Psychopaths: Watch Out, there are Many About

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Psychopaths: Watch Out, there are Many About

Virtually all of the research done in psychopathy is on the perpetrators, and we tend to ignore the tens of thousands of victims of these individuals. And most of the victims have nowhere to turn. They talk to their psychiatrist, psychologist, their friends, their employees, their priest, and they get nowhere because most people don’t understand the nature of psychopathic people. (Robert Hare)

In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act. (George Orwell)

If you ask anybody about psychopaths, most tell you they think of the shower scene in the film Psycho. They think of these individuals as ruthless, cold killers. They know they have no empathy but few know that perhaps the most abiding characteristic of a psychopath is that they are without conscience or guilt.


Psychopathy is a personality disorder. They are without conscience and incapable of empathy, have loyalty to anyone but themselves. They are callous and adventurous.

Sociopathy is not a psychiatric term and refers to those who are antisocial and criminal by society. Sociopaths, often criminals, may have a well-developed conscience but their sense of right and wrong is not that of the wider society.

Antisocial personality disorder (APD) is a broad psychiatric diagnostic category. The difference between psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder is that the former includes personality traits such as lack of empathy, grandiosity and shallow emotion that are not necessary for a diagnosis of APD.

Various writers have tried to distinguish between subtly different types of psychopaths. These include: Primary psychopaths; Secondary [neurotic] psychopaths; Dissocial [antisocial] psychopaths; Inadequate psychopaths; Schizoid psychopaths; White-collar (’successful’) psychopaths; Unsuccessful psychopaths (individuals who get caught); Sexual psychopaths; ’Mild’ psychopaths; ’Sub-criminal’ psychopaths. There has been an explosion of interest in the topic of late, with a particular interest in ’successful business psychopaths’.


In his famous book The Mask of Sanity, Cleckley (1941) first set out ten criteria that define the psychopath: superficial charm and intelligence; absence of anxiety in stressful situations; insincerity and lack of truthfulness; lack of remorse and shame; inability to experience love or genuine emotion; unreliability and irresponsibility; impulsivity and disregard for socially acceptable behaviour; clear-headedness with an absence of delusions or irrational thinking; inability to profit from experience; and lack of insight. Cleckley noted the slick but callous business person, the smooth-talking and manipulative lawyer and the arrogant and deceptive politicians as psychopaths.

It was originally thought that the defining characteristics of psychopathy tend to fall on two dimensions. The first is socio-emotional where the psychopath is superficial and lacking in empathy, guilt or remorse. They are also deceitful and manipulative while being prone to egocentricity and grandiosity. The second is their social deviance is associated with boredom susceptibility, impulsivity and lack of self-control. In children they show evidence of behavioural problems and in adulthood antisocial behaviour.

More recently it has been suggested that there are three themes that seem to characterize all psychopaths:

Disinhibition: problems with impulse control leading to irresponsibility, unreliability and untrustworthiness.Boldness: fearless, tolerant of ambiguity, able to deal with stress and become dominant. Meanness: emotionally detached, defiant, competitive and rebellious.

The latest American Psychiatric Manual (APA, 2015) notes seven clear factors that identify those with APD (pp. 659).

1 ’Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviours, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.

2 Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.

3 Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.

4 Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.

5 Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.

6 Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behaviour or honour financial obligations.

7 Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.’


Psychopaths can easily look like ideal leaders: smooth, polished, charming. They can quite easily mask their dark side — bullying, amoral and manipulative. In the past it may be politics, policing, law, media and religion that attracted psychopaths but more and more it is the fast-paced, exciting, glamorous world of business.

The issue with the psychopathic boss is whether they are subclinical vs. clinical psychopaths.

Over the past 25 years there has been a sudden and dramatic rise in interest in psychopaths in the workplace where they go under various names like ’corporate destroyers’ or ’snakes in suites’.

Psychopathy at work is a double-edged sword in the sense that it can predispose to both positive and negative outcomes. If one considers just two dimensions that have been isolated — fearless dominance and self-centred impulsivity — it seem clear that the former may really help people ’climb the greasy pole of business life’ while the latter is associated with poor leadership.

The idea that a psychopath could be (highly) successful in business settings is based on the spectrum concept which suggests that one can have degrees of psychopathy. Some of the ideas coming out of this literature are that psychopathic traits seem over-represented in certain groups like senior business people. Also it is asserted that in business, psychopathic traits are associated with lack of integrity, aggression and counter-productive behaviours.


Some popular books have tried to describe psychopaths in non-technical language so they can be easily recognized. They describe the psychopath in popular terminology which makes it easier for non-specialists to spot. Oldham and Morris (1991) define them by the following criteria:

1 Nonconformity: They live by their own internal code of values and ignore other people or the norms of society.

2 Challenge: They are dare-devils who love the thrill of risk.

3 Mutual independence: They do not care about others, only themselves.

4 Persuasiveness: The clever ones are charming and gifted in making friends and influencing people.

5 Relishing sex: They often have a strong (and abnormal) sex drive.

6 Wanderlust: They keep moving, rarely settle down with a desire to explore and move on.

7 Freelance: They don’t like regular hours and work, preferring independent, freelance living.

8 Open purse: They are often surprisingly open and generous with money.

9 Wild oats: In their early life they were usually high-spirited hell-raisers and mischief-makers.

10 True grit: They are often physically and mentally courageous, physically bold and tough.

11 No regrets: They do not feel guilty about the past or anxious about the future.


American Psychiatric Association (2014). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th. edn). Washington, DC.

Babiak, P., & Hare, R. (2006). Snakes in Suits. New York: Regan Books.

Cleckley, H. (1941). The Mask of Sanity. St Louis, MI: C. V. Mosby.

Oldham, J., & Morris, L. (1991). Personality self-portrait. New York: Bantam.