One of the defining features of psychopathy is the tendency to con others through lying, manipulation, and a glib form of charm. If you’ve been taken in by a person high in psychopathy, you can be left feeling hurt, deceived, and used. You might also feel a bit foolish. It’s possible that people high in psychopathy treat others with cold disregard just for the fun of it, or it may be due to their desire to get something out of you. However, it’s also possible that they can’t help themselves. The personality traits involved in psychopathy have developed over a lifetime, and through habit and, to a certain extent, reinforcement, individuals with these traits may see no reason to change their ways.
Knowing that you’re being manipulated can be the first step toward resisting the psychopath’s attempts to lure you into an emotional trap. Seeing through the impression management techniques these individuals use will help you “just say no” to their requests. Texas A&M’s Shannon Kelley and colleagues (2017) investigated, using a college sample, the agreement between ratings by individuals of their own psychopathic traits and ratings of them by their roommates. Previous research has shown that people high in psychopathy can, in the safety of a research setting, admit to their tendencies. How would such apparent honesty translate into everyday behavior, when those high in psychopathy have everything to gain from hiding their manipulative tendencies?
As the Texas A&M researchers note, “Contrary to concerns regarding response style and poor insight, research currently suggests that psychopathic individuals are able to accurately self-report interpersonal and affective dysfunction, as well as externalizing tendencies." In other words, those high in psychopathy do have some insight into their maladaptive traits. This perspective would suggest that they really don’t like themselves all that well. If you can penetrate their outer shell, which they use to hide their true self from others, you may be able to establish a reasonably good relationship, as improbable as that might seem.
In the Kelley et al. study, students rated themselves and their roommates on a set of personality measures that included a brief measure of psychopathy measuring the three constructs of boldness, meanness, and disinhibition. These are not particularly nice qualities: Boldness includes the tendency to dominate others and to be fearless and immune to stress. Meanness includes the components of callousness, sensation-seeking, and cruelty. The disinhibition subscale measures impulsiveness, an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions, and an inability to regulate one’s emotions. The aptly-named “STAB” measure asks people to report on whether they (or their roommate) show aggressive tendencies and rule-breaking behavior.
Tapping into that tendency to try to manipulate others, the Texas A&M researchers utilized a measure rarely used in research on psychopathy, but highly appropriate for the purposes of their study. The “PIM,” or Positive Impression Management scale, asks participants and their roommates to rate themselves and each other on a set of somewhat shady, but typical behaviors that people engage in from time to time, such as, for example, finding a way to avoid paying your fare on public transit. Items that measure positive impression management might include “I find it easy to resist temptations,” or “I rarely gossip.” There are certainly angels among us who would honestly agree to these statements, but it’s all a matter of degree. A person with psychopathic personality traits would, compared to the average person, most likely agree more strongly with these statements when responding in a completely honest manner. However, given that psychopathy is defined as involving the desire to look good, individuals high on this trait should receive lower scores than the average individual. The beauty of the Kelley et al. study was that they could compare the way people responded about themselves with the way their roommates saw them. Roommates may find it quite difficult to hide all of their devious behaviors from each other.
Supporting the original premise of the study that people high in psychopathy would actually respond relatively honestly in the context of the research setting, scores of roommates and their informants were moderately related to each other. Consequently, the authors concluded that “our findings provide little evidence that psychopathy contributes to poor insight concerning the presence of associated personality traits." This is not to say that those high in psychopathy won’t try to con others — in fact, positive impression management scores were correlated with scores on the boldness dimension of psychopathy. The more psychopathic individuals, in other words, saw themselves in a highly favorable manner, and so did their roommates. However, returning to the scores from the STAB, those high in boldness also had higher scores on the antagonistic features of psychopathy. As a consequence, those high on these features of psychopathy saw themselves as optimistic and resilient to stress, but others may experience them as insensitive and unsympathetic to others.
These findings were obtained in the research lab, a safer environment than real-world settings where people high in psychopathy may find themselves getting into trouble for admitting to their social improprieties and deviant behavior. When there’s no downside to being honest, the psychopathic may be honest about their thoughts and impulses, but when they have every reason to hide, their honesty likely disappears behind superficial charm, lies, and distortions.
With the Texas A&M findings in mind, we can draw some conclusions about how to see through the manipulation in the impression the highly psychopathic create about themselves.
Those high in psychopathy ...
- Don't see their traits as problematic. There’s evidence from the self-other correlations, especially in the boldness domain, that people high in psychopathy don’t mind showing how fearless they are, even if it means they come across as dominating.
- Don't care about the negative consequences of their actions. People high in psychopathy may be aware of their undesirable traits, but not be particularly concerned about their impact on others.
- Try to dominate others. You’ll know if you’re in the presence of psychopathic individuals if you sense that you’re being pushed around.
- Elevate their own devious motivations. Kelley et al. concluded that high boldness plus high impression management would lead people high in psychopathy to feel that they’re not subject to the same concerns as others. They may even give higher purposes to their behavior than their behavior would merit.
- Try to portray themselves as unusually honest. Being honest doesn’t come naturally to people high in psychopathy, but their self-distortions can lead them to think that they are. It's easy to be swayed by this apparent high-mindedness.
Glibness, lack of empathy, and a tendency to perform antisocial acts are part of the picture of the people high in psychopathy. Although under the right circumstances they can see themselves honestly, this doesn’t mean they won’t try to deceive you. Knowing the ways they manipulate you can help you become better able to resist.
Kelley, S. E., Edens, J. F., Donnellan, M. B., Mowle, E. N., & Sörman, K. (2017). Self‐ and informant perceptions of psychopathic traits in relation to the triarchic model. Journal of Personality, doi:10.1111/jopy.12354