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Psychopath or Not: How to Tell?

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This post is about the high-functioning psychopath, low-functioning psychopath: traits they have in common, traits that differ, and why society and movies should stop romanticizing psychopaths.

It seems to us that we know how to tell if someone is a psychopath. We have all seen psychopaths in movies and TV-series: Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, Dexter Morgan from Dexter, Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct, Alex from Like Minds…Psychopaths seem to be very smart, cunning, charming, mysterious, and just different, not like the people we know in real life. This leads society to romanticizing psychopaths and forgetting what they really are.

When I was younger, I used to admire those characters because of how mysterious and smart they seemed. However, as recent research shows, a genius psychopath, in most cases, is an artistic creation. Brian Boutwell, an American criminologist and associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Saint Louis University and his colleagues analyzed the results of 187 published studies on intelligence and psychopathy which included both incarcerated psychopaths and psychopaths with great careers. It was found that psychopaths, on average, scored lower on intelligence tests than people without psychopathic traits. This puts an end to the myth that all psychopaths have a high IQ like Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs.1

We rarely meet psychopaths in real life, don’t we? Unless you start researching the topic, learning more about them, and paying attention to details which they may never let you see at all, you’ll never realize that someone you know is a psychopath. So, how to tell if someone is a psychopath?

Psychopath or not: how to tell?

It’s not very smart to assume that you can find two identical people with antisocial personality disorder. All people are different. Even if they share a common disorder, they still may have different traits and their severity because of brain and upbringing differences. There is no clear image of a psychopath but there are certain red flags you should pay attention to in order to recognize one. Approximately, 1% of population are psychopaths, so the following information can save lives.

High-functioning psychopaths and low-functioning psychopaths

To tell if someone is a psychopath you should know that there are high-functioning psychopaths and low-functioning psychopaths. The difference between the two is that high-functioning psychopaths have the awareness of being not like the rest and good impulse control which helps them avoid problems with the law.

Common traits that high-functioning psychopaths and low-functioning psychopaths share:

  • inability to feel empathy, remorse, in most cases – guilt, sometimes – love
  • impulsiveness
  • low fear
  • excess need for mental or physical stimulation (whether it’s criminal activity, substance abuse, or a dangerous hobby)
  • callousness
  • aggressiveness (verbal or physical)
  • blunted affect
  • being cunning and manipulative
  • being unable to learn from past experience

Even though a psychopath who scores lower on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, is more likely to develop bonds with people, psychopaths in general still are less likely to develop deep bonds with people. However, psychopaths may feel some sort of love for someone they have a bond with as well as feel some sort of grief and guilt related to the death of someone they had a bond with.

Psychopaths may feel love in their own way. The less psychopathic traits a psychopath has, the more likely they are to develop deep bonds with certain people. What kind of love is it? Only a psychopath can tell you and for every of them this love will be different.

However, many psychopaths have the wish to be loved and cared for. Some of them have transient sexual relationships; some can adapt, pretend and maintain more or less long-term relationships; while some of them stay alone for the rest of their lives.

Psychopaths also feel lonely and sad. It may lead them to reaching the point of no return when they feel no connection with the normal world at all. As their suffering increases, their crimes become more bizarre.5 As morals don’t matter for psychopaths, they may cheat on their partners just for the thrill without feeling bad about it.

Psychopathic traits emerge early in childhood. When they are kids, they cry easily, throw temper tantrums, do poorly in school, run away from home, are aggressive, deceitful, quarrelsome, shameless and seek new sensations which leads to alcohol and drug abuse.2 They usually have a history of juvenile delinquency.

On average, psychopaths are rather inarticulate and use swear words. Also, they often show disregard for the rights of other people unless they’ve learned to mask and control themselves well. The intelligence people often attribute to psychopaths is rather their huge confidence and grandiose feeling of self-worth. Violent psychopaths may direct their violence not only toward others but also toward themselves. Some of them die as a result of risky activities.

How to tell if someone is a low-functioning psychopath?

Low-functioning psychopaths are the ones who spend most of their lives in prison or engage in criminal activities and get killed. Approximately 93% of adult male psychopaths in the United States are in prison, jail, parole, or probation.3

Low-functioning psychopaths are callous, aggressive, violent, manipulative, irresponsible, impatient, egocentric, unable to feel many emotions. Low-functioning psychopaths usually are verbally aggressive and lack self-control, so if they are enraged and tell you that they are going to hurt or kill you, you’d better believe them. Beware of them, because they lack fear. Remember that they are not like you, so you should never project your own values and morals on them.

If they want something now, they will get it at all costs, not thinking about the possible consequences. They don’t feel empathy and guilt. They are not afraid to inflict pain, take somebody’s life, go to jail. Just like high-functioning psychopaths, low-functioning psychopaths can also lie to get what they need or to get away with something.

Low-functioning psychopaths usually can’t plan their life in advance, don’t have long-term goals, and don’t realize long-term consequences of their actions. They may not even realize they are different from other people or what makes them different. They may be unaware of their psychopathy and so, not wear the “mask” psychopaths usually wear to fit in.

Low-functioning psychopaths often engage in meaningless transient sexual relationships, seek thrill in them, and don’t take them seriously.

How to tell if someone is a high-functioning psychopath?

Although high-functioning psychopaths and low-functioning psychopaths share a number of common traits, the former ones possess more self-control. A high-functioning psychopath is less easy to spot because of how well they have mastered to disguise.

These people have learned from early years that they think differently, they are not driven by common among people emotions of empathy, remorse, and sometimes love which is why to be accepted in society, they have to wear a mask. This mask is not something stable because it’s not their real personality, so they can adjust it to fit in different situations with different people.

If you notice the same person acting differently with different people or saying different things to different people in order to get what they need – beware. Remember, if something seems weird, it probably is weird.

A high-functioning psychopath can set long-term goals and perfectly achieve them often with help of lies and manipulation. High-functioning psychopaths, the ones who are aware of their psychopathy, often note that their goals are more important to them than instant gratification. It means that they will not risk their lives or social status and rather control their impulses than do something illegal whenever they feel the urge to.

It’s not like they feel empathy or care about morally appropriate behavior. They are also not afraid to do something illegal. It’s that they don’t want to risk if they know they will be caught or if they have a lot to lose. If they know they won’t be caught and they want to do something considered wrong, they’ll do it.

In the workplace, high-functioning psychopaths are not only cold-minded but also manipulative, deceitful, egocentric, and vindictive. They can make people do work for them and then take all the credit using their charm for it.

High-functioning psychopaths can read people, spot what they are vulnerable to and use it against them or in order to get something from them. Being under pressure they usually are not overwhelmed by emotions and remain cold-minded and fearless. They seem super confident and can build successful careers.

Psychopaths usually don’t take responsibility, they cause conflicts and gaslight their colleagues. They may seem to be charismatic leaders to everyone else but people who work for them or in teams with them know exactly that it’s not their professionalism, it’s their superficial charm.4

RELATED: If You Don’t Understand This, You Are a Toxic Boss

high functioning psychopath at work, manipulative boss, toxic boss: In the workplace, high-functioning psychopaths are not only cold-minded but also manipulative, deceitful, egocentric, and vindictive. They can make people do work for them and then take all the credit using their charm for it. Psychopaths usually don’t take responsibility, they cause conflicts and gaslight their colleagues. They may seem to be charismatic leaders to everyone else but people who work for them or in teams with them know exactly that it’s not their professionalism, it’s their superficial charm.


Remember, if someone threatens you, believe them! You are in no position to evaluate whether they are capable of executing their threats. So, if your life is precious to you, believe this person and always assume they are a psychopath and don’t abide law. There is probably no way to be 100% sure if someone you know is a psychopath, especially a high-functioning psychopath, unless they’ve told you about their diagnosis. But anyway, if you know some сlues, it should help you at least beware.

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