Serial killers are often depicted in film and television as deranged psychopaths. This contributes to a general misconception about psychopaths (and of serial killers). The truth is that psychopaths, sociopaths, and antisocial personalities, compared to serial killers, are relatively common in the population. Serial killers are extremely rare, because they usually exhibit a potent combination of multiple diagnostic categories including antisocial personality, narcissism, and different forms of paraphilia — voyeurism, frotteurism, exhibitionism, sadism, masochism, etc.). Statistically speaking, a psychopath is almost always never a serial killer; patterned homicide is just that rare.
How many psychopaths are reading this article along with you?
It's hard to pin down. But if thousands of people read this, research suggests there are bound to be some in the group. About 15 percent of male prisoners meet psychopathic diagnostic criteria. This statistic illustrates where this disorder can take one, especially those lacking a network of concerned individuals like parents, teachers, and friends who could provide support and intervene at the earliest signs of disorders.
A study in the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law found that 3 percent of business leaders scored in the psychopathic range. In contrast, rates of individuals in the general population with psychopathic traits (i.e., have some psychopathic tendencies) hover around 1 percent.
The causes of psychopathy are partly genetic and partly environmental. Men are more likely to be diagnosed than women, and symptoms are most visible during the early twenties. Due to the positive social qualities that psychopaths sometimes possess, our ability to detect them is often diminished. Here are five signs that someone you work with has psychopathic tendencies:
1. Thrill Seekers
Psychopaths often crave activities that have an element of physical danger or risk of being caught doing something illegal or malicious. Because they have little concern for their own safety or the safety of others, they will try to convince people around them to engage in risky behavior. In some contexts, this may seem fun, until it becomes clear to others that this goes beyond what is normally acceptable. For example, “I’m so bored. We should all get in my car and play chicken with other cars tonight out on Highway 61.” Or, “Let’s see how far you can drive down this dark road with your headlights off.” Not all psychopaths engage in illegal activity, but they may be very good at getting others to go along with risky and inappropriate adventures.
2. Superficial Charm
It is not unusual for psychopaths to be well-liked, especially at the beginning of a relationship. They often project an image that is charming and engaging. Conversations may involve elevated levels of superficial charm, wonderful small talk, witty comments, and fantastic stories. The charm wears off when others realize that there is little there beyond the carefully managed surface.
3. Lacking Conscience
That little voice inside your head that tells you to return the wallet you found on the floor to its rightful owner is less audible to psychopaths. Their capacity to experience empathy, guilt, remorse, condolence, sympathy, and pity all seem to be limited. These emotional deficits might be the first observable sign that others notice. A psychopath will have a hard time taking responsibility, instead blaming others, even those they just hurt.
In some cases, they may go through the motions of appearing compassionate. They may have learned what to say in order to get by in emotional situations with others, but there is no genuine feeling behind their words of comfort and concern, leading some experts to conclude that “they know the lyrics, but not the music.”
Arrogance is a trait that seems to show up again and again with psychopaths. They may not meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical narcissism, but they do show confidence that borders on arrogance, even where it is not justified: “Even though I’ve never done this before, I’m sure no one can do it better than me.” There is an inflated sense of importance and competitiveness motivating behavior that becomes the driving force behind attaining positions of power, fame, and status. In some cases, they have distorted views about their potential and have trouble seeing themselves and their talents the way others do. This type of grandiosity leads psychopaths to believe that normal laws and customs do not apply to them as they try to fight their way to the top.
Imagine that your friend calls you at work one day to alert you that she just saw your dog, Berkus, walking by himself down the street outside your house. Panicked, you leave work early and rush home to try and track him down. When you arrive, he is perfectly comfortable, sleeping inside the house. He was never outside. This leaves you relieved, but also confused. Did your friend do this on purpose, or was this an honest case of mistaken canine identity?
Psychopaths are fascinated with manipulating others, and will often lie and deceive just to get an emotional response. There may be nothing tangible to gain from this sort of manipulation; they just have a difficult time controlling the impulse.
The psychological package of manipulation also includes flattery and guilt trips to have their needs met. In the dog scenario, you would probably call your friend to thank them for being so concerned about Berkus, but assure them that everything was fine. They may flatter you with, “You are such a good dog mommy!”
What they ended up accomplishing was to exploit your sense of empathy and force you into a position of leaving work against your plans. This subtle, but effective, form of manipulation can be difficult to confirm. How do you accuse your friend of lying when they were (seemingly) trying to help you? The best that you can do is keep your eyes open for patterns of similar behavior over time.
Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 28(2), 174-n/a. doi:10.1002/bsl.925