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The media portray psychopaths as cultured cannibals, or maniacal murderers, dangerous dictators, or sometimes comical characters like the Soup Nazi of Jerry Seinfeld fame. But flamboyant portrayls of psychopaths usually aren't realistic.

Psychopaths are surprisingly common. Social science researchers estimate that about 1 in 100 people is a psychopath, although not all psychopaths commit murder.

How Do We Define a Psychopath?

A psychopath is an individual who has some or all of a group of psychological traits. Most psychopaths are men, although women may also display psychopathic traits. Psychopaths lack empathy. Psychopaths might not, for example, feel any sorrow at the death of their mothers or any regret for accidentally runing over a child with a car.

Psychopaths typically do not feel remorse when they hurt others. They do not feel guilt. They typically cannot form close relationships with people except by controlling them. Psychopaths might "collect" sick or needy people, for example, providing them with shelter or food or money they cannot obtain on their own, but insisting on their presence in their lives and demanding utter obedience to their will. 

Psychopaths are typically reckless. They might drive fast in heavy traffic, flooring the accelerator going the wrong way on a one-way street to get to the supermarket a few seconds sooner. Or they might or turn up the heat on the stove high to cook a meal faster, making their dining companions eat the part of the meal that was burnt, or they might eat seafood they know has gone bad just to see what happened if others followed suit.

Psychopaths are often manipulative, because they do not know how to react to more than a limited range of emotions in others.

They may be superficially charming, but when the lose control of a social interaction they react with rage or sadness.

A criminal psychopath, one research quips, is a psychopath who has been caught. Behavioral scientists have studied criminal psychopaths the most because they are easier to study. They are in prison, stuck in their cells, and they often volunteer for intensive studies so they can manipulate the investigator, the warden, and the jailer.

Most Psychopaths Don't Commit Murder

Researchers don't know as much about "successful" psychopaths, because they haven't been caught. But researchers do know that most psychopaths are not madmen or madwomen, and most psychopaths don't commit murder, even though they lack empathy. 

Psychopaths are typically not crazy in that they are aware of the consequences of doing things that are wrong, even if they don't have any internal sense of right and wrong.

Murder is punished by imprisonment or even execution, and the process of being tried for murder takes away the psychopath's ability to control his or her environment.

Or psychopaths may be able to get what they want without killing people, or find it more productive to manipulate people on subtler levels.

A Continuum of Evil

And all psychopath are not equally psychopathic. Psychologists and psychiatrists typically diagnose psychopathy on a scale of severity. In the 1990's forensic psychologist and Columbia University professor Michael Stone developed a three-tiered scale to categorize psychopaths in terms of the likelihood they would commit murder again. Stone divided psychopaths into three groups:

  • People who committed an act of rage once but weren't likely to commit it again.
  • People who lack extreme psychopathic features (rage, manipulation) but who may be delusional, out of touch with the common reality, and
  • People who possess superficial charm, glib speech, grandiosity (that is, always being the smartest or best or "rightest" person in the room), cunning, and skills at manipulating others, without remorse for anything they have done.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Marcus DK, Zeigler-Hill V, Mercer SH, Norris AL. The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness Psychol Assess. 2014 Feb 17.
  • Tyrer P. Personality dysfunction is the cause of recurrent non-cognitive mental disorder: A testable hypothesis. Personal Ment Health. 2014 Mar 6. doi: 10.1002/pmh.1255.
  • Mindmap by steadyhealth.com
  • Photo courtesy of Mr Seb by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/mrseb/5360541820