What Is a Psychopath?

Psychopathy is characterized above all by lack of empathy and other emotions. That lack enables psychopaths to be highly manipulative of others. Nevertheless, psychopathy is among the most difficult disorders to spot. Psychopaths can appear normal, even charming. Underneath, they lack any semblance of conscience. Their antisocial nature inclines them often (but by no means always) to criminality.

Psychopaths are objects of popular fascination and clinical anguish: Adult psychopathy is largely impervious to treatment, though programs exist to treat callous, unemotional youth in hopes of preventing them from maturing into psychopaths.

The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are often used interchangeably, but in correct parlance a “sociopath” refers to a person with antisocial tendencies that are ascribed to social or environmental factors, whereas psychopathic traits are thought to be more innate, though a chaotic or violent upbringing may tip the scales for those already predisposed to meanness and remorselessness of psychopathy.

Both constructs are most closely represented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as Antisocial Personality Disorder. The DSM uses neither "psychopathy" nor "sociopathy," though these terms are widely used in clinical and common parlance. 

Brain anatomy, genetics, and a person’s environment may all contribute to the development of psychopathic traits. For more on causes, symptoms and treatments of antisocial personality disorder, see our Diagnosis Dictionary

What Are the Signs of a Psychopath?

Psychopathy is a spectrum disorder and can be diagnosed using the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which features traits such as lack of empathy, pathological lying, and impulsivity, each scored on a three-point scale based on whether the item does not apply (0), applies to a certain extent (1), or fully applies (2) to the individual. The bar for clinical psychopathy is a score of 30 or higher; serial killer Ted Bundy scored 39.

The revised version of the checklist includes the following characteristics:

  • glibness/superficial charm
  • grandiose sense of self-worth
  • need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  • pathological lying
  • conning/manipulative
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow affect (i.e., reduced emotional responses)
  • callous/lack of empathy
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • poor behavioral controls
  • promiscuous sexual behavior
  • early behavioral problems
  • lack of realistic, long-term goals
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions
  • many short-term marital relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • revocation of conditional release (from prison)
  • criminal versatility (i.e., commits diverse types of crimes)

The checklist was developed in the 1970s by the Canadian researcher Robert Hare, professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia. A true assessment should be conducted by a mental health professional.


Sociopathy, Narcissism, Law and Crime

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