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Understanding the Term 'Psychopath'

Updated on December 15, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes about mental health, disabilities, and social issues. She manages a news website about disabilities and mental illness.


When we hear the term “psychopath” images of people who are cold, callus, cruel, lacking empathy, and unfeeling. They can be dangerous to society because they do not see others as people or feel remorse. Hollywood has capitalized on this stereotype with scary villains such as Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates.

Up to five percent of people display sociopathic or psychopathic personality disorder traits and most are men. Some people may have similar traits as psychopaths but do not fill the profile. True psychopathy is actually rare. Not all psychopaths become criminals or serial killers.

Many people think of psychopaths as antisocial and loners who are unable to maintain relationships. They appear to be wild-eyed Charlie Manson types. Many psychopaths, however, appear outwardly successful and are able to get along with others. They may be married with children.

Ted Bundy
Ted Bundy | Source

Psychopaths appear "normal" others and can present themselves as likable and charming like Ted Bundy, a clean-cut business man and serial killer who managed to lure at least 30 women to their deaths. They can be highly charming, persuasive smooth talkers, and the opposite sex will find them attractive. Not all psychopaths become criminals or serial killers.

Researchers have several theories as to why people become psychopaths such as faulty wiring in the brain. Some suggest that serial killers did not bond with their parents during early childhood. Most psychopaths suffered physical and emotional abuse, were abandoned, were violated by a parent, or grew up feeling powerless during their childhood.

Characteristics of psychopaths

Medical professionals usually define psychopathy by a checklist with a wide variety of traits and behaviors.

Psychopaths share most of these common traits.

Uncaring and emotionally shallow: Psychopaths are emotionally shallow. They do not feel fear even when they are in a situation where they anticipate pain, such as a medical test. They usually do not show a lot of emotion or affection.

Psychopaths lack empathy and show a callous unconcern for the feelings of other people. They are unable to feel emotions deeply and are not good at discerning emotions such as fear in the faces of other people. There are no indications that they feel fear or guilt and feel no remorse when their victims suffer because of their actions. Psychopaths do not feel shame and anxiety when they get caught.

When emotions are called for such as at a funeral, they know the right things to say but may sound mechanical. They may misread situations and respond inappropriately such as joking when a person is trying to have a serious conversation. There may be brief emotional flare-ups - especially anger. They can become enraged if they do not get their own way, or feel disrespected or insulted. They do not know how their behavior affects others and expect their victims to “get over it.”

They do use emotion, however, to create a positive impression on others for their own personal gain. They have no qualms about cheating relatives out of their savings or using questionable practices to bring down a business competitor. They view people as objects for their personal gratification.

Do not feel repugnance: They do not feel disgust the same way as most people when in situations such as smelling offensive odors or seeing grizzly photos of crime victims. Criminal psychopaths can describe their horrific acts dispassionately. Some may even feel pride in what they have done and want to share the details with others.

Irresponsibility and impulsivity: Psychopaths blame others for events that are, in reality. their fault. They often act on the spur of the moment such as quitting their jobs or ending their relationships abruptly without considering the consequences of their actions.

Insincere speech: Psychopaths use their words to lie, or to distort or inflate situations towards their own selfish ends. They may con, manipulate and exploit others for their own pleasure or personal profit.

Overconfidence: Psychopaths have an inflated sense of their own self-worth and look down on others. They will often brag about their accomplishments. They feel justified in manipulating and using people. Overconfidence fuels a strong sense of entitlement to status symbols or money. They brag about their dubious achievements.


Inability to modify their responses to situations: Normal people can modify their actions during a task in response to new information. Psychopaths are not able to adjust to new situations, and tend to respond impulsively. They are also not able to plan for the future.

Selfishness: Psychopaths use people to achieve their ends and are not capable of loving others. They do not feel remorse when they sell used cars that are lemons, for example. They have huge egos and an over-inflated sense of self-worth.

An excessive need for power and control over others: This characteristic is common to most sexually-oriented serial killers. When they dominate other people, they feel special and important. They enjoy their victim's suffering.

Are easily bored and seek excitement: Psychopaths constantly take risks and seek thrills such as dangerous sports, drug abuse, and breaking the law.

Violence: Psychopaths have a low tolerance level for frustration and will quickly become aggressive and violent.

Treatment options

Therapy is not beneficial in most cases. Psychopaths observe and learn what their therapists expected of them. Then they use the information to dupe the therapists into believing that they have improved.

Many people assume that psychopathy is untreatable. In reality, however, a 2015 study by the University of Vermont (UV) suggests that many so-called psychopaths are masking emotions they cannot manage and can be helped to lead healthy, productive lives by the right therapies.

People who appear unemotional or callous may actually have higher levels of:

  • Anxiety and distress
  • Clinically significant depression
  • Emotional problems
  • fear
  • immunity to negative feelings

Research has revealed that there is an emotionally distressed subgroup among adults who have psychopathic traits. A comprehensive diagnostic test has been developed to identify this subgroup.

Girls are more likely to be within a group with significant emotional distress and unregulated negative feelings. These traits are common in adolescent females who are in the justice system.

Researchers estimate that if youth at risk of developing psychopathy were treated effectively, it could prevent them from becoming lifelong criminals and save society approximately $3 million over the youth’s lifetime.

Treatment options can address these psychological issues such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, which teaches patients strategies that help them manage their emotions.

The conventional treatments for aggression and psychopathy try to change unwanted behaviors by emphasizing punishments and rewards.


Cold, callous and untreatable? Not all psychopaths fit the stereotype
, says new study, University of Vermont
What Is a Psychopath? Psychology Today
Portrait of a psychopath,


Submit a Comment

  • Faith Reaper profile image

    Faith Reaper 

    3 years ago from southern USA

    Excellent article and great insight into what psychopathy really is and how it is misunderstood.

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thank you for your comments. I agree that psychopathy is misunderstood.

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    3 years ago from USA

    The term is often misused and thrown about in the popular media as a common insult, so this is a good presentation of what psychopathy actually involves.

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 

    3 years ago from The Caribbean

    Thank you for this presentation on the correct meaning of psychopath, their characteristics and treatment options. I learned some facts for the first time.


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