectable”, but whose apparent respectability hid “moral insanity.”
Today, psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors use several different check lists. Certain traits are looked for and, when enough are found, the label “psychopath” is used. The important thing to note is that many people who do not match enough of the criteria to be classed as psychopaths, do nonetheless possess more of these traits than average. Once you include these people (the “diet psychopaths,” as someone once joked), the odds of your smart, charming new partner being psychopathic increase.
What You See Is Not What You Get
The first thing to look for is a mismatch between surface and content. Psychopaths are highly manipulative and go through life hidden behind a series of masks. These masks do not exist for the sake of it, however. They are used to manipulate people, to win them over and make them bend to the psychopath’s will.
So look for smooth, polished speech that lacks sincerity or depth. A psychopath can say “I love you,” or quote a line of poetry on a moonlit walk, and do so without stuttering or blushing. That is the giveaway. Someone whose words flow from deep emotion will hesitate, blush, or stumble. To a psychopath, however, words are weapons, and they have little respect for the meaning; their focus will be on the effect the words are having. Some develop such power that their victims later recall being hypnotized when they spoke. Even prison psychiatrists often find it hard to remain detached and objective when interviewing them.
But this silky speech hides a lack of real emotions. Psychopaths feel very little. Above all, they lack empathy. For example, an American documentary once featured an interview with a girl who had been diagnosed as psychopathic. She recalled watching T.V. as a teenager and shocking her father by laughing out loud at the image of a sick child. In particular, psychopaths feel little guilt or shame. And because of their skill with words, they will soon talk their way free when caught lying or stealing. Look especially for a lack of fear and a lack of embarrassment.
A psychopath is essentially detached. But, unlike someone who is merely introverted or socially anxious, the psychopath is quite happy about this. To him, other people are gullible fools, and he sees the human race with the eyes of a predator watching his prey.
The more time you spend with this person, the more likely they are to let the mask slip. But, whereas someone with anger issues will lose control, the psychopath will not. You may see a flash of cold, savage anger or cruelty and then, just as quickly, find the mask back in place and yourself once again basking in his manipulative charm.
Psychopaths can be difficult to spot. This does not mean they always know they are psychopaths of course. Many people no doubt pass through life completely unaware that that is what they are. But, ignorant or not, their past will often give them away.
Ask their mother or sister what they were like when young. Did they torment the family cat, for example? Sadistic cruelty to animals is a classic sign of psychopathy. He or she may have displayed extreme, unprovoked, and persistent cruelty towards another child at school as well. But such behavior will have been different to normal bullying. It will have been secretive, sadistic, and relentless.
If you are really concerned that you, or someone you love, is involved with a psychopath, try speaking to their ex-partners. Obviously, you need to be careful here. No one likes to find out that their partner has been asking questions about them – and psychopaths can be dangerous when provoked. But if you do, you may find that an ex-wife speaks of being “tricked” or “taken in”, then of discovering he had a second family or some other kind of secret life.
Finally, psychopaths rarely lack self-esteem. On the contrary, they usually have too much! They are often successful at fooling and manipulating others, which only deepens their contempt for them – and confirms their own sense of superiority.
Of course, psychopaths are not alone in this. Plenty of people are self-centered, arrogant, and deluded. So what makes the psychopath different? Again, you must look out for the slippery charm and eloquence. In a sense, the psychopath is too clever to be obnoxiously confident. If he senses that you dislike arrogance, he may feign humility and self-effacement.
According to Dr Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist and author of The Psychopath Whisperer, psychopaths are “way more common than people believe.” He estimates around one in 150 of the population are psychopathic. People assume they are rare because Hollywood has misled us into thinking that every psychopath is a sadist and mass murderer. So, if your new partner is occasionally boring or lazy be grateful – it could be worse!