In an earlier post, I discussed how to spot a psychopath by looking for three distinctive traits. Now, when we hear the word psychopath, we usually think of men. When it comes to psychopaths, most examples are of men. This is true of fictional characters, like Hannibal Lecter and Jim Moriarty, and it is also true of real-life psychopaths, like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy.
But what about women? Is there such a thing as a female psychopath?
The truth is, we don’t hear a lot about female psychopaths. They are rarely depicted in fiction—the only notable exceptions I can think of are Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, Annie Wilkes in Misery, and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. And they are rarely studied in the scientific literature. But that doesn’t mean that female psychopaths don’t exist.
In fact, the few studies that have been conducted tell us that an estimated 17% of incarcerated women fit the criteria of a psychopath (compared to 30% of incarcerated men). But what about outside the prison system? What are the odds that right now, you have a female psychopath lurking in your life?
In truth, the odds are fairly good. An estimated 1 in 100 people fit the definition of a psychopath. But most are not deranged killers. In fact, most psychopaths evade detection. They may be your doctor, your lawyer, your boss, or your co-worker. So the chances are good that you have at least one psychopath in your life, and that person may well be a woman.
But here is the problem. Because we rarely discuss female psychopaths or see them in the news or in the movies, we are not as good at spotting them as male psychopaths. In part, this is because female psychopaths don’t necessarily look and act the same way as male psychopaths do.
It is important to keep in mind that psychopathy is a personality disorder. As such, it is classified as a mental illness, and many such illnesses manifest differently in men than in women. For example, the symptoms we usually associate with a heart attack—chest pain, tingling in the left arm, sweating—are symptoms that are most common in men. When women suffer a heart attack, they tend to experience different symptoms, like shortness of breath and nausea.
The stereotypical signs of a psychopath, including animal abuse in violent psychopaths and superficial charm in "successful" non-violent psychopaths, are far more indicative of male psychopathy. Female psychopaths exhibit different and often less violent signs. As a result, female psychopaths are more likely to go undetected.
So, if you want to be able to spot a female psychopath, you need to know how female psychopaths may differ from males. Here are two key differences:
1. Differences in Narcissism
All psychopaths are high in narcissism. This means they see themselves as superior to those around them. But how this narcissism is expressed differs for men and women. Male narcissists tend to shout their self-praise from the rooftops. They tend to brag about their accomplishments and their superiority on social media. They have no problem telling you to your face that they are better than you.
Female psychopaths are different. They’re more covert about their narcissistic tendencies. They smile and praise you face-to-face but think they are better than you behind your back.
2. Differences in Aggression
Male psychopaths tend to display their aggression behaviorally. They engage in physical assault, abuse animals, or commit violent crimes. This helps explain why the percentage of psychopaths in male prisons is double that of female prisons. Since male psychopaths are more likely to engage in violent behavior, they are more likely to get caught and locked up.
Female psychopaths are better equipped to fly under the radar. This is because they tend to display their aggression relationally. They spread gossip about you at work. They gaslight you to the point that you doubt your own sanity. They leech off you and manipulate you into doing their bidding (think Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in the movie Single White Female). If you refuse to go along, they threaten to harm themselves in response. They are master puppeteers, pushing everyone’s buttons and pulling people’s strings to get what they want.
In the end, the difference comes down to this: Male psychopaths throw punches; female psychopaths throw shade.
So what should you do if you suspect there is a female psychopath lurking in your life?
The first step is to identify them, which is harder than you may think. Despite what the movies lead us to believe, most psychopaths are not psychotic, raging killers. Instead, most are what psychologists call “successful psychopaths”—they’re your CEO, doctor, lawyer, or beloved celebrity (all of which are professions with high percentages of psychopaths). So that’s the good news: If there’s a psychopath in your life, he or she is not likely to kill you. But here’s the bad news: They are likely to make your life miserable and harm you in less obvious ways. This is why detection is key.
But before you start feeling paranoid, know this. Not every woman who gossips or threatens self-harm is a psychopath. Psychopathy is a narrowly defined disorder made up of a combination of three traits, not just one (to learn more about the three traits you can use to identify a psychopath, see my prior post).
But what if you have identified a psychopath in your life?
In truth, there’s little you can do to change a psychopath. Being a psychopath isn’t a choice, it is something that is hardwired into people’s brains. For example, when people view distressing images or immoral behaviors, psychopaths (both male and female) show reduced activity in the amygdala, the part of our brain that controls and processes emotions, compared to non-psychopaths. This explains why psychopaths are unaffected by the suffering of others; their lack of empathy runs deep within their neural architecture. In a sense, psychopathy is a disease of the emotional circuitry of the brain, especially the part that deals with interpersonal emotions.
So if you can’t convince the psychopath in your life to change, what can you do? Unfortunately, it is often the case that the only way to beat a psychopath at their own game is to refuse to play. Don’t engage in their petty gossip. Don’t take the bait when they push your buttons. Stand your ground and don’t let them intimidate you. And if all else fails, do what victims in all those serial killer movies do. Run!
To learn more, read this excellent book by Dr. Robert Hare
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