Are Psychopaths as Smart as They Seem?
New research questions whether psychopaths really are all that clever.
Posted February 2, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
If someone asks you to describe a psychopath, it’s likely you’ll include “intelligent” in the equation. After all, don’t people who rise to the top, whether in business or politics, have astute powers that enable them to manipulate others so they can succeed?
Perhaps you know people whose tendency to exploit those who work for or who are emotionally close to them means that they are able to take whatever weaknesses people have and use them to their advantage. This might be a boss who lords over you the fact that times are tight and you should therefore put in hours of unpaid labor. It could be the spouse of your best friend who you know for a fact makes unauthorized personal purchases out of the joint credit card.
The common denominator in these instances is the ability of psychopathic individuals to use unorthodox but successful tactics to achieve whatever devious ends they seek. As much as they may seem to have outsmarted everyone else, though, is it really true that they have a touch of genius? According to Ulm University’s Sally Olderbak and colleagues (2021), psychopaths “are described as manipulators and liars, implying they have (or have developed) the necessary skills of [emotion] expression” (p. 1). These skills, given the devious nature of psychopaths, would mean that they know how to project a false image of sincerity, kindness, and even humility. They should also be able to imitate (but not feel) the emotions of others.
The German researchers sought to test the emotion-projecting ability of psychopaths by comparing them to non-psychopaths not only on the tendency to lie, a defining quality, but also on how skilled they actually are at using emotions as a basis for their deception. As the authors note, “If they are better at deception, we would expect that they have especially strong socioemotional skills and higher general mental ability” (p. 2).
Evaluating the available research, Olderback and her coauthors found evidence that psychopaths may actually lack the intellectual ability they need to quickly and easily lie because they don't have the emotion-sensing skills needed to identify how other people are feeling. They may even fail to possess the wiliness it takes to ingratiate themselves with their victims through emotional mimicry. Is it possible, the authors wondered, that psychopaths actually may “not understand the nuances in emotional expression or know how to be believable with their emotional expression” (p. 4)?
If you find all of this to be counter to your notion of the intellectually agile psychopathic liar, it’s important to note that the studies the German authors cite don't all support the idea that they lack emotional smarts. Some of the previous research suggests that psychopaths are indeed quite skilled at making themselves seem believable. To resolve these discrepancies, the Ulm University researchers decided that instead of relying on self-report measures, as is true for many of the existing studies, they would put psychopaths in the lab and actually observe them in the process of emotional expression as well as perception. The second key feature of this study was the inclusion, not previously done, of measures of intellectual ability. Maybe, Olderbak et al. thought, it’s just that psychopaths just aren’t that smart.
The research team recruited a sample of 316 men (no women to exclude gender as a factor), either in prison, psychiatric hospitals, or living in the community, and matched for social class to those who were incarcerated. Their average age was 35 years, most were German nationals, and 85 percent had no more than a high school education, including 13 percent who had no education or completed elementary school only. Using a well-established psychopathy measure, the authors determined that one-third met the cut-off for a diagnosis.
Bringing these men into the lab, Olderbak and her research team gave them a series of computer-based tasks involving both the production and interpretation of the six basic emotions of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Recording them as they expressed a series of predetermined emotions, the researchers also asked the participants to imitate faces expressing the same emotions. The imitation task involved feedback in the form of a mirror so that they could actually see what they looked like when they copied each particular emotion.
A face perception task provided the men with the challenge of matching whole or parts of pictures of faces. They then completed a face emotion perception task, in which they identified the emotion displayed by either a partial or whole computer-generated face. To investigate the role of general intelligence as a contributor to emotion reading and production, the authors administered a short scale assessing both verbal and nonverbal mental ability.
Turning to the results, the authors developed a statistical model that allowed them to test the relationships of general emotion expression and imitation to general mental ability, face perception, and emotion expression. This model showed that general mental ability was moderately related to general emotion expression. The ability to express emotions was, in turn, related to both face and emotion perception. In other words, the more intelligent men in the sample were slightly better at producing facial expressions that matched a given emotion as well as the emotion shown on a face they were told to imitate. Those who were better at showing emotions, furthermore, were better at the job of perceiving faces.
Next, Olderbak et al. examined the role of psychopathy in this process. Although the men high in psychopathy were somewhat lower in emotion expression scores, this relationship disappeared when general mental abilities became factored into the equation. As the authors concluded, “while highly psychopathic individuals are worse at expressing an emotion not felt, this is not due to a unique deficit in this ability, but rather an overarching deficit in general mental ability” (p. 10).
Why, then, do psychopaths seem so smart? The authors suggest that it’s not a matter of ability, but of luck. They continually try to manipulate others by lying and every once in a while, they’ll succeed. Non-psychopaths don’t spend the majority of their time pretending to feel things they don’t, or seeing how far they can twist people around their fingers. The more often you engage in a behavior, the more likely you are to have that behavior result in a positive outcome. Simple math, then, dictates the apparent relationship between intelligence and psychopathic behavior.
To sum up, the German study suggests that your best bet when dealing with psychopaths is to avoid being one of their success stories. A bit of critical thinking can help you look deeper into their apparent emotions and motivations. Unfortunately, if they have power over you, such as that psychopathic boss, all this critical thinking won’t help. That friend of yours with the credit-card cheating spouse may not wish or be able to mount a confrontation.
However, it may give you some consolation to know that at least they’re not as smart as they may seem. True fulfillment requires honesty in interpersonal dealings. Those who lack this quality will be missing out on an important component of a rewarding life.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: dekazigzag/Shutterstock
Olderbak, S. G., Geiger, M., Hauser, N. C., Mokros, A., & Wilhelm, O. (2021). Emotion expression abilities and psychopathy. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. doi:10.1037/per0000444 10.1037/per0000444.supp (Supplemental