Psychopathy has been a Hollywood favorite character trait for years. Determine fact from fiction amidst the entertainment aspects can help you better identify non-verbal cues.
Some people confuse psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). But while there are some similarities, they’re not the same thing.
For starters, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) has a clinical definition for ASPD.
But “psychopathy can only be evaluated and assessed (not diagnosed because it’s not a diagnosis) using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R),” explains Dr. David Tzall, a licensed psychologist.
“They are similar in scope but different in terms of details,” he continues. “ASPD is a diagnosable personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others, the safety of themselves and others, impulsivity, and socially accepted norms and rules.”
On the other hand, “Psychopathy is a personality construct that describes a set of interpersonal, affective, and behavioral traits that are similar to those observed in ASPD.”
Let’s look at what some key psychopathic traits involve.
One of the most commonly depicted characteristics of a psychopath in TV and movies is the “psychopathic stare”. But is it a fair — and correct — attribution?
From a clinical perspective, “the ‘psychopathic stare’ is not a strongly defined construct in the literature,” says Dr. Stephen Benning, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Plus, “it is not explicitly an item of the PCL-R and its variants.”
But some researchers have explored different visual behaviors among those with psychopathy.
For instance, usually when people see something upsetting, the pupil in the eye dilates (gets bigger) in response — a reflection of the body’s sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response) kicking into action.
Meanwhile, researchers have also found that those with psychopathic traits spend longer looking at images depicting emotions, such as pain and embarrassment.
“The subject of eyes and psychopaths are very interesting,” states Dr. Naomi Murphy, a consultant and forensic psychologist and founder of Octopus Psychology.
“Sometimes, people with psychopathy use a stare as a deliberate means of controlling and intimidating others,” she continues. “But it can also reflect cold, hard anger if they’re struggling to inhibit it in the same way that other people might glare if they’re upset with someone.”
That said, Murphy notes it’s incorrect to assume that all individuals with psychopathy possess a daunting stare. “A number of studies have suggested that people with psychopathy make less eye contact than people without.”
For example, a 2019 study assessed two groups of incarcerated offenders: one with psychopathic traits and one without. The researchers found that those with psychopathy spent less attention looking at the eyes — and eye area — of others.
Interestingly, Murphy explains that “it’s not that unusual for people with psychopathy to wear dark shades, even when indoors.”
This could be due to increased light sensitivity, she notes. “Wearing shades conceals their lack of eye contact and prevents others from seeing in through the ‘windows to their soul’,” Murphy says. “Thus, it stops them from unwittingly giving away information they don’t want to give.”
Characteristics of a psychopathic stare
As mentioned, not all individuals who demonstrate psychopathic traits will possess the infamous stare. But if they do, characteristics can vary between them.
“While there is no specific, definitive set of characteristics that make up a ‘psychopathic stare,’ there are a few common features that have been observed,” states Tzall. These include:
- a coldness, with a lack of warmth, empathy, or compassion
- wide-eyed, with more of the white of the eye showing
- reduced blinking
- a focus that feels predatory or threatening
- dilated pupils
- heightened intensity
- eye contact or ‘fixation’ held for longer
Alongside the dark stare, many other signs can indicate someone might be psychopathic. Some of these, states Benning, crossover with traits seen in those with ASPD.
Lack of empathy
Empathy isn’t always about being unable to grasp how others think and feel about situations. Instead, Benning says, in psychopathy, a lack of empathy “often revolves around having difficulty being impacted by how other people are feeling.”
Self-superiority and entitlement are two characteristics seen among those with narcissism, and individuals with psychopathy. “Often, psychopaths meet criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as well, and hence grandiosity is often present,” states clinical psychologist Dr. Lina Haji.
Psychopathic individuals like to control and influence relationships and situations, says Benning. “Sometimes, dominance may be reflected in charm and persuasion through socially accepted means,” he reveals. “Other times, it may mix with antagonism to employ devious, underhanded methods of getting others to do what is desired.”
Another reason they like to dominate, reveals Murphy, is because “they associate not being in control with vulnerability and the risk of being abused and exploited.”
Murphy says psychopaths tend to engage in more deceptive behaviors, particularly to benefit themselves. “They will go to greater lengths to feign closeness or prosocial behavior to intentionally exploit others for personal gain,” she explains.
Individuals with psychopathy often act on impulse, says Tzall, “without regard for the potential harm or negative outcomes.” This means they may engage in more reckless actions, such as substance abuse, having multiple sex partners, or criminal activities.
Lack of fear
Those with psychopathy tend to experience “reduced inwardly-directed negative emotion,” states Benning.
This means they’re less likely to encounter feelings such as fear and anxiety. But he adds, “this deficit typically occurs only when individuals with psychopathy are not actively paying attention to cues associated with threat or danger.”
Reduced sense of responsibility
“Individuals with psychopathy often have a pattern of irresponsible behavior,” reveals Tzall. This might include “failing to meet financial obligations, neglecting their work or family responsibilities, or engaging in impulsive or reckless behaviors.”
Reduced ‘startle’ response
“There is a theory that psychopaths do not display a ‘startle response’ (i.e., not startled when scared) due to differences in brain function and structure,” says Haji.
Do psychopaths feel emotions?
Particularly in light of the above traits, it’s easy for people to assume that psychopaths can’t feel emotion. But this isn’t the case.
“They do experience emotions,” asserts Tzalls. “It is just that they will experience them and express them differently than someone without [psychopathic] traits and personality issues.”
For instance, Benning says that individuals with psychopathy may feel emotions less intensely or for a shorter duration.
Meanwhile, Murphy adds that those with psychopathy can find it harder to deal with their feelings. As a result, they “tend to turn off their emotions when confronted by situations that you’d expect people to feel emotion within,” she reveals. “This isn’t conscious, but happens automatically.”
If a person demonstrates one or more of these psychopathic characteristics, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re experiencing psychopathy. Other health conditions can also cause something to engage in similar behaviors.
For instance, “lack of eye contact is also associated with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and social anxiety,” says Murphy. Meanwhile, she adds, impulsive or risk-taking behaviors can be seen in those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder.
Psychopathy isn’t a clinically recognized medical diagnosis in DSM-5-TR. Instead, experts typically determine psychopathy according to how an individual scores against traits outlined in the PCL-R.
Some psychopathic traits — such as staring — overlap with those of other mental health disorders, such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism.
Even if someone does exhibit psychopathic traits, it “does not mean [they are] a serial killer, a menace, or evil,” reminds Tzall. “Many people have elevated scores and commit no crimes and have productive lives.